“Holding the Center” with Rev. Melanie Eyre
We live lives of balance if we can maintain a center of peace, even when surrounded by seeming chaos. What do sages of the past and present teach us about living peace?
A revised transcript of this week’s talk is provided below for the deaf and hard of hearing, including prayers, readings, and songs.
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I desire neither earthly kingdom, nor even freedom from birth and death.
I desire only the deliverance from grief of all those afflicted by misery.
Oh Lord, lead us from the unreal to the real; from darkness to light; from death to immortality.
May there be peace in celestial regions.
May there be peace on earth.
May the waters be appeasing.
May herbs be wholesome and may trees and plants bring peace to all.
May all beneficent beings bring peace to us. May your wisdom spread peace all through the world.
May all things be a source of peace to all and to me.
Om Shanti, Shanti, Shanti (Peace, peace, peace).~ From the M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence
Lead me from death to life,
from falsehood to truth.
Lead me from despair to hope,
from fear to trust.
Lead me from hate to love,
from war to peace.
Let peace fill my heart,
my world, my universe.
Peace. Peace. Peace.~ The World Peace Prayer, adapted by Satish Kumar from the Brihadāranyaka Upanishad
“Holding the Center” by Rev. Melanie Eyre
Welcome! And thank you for joining us this beautiful Sunday. I’m glad you’re here. Today, we’re going to talk about inner peace and tranquility, qualities that we all hope to achieve.
The Story of Three Paintings
There is a story in the Taoist tradition which goes as follows. I’m taking this version of the story, and commentary on it, from Taoist author Derek Lin.
Once upon a time in ancient China the Emperor was in his study, greatly agitated. He found it hard to concentrate and so he summoned his most trusted minister and said to him: “I wish to focus on the affairs of state but my mind is agitated and unsettled when I feel like this I need something to help me regain peace. Have the best artist in the land create a painting that has the power to calm me down I want the theme of this painting to be ‘true tranquility.’”
A few days later, that the minister reported there were three artists considered the best in China he gave them the task they began to paint.
When the work was done, the Emperor went to the studio with the minister to see for himself the first painting they saw was an image of a placid lake surrounded by beautiful mountains. It was a wonderful scene – the surface of the lake was still calm and the painting just conveyed peace. The Emperor said this is beautiful.
The second painting showed magnificent mountains covered in snow. It evoked the silence in nature after a snowfall – a silence that is more than the absence of noise because snow seems to absorbed any ambient sound. The Emperor said this is very beautiful as well.
They looked at the third painting which showed a raging loud waterfall. “I am sorry your highness,” the minister said. “I believe this artist did not understand the task. Let’s disregard this painting, we will choose from the first two.”
The Emperor stopped him and said, “No, look closer. This is the painting for me.” The minister was astonished and said, “I do not understand, your Highness, how can this painting compare to the other two in conveying peace? The Emperor said: “The waterfall is not the most important thing in this painting – look again.” The minister took another look at the painting, but more carefully. He saw that there was a tree next to the waterfall, and one of the branches of the tree held a nest. A bird was asleep inside that nest.
The Emperor said, “See how the bird is able to relax and rest even though the deafening torrent is so close to it. It has such a profound quietness within that external conditions have no power to irritate or disturb. Now that is the essence of true tranquility!”
True tranquility, true peace, is the ability to remain calm and at peace while the torrent swirls around you. True inner peace is when you can retain your center no matter what is happening around you. You carry it with you, instead of looking for the world to hand it to you.
Derek Lin talks about the story a little more. He says it’s very possible to take the above point of the story and leave it at that. However, it’s also possible to dig a little deeper into the meaning of the story.
Dig a Little Deeper
So, the first painting represented a calm lake. However, Lin suggests that this is really a superficial kind of tranquility. The surface of the lake may be calm but underneath there may be currents, life, activity. The lake looks peaceful, but the lake looked more peaceful than it actually probably was.
The painting of the snow represented an environment of peace. It represented an environment of tranquility, a place that we look at to find tranquility outside ourselves. Being in a place of tranquility, even extraordinary tranquility such as was represented in that painting, does not guarantee us peace inside.
As the stoic philosopher Seneca said, “the mind must be able to provide its own seclusion even in crowded moments.”
Think of your crowded moments. How much smoother would this journey be if you were able to find that peace within, whenever needed? We can.
That’s what the third picture illustrated. True tranquility, because it showed us that if we have a center of peace, it doesn’t matter what disruptions or chaos circle around us. Lin writes: “this was what the Emperor actually needed – not so much a tranquil environment but a tranquil heart.”
Maintaining Peace is About the Serenity Within
Recalling that bird is a useful image when we find ourselves in times of high stress. We realize that maintaining peace in here (our heart) is not about running away to a remote place where no one bothers us, but it’s about the serenity we carry within no matter what our outside circumstances may be.
