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Exploring a personal, eclectic path by looking at the intersection of three great traditions.
Pre-dawn yoga. As we flowed from pose to pose, the teacher’s words emerged from the rhythm of her own movement: “Since we were in the womb…the universe has never stopped… supporting us. That’s why…we are still…alive.”
I knew in my bones it was true. Looking at the moon, wandering the woods, touching the earth, I find that truth again. When I disappoint myself, I know the trees and the sky do not judge. Good or bad, I am held in the web of life and known by an awareness that goes beyond my own.
The other truth I know is that “surrender rules the gods.” Not in the literal sense of compelling the deities, but in the sense of finding power within through ceding outward control. I think of Shiva lying down on the battlefield where his lover Kali raged, trusting that when she came to attack, she would recognize him and drop her weapons. I think of Odin, pierced by his own spear, hanging on the World Tree to gain the runes.
Support and surrender come together in the Buddha’s story. A tree gave him shelter during his childhood experience of bliss. He was sitting under another when the memory of that bliss convinced him to give up austerity and seek enlightenment in an new way: with all the stillness and patience of a tree.
He vowed to remain beneath the Bodhi tree, unmoving, until he had solved the mystery of human suffering. There he met all the dark energies he’d tried to leave behind, embodied by the demon Mara and his minions. Like Odin on the World Tree, Buddha was already wounded—by the lies he grew up with and his own self-loathing. Now Mara shot back at him the fear, anger and craving that rose from that past. When Buddha refused to resist, close down or flee, Mara’s arrows turned into flowers that fell at his feet. Remaining open, Buddha saw through the pain to its root: the soul’s longing, and therefore its potential, for wholeness and connection.
But Mara had saved the best for last. He simply asked: “Who are you to sit in the seat of freedom?”
We all know this voice. Surely it’s sheer presumption to think we might, in ourselves, know a great secret, or have the ability to love unconditionally, or attempt anything at all. As a child who had to work hard for attention, I’ve always hated the part of me that needs it so badly. I hear Mara all the time. Who am I to write this blog, teach this class, act the part of “wise Archer” ? If I speak with confidence at one time, I may cringe at the memory of it later. There’s always that question, “Who do you think you are?”
It’s answered in one way. In the depths of his suffering, Odin gave a great cry, fell back…and snatched up the runes of wisdom. His surrender marked his victory. At his crisis point, Buddha also gave in, moving for the first time. He reached down to touch the earth. Like a child, he sought support. Like a great tree, he rooted himself in the real. And the Earth Goddess rose up and gave witness, thunderously affirming his worth.
Buddha knew that the universe supports us and its strength is ours. He also knew, with Shiva and Odin, that surrender is the key to accessing that support— giving up the idea of ourselves as separate from the world and opening to it without judgement. In doing so we come back to ourselves as children of the earth, innocent and worthy as the trees.
The things that intimidate me, the people who trigger me—can I see them the same way I see crashing surf or impressive storms, without blame? Can I see life’s weaving there, threading us through one another and making one whole? Can I read even my own fears and aversions as signposts to the part of me that’s ready to be free?
I hope so. When I touch the earth, I know so. There is no test to pass, no bar to meet, to gain the right to see the world in all its confounding beauty. If I so choose, I too can sit in the seat of freedom.
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