Family, Discipline, and the Call and Response Nature of Reality

May 24, 2023

Shambhavi and the Jaya Kula community gather for satsang and get real about all the questions we humans want answered. Intimate, courageous, heartfelt spiritual talk about pretty much everything. So happy you are here! A podcast from Satsang with Shambhavi

We're listening to a little bit of Thich Nhat Hanh and he said a person without roots cannot be a happy person. I understand being rooted spiritually and finding a spiritual family or community and really learning about the tradition itself— Connectedness with ancestors and the natal family: something I'm just really curious about your thoughts on?

Well, one thing we have to be aware of when we're, like, reading spiritual teachers' writings or listening to recorded talks, is that they are speaking to the specific people that are there. The things that they say may also, and generally do also, have applications to other people.

But you can pretty much count on the fact that, for instance, if Thich Nhat Hanh was speaking to a group of renunciates rather than a group of householders, he's going to have something different to say.

Or if he's talking to a bunch of people who don't do sadhana or who are beginning practitioners, he's going to have something different to say than what he would say to more advanced and more committed practitioners.

So we always have to remember that and just take from teachings what we can take from them with the understanding that the teachings themselves are rooted in a conversation with a particular people and a particular culture and a particular kind of lineage.

Thich Nhat Hanh was a Theravada Buddhist. That's one of the most conservative branches of Buddhism on Earth, in terms of the importance of vows and the teachings that they give. And certainly, he was very much involved in teaching householders how to be happier.

So the relative teaching is that it's helpful to have support on the path, you know, whether that's from birth family or spiritual community or both. But the real teaching—and I'm sure that Thich Nhat Hanh would agree with this, you know, in front of some audience or another—the real result of sadhana is not happiness in this ordinary sense. It's something much more profound and multifaceted and multilayered and thorough.

He's probably was just advising people who want to have a normal, happy life how to have a normal, happy life, because if that's what somebody wants, then that's what the teacher advises you how to get.

So for many people, it's true. They feel rootless and unhappy and discouraged and maybe even desperately depressed if their relationships with their birth families are not going well, right? [laughs] Or something like that. But for other people, it's not as important.

And of course, our ancestors are living in us, in our bodies and in our emotional patterns and, to some extent, in our memories. And they're very powerful influences on us. But we take care of all that by doing sadhana.

So, you know, we don't have to have any particular kind of relationship with birth families or particular ways of propitiating our ancestors because we are doing our very best for our ancestors by continuing to do daily sadhana. That's what's really of most help to them.

And then occasionally there are ancestors who really have some burdens that they're carrying and we can do other kinds of ritual and stuff for that. But maintaining ordinary relationships with family and ancestors is desirable for many, many, many people, if not most people on the planet.

But it's not a requirement and it's certainly not going to bring you ultimate happiness. You know, it's not going bring you— It's not going to make you self-realize to have a feeling of rootedness in your birth family or with your ancestors. It'll just help be a gateway in some way.

But ultimately, even if we remain in good relationship with our birth families, we're still going to have to go beyond that in our affections and in our view because ultimately everybody is our family. That is the end point of spiritual practice and open-heartedness, that everyone is our family.

We could say that having very, very strong attachments to birth family is something that keeps people from going very, very far in spiritual practice, possibly. That doesn't mean they're obstacles, it just means they're just on the way. Right?

Because if we have such strong attachments to birth family, then we're going to miss spiritual teachings because of that. We're going to make decisions about how to spend our time and our money. How to spend our attention. Where to put our attention, where to put our energy. We're going to put a lot of energy into tending to those relationships and therefore less energy doing sadhana.

So everything is fine. Every possible configuration is absolutely fine. But that also means that no configuration is the one right way. It's just a matter of where someone is in terms of their unfolding.

And our relationships with our birth families and our ancestors are only a tiny fraction of the lives that make up this. There are just innumerable, innumerable lives that are feeding into this configuration, popping out for a little moment and appearing as a specific person.

So our birth family karmas and our ancestral karmas are very important. They're very powerful. But there are other karmas that are also very powerful and then innumerable karmas that are just kind of there in the mix. And those are going to be different for— they're going to be a unique bundle of karmas for each person in a family.

I mean, even if we just account for ancestry and genetics, not everybody in a family looks the same way, cares about the same things, has the same emotional patterns. Everybody is incredibly unique. So there's some aspects of us that are similar to our parents, but nothing is the same on that level of diversity.

Can you talk a little bit about the role of discipline when it comes to daily practice?

It's extremely important if you want to have the fruit of the practice. If you don't care about it, it's not important. [laughs]

Discipline, or we could say ritual or repetition, is an aspect of almost everything in our lives. And discipline or ritual or repetition consists of patterns of energy moving through time that get established and then they repeat.

