The TAT Forum: a spiritual magazine of essays, 

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August 2014

House on Fire: Urgency on the Spiritual Path (continued)
by Mike Whitely

spiritual magazine

A Fire Story

I remembered an incident that happened back when I was in my 30’s, that resulted in urgent action.

At that time, I was working as a radio news reporter in Pittsburgh. I had just been hired by the top radio station in town and, as a new guy, I felt that I needed to prove myself up to the job. The chance came a couple of weeks later. Late one morning there was a 911 emergency radio report of a big house fire in Pittsburgh's West End neighborhood with someone trapped inside.

I got the assignment and was told I only had about 30 minutes to get over there, find out what was going on and prepare a news report. I immediately ran into problems. First, I got stuck in traffic. That chewed up about 10 minutes. Next, when I arrived in the neighborhood one street over from the fire, the road was blocked by a police car and I couldn’t get through. Now, I have less than ten minutes left and I’m starting to worry a bit.

My cell phone rings. It’s the boss. He says my fire story will lead the next newscast and that I should take all of the time that I need to tell the story. Then he asks me if I’m set and ready to go. And, instead of telling the truth in all things relative, I said, “Sure, I’m good to go.” I guess I believed that I could make it work somehow, but the situation was not looking good.

There I was standing in the street, looking up at the smoke rising over the rooftops from the fire one street over and considering my options. I the five minutes left I could run down a long block, around the corner and up the other side of the block where the fire was, but that would chew up my last five minutes and I would be out breath and wouldn’t be able to talk. Or I could stay where I was and pull together everything that I already knew about the fire and make it sound as a good I could. But I knew it was going to be lame.

By now, I’m starting to sweat and my mind is making it worse with thoughts about how bad I’m going to look and about how I’m probably going to get fired. I stood there grinding my teeth a bit, watching the smoke rise above the rooftops when my gaze dropped down to the ground level and I saw a narrow walkway between two houses. I looked closer and saw that the walkway led to a backyard and then a fence and then another back yard.

I got it. I ran through the front yard, down the walkway, through the first back yard and scrambled over the fence, ripping my new suit pants in the process. I landed in a second back yard, ran down a second walkway and breathing hard, came out right across the street from the fire! I was elated. This was going to work!

Then I took in the scene.

Smoke and flames were billowing out of the windows of the three story brick and wood building. A pumper fire truck was dousing the house with water. A firefighter on a ladder truck was using an axe to smash through a third floor window and another firefighter in a protective suit was fitting an air mask over his nose and mouth, ready to go inside. Over on the sidewalk a small crowd had gathered around a woman who was crying hysterically and pointing at that third floor window. And then I remembered: someone was trapped inside. Probably a family member. Maybe a child. Seeing that, my sense of excitement vanished and I just felt foolish standing there in my torn pants.

I snapped out of my trance and got to work preparing a report on the fire scene as I found it. And then followed up with another report later after a little boy was rescued from the fire, overcome by smoke, but alive.

Spiritual Urgency

Urgency leads to action. But how about urgency on your spiritual path? How does that work?

Let’s start by looking at our situation. We start with our shared human condition. Our collective predicament. Throughout history spiritual teachers have painted a stark picture of this life.

One of the things that struck me when I first heard TAT founder Richard Rose speak at the University of Pittsburgh back in the early 1970’s was the language that he used in addressing the reality of human life versus the common beliefs. He said people are basically robots, born into a projected world, with herd instincts programmed by Nature and subject to powerful environmental influences.

Russian spiritual teacher Georges Gurdjieff insisted that the average man is a sleepwalking automatic reaction machine with grand notions about his abilities.

And present day teacher Eckhart Tolle says our normal state is to be completely identified with a compulsive ego, a renegade mental mechanism that runs our lives.

But each of these teachers also offers the possibility of a way out, a way up, or a way in beyond these limitations. So we seek.

That’s the big picture. Now let's go back to our urgency model to see how this might work at the individual level. Here are some questions for you to consider in your spiritual life.

Do you see your situation? The great spiritual speaker and writer J. Krishnamurti began one of his recorded talks by asking the question: What is your everyday life? If you can bear to look at it.

The implication is, of course, that we don’t want to look at it, because if we did we might not like what we see. What we think we’re doing versus how we actually spend our time. What really gets our interest and attention.

Do you believe that the stakes are high on your spiritual path and is that belief reflected in your priorities? According to our working model - you don’t feel urgency unless you believe that you could gain or lose something that you consider to be very important. How important is your spiritual life?

Do you feel like the clock is running on your spiritual possibilities? What is your sense of time? What ever your age, do you feel like you have enough time to pursue your spiritual objectives? Do you feel that you are using the time of your life wisely. Or maybe you feel like you are running out of time.

Do you feel the need to act based on a sense of urgency? If not, what’s missing?

A Look Back

When I look at times of spiritual urgency in my life two periods immediately come to mind. The start of my search and the re-start.

