The problem with being a hotdog vendor that is also an enlightened master is that you don’t quite know how to respond to someone that asks, “Can you make me one with everything?” I first heard that joke in Jonathan Lethem’s novel Motherless Brooklyn, and did not expect it to one day resonate with my first attempts at spiritual life.
For me, the journey of conscious inquiry started with philosophical understanding: “Okay, the idea that our inner nature is the container of that whole intelligent sneeze of creation has stopped sounding superhuman and fanciful and more like a viable reality.” However, the journey of self-realization is not ultimately a matter of understanding an idea, but rather an unfathomable series of sub-intellectual systems somehow clicking into place. The mind, always the champion of control, will try and manipulate these forces into lockstep, only to limit our own experience. So I led with the mind, only to continually run head-first into a big door. Finally, I had the wherewithal to let something deeper start picking the lock.
At that later stage I gave myself to readiness for the second step: “All these nice ideas you agree with? Experience them perceptually.” Where my troubles began. In fact, probably where my troubles always were. How long had I suspected that some sort of harmony with all the stuff was my very experiential birthright? It’s been long said that this cosmic reality is stuck deep in any human psyche and being that it carries a rather brooding power, living divorced from it tends to make us restless. It presses against our being, humming in that ominous way that most giant metallic luminescent things in science fiction movies tend to hum. It blows space dust into our inner engine, igniting little existential quasars that drive us to seek a greater reality.
This seeking nature of ours can create its own obstacles, especially when our mind that seeks higher knowledge gets frustrated enough with the journey and subcontracts the job to the mind that simply seeks gratification. In lieu of this Ultimate Discovery that won’t stop pulling at our earlobes, we may acquire an aspirationalism with the gait of a baby rhino, charging forward with a clumsy tunnel vision. We get superficial, settling for a material simulation self-realization when the real one eludes us. You see this in so many people’s obsession with the fitness and vanity aspect of Yoga asanas without integrating those overly-sweaty workouts with any of Yoga’s other less-glamorous Eight Limbs. Even without spiritual aspirations, intense consumerism is really just a reflection of detachment from our unity with everything and the need to mend it without really knowing how. That deep, often unconscious, itch for “oneness with everything” gets scratched by its cheap simulation: “having everything.”
I was and will continue to be guilty of this in a number of fairly comical ways. The frustration is understandable. In waiting around for something to happen (enlightenment) that by its nature cannot be forced, eventually that inner fire is going drive us to hit that shiny red “control and acquire” button. Our mind will tell us, “This time it’ll work out, trust me, we’ll get total satisfaction.” And it will be wrong. Again. So at any given moment in life we may find ourselves dangling at this approach point, next in line at the cosmic weenie cart, its proprietor leaning against it and looking unusually more shimmery and serene than his immediate competition. Do you ask him for connection to your cosmic nature, or a hotdog? Well, firstly, how topped-up is his sauerkraut caddie?
I need to check that his condiment inventory is sufficient since finding an absence of any requisite toppings after making a purchase tends to justify the hurdling of a partly-dressed frankfurter into rush-hour traffic and piping a forsaken shriek into the heavens – preferably from the traditional knelt position. After all, I’m a spiritual being on a spiritual journey and during my quest for the ultimate truth I require culinary experiences that are ecstatically delicious. Any sign that the universe is not delivering what I deserve and my mood will acquire a certain seismic quality to it. I will get to whatever enlightenment requires of me later – first I need to get my way.
…Oops. Wrong turn.
When you combine any spiritual path with Western sensibilities, you get a very precarious chemical reaction from the tendency of said paths to promise a better life. Wanting that is a good thing, since after all it’s human nature to realize our highest potentials of joy, satisfaction, love and inspiration. But we tend to want it that scary fevered sort of way, pursuing quality of life more resolutely than Tommy Lee Jones characters pursue fugitives.
