I recently took inventory of all my spiritual “stuff.” The list is quite impressive.
Mantra flash cards (I’ve collected lots of melodic, mineral rich Sanskrit chants from my time with a Kirtan ensemble and other spiritual pursuits).
Beautifully upholstered zafu & matching zabuton sets.
Mala prayer beads (including a set given to me by the Dalai Lama).
Crystals, healing stones, and heart rocks.
Tibetan singing bowls.
Trickling Zen fountains.
Bundles of roped sage for smudging and cleansing.
Mesmerizing music and recorded “om”s.
Stone works and wood carvings and figurines of the Buddha, Ganesha, Kwan Yin,
St. Francis, and my beloved om (I even have an om tattoo).
And finally, dog-eared stacks of all the most penetrating writings of Thich Nhat Hanh, and Pema Chodron, and Eckhardt Tolle, et al.
It all serves something for me. Much of it helps me open a door that might’ve been otherwise stuck. My visceral reaction to a certain symbol or image can powerfully operate as just the conduit needed. What all of it legitimately does is generate an energy and environment of serenity, and a constant reminder of my path. And I’m grateful enough for that.
However, if I’m not careful, these props (the only word I can think of to call them) can also act as a crutch. And this is where I find it’s time to take serious stock and inventory.
I have been a meditator for years now. And most recently a Kirtan chanter with a lovely group. There is nothing more meaningful to me than participating in meditational rituals, such as the winter solstice labyrinth I walked this past winter with a group of like-minded seekers at the spiritual center I call home. And the props can often be an integral part of ritual (chanting 108 repetitions of a mantra with the use of mala beads, or clanging 3 dings of the singing bowls in order to sign in and out of a practice.)
But I look at all the stuff, and I wonder if they aren’t merely being collected to cocoon me from the world, the harsh elements, the stings of life.
My stone Buddha that I bought at a statuary in Glendale two decades ago is so pretty. So is the one I keep beneath my father’s easel. And the laughing one that sits on my bookshelf surrounded by Jack Kornfield books. And the one I painted a flower on at Color Me Mine. And the one that’s holding his hands in gyan mudra. A couple of them were gifts from people who know my penchant, and I treasure them. They exist in such quantity all around my modest apartment that they’ve sort of formed a club: Angela’s Guards at the Gate.
And my collection of mala prayer beads is quite something. But how many of them do I actually use to meditate with? My meditations are usually silent ones, so my beads really just lie around my apartment, beautifully draped on this or that, in order to create the funky, Zen, hippie-girl-flower-child ambience that is the reputation I most embrace.
And the heart rocks. I’m always looking for them whenever I walk my nature trail. I’ve amassed a little bit of a collection, along with every different shape and kind of crystal, and the garnet nugget (my birthstone) that I found encased but subtly peering out from sediment. These beauties give me comfort. And the illusion of safety.
I wear my brass Ganesha figurine in a medicine pouch (a beautiful velvet beaded one, of course) around my neck or in a pocket, because Ganesha is the remover of obstacles according to the Hindu religion. He has never directly removed any of my obstacles, nor do I actually think there is wisdom in believing that all obstacles can be removed. There is a divine design in obstacles. Some are meant for us to clear, some not. All are meant to provide a lesson, if we’re willing and open. Nevertheless, I keep my sweet Ganesha close to my heart because he comforts. The illusion of safety.
I imbue meaning on every prop, every trinket, because managing and navigating my life without that armor is maybe just a little too much to consider.
If I were to truly strip down my spiritual journey to its most basic element, I would have to say it’s about management. The buzz word in my spiritual community these days is mindfulness. But mindfulness isn’t, as is often misunderstood, a state of perfect reaction. We’ll never be perfect reactors. We’ll have our moments of groundedness interspersed with those other moments of knee-jerk responses, defensiveness, anger, even deceit. And we’ll consider the time when those start to be outweighed by Right Speech and Right Behavior as success! We’re practicing mindfulness! When the truth is, we’ll always experience both, in probably fairly equal amounts, all throughout our lives. Mindfulness isn’t a banishment of those unskillful moments. Mindfulness is paying attention to all of it. Learning to identify the source of the less benevolent traits, and to offer them as much of our understanding, patience and goodwill as when we get it right.
I recently said to a friend, a fellow meditator, that I had all but abandoned my meditation practice because of some family stresses that were rather consuming, and that I hadn’t been able to get in gear with it. And I was saying it to him as a kind of self-indictment confession. His response to me was, “well, sure, cuz shit comes up. And when life is already feeling very full of it, sometimes the idea of more is too much. That’s okay.”
And that’s the thing. Meditation isn’t meant to be a cushion (though it sometimes serves exactly that). It is meant to strip down, to uncover, and to lay bare. And all it takes is an agenda of NOTHING, and some silence. That can be hard to do, but is just that simple. So, all the trinkets, the doo-dads, the Buddhas, the beads, the oils, the crystals, ad infinitum …. perhaps as a way to that place of commitment?
Just be mindful of when practices of cocooning are present. No judgments. Just notice. Carry on.
That’s the voice that speaks to me every time I feel the need to bring something new and shiny and pretty into my home “for meditation.”
Because truth time? All the stuff is perfectly fine. I love collecting beautiful and meaning things. But naked. Empty room. Hard floor. Stink from the nearby sewer system. Noise from the neighbors. No serene music. No mesmerizing candlelight. No cloak of protection. Nothing. Just breath. And meditation is still possible. Being present is still possible. Living by spiritual principles is still possible.
Close my eyes.
Accept every notice without judgment.
When judgment comes – and it will – notice that too.
Angela Carole Brown is a published author, a recipient of the Heritage Magazine Award in poetry, and has produced several albums as a singer/songwriter, and a yoga/mindfulness CD. Bindi Girl Chronicles is her writing blog. Follow her on INSTAGRAM & YOUTUBE.