We all have lives that at times are more turbulent than we feel we can weather. This last year has surely proven that – our covid isolation and the changes covid required have taken us beyond what we have ever experienced. Life events that are challenging in and of themselves have taken on additional challenges because of the requirements of Covid. I remember when my son Nick and I spent those 2 weeks in Grady Hospital last July for his surgery – they were tough enough without adding the Covid scare on top. But there we were, and there was no escaping it.
When my life presents burdens that threaten to overwhelm me, I turn to the world’s scriptures, and I’m not disappointed. I know that, for me, this choice is the only way to try to climb out of that particular hole. I am so grateful every day for the gifts of wisdom available to us in the writings of the world’s different faith traditions. As an interspiritual community, we celebrate them all.
Look to the World’s Scriptures for Peace
When I seek peace, frequently the first scriptures I turn to are the Upanishads, from the Hindu tradition.
My goal today is to leave you with the suggestion that these scriptures may be a place you look for peace, as well. One of the joys we have here at One World is sharing the tools we find useful on our spiritual paths, and today I want to celebrate these foundational early explorations of human consciousness. Add them to your collection, because they will take you on an amazing journey if you let them.
These writings are really miraculous, when you think about them. Perhaps because we like patting ourselves on the back, we tend to think of the awakening of human consciousness as a progression, with earlier generations focused on more primitive notions of God – God as separate, God as judge, as the father figure we must placate with sacrifice or terrible events will be inflicted on us. As we progressed, we like to think, we moved into the understanding that Spirit is all, is everything, is immanent, pervading all aspects of our world – and at the same time transcendent, yet beyond both. How sophisticated are we!
Rediscovering the Wisdom of the Upanishads
We can feel pretty cocky about our adult understanding of spirit until we realize that we are only rediscovering the wisdom of the Indian sages who gave us the Upanishads over 2500 years ago. We stand on their shoulders when we meditate, or when we talk about the depths of human consciousness or the divine within. When we undertake any path or practice aimed at awakening to the amazing vistas within ourselves, we have the rishis of the late Vedic period and the Upanishads to thank. As they moved away from the ritualism of early Vedic tradition focused on exterior deities, something led them to turn their gaze to the vast world within each of us, to the exploration of human consciousness. They gave us the idea that the truth of God was within, and we could know it. That ultimate reality was one, and if we could know this it would lead us to joy.
No mediation, no priests. Just you, and the infinite – which is you.
What an amazing insight these mystics gave us. The first exploration of our vast inner space.
The word Upanishad means “to sit alongside” as one sits at the feet of one’s spiritual teacher. The Upanishads are primarily in the form of dialogue, due to the stress in the Vedic tradition upon the importance of a living teacher.
Emphasis On the Insights, Not the Authors
The authors of these scriptures are largely anonymous; the emphasis is on the insights, not the authors. In addition, these writings are not always easy to read; they are not chronological stories, but are bursts of insight. You may have to sit with them for their richness to be revealed.
The version of the Upanishads that I use is a translation by Ecknath Easwaran, an Indian teacher of Victorian literature who transitioned to become a teacher of meditation and spirituality.
The story of his journey is a wonderful example of the gift of these teachings and these insights. See if this story resonates with you. It did with me.
In the late 50’s, he was teaching on a college campus in central India. He was a husband, father, son, living a life like so many of us. He began to be haunted by the central questions of our existence: Why am I here? What is my purpose? What happens when I die?
Where to Turn For Answers to Questions That Do Not Go Away?
At the same time two people he loved did die. One was Mahatma Gandhi, whom he knew personally, and the other was his grandmother, who in addition to being a beloved relative was also his teacher. Then, the story goes, he came home to learn that his dog had been killed by a truck.
The combination of these miseries, brought to a head by the loss of his dog, brought him to that place of despair we have all inhabited. He was overwhelmed with loss, and with uncertainty. He needed those answers he had not been able to find. What did he do? This is what he writes:
“Almost instinctively, I went to my room and picked up my Gita, most of which I knew by heart. I closed my eyes, and as I began to repeat the verses silently to myself, the words opened up and took me deep, deep in.”
He was familiar with The Gita – he says he knew it by heart. But this time, he let its words seep in, beyond his thinking mind, into his heart; the action of deep wisdom, stillness, and willingness to hear.
His description so speaks to me. When I feel overwhelmed or adrift, I turn to these writings that remind me of what is true. They lift me beyond myself. I remember sitting in Grady hospital, in one of those visiting chairs, and reading The Gita myself – as a lifeline, a boat to carry me through those turbulent waters.
This was the beginning of Easwaran’s meditation practice. It also was the beginning of a practice he came to call passage meditation, and which he taught for years. In this practice, you focus on a particular passage, and simply sit with it, letting its wisdom speak to you in ever unfolding ways. Try it with a favorite passage of yours, from any book. You don’t think about it – you let the passage seep into your heart, your deeper consciousness. It’s almost as if you are in dialogue with the passage, at the deepest level.