When they repeat without us being able to do anything about it, we call it karma, things that are repeating in spite of us. Right? For instance, everyday you get up and you look pretty much the same when you look in the mirror. That's a karma. This form that you're appearing in is repeating itself very, very strongly everyday.

Although we do change a lot between birth and old age. But you really can't do much about your— I mean, you can put on some makeup or get some plastic surgery. But that's not really very magical. [laughs] That doesn't really have anything to do with spiritual life. So... [laughs]

But you can't just get up in the morning and say, I'd like to look completely different and, you know, magically make it happen. A lot of our karmas are like that. For instance, things that we eat that we're attached to, or forms of relationships that we're attached to, patterns of feeling that we're attached to, habits of thinking that we're attached to.

All of these things are practiced ritualistically or repetitively by us. And this is what we call karma. And those things have a great deal of forward momentum in time. They keep repeating.

For instance, if you like to drink a certain beverage every morning—you know, maybe it's coffee, maybe it's tea, maybe it's matcha lattes, I don't know—and then you try to stop doing that, you encounter resistance. You don't want to stop, right? [laughs] Because this momentum in time also represents a quantity of desire.

So in order to become more free from those habitual patterns, we have to apply energy, desire, repetitiously in a different direction. We have to establish a new samskara, and that takes repetition, which we could call, now, discipline.

So if I want to develop a new habit of relaxing when disturbing emotions arise or of being able to see or perceive things differently, I have to repeat the practices that will lead me to that new way of being over and over and over and over again. Otherwise, I simply won't get up the momentum and the desire won't build, and so those patterns won't change. And I'll just be as enslaved as ever by them.

So we use discipline and repetition—but we could say the ritual of daily practice—in order to become free of compulsion. In order to have more opportunities to respond to things more spontaneously and improvisationally rather than in a rote way.

It might seem counterintuitive to some people that we have to do this thing everyday. But we're doing everything else everyday. [laughs] You know, we're basically being ourselves in our old way everyday. So if you want to experience something fresh and new, then you're going to have to go through some years or perhaps lifetimes of ritualized sadhana in order to create momentum in a new direction.

In fact, the teachings that I've had and what Ma taught also is that doing some sadhana everyday is more important even than how long you practice for.

So this is really a teaching she gave to people who had a lot of resistance to doing any practice at all. She would just say, just sit for 10 minutes, or just think of me for 15 minutes a day. Something like that. But she didn't say, just sit twice a week for an hour. She said, sit everyday for 15 minutes.

It was the dailiness of it that was helping to create a new pattern. And that includes, most importantly, a new pattern of desire because our rote and habitual patterns, our stale karmic patterns are depleting us. And the patterns that we establish in sadhana are leading us to a more juicy existence.

And so eventually they're more nourishing than our stale patterns. Eventually, if we repeat them enough, if we repeat our sadhana enough, eventually we want to do it more and we want to have the fruit of it more. And that increased desire is like the fuel that keeps us going over the many years that we practice.

But if we only practice every now and then, irregularly, only a couple of times a week, or only every now and then, we never build up that momentum. It might be temporarily relaxing, but our desire doesn't really experience any change, or not the profound kind of change that needs to happen.

It's kind of hard to keep practicing, say for 10 or 15 minutes a day, because if you do that and then you never kind of graduate to a longer practice or you don't go deeper into it, eventually it just becomes somewhat boring. It's kind of like an aspirin: it feels a little bit relaxing, but there's not much more to it.

So Ma's advice was to help people to build up some kind of momentum, but if that doesn't happen, then it's just not the time for you, not the right time.

Of course, there's other things that can impact our desire or lack thereof. One of them is our diet and our movement, our lifestyle. How is that supporting or undermining our desire to practice or desire to have a different life, or desire to even be able to envision one or, you know, physical illness of some sort, or mental illness?

A lot of things can impact or dampen our desire in some way or put out that fire. So a lot of times we want to look to those things. If we don't have a desire to practice, but we think we might be able to— like, you know, you're coming to teaching, right? [laughs] So something is in there percolating. If you're not really inspired to practice, it might be that you need to change something in your lifestyle.

And I would like to say also that if you're unhealthy, that also doesn't mean that you won't practice. You know, my Dzogchen teacher was huge, incredibly obese, and he also had leukemia. He was near Chernobyl when Chernobyl power plant exploded. And they don't know for sure, but they think he might have gotten leukemia from exposure to radiation from Chernobyl. And, you know, didn't stop him. Didn't... [laughs]

So once you get past a certain place in your waking up process, even that kind of thing won't stop you, becomes somewhat irrelevant. So I don't want to imply that people who are unhealthy can't practice. That's not true. What matters is your desire. And then there's a kind of a different kind of clarity that develops later on when people are much further along that can pull you through even being very sick like my teacher was.

