No Heroes, No Silence

November 1, 2023

How does the archetype of the heroic spiritual practitioner fit into a spiritual tradition that’s about relaxation? And does silence exist in a reality made of vibration? A podcast from Satsang with Shambhavi

Well, when people have a natural feeling that spirituality is going to be at the center of their lives and they're just going to keep going and it's going to keep happening no matter how much they object or rail against it. [laughs] Usually their fear is that they're going to become too weird.

Or that they're going to be unacceptable to other people in their lives. Because, of course, this wouldn't be weird in some other countries. But in the United States, we have our religious and spiritual lives very compartmentalized.

So no one thinks it's weird if you go to church or if you meditate for 20 minutes a day. But if you told someone you meditate for an hour a day, they'd be, okay, well, whatever. [laughter]

Then if you told them that you went to something at your spiritual community every week. And if you told them that you were in touch with your spiritual community every day online, they'd be, okay, well. [laughter]

When people begin to have that feeling that, okay, this is it for me. This is what I've been looking for. This is what I've been longing for. This is what I want to do. This is what's called a choiceless choice.

If it is that, indeed, then there can be a feeling of fear that you're just being kind of moved along and not really making decisions about it anymore. And then you can think to yourself, well, how far am I going to be moved? [laughs] How far from my loved ones?

Well, the thing is, I can say that some people enter into this kind of practice in particular with an attitude of struggle and over effort. Every tradition has its own flavor.

Different kinds of people and different circumstances and people with different orientations to life are attracted to different traditions. In large part because of the flavor of those traditions or even the esthetics of those traditions.

So for instance, if you're attracted to a Zen tradition or a Daoist tradition, you're likely to be someone who likes more order and calm. And having everything be organized and simple. Here, just sit here on this cushion and look at that white wall for the next 40 years. Okay. [laughter]

But if you're someone who's attracted to this kind of tradition, then you're likely to be someone who has more of a fiery constitution. And you're likely to want more variety in your spiritual practice.

And you're likely to be okay, to some degree anyway, with a little more chaos and disorder. And you're likely to be someone who performatively puts too much effort into their practice.

What I mean by that is, someone who thinks it's a badge of being a good practitioner. Or a badge of courage. Or a badge of something that you think is positive. To be working really hard at your practice. Even to the point of making yourself sick, which I did in my younger years.

I'm speaking from deep, personal experience. Then when we move on to maybe some other phase of our spiritual life, we tend to relax more. And we're still putting in effort, but it doesn't have that missionary zeal that we once had.

This is a healthy thing, and there can be a fear that you're being lazy. Or you're not really doing it, or something like that. Simply because you've just relaxed.

One thing that happens in earlier stages, we might want people to just think, I'm really hardcore. I mean, I've actually had new students announce to me that they were hardcore practitioners. [laughter]

They don't know how hilarious that sounds to me at this point. When I was 30, I would have been, oh, cool, me too. But now I'm like, Okay, got your number. Just sitting here waiting for you to calm down. [laughter]

There are some people that do that because they want to be super hardcore or they think they have to get there very fast. A lot of teachers describe this practice as the fast path, these kinds of tradition, the direct realization tradition.

So if you're up here in this seat telling everybody this is the fast path, of course, a lot of people who want to go fast are going to be attracted to you. [laughs] They're going to be like, Oh, yeah, I can get enlightened in one lifetime.

These things, I used to take these things verbatim when I was younger. Okay, you can get enlightened in one life. Now I'm like, okay, where are all the enlightened people? [laughter]

Or where they say it's like, you better practice hard and use your human life because it's really hard to get a human life. I'm like, so what are all these people doing here?

That doesn't look like it's very hard to get a human life. Because certainly there's a lot of people here that don't look like they tried very hard to get a human life. [laughs]

What happens is eventually you start having more contact with the eternal. Call that living presence or God, whatever you want to call it, doesn't matter. It gets called lots of things: Christ consciousness, Buddha consciousness, living presence, God. Whatever you want to call it. Shiva nature.

All of those names are pointing to the same thing. So once you start to have more contact with that, you realize something. You actually have a long time. Things are just going to continue. [laughs] There isn't a race to the finish. Things are just going to keep unfolding the way that they do.

And you try to make the best of your human life, try to take advantage of the opportunities that you have and not be lazy. But there is a lot more time. There's a sense of, you can spread out a bit. You don't have to be huffing and puffing your way to the finish line.

That being said also, I just remembered that Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, a really wonderful woman practitioner from a Buddhist tradition. She was only the second Westerner to be initiated as a Tibetan Buddhist nun.

Now she runs a nunnery where she's training women in a really old-school style of practice and training them to be teachers. She spent 12 years in a cave doing solo practice. And she worried about her being lazy.

When I read that in a biography written about her where she was saying she thought she was lazy, I'm like, if she thinks she's lazy, everyone must think they're lazy.

And I think this is true because, again, the more you have contact with the eternal, the more you understand how things really work. The more you realize that you're never actually going to arrive at anything.

You will become more awake. You will become more perceptually sensitive. You will become more skillful. Things will get more magical. But you're never going to arrive.

And so because you're never going to arrive, you could continually think that you're being lazy because you haven't arrived. [laughs] But if you just realize you're never going to arrive, then you just do your best.

