Episode 16: Scripture from the world's great spiritual traditions contains powerful guidance to help lift us to the lives of freedom we were meant to live—but only if we are able to interpret its sometimes obscure and dense wisdom. In this episode, we'll be exploring how to avoid the top three mistakes that hold us back from enjoying the true power scripture has to fill our lives with joy and wonder—regardless of tradition.
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To the enlightened, scriptures are as useful as a reservoir in a flood.
Welcome to Real Yoga, a podcast dedicated to helping you use yoga's ancient wisdom to unlock your life of radical happiness, connection and meaning right here, right now. I'm your host Eric Walrabenstein, and I'm glad you're here.
Scripture. All you have to do is say the word and more people than not lose their minds. And I don't mean it in the sense of going crazy or flipping out, but rather like they literally lose access to their God-given apparatus for rational thought.
Who knows if it's because they've been taught not to question things religious or spiritual, or if they're intimidated by the oftentimes abstruse and metaphorical vehicles that scripture uses, or maybe it's just easier to go along with the pack.
In any event, the consequences of the rampant misinterpretation of scripture, and I'm talking across all traditions, has demonstrated to have some rather nasty consequences. From at the mild end, preventing millions from accessing the joy and freedom that is their divine birthright, to at the more devastating end, scripture being used as a justification for the deaths of millions through acts of war, crusade and terrorism.
All in the name of God's word.
Any way you slice it, it's an abomination of the original intent behind why the masters handed this incredible wisdom to us.
That's why today I thought we'd take some time to explore this thing called scripture. Well, in truth, our exploration will be less about scripture and more about our oftentimes less than helpful relationship with scripture, and more importantly, what we might be able to do to put the full power of this ancient wisdom to work in our lives.
But before we begin, I have a side note.
I'm fully aware that what follows may not resonate with everyone. And please understand that my effort here is not to recruit anyone away from the way they currently relate to scripture, or for that matter away from any religious or spiritual tradition.
Rather, my intent is to offer a perspective that I found has unlocked great insight and power in scripture that has previously remained hidden, and it's an insight that is applicable to every religion and every tradition.
With that said, take what works for you and leave the rest.
Let's begin with a definition of scripture, and then we'll look at a few of the inherent challenges of interpreting its guidance. First, the definition.
Scripture, for our purposes here today, is any body of writings that are considered sacred or authoritative on the subject of spiritual evolution. So, in a nutshell, scripture is any authoritative guidance on spiritual matters like scripture from the Bible, scripture from the Quran, scripture from the Yoga Sutras or the Bhagavad Gita or the Dhammapada are just a few examples. And this brings us to some of the challenges inherent in interpreting its guidance.
Here's the thing.
History has shown us time and time again, examples of people using scripture in ways that is, well, not only out of alignment with how it was intended to be used, but in some cases in ways that have created great harm and injury.
Yes, scripture, like any guidance taken out of context or without the requisite understanding can be used to actually move us away from its intended goal, and more often than not, these errors of application can be traced back to three missteps or more accurately omissions. I call them the Three Forgettings.
The Forgetting of Purpose, the Forgetting of Process, and the Forgetting of Circumstance. We'll start with
the Forgetting of Purpose.
Let us remember that scripture doesn't exist in a vacuum. All scripture is part of a larger spiritual or religious system that is designed to yield a particular result. This result alternatively called, depending upon tradition, enlightenment, spiritual liberation, awakening or God realization is the purpose.
We might think of scripture then as a guidance or a map to help us successfully make a journey from Point A to Point B, Point A being struggle and delusion and Point B being enlightenment and freedom. So then this is our first Forgetting, the Forgetting of Purpose.
When we forget the quite practical purpose of scripture, moving from Point A to Point B, from delusion to enlightenment, it becomes easy to slip into any number of confused or misguided applications of its wisdom.
