Do you need a tune-up? How’s your alignment?
Many contemplative traditions emphasize the importance of balance. First Nations traditions - in reference to the Medicine Wheel - will speak of balance, the balance, for example, of the emotional, physical, spiritual, and intellectual aspects of ourselves. Many First Nations traditions will hold that, by bringing these aspects into balance, we become a balanced, whole, harmonious person.
Chinese traditions, historically, have also had strong influence in our understanding of balance. The symbol of the yin yang is, at least in part, about the balance of opposing principles. The inner and the outer, the black and the white, where there is white inside the black and black inside the white. By coming together in a balanced way, often our parts are understood to become a whole.
The ancient Indian tradition, from which Hindu and Buddhist contemplative traditions, would arise - the origin of Indian understandings of enlightenment – sees harmony and wholeness in a slightly different way.
We are part of a whole.
We will be whole to the degree that we connect to that wholeness of which we are apart. The means to connect to that wholeness is not so much a question of balance as it is a question of alignment. Our inside world and the outside world is composed of many composite elements. Our well-being depends, they would say, on those composite elements coming into alignment.
In this view, there is an organic alignment of things. Humans are connected to a cosmic whole: the inner world of the body and the individual person can only mirror this much larger flow.
It is similar to the Chinese understanding of the Tao. There is a way of things, an ordered and sequenced flow of things.
For my students, I illustrate this idea by telling a simple creation story which outlines this view. Once upon a time, there was a golden egg. It floated on an ocean that existed in the time before time. This ocean has always existed: it will always exist. There is nowhere for it to go. The golden egg floated…and it moved. It opened…and the top became the sky, the bottom became the earth, and the space in between became the atmospheric realm in which we all live.
The ocean is life itself. Although it would be perceived and articulated differently as Buddhist and Hindu traditions would develop each in their own way, both traditions would begin - in the time period between about 1500 and 500 B.C.E. - with a view that says: there is life itself which pervades everything. It is just like water: the water in our bodies, the water in my teacup, the water in the rivers, and the streams, in the oceans of the earth, in the ocean that is the sky (for if it were not an ocean, it would not be blue! If it were not an ocean where it could rain come from!)
There is this quality of the mirror, a reflection. Life is just life. Water is just water. It will take different forms, and different shapes, in different places or different times, perhaps a bit in the way that water is liquid, or solid, or steam. Yet life is just life. It is present with us. We don't earn it. There is no question of deserving. It just is, in the way that oxygen in our atmosphere is.
We are enough.
Life is just life. Will we vibrate with it - celebrate with it - be fed by it as if connecting to an electrical current, or will we somehow come to feel cut off, or atrophied and desiccate . We are parts of a whole. We will feel whole to the degree that we connect to that wholeness of which we are apart.
At its most basic, the old Indian worldview is a tripartite system: heaven, and Earth, and the space in between, where the opposing poles of anything serves simply to define – to help us to see - that space in between in which we all live.
Watch a sunrise or a sunset, and notice. Because of the opposing poles of heaven and earth, we are able to see this space which is everywhere, inside and outside the world of form. The hand, or the body, or the stars under an electron microscope will show itself to be 99.999% space, the space inside of us and outside of us in which we live. It is as omnipresent as water. This space is life itself. We are able to see it when it is defined by this structure of colour and shape and form, because of the limits of earth and sky.
We can see the room that is created as a result of the structure of the walls. The one is dependent on the other.
In some counts of the system, heaven, Earth and the space in between are each understood to have their own top and bottom and space in between. So the vision of the world by that count has seven elements. The bottom, the middle, the top of the earth, which is the bottom for the middle and the top of the atmosphere, that is the bottom for the middle and the top of the sky. It is like a three-story apartment building: it has seven parts.
It wasn't just seven elements, though. It was eight, because the wholeness which was the entirety of this composite group of seven was also considered to be an element. So eight would become, an ancient India, the number of wholeness representing a cosmic infinity. 108, 1008, 100,0008: eight would come to symbolically represent the entirety of the cosmic whole of which we are apart.
