Spiritual river in the human mind

Making the Desert Bloom

The great Thar Desert lies in what is now Pakistan and is almost completely barren. There is a tradition in the ancient Vedas going back to over 1000 B.C. that a great river, the Sarasvati, which rises in the Himalayas, flows a long way underground. Recent prospecting for oil suggests that this supposedly mythological river flows under the Thar, and thus could make the desert bloom.

Beneath the human mind, even when it seems most barren, there is a spiritual Sarasvati, which can make the desert blossom into inspiration and energy. To bring this stream to the surface of daily life is a main purpose of yoga. To make a desert bloom. This piece is not meant as entertainment; it is for people who are in the desert.

A great Zen master was approached by two men and a woman who wanted to do some Zen, and he asked them: “Why do you come?”

One of them replied: “Well, I was rich and then my business collapsed and I was in jail for a bit. My reputation has gone, I am hated and despised by everybody, and so I have come here.”

The teacher turned to the next man and asked him why he was here, and he said: “I was very fond of my wife, but she died and I don’t know how I can stand the grief, so I have come here.”

And the teacher turned to the woman, who was a brilliant scholar of Buddhism, and she said: “Well I have studied the theories very well, but I thought I would like to do some of the actual practice, so I have come here.”

The teacher considered, and accepted the first man, whose life had been smashed to pieces; yes, he could do something in Zen. The second man, who had suffered this terrible bereavement; yes he could do something in Zen. And the third one, the brilliant scholar who knew all the theory of Buddhism; the one you would think could do something in Zen, was accepted too, but privately the teacher said: “She won’t do anything in Zen,” and she didn’t.

The teachings are meant for people in distress, in difficulty, or in despair – for those in a desert. They are not meant for people who are comfortably off and want to be entertained, and they are not meant for people who are great scholars and want to learn a bit more about being in a desert. If you have ever been in a desert you will know that occasionally, in this mass of sand, you see a tree, and you think: how does it survive? There is hardly any rainfall here, how can it live? Well, its roots can go down between thirty and fifty feet, and they find water under the desert. This water is not on the surface, for there is nothing there, but the tree’s roots travel deep, and it survives. But it is only one tree, and there is not another for miles.

When we look back over our own lives, or observe the lives of other people, we see mostly suffering; even the moments of triumph and great success are suffering. If you are very successful, you will be hated by those who fail, and if you fail, you will be despised and ignored. But sometimes there are moments when we think back, and recall a peace that was not dependent on anything outside. Perhaps it was some walk in the country when we sat on a stone and had no worries in our mind. Suddenly there was peace and a feeling of something beyond.

In one of his poems, Tagore refers to these states and says that he never realised when they came and went before he was back again in the excitements, frustrations and fights of everyday life. But when he looks back he can see that there were moments of peace and transcendence that had no explanation, which did not depend on anything external. Now, when he looks back on them he can see the signet ring of the Lord imprinted on those moments; he realises that was when the Lord visited him. He did not recognise them at the time; he only knew that there was a peace, but now when he looks back he can see these moments clearly.

In the spiritual traditions, we are told that these are just hints. They are hints like the tree in the desert; there is water below the desert of life’s disappointments and frustrations. Now sometimes those moments can come, they can be brought about if we are sensitive enough.

If you went, in the old days anyway, and possibly still, to a traditional Japanese hotel, one evening a maid would come to your room and ask: “Do you want to see the moon rise?” There was a little balcony in the hotel, and on that balcony at a particular time when the maids called you, you sat there in silence, and beyond the hill you looked up and the moon would come. People didn’t talk or fidget, asking, “Is it coming now?” They sat and waited.

There is a poem: “It’s just coming. That’s all. The great harvest moon.”

And the people sat, and then would see the moon come rising, and would have peace without words, for it is too big for words. There are some cultures which understand how to create these moments of peace, and that is one of them, but these things are still dependent on external circumstances, and we have to find something beyond dependence on circumstance.

