One of my favorite uncles presented me with a statue in sandalwood of the elephant headed-god of wisdom, Ganesha. “May you have a benevolent guardian to guide your endeavors” was the message of the gift. I confess to not liking this figure—something about its aesthetic proportions is unappealing to me. However, an affection for my uncle and a deeply ingrained cultural orientation to throwing any form of “divinity” away has resulted in this little icon staying hidden in a box for decades. Until it resurfaced serendipitously to grace my altar. As I was dusting and rearranging the perfect symmetry of rosewood buddha, dappled money-plant, elegant candle and burnished bell, I could see how this little figurine was definitely out of place. It needed to be put back in its box!
My hand reaches out to remove this visual affront to the beauty of my altar.
The Buddha laughs and gently stays my hand.
“How can divinity itself not fit into a picture of perfection?” asks the Buddha.
Struck by the enormity of my hubris, I bow to the benevolent guardian of my endeavors, seeing the perfection of the lesson.
The question Wisdom posed was this: Can you learn to like this little icon for what it is? And by extension, can you let go the limitation of your preferences to cultivate friendliness with divinity as it is?
The ultimate touchstone of friendship is not improvement, neither of the other nor of the self; the ultimate touchstone is witness, the privilege of having been seen by someone and the equal privilege of being granted the sight of the essence of another…
Einstein posited that the most important question we have to answer for ourselves is whether or not the universe is friendly. If we look from within the “I” view, the answer to that question can range from a definitive no to an ambivalent sometimes. From ego’s perspective, there is always something wrong that can be improved! Spiritually speaking, isn’t the better question whether or not friendliness is our orientation to the universe?
Friendliness, we could say, is an attitude of acceptance. It is a relating to, an openness to being with, a receptivity to revelation, a curiosity untainted by expectations, a facility for wonder, a willingness to witness what is, as is. Perhaps we could say it’s a synonym for being present!
An egocentric orientation is antithetical to friendliness—being aggressive in its approach, demanding the right to shape the world according to its view. No wonder humility is necessary to arrive at That Thou Art! A willingness to meet divinity on its terms is a willingness to surrender the numerous ways All That Is is discarded, dismissed, overlooked, rejected, removed, rearranged, obliterated, expunged or ignored because it doesn’t conform to “my” view of how reality should be.
It can be comforting that the Unconditional seems unaffected by ego’s efforts to alter it and unyielding in its terms of our engagement with it. Intrinsic purity appears to be willing to gamble the dissolution of universes in the trajectory of Goodness awakening to itself. How does the Unconditional silently bear witness to the atrocities wrought by greed, hate and delusion? Why does it remain impassive to our hostility? Is it really indifferent to our suffering?
It is only as we mature in our practice that we can receive the silence of the Unconditional in the face of suffering, ours and the worlds, as the ultimate gesture of friendship. As he was dying on the cross, Jesus supposedly said, “Father, why have you forsaken me?” When asked how the Friend could be silent to a plea for help in the time of need, the Guide’s response was a quizzical, “Are you sure God has forsaken you? Have you perhaps forsaken God?”
The world shattered and rearranged itself at this question.
Not being assisted doesn’t equate to being abandoned. In the depths of the dark room, crushed by the burden of circumstances or the weight of conditioned mind, it’s not that divinity doesn’t exist; it’s that we are not actively looking for it. We’re still busy rearranging the conditions of friendliness and the stipulations of our alliance instead of accepting the terms of friendship being offered. To have faith is perhaps to remain in an attitude of friendliness towards divinity in the midst of a crucifixion of identity.
When the Buddha said, “We each have one life to save,” perhaps he was drawing our attention to how we transcend the illusion of the self that claims it needs saving. Perhaps the teaching is really an instruction to befriend ourselves in our most painful moments. In the abyss of our despair, when we make the movement to summon forth the Mentor, we’re practicing dropping out of the ego orientation of “me versus Life” and into the attitude of friendliness, of “me and Life.” We’re building trust in the non-judgmental companionship that is always there. This movement inward forges the way to meeting divinity on its terms, pure witnessing, in the only place where the encounter ever takes place: within us.
There came one and knocked at the door of the Beloved.
And a voice answered and said, 'Who is there?'
The lover replied, 'It is I.'
'Go hence,' returned the voice;
'there is no room within for thee and me.'
Then came the lover a second time and knocked and again the voice demanded,
'Who is there?'
One answered, 'It is thou.'
'Enter,' said the voice, 'for I am within.’
Even if we have a solid and loving relationship with the Mentor, it is still a me-thou relationship. As long as divinity is “other,” the journey, we’re told, is incomplete. The silence of the Unconditional in response to a cry for help is perhaps an invitation to transcendence of all separation. It is the Beloved refusing entrance to the lover, to any form of other; divinity’s terms being that we have to become what Life is before we can be with Life.
In a non-dual reality, we grasp, intellectually at least, that there is no universe other than me, no Friend other than myself. As long as there is ego identification in the form of self-hatred, we’re not adopting an attitude of friendliness towards ourselves, towards the divinity that is us. There is always judgment of our circumstances and our goodness, room for improvement and, therefore, maintenance of “otherness.” In befriending the human incarnation as it is, in accepting everything about his/her life as it unfolds, letting it all be as it is, even what conditioning labels bad, unforgiveable, painful, horrific, inconvenient, unappealing and hateful, we’re wearing away the orientation of otherness, the distinction between “divinity” and “me.”
As this practice deepens, as we learn to be with life as Life is, as we train to experience Life as what we are, perhaps all that happens is that notions of self and other, including “I” as other than divinity, fall away. Perhaps all that happens in encountering and accepting ourselves as we are is that we become friendlier, more respectful, more reverent, kinder, gentler, more compassionate, softer, more open, more compassionate and more loving…. If that isn’t more divine, what is?
The Truth has shared so much of Itself
That I can no longer call myself
A man, a woman, an angel,
Or even pure
Befriended Hafiz so completely
It has turned to ash
Of every concept and image
My mind has ever known.