There once was a monastery that sat up on a hill outside a tiny village in Tibet. The monastery was run by a wise old Abbott who artfully guided the 50 or so resident monks in their daily practices and rituals.
Each morning, before the sun would rise, all of the monks from the monastery would gather in the meditation hall for their morning meditation and again, they would do the same at the end of the day. Now, the Abbot was an animal lover, so when a stray cat showed up at the monastery, he was delighted. Even more so when the stray cats seem to adopt him and his monks.
Now, this cat was an affectionate fellow and during the daily meditation sessions, the cat would weave between the monks, rubbing his head on people's legs and sitting on people's laps and even kneeding people's arms and feet as they were meditating.
As you can imagine, this was incredibly disruptive to each day's meditation session, so the Abbot decided to do something about it.
He took an old silk prayer shawl and fashioned a collar for the cat and then he appointed a particular monk to be the cat tender. This cat tender would find the cat at the start of each meditation session and then tie the cat up outside the meditation chamber where it would remain until the session was over. And that was how it was done.
For each meditation session, a cat tender was assigned and that cat tender would tie up the cat until the meditation session was over when he would then release the cat to wander freely through the monastery.
It was a system that worked marvelously, but after a few years, the wise old Abbott fell sick and died, but his cat remained a loved member of the monasteries community, with him being tied up outside the meditation chamber, during each day's meditation session as had become the custom.
The cat was happy and healthy and lived a long life, but finally, late one night, the cat too died. The next morning, the bell calling the monks to meditation rang and the cat tender was dispatched to find the cat.
All of the meditators had filed into the hall and it was then that the cat tender found the cat under the bed in one of the sleeping rooms.
Oh my God. Exclaimed the cat tender, and he ran to the meditation hall to inform the new Abbott.
When he arrived, he saw the Abbot was awaiting his signal that the cat was tied up so they could safely start the meditation session. But one look at the expression on the cat tender's face told the Abbot something was wrong.
"What is it?" asked the Abbott."
"It's the cat," said the cat tender, "he's died."
The Abbott's face dropped and you could hear a gasp move through the meditation hall.
"What should I do?" Asked the cat tender.
The new Abbott was at a loss. "How are we ever going to meditate without tying up the ceremonial cat?" He asked, "You must immediately go into the village and find another cat so that we can tie him up and get on with our meditation."
You see, when the monks lost touch with why the cat was being tied up, when they forgot the purpose behind tying the cat up during meditation, they fell into a blind following of the so-called spiritual instruction, which we can see clearly here was not serving them at all, but it's not just these monks.
We too can easily fall into such blind and rote, and I would argue, ineffective performance of scriptural instructions, when we forget that scripture is not some set of moral imperatives designed to control our behavior. That is not some set of rules to make us worthy of the experience of the divine, but it's kind of a map designed to help us make a journey--the journey to awakening. All the while helping us to avoid the distractions and pitfalls that can trap us along the way.
It's why in the Bhagavad Gita it is said "to the enlightened, scriptures are as useful as a reservoir in a flood," which of course, is to say not very useful at all. I mean, who needs a reservoir full of water when water is everywhere, and who needs a map once they've already arrived at the destination?
So, let's say that we've remembered the purpose, but that is still not enough.
It's not enough to know that the purpose of scripture is to lead us from delusion to enlightenment. We have to also understand how it does. So in other words, what is the process through which enlightenment or God realization happens?
That's why this Forgetting, the Forgetting of Process, is such a critical piece of the puzzle.
As many of my longtime students can tell you, "how" is an exceedingly important word for me. In fact, I'm known to say "how" is the most important word in yoga, and in fact all other spiritual traditions as well.
That's because until I know how a spiritual technique, a religious ritual or a scriptural directive is supposed to bring about awakening, there's a very good chance that I will misusse the technique, ritual or directive.
I see it all the time.
