Tuesday, February 1, 2022

Liberated from Liberation

Live long and prosper. I went to India hungry for an awakening that would relieve me of the burdens of everyday existence. Despite falling in love with Hesse's percipient critique of the Buddha in his parallel voice as Siddhartha, I still wanted the some supernal conclusion. I did not fathom yet the Ferryman's river because I wanted something more, something that would save me from the world and from myself.

As a complement and very much an alternative to the Buddhists, I had come across the great Sankara. Here, in the nearly impenetrable prose of formal Sanskrit argument, was what I thought the cathartic release.
Sankara shamelessly told us that this vale of tears is the result of a cosmic malaise, a false super imposition of mistaken identities---like a rope for a snake, called adhyasa---and the result of our individuated ignorance made apparently manifest by karma, also a construct of mis- identifications, which shrouds us in falsity. When I met Appa, barely 20 years old, I came prepared with a thorough, memorized to the last run on sentence, appeal to Sankara's catursutri (the "four sutra'') that opens his commentary on the Brahmasutra. I didn't think myself clever or certain. Far from it. I wanted to meet someone who would make the advaitin argument come alive, someone who had lived the meaning of Sankara's exposition. I wanted the One so that I could put an end to the falsity of Many.

In our first meeting, or maybe our second, I said as much to Dr. Sundaramoorthy, who in typical form sat quietly and listened to the pedantic musings of a twenty year old seeker. My heart was in it and my head was wrapped around the best translations of the original text (in those days, Thibaut, Swami Gambirananda, and these are still in my opinion quite competent and accurate efforts.) Oneness promised that our original state was free of the limitations and conditions of our mortal coil. Oneness promised that we didn't need heaven anymore than we needed consolation or care for our otherwise certain sufferings. I wanted
that. Appa agreed to explain at any length Sankara's ideas and how his incontrovertible claim of "direct experience" (anubhava) would deliver its promised aim. I would be delivered from the world, I thought. And he made good. I had barely any Sanskrit but Appa, patiently, deliberately, in sentence by sentence exegesis pulled the text apart. He was charitable to its argument, serious in taking Sankara seriously, and he was generous to consider both the argument and my puerile line of questions. Over about a month of daily meetings, not long after we met, Appa provided more than a perspicacious scholarly rendering of Sankara's meanings, he spoke with heart about what this revered philosopher wanted from life. When we concluded, I thought to myself, this man has realized Sankara's Oneness and if only I could be as rich in soul, I too could come to such a liberation. Then in subsequent weeks Appa just as meticulously, just as soulfully began to unravel the great one's case. As he sorted it out I first paused---could he mean to be saying that the Oneness promise was itself the problem? Not the solution but the problem precisely because it is expresses the hope that life could be about something other than this vale of tears? And what did Oneness tell us of life's small joys? Of our loves and relationships of care and concern when Sankara insisted, without compromise, that the awakened realized life was nothing like the taunting, dangerous, problematic twists and turns of embodied existence? Appa wasn't about to discredit the great Non-dualist. But neither was he going to conceal his own alternative vision, a vision that could not be more diametrically opposed to the Liberationists---and by that he meant all of those who insisted everyday is but bondage and that liberation is liberation from those experiences. Whatever the promise of freedom-to, our freedom-from was to be complete, at least in their view. Appa, over the course of the next month, did something I could not have even imagined. He liberated me from liberation. Life, he suggested, with all its outrage and capricious misfortune, with lila we love and lila that dismantles every claim to relief, leaves us to revel not in a certain absolutism, a liberation. Oneness poses no ultimate answer and raises no important questions. Rather we are invited to sustain ourselves in the face of an unrelenting world in which every illumination not only reveals more in the shadows but creates more too.

Alas, the more brightly we burn, the more shadow we cast. Whatever else comes through the veils of awakening, we are as mortal beings meant to live in the mortal world for all that life might present. Appa had redefined yoga as a pursuit of gratitude for the life we have received. He wasn't saying we should be grateful for the hurt or the suffering as such, only that we who dare to love will be chastened by all that love entails.

Should we care for each other, should we love even more deeply then surely will come face to face with grief---and should we be blessed to live long and to prosper some too, we will have to learn how to live with ourselves when grief becomes love's brightest illumination. I have been lucky to love as Appa describes. It is how I still love him. It is how I have come to love so many who I will never see again in this life, whose absence I feel in every breath, whose presence I sustain in heart and memory but who I miss desperately. Sometimes I have to reach into the pain of loss more deeply, not to find a deeper joy but to recognize that the pain is how love's alchemy will change us again. I'm sure you too have a long list of those losses---the people who have meant so much and, well, the regrets, disappointments, failures, and lapses that you know are yours. Whatever else is true, you know what you have done.
To live with ourselves is the hardest thing we do when we dare to consider these shadows real. We may not see them, for they are too hidden, and we may not learn from them because that is never easy. But to engage a life lived, that is what we call yoga, for all that a life can bring and all that we do and have done. The array of emotions we feel and the deeds we do to offer up better, such efforts are never easy. We have to face what we cannot control and there's no take backs, no do overs: we can look back but never go back, and the path is forward. That path does not lead to some liberation that frees us and neither does it offer any final repose, at least if you ask me. There's no heaven, no God to forgive you, no judgments but those we render upon ourselves and are rendered. You may say that we should not judge but rather merely receive, accept, repent. But that too is its own judgment of what a life could be. We're never not judging when we are still in our wits, no matter how we might hope that others don't judge too harshly or that some Almighty might do for us what we cannot. Like anyone hoping mercy, I likely wish for better than I deserve. But perhaps it is enough to let the anxiety and vulnerability to these very mortal truths inform what next I choose. When anxiety creates value we have arrived at something more human than just fear or pain. We can make better choices because that vulnerability speaks to possibilities. Appa taught that to be human comes with no promises of joy or liberation. But it does come with the power to make promises to bring others some morsel of joy if you are willing to bind yourself more deeply to their care. Alas, Sundaramoorthy relieved me of the burdens of liberation and instead invited me to perils of bondage, bondage to love that invests as much in joy as it does in grief. He invited us to think about being grateful for this brief, strange reality of being alive. So instead of sending me on a journey to meditate on soporific indifference or in pursuit of metaphysical relief, he asked me if I would like to continue to sit nearby and to carry on this conversation about being just human. Just being human was enough he said to make us wonder at all that life might entail. Shall we take to heart what happens when we decide to care about those we have lost and those we will leave to forge ahead? Look first to gratitude if you can, if you have been so fortunate and privileged to make your way, and then ask yourself what you want to create---not because you are some divine being of unlimited possibilities but rather because you are not, because you have learned that your limitations, like your human condition, is the blessing from which all goodness will emerge.
I bet Jonathan the tortoise knows a thing or two about living long and loving all he can.