As previously mentioned, there is a great desert in Pakistan called the Thar Desert, and traditionally there are three great rivers which take their source in the Himalayas; the one we call the Ganges, and one we call the Yamuna. There is also another which we don’t see, the Sarasvati, meaning “swift flowing”, and the ancient tradition from the Vedas is that the Sarasvati travels underground. Some hydrologists in the Thar have been using a system whereby a helicopter flies over a given area. There is an elaborate technical explanation, but briefly: a transmitter sends out radio signals and that produces a current in an aerial, which is received by a radio. It is similar to broadcasting; the transmitter sends out radio waves that strike the ground and set up induced currents. This sets up electric magnetisation that can be sensed by very sensitive instruments carried in floats towed by the helicopter.

With this technique they can find out whether there is water below the surface of the desert. Recently, hydrologists from Germany and Pakistan surveyed a very large area, and they found a huge fresh water aquifer, between thirty and one hundred metres deep, and several kilometres in length. All that fresh water! They could tell it’s fresh because fresh water’s resistance is different to that of, say, lime water. It is now known that there is a vast body of water that could make the desert bloom. The German hydrologist said: “There is enough water here to supply a great city like Hamburg, with 1.5 million inhabitants, all their water needs for over a century.” Now they are drilling for it, at considerable labour and expense, for it is much more valuable than oil.

The spiritual discipline tells us that beneath the desert of our lives there is a living water, a living stream – perhaps like this enormous fresh water aquifer under the Thar Desert. The mysterious Sarasvati’s reputation as a river that travelled underground from the Himalayas was thought to be pure myth, but perhaps it has some basis in truth after all. These analogies can be a useful stimulus, though of course they are not exact in every point. But if we do spiritual study in one tradition over a defined area, not just here and there, and we do it with attention, then we can begin to pick up these very fine signals from somewhere deep within ourselves. Below the surface desert of our lives, there is a living stream which can make the desert bloom.

I just want to say something about study. You have to be convinced, otherwise you will never do the special practices which can sensitise you to the existence of those hidden streams. Unless you are fairly convinced that they exist, you will never have the patience to keep on with the practices. For this reason you must study, not in vast detail, with a lot of names and dates, but study the subject in one main tradition so that you have a grasp of it. I’ll give you an example.

At the beginning of the last century, my mother, who was of a rich family, married my father, who was a poor man. It was a love match. She told me that she had been brought up in this rich family like a doll. The girls were taught to be entertaining and to have graces and so on, but they could not earn their own living, and she rebelled against her strong-minded mother, saying: “I will leave home.” Well there were only two ways a girl could earn a living then: nursing (typing as a profession was not yet available), and the other was something I don’t want to mention, so she chose nursing. She completed the nursing training, although she never practised, and by the time the training was complete, her mother had recognised the same strong will in the daughter as she had in herself, and she was welcomed back into the home.

Later on in her life I looked after her for her last twenty years, and she became diabetic, but because she had been a nurse she followed the instructions exactly. The first year she was diagnosed, we had to weigh everything, even a slice of bread. We had to take tests every morning, and inject the exact amount of insulin. But the diabetic diet is a very healthy one; alcohol, smoking and sweet things are controlled, so, although she was diabetic and had to have these injections, her general health improved – she was very vigorous up to the age of 82-83. Some of her friends were also diabetic, but they could not manage to follow the rules; they knew they should, but they thought: “Oh, just one sweet thing, it doesn’t matter.” I can remember one of them, a brilliant historian, who had a corner cupboard in one room, and she would get up quietly while the others were talking and just open the door a tiny little bit and take out a chocolate. She thought it didn’t count – if nobody saw it, it didn’t count. Well, she and others, who did not follow the rules, died, but my mother and one or two others did not.

You have to do enough study to convince yourself to follow the discipline, and that varies with different people. Some people need more study than others, but it is essential. If you have diabetes you must read all the points on diabetes: don’t smoke, watch your feet, be very careful of your eyes, and so on (a small cut on the foot for a diabetic can be disastrous). You have to read enough to become convinced. In the same way, if you take up a spiritual discipline in order to bring living streams into the desert of your life, you have to study one tradition. You respect other traditions, but you train in just one. As you can understand, the figures which the helicopter scientists bring back mean nothing to the ordinary person, and if they were presented to us, they wouldn’t persuade us to spend money drilling in the desert. It would be just a lot of figures that had to be explained very carefully. It is the same with spiritual study. The analysis of the mind can be very exact, but not everyone can follow it, so, for some things, we should go to a reliable source and be prepared to take some things on faith; not blind faith, but experimental faith. You have faith enough to enable you to go on making experiments, and when you get little confirmations it will seem reasonable to you. If you go on still further you will get bigger confirmations. Here is an example of this.