As someone who's been training yoga teachers longer than, well, longer than some yoga teachers have been alive, I'm often asked to evaluate the competency of a particular teacher. Sometimes, it's part of an interview process for a client or for my own center. At other times, it's a coaching at the request of the teacher himself.
In any event, one of my key litmus tests for measuring the maturity of spiritual teachers is some variation of the "how" question: how does standing around in funny shapes (that is yoga postures) help to create spiritual awakening. How does sitting silently staring at a wall help to bring about enlightenment?
How does breathing through alternate nostrils help to bring about divine union? And we could just as easily ask how does performing the Stations of the Cross help to create the experience of communion with God?
And as my students will tell you, you better be able to describe it step-by-step, clearly and articulately without the use of vague black-box answers or other spiritual mumbo-jumbo. Because if you can't, you're not equipped to lead people skillfully, effectively, and maybe most importantly, replicably towards awakening.
Without the answer to the how question, the best you can hope for is to teach a technique or ritual or practice and hope it will address the obstacle that is holding back that particular practitioner.
And hope, for me, is not a strategy
The path to spiritual awakening is not magic. Heck, it's not even mysterious. It's actually downright scientific, or at least it can be when it is clearly understood.
The trouble is there are so many cockamamie ideas floating around about how enlightenment happens; from the idea that God-realization is earned by being a good person and getting in God's good favor, to the notion that one has to be purified or worthy enough to be bestowed this divine blessing, and so many others that to chronicle them here would have us here all day.
But here's what you need to know.
We're all good enough so you can stop beating yourself up for not being a better person. We're all worthy, so you can let go of the doubt, anxiety and fear that you're not enough.
The fact is that bringing about enlightenment or God-realization is actually simpler than struggling to meet some vague and elusive standard of good or worthy or godly.
Here's the process in just four words, stilling leads to seeing.
That is stilling (the busy-ness of mind) leads to seeing (the divinity in and around you). By creating a deep and abiding sense of inner stillness or inner peace, we're turning down the volume on the distractions and disturbances, the thoughts and emotions, that block our experience of the ever-present divinity around us.
I'll say that again: that block our experience of the ever-present divinity around us.
Quell the disturbances and voila the perception of the truth, or communion with God, or spiritual liberation is yours.
Inner peace is the doorway. Remembering this is the antidote for the Forgetting of Process.
So this is why the tools and techniques and practices and guidance of scripture can be seen as a kind of a handbook for living, a handbook designed to help us create ever more unconditional inner peace in our lives. It is this inner peace that creates the opportunity for the perception of God or the divine or the truth.
So, then with this understanding, answering my earlier questions, those I ask, yoga and meditation teachers and other spiritual coaches, like how standing around in shapes, how sitting silently staring at a wall, how does breathing through alternate nostrils, bring about awakening?
Well, when we understand the Process, answering such questions, and maybe more importantly skillfully using such techniques, becomes greatly simplified.
The universal answer is that all of these techniques and others can be used to bring about more and more unconditional inner peace in the practitioner. And this is the doorway to the experience of the divine.
But, and this but should seal the deal on just why understanding process is so important.
You can also use any and all of these techniques and others to move away from inner peace, to move away from the perception of the divine.
You can practice the yoga posture while judging yourself mercilessly, you could sit in meditation struggling to wrestle your mind into a calm and quiet state, or you can sit in church scrolling through your Instagram feed, feeling bad about who you are.
Obviously, none of these are moving you towards stillness, and therefore all are examples of the misinterpretation of spiritual technique and guidance and scripture caused by the Forgetting of Process.
Remember, following scripture is not a guaranteed recipe for success. If you're not moving towards more unconditional stillness, more inner peace, you're likely misusing the instruction or technique, and the invitation then becomes to adjust course.
And this brings us to our final Forgetting the Forgetting of Circumstance.
Not all spiritual directives are created equal. That's because not all spiritual directives are designed to do the same thing.
But wait! Didn't we just establish that scripture was designed to bring about inner peace? And if that's the case, it seems to follow that all scriptural directives are designed to do the same thing.