And that's really my benchmark. It's just doing my best. For me, doing my best means giving a little more at all times than I think I have to give. A little more, not like so much more that I kill myself. But a little more pushing past that resistance.

I have pitta/kapha constitution, so sometimes there is sluggishness in my constitution, right? Sometimes I'm like, whoo. But I push past that a little bit. Not to a ridiculous degree.

And that's really my benchmark. So I'd say just relax because this is actually about relaxing, it turns out. [laughs] It's not about continually pushing and struggling and racing and trying to get some results, and all that.

All the things that are actually part of the culture of this tradition: the struggle, the push, the aggression, the heroic practitioner. These are all part of the culture of these kinds of traditions.

And I think it's immature. It's the part of the tradition that I now find most immature, which I used to find very attractive. I hope that means I've matured, and I just haven't become lazy. [laughter]

I'm really interested in the culture of this tradition, having all of this aggression, and fire, to some point, being relaxation. How do those two things sit, together or not?

I think they sit together very uneasily. The tradition says everyone can practice. Any gender, any class, any caste. And yet this heroic practitioner is always male. Always in every scripture.

There are ways in which, as traditions go along—and of course, we need to recognize that the scriptures that most tout this heroic male, vira is the word in Sanskrit, practitioner are later scriptures. Later Tantras, not the earliest ones that we have.

And we don't know what was before that because those texts are lost. Any tradition like this has an oral prehistory when there are no texts. It could have been going for thousands of years in some form before we ever even had a word written about it.

We don't know. That information is not available. But we can assume that just like any other of these wisdom traditions, it started in some oral prehistory.

So by the time we have a text that has survived, and the earliest texts that have survived are from the fifth century AD, we're already at least in the mid-life of a tradition.

And then as traditions get older, they tend to get more conservative. They tend to absorb more of the conservatisms of whatever country's culture they find themselves in.

So what happened to Kashmir Shaivism or Trika Shaivism is that it got very much, especially in the 19th and 20th century, mixed in with a more moralistically-based form of Advaita Vedanta. And more mainstream Hinduism.

So there's a lot of junctures between traditions that really have a very different view, and this tradition. That's how that happens. And I think that the older texts that I've read are much more devotional than the later texts, which I really appreciate.

And have less of this language of this vira practitioner going on. Now, that doesn't really prove anything. I'm just talking from my observation as a reader of these texts in translation—I'm not a Sanskritist. There's a lot of things I can't read.

But I have observed in lots of different traditions, Christianity and Judaism and Islam included, that they get more conservative over time. As they get more structured and governments get hold of them and more regulation gets into place, and all of this kind of thing.

So I think that's what happened here. I would guess that some of these contradictions maybe didn't exist before. But certainly there's this anti-patriarchal strain alongside of this narrative of this heroic male practitioner. And they rest very uneasily, I think.

I've got the impression that in this tradition, silence isn't valued in the same way as some other traditions.

The whole nature of reality, that aspect of reality that produces all of this is sound. And certainly, the very first thing that attracted me to this tradition was its absolutely magnificent writings on language and sound and speech.

There's no teaching that what we're discovering as we practice is silence. In fact, you could say that in Trika, everything is the heart. In Trika, we have the heart space here, but everything is the heart space and everything is coming out of the heart.

That's a basic teaching of Trika. One of the ways that heart is referred to, anahata, the unstruck sound. A sound that's continually ringing, even though no one is striking it. Everything here is said to be visible sound.

So the engagement of this tradition with language and sound and vibration, and just the basic fundamental quality of liveliness cannot be overstated. It's absolutely fundamental and profound. I've never actually read anything other than a passing reference to silence, in anything I've encountered from this tradition.

The way that I like to think of it, if I'm just thinking of this casually, is something that my friend, Liu Ming, said. He was a Daoist teacher. He said there's always a wiggle.

So some traditions from this part of the world valorize stillness and silence. But the quality of blazing aliveness that is happening everywhere at all times that you discover through this practice doesn't really allow for some final resolution of everything into stillness and silence.

We could say dynamic stillness or still dynamism. There's some mixture of a sense of space and stillness. Space being something somewhat adjacent to silence, I guess.

But those things could never be separated. So it's not like we could pass through liveliness into spaciousness and silence. That would never happen. Those things come together. The sense of vastness and aliveness are always together.

The follow-up question is about more ordinary silence. Because we're still silent sometimes in some of the practices.

But that's not a very profound silence. That's a very superficial silence. And if you were not having a concept of silence, you would notice that there's no silence.

Even in a sensory deprivation tank, you hear your heartbeat and you feel your blood moving. So silence in those situations is more conceptual than actual.

Even if you go into the desert. I was talking last week about the first time I went into the desert and how the sound was deafening. There was barely any sound, but it was deafening. There was something about it.

You can't quite locate where that sound is coming from. But I don't think there is any literal silence anywhere. There's a sense of deep relaxation and nonreactivity, which is a kind of silencing of our karmas.

But in terms of the actual lived experience, I've never experienced anything that could be remotely called silence. It's by quieting down in that ordinary way that our senses can become subtle-ized, so we can feel the liveliness of everything.


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