Compassion, Commitments, and the Continuum of Self Expression

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May 18, 2022

Shambhavi talks about real compassion, making honest commitments, and desire as the force that moves us toward greater freedom of self expression. A podcast from Satsang with Shambhavi

Being kind and being compassionate from your head rather than your heart and how to get it from your head to your heart.

Well, why would we be compassionate from our head?

Because we think it's a good idea.

Right. So one reason why we would be compassionate from our head is because we have a concept that being compassionate is a good thing. So we want to be that. What's the next thing that is causing us to be compassionate from our head? We think it's the right thing to do.

And we think we can do something to make it better.

Yeah. We think we can do something to be compassionate. We think that compassion is coming from us, that we are in charge of it. And if we just had the right thought pattern and decided the right thing to do, that that would add up to compassion.

So most of us think this because we grew up in a culture that teaches us this, that when we are being compassionate, it's because we are being compassionate, we are being good people. We have something special about us being compassionate.

That's what we've been trained to think, that compassion is like some little quantity of goodness [laughter] that resides in each of us. And if we could only figure out how to make that come out and look like we're being compassionate.

So the minute we have a thought, how can I be compassionate? We're done. We're not being compassionate. [laughter] We are looking compassionate. We are trying to think how to be seen as compassionate.

We are hoping that the person we are trying to be compassionate towards agrees that what we're doing with them is compassionate. And generally we want to be rewarded by the other person receiving the compassion and feeling better.

Have you complained ever that you were compassionate towards someone and they didn't help. And you were angry at the other person because your so-called compassion didn't help so much? [laughter]

If that's ever happened to you, that's kind of a big clue as to what your compassion is really about. But actually compassion is like a wave. It just swells up and sort of breaks on the shore of the other person or in a circumstance.

The compassion doesn't involve any premeditation. It's a feeling. It's not a thought or a set of behaviors. It will result in behaviors, but it doesn't originate in a good plan for compassionate behaviors. [laughs]

I'm sure there's somebody out there who has put in some app that they have written out a little schema for compassionate behavior that they're going to try to embody. I'm sure that has happened. [laughter] But we do that in our heads all the time.

The best thing that you can do to be compassionate is to do sadhana or find some way to relax so that you actually feel connected to other people and your heart is manifesting compassion in you spontaneously. That's real compassion. And that's where your emphasis should be.

If we don't really feel connected to other people, if we don't really feel intimate with other people—some people behave compassionately and they really, actually don't care at all. It's really all about how they're being seen. I'm not saying that's most of you, but that can happen.

There can be compassionate behaviors that have no basis in actual compassion. So compassion starts with losing some of your sense of separateness. Compassion actual, meaning that you actually care about the well-being of others.

You actually feel their suffering and spontaneously care about it. And spontaneously you behave compassionately without giving it a thought. And this means, of course, that you're not second-guessing yourself and you're not afraid of how you are being seen.

Because in our culture, some expressions of spontaneous compassion might seem a little weird, right? We're supposed to maintain our boundaries and behave as separate little beings. And sometimes compassionate, spontaneous behavior breaks those boundaries. Sometimes it doesn't.

But I feel that just in my own experience, that if it's really spontaneous and if it's actually compassion and if the person it's directed toward has a little bit of openness, it always lands well. And I always love those moments, too.

There was a moment that I've talked about before that's really very emblematic for me that happened in a grocery store.

And I was standing in the checkout, and it just so happened that in front of me was a young woman. I had met her, but I didn't know her. Her sister had come to satsang before, and she just looked really sad. And I said hello to her. And then I just said, you look like you're having a really hard time.

And she welled up and said she'd had a very bad break up. And I just opened my arms and she just let me hug her. Like, I barely knew her. This is Maine, too, so you can imagine. In Maine, they just don't even do that sort of thing.

And we just stood in front of the checkout, hugging for a couple of minutes. I was stroking her head, and it all happened very spontaneously. And of course, if you're worried about what other people think of you, you're not going to do that in a grocery store, in a public space.

You might feel the urge to do it, right? You might have a heart urge to do that, and then you'll stifle it because you don't want to be weird. So, many of us have these urges, but we've learned to stifle them.

And this is why it's important to understand how much of your behavior, both your overt or extrovert compassionate behavior, and your holding back of what might be spontaneous compassion. How both of those things have to do with how you want to be seen.

How you want to be thought of, how you don't want to be seen, how much you don't want to be stepping out of normalness. So we can't be spontaneously compassionate if we don't follow the impulses of our heart to express ourselves.