Well, yes and no.
It is true that scripture is guidance for finding inner peace, but it's also true that there are a great many different obstacles that obstruct inner peace. And different obstacles require different guidance to overcome them.
If you're mired in unnecessary conflict with others, "do unto others as you would have them do unto you," says the Bible. If you're overwhelmed with stress and anxiety, "it is good to control the mind, which is difficult to restrain. A tamed mind brings happiness," Says the Dhammapada. Caught in a cycle of perpetual struggle? "To the mind that is still, the whole universe surrenders," says the Tao Te Ching.
The fact is there exists an entire spectrum of scriptural instructions because there exists an entire spectrum of obstacles to inner peace.
And here's the critical bit. The antidote for the Forgetting of Circumstance is to recognize that there are very few instructions that are relevant for every person under every circumstance. As we discussed back in episode 15 spiritual techniques and guidance are not really about spirituality; they're about solving problems. Specifically, any problem that stands between you and great inner peace.
So, in the same way you select the right tool, a hammer, to drive a nail in our spiritual practices, we would be wise to do the same thing: Select the right tool for whatever obstacle or issue is obstructing our inner peace in this moment.
Sounds complicated, right? I mean, figuring out what obstacle each spiritual instruction is supposed to cure. It seems a near impossible task, at least without a secret decoder ring.
Well, while I don't have a decoder ring for you. I do have a pretty amazing technique. It's one that I learned years ago from the great teacher Ken Wilber.
When reading a spiritual instruction or a scriptural directive, don't ask, "is this true?" Instead, ask "for whom and under what circumstances could this instruction be helpful" and do this while keeping your eye on both the purpose, moving us towards the experience of the divine, and the process, creating ever more inner peace to make this experience possible.
Do this and you might just find yourself amazed at the clarity that arises.
The Forgetting of Purpose. The Forgetting of Process, the Forgetting of Circumstance. These three Forgettings have led millions to miss out on the joy and freedom and clarity that comes from the skillful and appropriate use of the wisdom of the scriptures, and in some cases have had consequences horrifically worse.
It's my hope that these insights will allow you to tap the full power of the incredible wisdom that scripture offers us and to come into the fullness of being that you were put here to enjoy.
Now, as I said at the beginning of the episode, I have no doubt that some may have some difficulty with what has been offered here and as a gentle and loving reminder: take what serves you and leave the rest.
I'll close today by admitting that the Forgettings, and the words that have been spoken here, are just the smallest tip of the iceberg when it comes to decoding scripture. There's so much more to be said and learned by us all from understanding the role of historical context, to recognizing the effect of cultural bias, to unraveling the contamination of translation, and so much more. The fact is, in my retreats and programs about scripture, we spend days upon days on such things and still only make a dent.
So for now the invitation becomes one of investigation and experimentation. Dive into scriptures rich founts of wisdom. Explore and experiment with their teachings, always with your eye on the ball of Purpose, Process and Circumstance. And lastly, for God's sake, pun intended, think. Use your God-given gift of rational thought and maintain a healthy objective view, and even a playful curiosity, as you notice what is working, what is not, and adjust course as necessary.
It is through this living and conscious relationship to scripture that its incredible wisdom will unlock great joy meaning and wonder in your life.
But don't believe me. Try it and see
Well, that's all the time we have today. I'm hopeful our discussion has led to some insights that can help you connect ever more deeply in whatever tradition may be yours.
As always, I'd love to hear from you. So do drop me a note from my website: www.ericwal.com. Also, if you can help me by spreading the word about the life-changing power of these amazing teachings by sharing the podcast with friends and family, I'd be forever grateful. And don't forget to hit subscribe so you don't miss out on future episodes.
Thanks again. I'm wishing you an incredible week of clarity and wonder. And of course, if there's anything I can do to be of service please, don't hesitate to get in touch. I'll see you next time.