The Message of the Upanishads
So, what is the message of the Upanishads that has so influenced spiritual seekers for over two thousand years? As author Houston Smith puts it, the message is that you are more than you think. A mind bending thought. There are depths to you, an imperishable truth of you, that you can find and experience and indeed become. You yourself are the stuff of God, or Brahman, the essence of all being, the unity beyond all multiplicities. When you experience that reality of being itself, you awaken to absolute truth and perfect bliss.
From the Taittiriya Upanishad comes these verses:
The Self is the source of abiding joy.
Our hearts are filled with joy in seeing him
Enshrined in the depths of our consciousness.
If he were not there, who would breathe? Who live?
He it is who fills every heart with joy.
When one realizes the Self, in whom
All life is one, changeless, nameless, formless,
Then one fears no more. Until we realize the unity of life,
We live in fear.
I can hear what you’re thinking, because I have thought it as well. I may be the Self, but there is no way that I will ever be able to meditate myself to a place of bliss. Get real. Peace for a few minutes maybe, until the bell on my meditation app goes off and I get back to my day. Permanent bliss? I think not.
Good news! It’s not an either/or thing. Every step on this journey creates greater peace. Every step changes you. For most of us, this is not a journey in which we will arrive at a destination. The joy, and the awakening, and the growing peace, is in the journey. It’s taking the first step, and then the next step, that makes all the difference.
The Upanishads remind us that there is a unity underlying all things, and it is who we are. We are more than this problem, this body, even this life. Absolute reality is Brahman, the essence of all that is, and we are that as well. Our individual bodies, all the multiplicity we see, are simply manifestations of the One.
The Katha Upanishad puts it this way:
As the same fire assumes different shapes
When it consumes objects differing in shape,
So does the one Self take the shape
Of every creature in which he is present.
I am the One appearing as Melanie, but it doesn’t change the essence of who I am. My challenge is to move beyond the illusion that I am just this body, this personality, this constellation of experience, understanding, and memory.
So, in practicality, does this mean that our problems don’t matter? That we should rise above them – see them as insignificant? Not at all. The circumstances of our lives have profound impact on us, and no one is saying to ignore them. The sages of the Upanishads had families, worked, raised children, suffered and grieved, just as we do.
The Message of These Teachings
The message of these teachings is that these circumstances are not all there is. They point to a beyond, to a more. They do not tell us to ignore our difficulties, but they tell us that there is a foundational truth beyond them.
Again, from the Katha Upanishad:
As the sun, who is the eye of the world,
Cannot be tainted by the defects in our eyes,
Nor by the objects it looks on,
So the one Self, dwelling in all, cannot
Be tainted by the evils of the world.
For this Self transcends all.
In the same way these teachings tell you who and what Brahman is, they tell you who you are. They tell you that you are not small, you are not weak, you are not alone and adrift. You are a manifestation of Brahman, the essence of all that is. You have a place to be, and you are in it. In hard times this wisdom grounds me, and gives me courage, and hope.
That is the truth of each of us – beyond problems, beyond pain, beyond loss.
Far from removing us from this world, these teachings give us the grounding to engage in it. As Easwaran said: “The passages were lifelines, guiding me to the source of wisdom deep within and then guiding me back into daily life.”
Gandhi himself said “Such power as I possess for working in the political field has derived from my experiments in the spiritual field.”
The Truth of Each of Us
At the end of the day, it’s an inside job – your own journey. One of the giants of Hindu spirituality was Adi Shankara, an eighth century mystic who wrote and taught on the unity of Brahman, all pervading reality, and the Atman, or the same Self within and as each of us. He wrote:
Teachers and scriptures can stimulate spiritual awareness. But the wise disciple crosses the ocean of ignorance by direct illumination, through the grace of God.
Gain experience directly. Realize God for yourself. Know the Self as the one indivisible Being, and become perfect. Free your mind from all distractions and dwell in the consciousness of the Self.
This is the final declaration of the Vedanta: Brahman is all; [It is] this universe and every creature. To be liberated is to live in the continual awareness of Brahman, the undivided Reality.
To be liberated is to find peace. Every step on this journey makes such a difference.
Finally, these passages are beautiful. They speak of love, and of joy, in ways that make our hearts sing and, even better, remember. That, after all, is what profound wisdom does – it reminds us of what we already and always knew, but had forgotten.
I hope you take the opportunity to spend some time with the Upanishads.
As long as we think we are the ego, We feel attached and fall into sorrow. But realize that you are the Self, the Lord of life, and you will be freed from sorrow. When you realize that you are the Self, Supreme source of light, supreme source of love, You transcend the duality of life And enter into the unitive state. The Lord of Love shines in the hearts of all. Seeing him in all creatures, the wise Forget themselves in the service of all. The Lord is their joy, the Lord is their rest; Such as they are the lovers of the Lord.
~ Eknath Easwaran, The Upanishads (Easwaran’s Classics of Indian Spirituality Book 2)
“Spirit Give Me Faith” written by Asha Lightbearer
“Dare to Shine” written by Asha Lightbearer
This service originally aired on March 14, 2021.