His self report was, when he was first diagnosed with leukemia, he thought he was going to die. You know, he was in the hospital. And as he narrated it, he kind of was considering, like, just dying. But then he said to himself, well, I have to try to use my practice to make myself better. I have to try.

So he used practices of the five elements in his hospital bed and slowly he got better. He basically cured himself with sadhana. Now, that's an extraordinary thing that we can't really hope to do, but it just shows you that there's something else at work when you get to a certain point in your sadhana.

Can you talk about the call-and-response nature of reality?

Yeah. So you're probably more familiar with reality being described as 'cause and effect'. This is a familiar Buddhist kind of teaching and also taught in scientific terms, also 'cause and effect'.

But when we are in a view and in a practice that is based on all of reality being a subjectivity, then the mechanical notion of cause and effect is not really adequate to describe the relationship that we have with that wisdom, with that self-aware wisdom, when we're being in a more dualistic experience and we are being responded to.

So I like to talk about the call-and-response nature of our circumstance with the rest of reality because there is an improvisational aspect to what is going on here. Anandamayi Ma called this 'kheyal'. It's a form of improvisational music in India. And she described her relationship with reality as operating via kheyal, this improvisational, spontaneous relationship.

And then there's a communicative urge to all of reality. Reality, this alive, aware reality—aka Shiva, aka God, aka whatever you want to call it, That—is creating for its own enjoyment as its own life process, bazillions of communicative circumstances. [laughs] Like, if you think we're addicted to social media, oh my God. You know, God's addicted to all of reality. So... [laughs]

Or you could say that our addiction to social media, to communicating, is an echo, a very pale echo of the life process of this alive, aware reality, which is fundamentally enjoying this communication.

So everything here has this improvisational and communicative aspect, as if you were involved in kind of some improvisational dance or improvisational music of some sort. And that when you're doing improvisation, you do something, then the other person does something. It's a call and a response. Everyone's always being responded to and everyone's always putting out some kind of gesture that's a kind of a call.

And this is how all of reality works. And it's also how our practice works and many other practices from India, in particular, where there's a call and response built into our sadhana because we are learning how to kind of play with reality through these sadhanas. We're learning how to be more spontaneous, jump in without so much premeditation or thinking or preformulating.

So, you know, the prime example of this is kirtan. Kirtan is a call-and-response sadhana. Satsang is a call-and-response form of sadhana. When we look at the ancient tantras, the practice manuals from Kashmir and elsewhere in India, they're all written in dialogic form. There's a conversation happening between some form of Shiva and some form of Shakti. Questions are being asked and answered, call and response.

And when we are doing sadhana, we're in a state of profound communication with our body, energy, and mind with that living wisdom. And ultimately, we identify that that living wisdom is ourself, not our small self, but the Self, which is also ourself. But we still have this experience of a communicative call and response quality to it, even though we might be, you know, completely immersed in the base state, in the natural state.

Because the fundamental life process of this reality is to create these call-and-response experiences. So this is a way that I formulate this (I don't think I've ever read this anywhere else) because 'cause and effect' is one of those neutral, rather scientific terms that has really denuded of any awareness or devotion or wisdom.

You know, I could throw a ball against the wall and it'll bounce off. Cause and effect. But that doesn't inspire me to do spiritual practice. [laughs] Or maybe it might if I were more enlightened or something, I don't know. But.. [laughs]

But in any case, you know, one of the things that I've been doing since I was a student was learning, not by my own effort, through being tutored by reality, that a lot of the words I was given were really not adequate to point toward or describe what's actually happening here.

And certainly 'cause and effect' is completely inadequate. You know, if we're having a conversation with a living person and I say, well, the cause of you talking to me is me talking to you. No. [laughs] That is not describing what is actually happening. [laughs]

It's not that I can't feel some certainty, in an ordinary sense, that if I throw a ball against the wall, it's going to bounce off. It's that saying that the cause of that happening is me throwing the ball against the wall is the most limited— you know, the only way that you can get to that idea of cause and effect is by basically surgically removing everything else in the world.

The point being that it's ignorant. Right? It's like you have to ignore 99.999999999% of all of reality in order to make that claim. First of all, the question is, 'why did this happen?', instead of just enjoying it happening is also problematic.

But, you know, to say I threw a ball against the wall. Well, why am I sitting here? And why am I even here in this reality? And, you know, you could really... [laughs] And what happened before that? And what about this building? And the wall? Why is it that kind of wall? Right? And how did that wall get here?

You know there's an infinite regress, or outgress, perhaps, to try to answer that question, which is just fundamentally unanswerable. But you might be able to build a bridge with that kind of reasoning.

If your focus is to find out the truth about everything, and prove things, and be rational, you know, that's one orientation. Or if your focus is to have meaning and significance, that's another orientation. If your focus is to play and enjoy, that's a different kind of orientation. [laughs]

I just want to know, when can I get to the point where I'll be able to throw the ball through the wall? [laughs]


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