If we have an impulse, and are like, oh, no, I better not do that. This is a grocery store. People might see me. She might think it's weird. What about the checkout guy? He's probably totally freaked out by this. Okay, I'm not going to do it. [laughs]

So we have to learn how to follow the impulses of our heart. Just let them happen without thinking about it. We really don't need 90% of the thinking that we do. Maybe even 95% of the thinking that we do. We really don't need.

In fact, it's an obstacle that's in our way. And this is true of compassion, too. So if you find yourself, as most of us do, all twisted up thinking, how can I be compassionate? Then just drop that.

There's no point to that kind of thinking. It cannot bear fruit and just go into your heart and see what you really feel and just let yourself be moved to express that.

When Anandamayi Ma talked about kheyal, the improvisational way that she lived, she didn't talk about it as something that she did. She said she was moved by kheyal.

She was moved by this force of improvisation. And she never did anything unless she was moved by that. So she had the understanding that she was being acted by that divine source. So let yourself be moved. Don't think, how can I move?

And for a lot of us, that's going to take a lot of unlearning and relearning. And it's also going to take courage to just let yourself be moved. So I would say the bridge is just let yourself be in the heart space, feeling what you feel, and let yourself be moved to express that.

And if nothing comes, don't do anything. Wait until you're able to feel that and let yourself be moved by that. When I first started receiving teachings from Buddhist teachers, of course, that's ground zero for cultivating compassion. Right?

And I had been studying in this pretty wild and woolly Tantrik community where there wasn't any such thing going on. And also, people weren't very nice to each other. [laughter] But whatever, at least they were real.

And in the first Buddhist community I ever studied in, you could feel all the tensions just writhing under the surface. [laughter] And all these people trying to be nice to each other. And it felt so awkward and uncomfortable to me, from where I had come from.

So if we don't know what to do or we can't be moved, the best thing is to do nothing. Wait to be moved.

Can I ask more about being moved?


So I'm someone who kind of tends to have pretty serious lists of things to do. But I've been trying to be more spontaneous and less absorbed in the list and everything. And so I'm just curious how to kind of be a reliable person and also be spontaneous and moved.

Well, we can feel when we want to do something. Spontaneity doesn't mean never making a commitment. Because we can naturally—let's just say there's naturalness, right? Spontaneity isn't always spur of the moment, but we should make very few plans.

We should make way fewer plans than most people in this country make anyway. And we shouldn't make too many very long-term plans. We should make shorter-term plans and way fewer plans.

So that we can be more real and be more natural. But there are some things, you know you want to do. Like getting together with somebody or doing a project with somebody. You can make plans about that.

But if you have any feeling of uncertainty about it, or if you feel it's not the right time to commit to that. You feel for the texture of the time and it feels too soon. Then you'll have to step out of sync with our culture at large and just not make that plan.

You know, what they do in California is, they make zillions of plans and then break 99% of them. It's so aggravating. [laughter] But no one expects you to keep the plans. It's, like perfectly socially acceptable to break a series of engagements.

In fact, I've noticed that sometimes people don't even bother making an engagement anymore. It's gotten to that point. You just talk about getting together, and that's getting together. [laughter] Right?

You go, It would be so great to see you. Wouldn't it be great to take a walk in such and such a park? Yeah, I would love that. Okay, [kissing sounds] bye. There you've met, you've done it. You're done.

I don't know what everyone's doing that they're so busy. I guess they're just so busy trying to make money because it's so expensive here. But in any case, yes, make fewer plans and try to consult your own feeling inside and your feeling of the time before you commit.

People over plan because they're afraid. They're afraid of being lonely. They're afraid of emptiness. They're afraid of unstructured life. Just because someone wants a commitment from you doesn't mean you have to give it.

Can you talk about longer-term commitments and like an initiation or a marriage or something like that and how it kind of fits in?

Well, certain commitments are going to lead to greater freedom. An initiation isn't the same kind of commitment as having lunch with somebody. [laughter]

Supposedly it's something that's deeply felt and deeply desired and understood from the beginning that it's something that's over a very long term of working with a teacher. But many people, of course, treat spiritual initiation as just another long-term marriage, which they can get out of at any moment. [laughs]

So there's a lack of understanding there. What I would say about ordinary longer term commitments, like marriage, if it's important to you, do it. That's really all I can say about that. If it's important to you, do it.

And of course, it's important to a lot of people for a lot of different reasons, but sometimes we have to live through those things. My own personal feeling about that is it's unnecessary for happiness and also kind of stale.

