Call and Response and the Enjoyment of Reality

December 14, 2022

Shambhavi talks about the call and response nature of reality and how enjoyment, not meaningfulness, is our ultimate destination as practitioners. A podcast from Satsang with Shambhavi

Call and response is one way that I have described this reality, this manifest life. What we see and experience everyday. And it's kind of in response to the more rationalistic, mechanical discourse of cause and effect.

Cause and effect really belongs to more of a sort of logical, rational scientistic view that says there are certain causes that have certain effects and the purpose of describing life as a series of causes and effects. And this includes descriptions of karma from traditions that have karma where they talk about cause and effect.

The sort of purpose of describing life that way is to be able to predict things. To say, what is going to be the effect if this cause happens?

The other way that cause and effect gets used, which I'm not so fond of, is to talk in a fatalistic way. Well, of course, you know, this effect happened because this cause happened. Or, I did something so this effect is retribution for something I did wrong. It's a very Abrahamic coalition way of thinking about life.

And you often hear people in various spiritual traditions from lots of different parts of the world saying, well of course this happened to me because...Then they come up with some cause-and-effect type of a reason.

The teaching in the traditions that I study in is that everything is happening utterly spontaneously. And although, in a local way, we experience patterns, which are really important to pay attention to, if we're talking about on a more absolute level, absolutely everything is up for grabs. And absolutely everything could be a different way. Because this reality is a living thing and it's self aware and it has total freedom of self-expression.

So this means that while we describe causes and effects and even laws of nature, things could be different than that or we could even experience things differently than that if we had more perceptual capacity.

So the thing that I have kind of put in place of cause and effect is 'call and response'. And this relates to my guru Anandamayi Ma's description of how she acted in the world and she described it as utterly improvisational. She compared her movements in the world with a kind of improvisational music from India called kheyal. And she said, I never do anything other than by kheyal.

One of the examples that she gave was sometimes people would come to her to be healed of various diseases or to be relieved of certain troubles that they have. And sometimes she would do that and sometimes she wouldn't.

Sometimes she would just let people die and other times she would heal people. Or sometimes she would tell somebody something that avoided them getting in some kind of trouble and other times she wouldn't.

And she just said, I'm just moved by this kheyal. I'm just moved by this improvisational, spontaneous intelligence of life and I don't plan anything. But if kheyal says don't do something, I don't do it. I can only do something when so moved to do it.

But this way of living in utter spontaneity in response to something that happens in an utterly spontaneous way of responding is very much in line with the teachings of Dzogchen and Trika Shaivism where naturalness is the description of how we might live when we're more awake.

When we have descriptions of the world as cause and effect—so, for instance, I'm just going to use a kind of a shocking example. But if someone is raped, that is a cause for trauma. And we have very much embodied that. If someone is tortured that is a cause for trauma. If someone is in a concentration camp or in a labor camp, they're imprisoned that is a cause for trauma.

Then we think that that is the response that is called every single time. If something happens to us, we have already embodied that cause-and-effect view. And so we start to feel those things. We start to feel traumatized and we start to feel everything that we are told is the natural, inevitable effect of really traumatic events.

And the reason I use these examples, and I've used them many times in the past, is because trauma is not the inevitable effect of traumatic events or what we define as traumatic events. Trauma happens for real, but not everybody experiences those things the same way. There is freedom to experience things differently depending on what condition we're in.

We know this firsthand because some people who have been imprisoned who had spiritual practices came out of those experiences being grateful for them because they helped them to develop more compassion for the people that were imprisoning them and to work with very, very difficult circumstances of torture and starvation and isolation and brutality. And there are some few people who have felt grateful for those circumstances because it helped them in their spiritual life somehow.

It is also possible to be in a condition where your self-concern is lower than your concern for other people. If someone does you wrong or hurts you in some way, it is possible to feel concern for their condition and to not feel damaged. The teaching in this tradition is that we can experience damage but only in a temporary, local way because our essence nature is completely undamageable. Our essential value is completely undamageable. It's eternal.