If you’re wondering why while reading this you feel like I’m talking mainly about Americans without actually saying it, is because I’m talking mainly about Americans . The problem is likely the in-built sense of entitlement we have for…basically everything. This leaks into our spiritual pursuits, coloring them with a certain decadent aggression. We are accustomed to acquiring a comfortable material existence so, by habit, we use it as a measurement for spiritual success. For example, “My diet needs to be perfect or else I’ll be too out of balance to experience enlightenment. That better be raw, biodynamic honey you’re putting in my smoothie, or you will be cut.” This mentality in and of itself pre-approves us for imbalance.
That fire and frustration that comes with expecting so much can incinerate the humility that so nourishes our quest for inner growth and understanding. When that dies, all that is left is the cold hard measurement of our lives by socioeconomic standards – just like how everything else gets reduced. We start measuring our spiritual success by our material success, as though good Karma is a point system redeemable one-for-one with cash (or, more importantly, Instagram followers). Our personal success becomes the gold standard and in the process of getting our way we cast the ethical and moral ramifications of our actions to the sharks of cosmic nihilism. “Because I deserve this life, because I need to claim this life. The blast-radius of my actions can be interpreted in a relative, ambiguous manner – life isn’t so black and white, y’know.”
Slow down for a minute and, firstly, love this part of yourself since this seeking mind is the coal-burning psychic furnace that can be very valuable when healthy. The right Jungian therapists have great ways of breaking us down into such parts so we honor every element of our psyche no matter how much it presents itself as pathological. It must be understood that every force within us, no matter how prone to stepping on karmic landmines, has a very essential role to play. This drive we have to keep acquiring things, to keep rising to the next level of experience no matter the consumptive wake we leave behind, can create beautiful things, and overcome any obstacle. This part of us will never be satisfied, which is actually just fine, since undue-contentedness is spiritual trap that can be even harder to get out of (discussion on that is an article of its own). So the question is not, “how do we shut this thing off?”, but “how can we aim it and fire rainbows?” How secure can we be with our material lot in life, such that our seeking mind does not have to preoccupy itself with that, elevating itself to a more refined direction?
The first way to become more secure is to say hello and shake hands with these parts of you lack security. You must first get to know all the forces within you that seem to be grabbing at things so spastically before you can heal them. Turn your attention inward, validate and question these voices within. Give them names if you need to. What do we feel we are lacking in any given moment and why? Although a very conscious-level and sometimes intellectual form of inquiry, the power of such observation cuts deep into our being and matures the parts with those juvenile grabby hands.
Don’t worry about becoming some sort of hyper-contented boneless blob just because you surrendered a stuff-oriented aspiration. In fact, the opposite is happening: you’re becoming tough. Do you think the masters of thousands of years ago needed much more than a tree and the occasional simple meal to frame their peaceful presence? Something tells me they managed to achieve enlightenment without fermented Chlorella. The very surrender of creature comforts is actually used to galvanize a spiritual path, and its formal practice is called Tapasya by more rigorous Yogis. But this can be done with small, intentional self-contracts whenever you deem that a splash of discipline is due. Set an intention for the more fully-realized, harmonious life you would like and then pick something you feel dependent on and give it up in the name of that intention. There. Separation has been created between the material and the spiritual and priorities have been shifted to service of something beyond just The Stuff.
Tapasya is not Christian austerity and desire suppression, since the practice is meant to be temporary. It’s designed is to reveal how we do not need our things to be whole. Once you complete the Tapasya period, you can dip back into your material pleasures after you’ve tempered that desperate sense of survivalism that hadn’t completely loosened its grip after all (if that desire even remains – and if it does, it’s now a good time to question it). Get the hotdog, encounter the barren expanse where the sauerkraut used to be, lovingly watch your predecessor in line amble away with stupid oblivion as to the excess of sauerkraut piled onto his footlong, which is now spilling onto the ground like wasted entrails of precious pickled funk. Eat the damned thing with seam-bursting gratitude, and wait until your mouth is empty before asking the vendor about the secrets of the universe.
1. The original joke (which I think may pre-date Lethem’s novel) has the roles reversed: a buddhist monk is asking a reasonably conflicted vendor if he could make him one with everything. I switched the roles because I think the joke still has the same effect, while painting a more amusing picture…plus if I didn’t, then this article wouldn’t really work.