But I know lots of other people don't feel that. [laughs] So who am I to say? But I like to live with only the structure that is really helpful. That's my own desire. Only the amount of structure that's helpful. And legal marriage has never really seemed like one of those helpful structures to me.

I mean, partnerships are very, very helpful, but legal marriage is a locus of an incredible amount of impacted karma. And people enter into it and cannot be helped but being highly impacted by that karma.

And it causes, I think, in general, not always—for some people, it's like ashrams. A lot of people go to an ashram and live, but they're really miserable. But then there's those few people who really, really thrive in an ashram.

They thrive with all that structure and all those regulations. And so I think the same thing about marriage. There are some people who really thrive in it, but those aren't the majority of people. That's my view.

They get something out of it, but they could benefit maybe by less structure, and especially a structure that is so heavily culturally institutionalized and conservative. So conservative in terms of the forms of expression it allows people. Or what it expects of people.


It's incentivized, yes. Incentivized in a privileged way that cuts a lot of other people out of that. Really tangible privileges.

I used to say, this is one of my brand taglines when I was younger, that I would never get married unless an old lady could marry her cat and a geek could marry his computer. [laughter] That was very gendered, of course.

But I hated the exclusivity of marriage. It just seemed horrible. And of course, this was way before there was even any possibility of gay marriage. But I kind of saw from my position to like, okay, well, some people really want that, and if they want that, they should be able to have that.

There's a lot of cultural gendered expectations around the institution of marriage. So you have people getting married because they get to a certain age and they just feel this compulsion to get married based on the suffering and the fear that they won't be acceptable human beings if they don't do it.

And so they just marry whoever happens to be there at that age when they decide that it's too late or it's almost too late. Because so many young women dream their lives around getting married.

And then suffer horrendously if they don't get married on schedule to the type of person they think they should be married to. Their self-esteem, their self-image, everything just goes to hell in a handbasket. And it's real suffering.

And why is that? It's because of the cultural, karmic, institutionalized, systemic horribleness of marriage. [laughter]

I grew up in a time when there wasn't gay marriage. And so the only marriages I got invited to were CIS heterosexual marriages.

Being on the outside of that and seeing what happened when my heterosexual friends were getting married and how there was this unalloyed expectation of being centered and privileged and taking up a lot of space and attentional energy.

And expecting everyone to celebrate without any thought to anything. It just didn't feel good. It just felt like this moment of contraction and conservatism and self-referentiality and me-ism and selfishness. And all stepping into what? You know? All stepping into what?

So there's so many people's sense of self-worth depends on whether they get married and whether they have kids and all that. And it's painful. It's painful for them. It's painful for other people, at times.

I love celebrating people's love and friendships and partnerships. But I'm not really so much into the institutionalized versions of those things.

Is it possible to transcend and sublimate the sexual energies completely? Or do these sexual energies continue to remain even after doing sadhana? And even, for that matter, anger?

Well, everything is on a continuum. So there's not like anger and no anger, or sexual desire and no desire. That is not how the world works.

So if we're in a tradition that says we should sublimate, then we have a concept that self-realization means desirelessness. I'm going to become completely desireless.

Or we have an idea, I'm never going to think anything ever again. I'm never going to have a thought. My mind is going to be free of thoughts.

Or I'm never going to be angry. I'm going to be totally free of anger, and this is self-realization. These either/or, now it's here, now it's not, ways of looking at things—actually, that's just not how reality is.

And from my perspective, this is a less mature kind of view, a less mature kind of practice. If we move from the views that operate on getting rid of things that are bad, to a view that sees everything on a continuum.

In the nondual traditions, we understand that everything here is made of the same stuff, whether it's heaven or hell. One of the famous sayings in the direct realization Buddhist traditions is, nirvana samsara, the same.

You know what those words mean, right? Nirvana is like where you supposedly go when you're rid of samsara. Samsara is the realm of suffering. But the teaching in the nondual traditions and in the direct realization tradition says nirvana samsara, the same.

Even if we're in a Vedantic tradition, if we say I will be desireless. I will not be aware of my body. I will never have a thought. I will never be angry. We're basically saying anger is bad, desire is bad, bodies are bad.

That is dualism. So if we're really saying that God is everything and everything is God, we don't get the luxury of those kinds of pronouncements. We simply don't get to do that. Unless we want to completely undermine nondual reality with our moralistic cultural crap, which is basically what I think is happening.