If we have real contact with that, then we're going to have a different response to events that are supposed to be inevitably traumatizing. So if we have more contact through sadhana, or however, with our own eternal value and with that eternal self, with that livingness of everything that cannot be damaged, then when something is hurtful we are not experiencing it in the same way as somebody else. That is my own personal experience having been raped and having not been traumatized by it for these reasons.

So cause and effect not only is mechanistic, it's fatalistic. And not only that, but our mind, energy, and feeling structure starts to conform to those narratives of cause and effect. We start to literally feel those things.

When we switch to something more like call and response, that is more like we are players in this improvisational, spontaneous scene. There is a self-aware livingness that is communicating and we can tune into those communications, to those more subtle communications. Sometimes they're not so subtle. And we can respond in a way that is fresh and new in the moment, rather than conditioned by lots of narratives about cause and effect. So this is one aspect of that.

The other aspect is simply pointing to the fact that everything is alive and saturated with alive energy and self-awareness. So these traditions might be called animistic. And if we use language that is borrowed from a more mechanistic, flat-world kind of a view, then we miss out on hearing that message more and more that everything here is alive.

There's a Buddhist teacher who called our reality 'a theater of communication'. And although he wouldn't have put it this way, we could say this is what God does to experience communicating with others. And in our traditions, especially Trika, this entire reality is said to be like a city, a wonderful city where all these meetings can happen, all these conversations can happen.

And this is something that every practitioner in a tradition of self-realization who has experienced some openness in their perceptions can directly come upon themselves. You find this kind of way of describing being in this total communicative situation in many, many traditions.

Any tradition that has divination relies on this kind of being in this field of communication and then coming up with ways to access that. If we are using astrology, we are using a tradition that utterly relies on the communicative aspect of reality. What is our astrology chart if not a communication to us, written in planets and stars and times and cycles? That's what it is. It's a form of communication. It's a language.

So we have many tools that we use in ways that we relate to things that are based in this call-and-response or communicative aspect of this reality. But we often don't recognize it. We don't call it such. So using call and response is just one way that I have of drawing attention to that absolutely supremely important aspect of our experience.

I think we have that misunderstanding when we think of improvisation that it's random. It's not random. The ability to improvise is very different than just sort of flailing around. You know? [laughs] Or doing some random thing and hoping for the best.

If you've ever improvised with anybody, dancing or in any way, there's like a zone that you can get into and it's calling on all your intelligence and creativity and knowledge. But what's popping out is very fresh and exciting. So it has that quality, but it isn't random or hit or miss.

There is a game being played here of creating the appearing of beings who are limited in their access to wisdom and then kind of leading them along the stony path, you know, [laughs] to waking up. So, you know, Ma just found everything funny because of that. You know, she's just known for her raucous laughter at just about everything.

And so she's playing the game with people. That's why she arrived. She came here to play the game like Krishna. She's not doing or not doing because she has no preferences. It's that she's playing the game skillfully. And we can't really know what that is from her perspective. So this is why Abhinavagupta said it's good to become the player rather than the played.

Right? So it's not that you have—I have no preferences. [laughs] Yeah, your preference is to be seen as an elevated spiritual person who has no preference. That's a very strong preference. Right?

This is not for that. It's not to become this austere, thoughtless, emotionless, non-responsive person who's just kind of drifting along. The idea is that you would have fun [laughs]. That you would have much more skill, that your perceptions would be very much enhanced, and that you would be able to be a player rather than be played all the time.

Join in the improvisation. Join what Rumi called 'the constant conversation'. Join that with more awareness and more skill and more sensitivity so that it would be more fun. The state of this reality is enjoyment. That's its basic flavor: enjoyment of what is happening. Enjoyment of itself, of its own creative essence. And so our destination is that also.

The reason for everything is self-expression, not meaningfulness. This alive, aware reality is being compared, at least in the shastras of my traditions, to an artist or a musician. Or a magician. Unlike in some Buddhist traditions, the ephemerality of everything is compared to a magical display, something ornamental and beautiful and awesome and wonder-inducing.