My search started as an unhappy teenager with a lot of questions about life. Not unusual. Most teenagers are unhappy about something and are desperately trying to figure out who they are and where they fit. But life struck me as some kind of stage magician’s magic trick. And I wondered if it was possible somehow to peek behind the curtain and see the truth behind the performance. I wanted to know the world really is and what I’m doing here. So I turned to spiritual books for answers.

First it was astrology, where I found an orderly system to explain just about everything: personality, life events and my place in the universe. “As Above, So Below.” Astrology opened my eyes to the existence of an inner life and possibilities of spiritual growth. Over the next few years I read more spiritual books and started experimenting with lifestyle changes that I hoped would add to my spiritual life. When becoming vegetarian made sense, I stopped eating meat. I read about yoga and began learning the postures. And I started experimenting with meditation.

At the time, I was studying music at the University of Pittsburgh by day, playing guitar in a bar band at night and living the party life. I’d finish playing on the job, then go to a party, sleep a few hours and come dragging into class the next morning. In between I was reading my spiritual books and doing my spiritual practices and wondering where all of this was leading. I could feel a tension building between my musician and seeker lifestyles. Sometimes after a night of partying the spiritual books didn’t work for me any more. Instead of lifting me they seemed to have lost their magic. The books that had become so important to me were just words on paper and that troubled me.

When I asked myself why, the answer came with a shock: the parties and the drinking and the smoking had to go if I wanted a see clearly. Not as an act of will but in response to an inner call to get out of the way. The changes left me at once feeling off-balance but also energized and confident that I was doing the right thing. It was just a couple months after that, walking across the University of Pittsburgh campus, that I saw a poster announcing a talk by Richard Rose and my spiritual search moved to a higher level.

I couldn’t see it at the time, but looking back it’s clear that an inner process was underway. That when I acted on each new insight there was new energy and conviction to keep going. So, what was going on here?

A word from the Pali language

Buddhists have a word for it: Samvega. Sometimes translated as spiritual urgency.

Although this teaching is over two thousand years old, I just recently came across the concept but the word sounded familiar. To my mind samvega sounded like a character from a bad 1980’s TV show. You know, like Sam Vega, Private Eye! Strangely enough, I later I found out that it is the name of a character on a T-V show. Sam Vega appeared as a detective and a serial killer (!) on CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. That’s gotta be some kind of Buddhist scriptwriter inside joke.

Anyway, Samvega is sometimes translated from the Pali language as spiritual urgency, but it encompasses much more. The Yoga Sutra refers to it as intensity marked by three levels of spiritual effort. But samvega also has a broader meaning in the Buddhist teachings.

A contemporary Buddhist monk named Thanissaro Bhikkhu has a widely quoted essay about samvega called: Affirming the Truths of the Heart. (1)

He writes that Samvega involves three groups of feelings at once:

“There is a sense of shock, dismay, and alienation that comes with realizing the futility and meaninglessness of life as it’s normally lived.

Together with a chastening sense of one’s own complacency and foolishness in having let oneself live so blindly.

And an anxious sense of urgency in trying to find a way out of the meaningless cycle.”

So, a shock which comes from seeing the truth stirs something within you and results in a new desire and conviction to do what needs to be done to find a way out. Samvega.

I talked about how my spiritual search started in my late teens and early 20’s. Well, after a very intense 10 year period of working with Richard Rose and the TAT groups in Pittsburgh and West Virginia - I drifted away. My attention turned out into the world to do all of things that you do at that stage in life and my active seeking slowed down and moved into the background.

I became absorbed by building a career and was jumping through hoops (and over fences) trying to get ahead and playing a few other life games as well. And, while I could see myself doing this and see how there wasn’t much point to it - I couldn't seem to unplug myself. This went on for years, with the dissatisfaction and need for a drastic change growing almost daily. Finally, providence moved when I could not and I was fired.

Suddenly, now in my 50’s, for the first time in years all of the activity that filled my days stopped and I looked at my situation. I asked myself what do I really want?

The answer came back quickly- I want know what I am, I want to know what the world is and I want to know what the Hell I’m doing here.

I felt a sense of shock, dismay, and alienation that comes with realizing the futility and meaninglessness of life as I was living it.

Together with a chastening sense of my own complacency and foolishness in having let myself live so blindly. And an anxious sense of urgency in trying to find a way out of the meaningless cycle. A textbook case of samvega.

Living Samvega

Both of my life examples focused on dramatic turning points but high drama is not required for transformation. The Buddhist teachings also refer to samvega as an essential energy for a spiritual life. And recommend incorporating the principle into daily spiritual practice. To make it a practice to be open to insight into yourself and the real nature of things that will bring a new stirring of energy and conviction to continue on your spiritual path. So, how do you continually uncover new insights into yourself and your situation? Self inquiry. Group inquiry. Looking in the mirror. Any and every way that you can find to see more clearly.

source article: 1 Thanissaro Bikko http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/affirming.html

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