The part and the whole would be a fascination for much of ancient Indian ritual and philosophy. We have wholeness because of a seemingly infinite series of elements that somehow all seem to line up and come into place: the ordered succession of the seasons, the ordered movement of the planets and the stars, the ordered unfolding of the generations one after the next.
Like the individual human body, it would come to be understood as a system of systems of pieces joined: the skeletal system, muscular system, circulatory system, endocrine system, the mechanism of sensory perception, of cell division, the layers of the skin. It is a system of systems of pieces joined.
For me, among the most easy to visualize is the spinal column: a system of systems of pieces joined. There is fluidity of movement because of the precise alignment of these composite parts. One small piece slightly out of place and the movement becomes obstructed, the body loses its flow.
Life is like that.
In this vision of the ancient Indian world - with its pictorial description of enlightenment - we relate to our lives like the bones of a spinal column. It is a system of systems of pieces joined. When these pieces relax into place, there is a flow of movement that happens without obstruction.
This alignment - as a real for the individual, as for the social, the natural and cosmic whole - was named with an ancient Sanskrit word “rta”. It is a vocalic “r”, rolled a bit like the Scottish or Gaelic “r”.
How this vision, or idea, becomes rendered into European languages varies with the cultural lenses that have sought to understand it each in their own way. German Indologists have tended to render it as “truth”. Trained in Paris, it is perhaps my cultural bias to appreciate the French understanding of one of the tradition’s early female Indologists, Lillian Silburn, who described it as “agencement exact”, the harmonious alignment of things, like the movement of the spheres, the movement of the stars and the movement of the spine.
“Agencement exact”, an alignment that is “juste”, or “true”, in the way that an arrow flies “true”, without obstruction: when our pieces come into place, we experience wholeness, we feel the flow of things.
“The flow of things” is how the ancient poets saw it in 1500 BCE, like a golden river in the sky. It was the union and transcendence of water and fire, the union and transcendence of masculine and feminine principles, the experience of the enlightened mind.
This golden flow of things pervades life itself; it is life itself. We, as individuals, come and go: the sun, and the sky, and the ocean remain. It is in us. It is of us. We do not possess it. We live our life; we do not own it.
The central story in the oldest Sanskrit text of the Indian sub-continent describes how to remove obstacles to this flow. The great hero, whose name is Indra, wields the thunderbolt and kills the dragon whose name means literally “obstacle”. We become the hero ,in the story of our lives, to the degree that we wield our thunderbolts and overcome our obstacles. It is the prototype - the origin story - for both Hindu and Buddhist understandings of enlightenment.
Obstacles to what?
The hero wields the thunderbolt and destroys - or overcomes - obstacles to the flow of things. The sequential unfolding of time, the in-breath and the out-breath, the expanding and contracting of the heartbeat: our lives are a system of systems of pieces joined. When the parts of our lives come into alignment, we taste the flow that is joy.
This self-existing flow, the life principle, is always there. It cannot go anywhere. We may be born and die: life itself remains.
In the same way, our health and vigor, our vitality and joy, our inspiration: it cannot go anywhere. It is like the sun in the sky. We may see it or not: this is irrelevant. It is the Earth that turns: the Sun remains. The sun doesn't go anywhere. There is nowhere for it to go.
Our joy is like that. It is self-existing, inherently enough. We may connect with it or not, as we work with the obstacles that show themselves in the course of our days.
If you are feeling cut off from your joy, consider the possibility: is there something here - in my life, in the unfolding of my world - which has somehow come out of alignment? Is there an obstruction that somehow needs to be overcome in order that I can reconnect with my delight? Do I need to pick up my thunderbolt to cut through an obstacle? Or is there some other adjustment – a re-alignment of my wheels - that needs to take place?
The joy is self-existing.
We either cut ourselves off from it or not.
When our parts come into alignment, we connect with the flow and touch joy.
Copyright © 2019, Adela Sandness