So the idea is that we would move away from worrying about how meaningful our lives are, or not meaningful, or 'what is meaning?'. We would just throw that question in the dustbin of human history. And we would instead reorient toward enjoying what's here and self-expression, becoming more perceptually awake and more able to express spontaneously and enjoy what's here.

My Dzogchen teacher always said, we realize and we enjoy. That the end result is enjoyment of what's here, enjoyment of our lives, not in a gross sense, but in more of an aesthetic, creative sense. And that we would find joy in impermanence and also in what is giving rise to impermanence. So it's a reorientation away from meaning and truth and something static toward this spontaneity and naturalness and enjoyment and self-expression.

So there's not really a question of meaningfulness. That's just a local invention. There's beauty everywhere. There's something happening everywhere. There is no evolution on the largest scale. Everything is happening cyclically.

It's like a game. You know, let's say you're playing a board game or some game with your friends that you really love. And you finish the game, you're like, ooh, let's start again, let's play again. [laughs] And then someone says, ooh, let's make a new rule this time. Let's see how this plays this time with this new rule. So it's more like that. It's not like we're evolving and it's all adding up to some grand golden era of our lives.

However, we have much more time than we think we do. So human life is indeed very short, but there is the possibility to become so awake or so aware that you can have some feeling of continuity between different incarnations and then you can keep playing the game.

On these phone games, there's something I like very much because it really relates to our practice. All the games have all these levels, and then when people finish all the levels, they say, oh, I completed the game. So you could sort of compare that to self-realization.

But then, on the better games, there's something called infinite mode. In infinite mode, you're not getting anywhere. So there're no points being added up, there's no milestones, there's no levels. There's just the game happening and you're just continuing to play it.

The idea is that we would do sadhana, do some kind of practice to help us to open the gates of our perceptions so that our perceptions become more and more subtle, and so that we can actually experience the real nature of life here directly with our own senses. And so that we can enjoy infinite mode. So that we can enjoy adapting to life's changing circumstances. So that we lose the sense of urgency about getting anywhere or some grand accomplishment or some golden era that's going to happen.

We may have a golden era. We always have better times and worse times. We may, if we're fortunate, become more realized and have some kind of more unordinary experience. But for the most part, even if we are realized or we're not, it's always about learning how to enjoy what's actually happening, including difficult things where difficult emotions are arising.

One of the beautiful teachings from Trika is that our senses are deities that are playing in a field of duality. That God is experiencing this incredible drama that God's created through our perceptions, through our senses. We are like the sensory organs of God. And so even things like sorrow can have a sweet taste.

When we get to a certain point in our practice, we can feel the richness of all these human emotions that we normally label as bad. Of course, there's some things that we don't experience so much when we're more awake, like loneliness and depression. But the sort of basic, fundamental kinds of emotions that arise in difficult circumstances also have a kind of poignancy and richness and different flavors and a lot of subtlety that we can learn to enjoy on some level. And the ups and downs of life become more game-like.

We long to have a more deep experience, a more broad experience of what we could loosely call the Divine. But that is inside of everything, it's imminent to everything. It's not out there somewhere, and all of this sucks, and the Divine is somewhere else that we need to go.

The view of this tradition is that the Divine is in everything. And so we can have this longing that will propel us to discover that, and then we can enjoy what is here more, even if it's rough.

So I'm not encouraging you to not feel the difficult feelings that you're feeling in the face of loss and whatever changes have happened in your life. But I am pointing toward the fact that you aren't really going to get anywhere other than to be able to experience things with more subtlety and to work with life with more skill.

And if you're looking forward to some golden age of your life, then you're really setting yourself up for suffering. We are going to experience whatever it is that happens, and we have very little control over that. And so learning how to work with what happens in a different way is really what sadhana is about for most of us.


Satsang with Shambhavi is a weekly podcast about spirituality, love, death, devotion and waking up while living in a messy world.