A businessman made a lot of money suddenly, bought a new house, and wanted to show it off to all his friends. His sister had been abroad, and she had married while she was away. Her return with her new husband was the perfect opportunity for a party, and the businessman invited about fifty people. One of them was a young mathematician, and the host, who was very contemptuous of mathematics, said: “Fiddling about with figures, a waste of time.” The mathematician tried to assert that mathematics could be helpful in practical life, but the host said: “Not the sort of things you study. Why are prime numbers often in pairs, eleven and thirteen, seventeen and nineteen? What good is that? It is useless!” The mathematician, too embarrassed to argue, said nothing.

Then the sister introduced her husband, who was an astronomer, and it turned out that he had been in the East and was interested in astrology. The host, contemptuously, said: “You people just live on superstitions, there are never any scientific tests, nothing definite at all.”

And the astronomer said: “Well how can there be? I can make predictions but you have to wait to see if they’re true. Then, when something happens and I say I predicted it, then you will doubt that I ever did. But there can be occasions where there is a definite test.”

And the host said: “And I suppose that this is not one of those occasions, is it?”

“As a matter of fact it is,” replied the astronomer. “People who are born on the same birthday have a sort of resonance. It does not mean they have the same character exactly, but there is a resonance between them. Now I have had some training in astrology and, as a matter of fact, there are about, how many, fifty of us here now? There are three hundred and sixty five days in a year, so it is not very likely that two of them are born on the same date, is it?”

And the host said: Now fifty into three hundred and fifty – about a one in seven chance.”

The astronomer/astrologer looked around him and said: “Well, as you are keen on definite tests, I’ll make a prediction. I can feel a resonance here. There are two people here who have been born on the same date. Now you know I have just come from abroad and I don’t know anyone here except for my wife, your sister.”

The host was delighted, saying: “Yes, let’s have a test, and when you fail it, no doubt you’ll have some excuse won’t you?”

So the people lined up and passed between two chairs in the middle of the room, calling out their birthdays. When about half had gone through, someone said: “October 10th,” and somebody in the crowd behind, who had not been through, said: “I’m October 10th.”

There was silence until the host said: “Well that is just a fluke, it can happen.”

But the astronomer replied: “It can’t be a fluke – I predicted it, didn’t I?”

The businessman said: “It was a fluke that you predicted a fluke.

The astronomer looked at his host and said: “Remember what you said about finding some excuse?” And the host was silent.

Afterwards the shy mathematician went up to the astronomer and said: “It is about ninety seven per cent on isn’t it?”

The astronomer said: “You’re a mathematician too, are you? I know this is not astrology, but what can I say when I am talking to fools? We have studied astrology seriously, as a science, and while it has had some failures, it has also had some successes, but some people just won’t listen. However, quite a few people in this room will listen now.”

The mathematical proof does seem incredible. There are fifty people, there are three hundred and sixty five days of the year, but it is something like 32 – 1, or 97 %, that two of them will be born on the same date. Most of us couldn’t follow the complex mathematical probabilities argument even if the mathematician explained it to us, but some people were convinced by the astrologer when he said he sensed a resonance and he was right.

So I would just like to say that we don’t have to plunge deeply into scholastic and academic study, but we must have a general idea of the tradition that we are going to follow in order to bore into the desert to find the water that flows. So what I have been talking about is really to illustrate that if we look and study, and we begin to look in our lives for those moments of peace which come for no reason at all, we will begin to get hints that there is something deep beneath the desert which can make it bloom. But to know this, even though it can be comforting, doesn’t solve our problem – we are still in the desert. We need to find some definite practice that we can do, and that is going to take some time. I will now explain one of the meditation practices that I received from my teacher.

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