And it basically takes us out of the realm of direct experience. So a lot of traditions are based on direct experience, but then they undermine themselves with all this moralistic conceptual stuff.

And this especially happens like Vedanta, when it first started, whenever that was, thousands and thousands of years ago was much more similar to tantra than it is today.

Because what happens over time is cultures inject more conservativism into spiritual traditions. They get further away from the original insight of their original siddhas that brought these traditions into the human realm.

They get further away from those. They get more and more teachers who really don't have that much direct experience. And all of that just gets filled in with a bunch of ideas from culture.

I've seen this happen everywhere, including Trika Shaivism. So I'm not excluding the traditions I'm in from that process either. But if we're really being true to the views of these traditions, and especially if we have direct experience, we do not get those luxuries of doing that.

So what does continuum mean? Continuum means that there is one livingness, one alive awareness that is expressing itself in different ways from more subtle, expansive ways to more contracted, limited ways.

That's what we've got. We've got a continuum from the absolute, totally unconditioned Shiva nature, or whatever you want to call it, doesn't really matter. Sometimes I just call it livingness.

So we get the totally unconditioned, and then we cascade along and we get something very conditioned, like a rock and somewhere in the middle, all of us human beings. So everything along that continuum is made of God.

It's made of the absolute. It's an expression of the absolute. And the limitation that is being expressed is the self-expressive limitation of the absolute.

And the absolutely perfect way to understand this, which directly relates to the nature of reality, not a metaphor, is that if we just consider human creativity. If we're going to make a piece of music, we can't make it out of every note in known existence, right? We have to choose some notes. We have to limit the notes.

We can't do it with every instrument in all of existence, right? We can't do it in all styles, all at the same time. So art is created via a process of destructive elimination that is the partner of creativity.

And as artists self-limit, you decide that you want to do some music, and however the process happens. But it's a process of limitation that is underlying that creative expression. So it's the same with the limitation that I'm talking about from totally unconditioned to a rock.

This is the svatantrya, the self-freedom of the Lord as the maha artist, creating all of these self expressions through a natural process, just like we do of self-limitation.

So when we now look at desire and anger, anger can be a repetitive, resentful, very limited kind of expression. Or if we look at more subtle forms of anger along the continuum, it can be a flash of fierce insight that cuts through illusion and delusion.

So we have this concept of enlightened anger, very common in the direct realization traditions. All of the emotions that we experience, like anger and jealousy and sorrow, all of them have enlightened versions that are subtilized and less limited and less contracted, out of which they are coming.

So the enlightened form of anger is fierce insight. Clarity is the enlightened form of anger. It's clarity. The enlightened form of desire is objectless, creative desire.

So let's say we have contracted desire, very contracted desire. Someone who's compelled to do horrible things, that has a desire to hurt other people. Or someone who can't love other people and only loves their animal. Or someone who can't have friends other than in their nuclear family, that's their only zone of love.

These are all very limited forms of desire. Or someone that has—let's just talk about sexual desire. Someone that just has sex one way, because that's the only way they can enjoy themselves.

Many people have very, very limited forms of sexual expression. So that's limited. And all of those desires, all of our desires have very specific objects. I want this for dinner. I want to have sex with this person. I want this job. I want to be thought of this way. I want this to happen, and I don't want that to happen.

So these are all very highly constrained forms of desire. And they're constrained because they are very object-oriented. They're outcome and object-oriented.

When we get toward the less contracted part of this continuum of desire, we have Lord Shiva's unconstrained, unrestrained objectless desire. That is iccha shakti. Iccha is often translated as will, but it really means desire.

Iccha shakti is one of the primordial shaktis that creates this situation of svatantrya, freedom of self-expression. It means that free, creative impulse, that completely unlimited and not outcome-oriented desire to express oneself.

Just a simple, naked desire to express oneself. That is what iccha shakti is. It's not trying to have one particular thing happen. It's just that joy of self-expression overflowing like a fountain.

So from the perspective of this tradition, without desire, there would be no worlds. There would be no people. There would be no circumstances. There would be nothing.

Desire is running the entire show. And we're not trying to get rid of our desire. We're trying to liberate it. We're trying to liberate it so we can rejoin the desire of the Lord and be more like that.

And of course, as human beings, sexual expression is completely natural and necessary for most people, although not for every single person. But most people find that it's healthy to have sexual expression.

The idea would be that our sexual expression would be as free and unimpacted by karma as possible, in this lifetime. That would be a healthy goal for a human being. But we're not doing any kind of conscious sublimation. We are trying to subtilize our experience.


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