Orbits of the Soul

I wrote the meditation below during a yoga teacher-training retreat in October 1999. We had our talent-show night, and I chose to contribute a kind of meditation/poetry reading. I don’t know how well it came off as poetry, and it was quite different from the other entries that night, but it was nonetheless well-appreciated.


October 1999*

About 6 months ago I had a decision to make.  I was being considered for a job that started daily at 4 p.m. and ended at midnight.  This troubled me because at the time I was living at the Sivananda Yoga Center in New York, where it is mandatory to rise at 5:30 every morning for meditation.  I didn’t know how I could fit an evening work shift into my schedule.  And I was new at the Center – it was my first taste of the spiritual life, and I didn’t want to do anything to jeopardize that.  But the money being offered by this job was tempting, and I didn’t know really what I wanted.  So I made a list of pros and cons.  I wrote down what my daily and nightly routine would be if I took the job, and what my routines would be if I didn’t take it.  And I prayed.  This is the meditation that came out of my prayer.

As I was comparing the routines of my life, I realized that a routine is like an orbit of a planet around a sun.  Each one of us is in orbit around a certain something at the center of our lives.  I wondered if we could observe the planets above and learn something about ourselves.  An orbiting planet could represent the soul, I thought.  Every soul is, after all, a world unto itself.  Like a planet, a soul has leaning slopes and mountains, jagged precipices, caves, gold, and gems.  A soul has watery places and hard places; it has cold and heat.  It goes through seasons.  A soul, like a planet, has a surface, and it has a hidden core.  Every soul has a sky, and it has a bottom.  And each of us, of course, has places inside where day is, and places where night has fallen.

I wondered what this metaphor said about our relationships with others, and I thought how our Mother Earth, about four billion years ago, received a visitor from deep space; how that visitor made itself an orbit around our world, so that we now have a moon where formerly there was none.  And I noticed how in our relationships, each soul experiences the other as a visitor bringing things we did not foresee, and did not have.  This is true even of the relationships we pursue.  One day you look up at the sky in the soul, and there’s only the usual stars; the next day you see a world of size where there had been space.  This infinite visitor, you see as a moon; and the visitor experiences you in the same way, as their own moon.  When you realize this, you’ve just begun uncoiling the long miracle behind the meeting of two souls, of two infinite worlds.

I also wondered what this metaphor said about my relationship to God.  The Bhagavad Gita refers to someone called the “Lord of the Worlds,” and declares that this Lord shines like a sun, self-luminous.  In the discourse entitled, “The Way to Eternal Brahman,” Krishna tells how a man at the time of death goes forth to find his Lord, the light-giver.  And this suggested to me something we hear from astronomers, about how a planet can get knocked out of its orbit and start falling toward its star, slowly coming closer and eventually being consumed in fire.  This of course suggested to me the fire of renunciation.  I knew then that the Lord calls us out of the orbit of our lives in good time – I can change the routines of my life and change them again, and make many decisions, but I will still be in orbit until I am called toward my Lord.

So I thought of the fire of renunciation, and I thought of the hour of death.  But what touched me the most was how long our Mother Earth has been in orbit, and still she has lived a long and eventful life without yet falling into the sun.  Astronomers tell us that most celestial bodies in the history of our universe have not been lucky enough to attain a stable orbit around a star: they were, for the most part, swallowed up in the chaotic motions of the early cosmos, or else they drift today in the space between the stars, without an orbit.  To be a planet around a sun is, I think, a blessing from our Lord: we get all the time we need to look around, grow in awareness, cultivate relationships, and so on.  And we get the most precious thing in life: the opportunity to meditate quietly, night into day, season into season, on the nature of light and dark, on warmth and cold, pleasure and pain.  A soul, like a planet, sails through the same space on a regular basis, experiencing a single river of familiar emotions and experiences.  A soul will sometimes identify not with its star, but with the dark coldness in the other direction.  And yet even here, even at those moments when you and I might look out and see nothing but darkness in our lives, it is at those moments that the Lord’s light is shining strongly at our backs.  It is at those moments that this light gives help to our eyes and allows us to see dark things we need to see, like the suffering of a friend, or the suffering of strangers, from whom all friends come.  When you see such things, you can be sure that you are a certain kind of creature: a soul in ancient orbit around something powerful and good.

Before long you find yourself falling towards your star, when inertia no longer pulls you out, and you seem to have forgotten how to resist the gravity of the sun.  Formerly all goals at the center of your soul seemed somehow unattainable and yet always present; like a planet that can neither escape the sun’s gravity nor come closer to the fire, so too your soul formerly revolved around goals that seemed always just beyond consummation, and yet they always illuminated your night and your day.  But when you start falling, the contradiction ends.  Innocent companionship with the Lord becomes conscious wonder mixed with trembling at His fire, and then gives way to desire and surrender.  If the first blessing of our existence is to be given a steady orbit, the last blessing is to be knocked out of orbit so we can begin falling toward the fire.  There the physical body is dissolved, and through this death we return to life as light, which has no age and cannot die.  Our light comes back out into the universe, allowing other planets to see and meditate.  For this purpose, the sun will accept the body of any planet: whether your soul lived in perfection or seemed to live a life of mistakes, it does not matter.  The material of your life will be turned to light regardless, and future souls will contemplate by this light and understand.

A final thought entered my meditation.  I thought how a planet sometimes loses its orbit but instead falls away from its star, and starts drifting in empty space.  Like Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita, I was having doubts about ultimate salvation.  But I realized that God’s light is everywhere in the universe, and no soul is ever truly lost.  The stars move through space with far greater speed than a planet, and a soul may, in his or her lonely course, find an entire galaxy rushing toward them, swallowing them up in a new life.

Here I’ll borrow words from the Gita.  Arjuna has just asked,

Suppose a man has faith, but does not struggle hard enough.  His mind wanders away from the practice of yoga and he fails to reach perfection.  What will become of him then?  When a man goes astray from the path to Brahman, he has missed both lives, the worldly and the spiritual.  He has no support anywhere.  Is he not lost, as a broken cloud is lost in the sky?

Krishna answers:

No, my son.  That man is not lost, either in this world or the next.  No one who seeks Brahman ever comes to an evil end.  Even if a man falls away from the practice of yoga, he will still win the heaven of the doers of good deeds, and dwell there many long years.  After that, he will be reborn into the home of pure and prosperous parents.  He may even be born into a family of illumined yogis … He will then regain that spiritual discernment which he acquired in his former body, and so will strive harder than ever for perfection.  Because of his practices in his previous life, he will be driven on toward union with Brahman, even in spite of himself.  For the man who has once asked the way to Brahman … by struggling hard … will move gradually toward perfection through many births, and reach the highest goal at last.  Great is that yogi who seeks to be with Brahman.  Therefore, Arjuna, become a yogi.

Discourse 6, verses 37-46 (Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood’s 1944 translation)

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