Years ago, during my first extended journey through Asia, I found myself at one point wandering in the north of India. Somewhere along the way I met up with a friend, and we traveled together to various sites of pilgrimage. We eventually made a stop at the shrine of the Shivapuri Baba in the Kathmandu Valley of Nepal. The Shivapuri Baba was a somewhat obscure Indian mystic who is reputed to have lived to the ripe old age of 137. His legacy is best preserved in John G. Bennett’s fine biography of him, Long Pilgrimage (which could just as reasonably been titled Long Life).
I remember one memorable evening at a lodging we stayed at somewhere in northern India (it might have been Lucknow) while on our way to Nepal. Although it was ‘winter’, the weather was uncomfortably warm as usual. My friend and I were sitting cross legged on the ground, immersed in conversation about the ultimate principles of spiritual wisdom. He was Indian, older than me, experienced in meditation, and I regarded him as an ‘elder brother’ on the path.
The muggy weather was not the only thing that was ‘as usual’. The ever-present mosquitoes were out in full force. Mosquitoes in that part of the world are not the wimpy little things we know in the West. They are bigger and more determined. (At least they seem bigger; I’m no biologist and this may only be a matter of perception. However given that one Indian guru once pronounced Indian mosquitoes as ‘the reincarnation of failed meditators who have returned to torment present-time meditators’, my perception may be with merit).
I don’t like mosquitoes. In general I make a good Buddhist or Jain-like effort to not kill bugs when possible—I’ll always trap a spider and put it outside rather than stomp it—but I’ll squish a mosquito with no moral qualms. I remember a recent time in, of all places, Austria, where I spent a hapless night in a country villa on a hot August night, being slowly tormented. After awaking in the morning resembling someone with Chicken Pox, I spent the next evening on a rampage, splattering skeeters left and right. But I digress.
While in India, sitting with my friend in a room that felt like a sauna, it seemed there were more mosquitoes present in the room with us than Indians in all of Lucknow. They swarmed angrily about, determined to eat these two Swami Wannabes. As I flailed at them with the usual undignified futility, I began to notice that my friend was calm and unmoving. A cloud of the little devils hovered about him, but strangely, none of them made the final dive-bomb to his skin. They hovered only. With me, however, they were openly feasting. And the more I flailed, the more they seemed to feast.
‘How do you do it?’ I inquired in desperation. ‘How come they are not attacking you?’ My friend smiled his easy smile, and bobbed his head sideways the way Indians typically do in response to most questions. ‘It’s easy’ he grinned. ‘Just you ignore them.’
At first I thought he was being flippant, but sure enough I soon observed that he was in fact completely ignoring them. He was largely motionless. And the skeeters, as if playing Moon to his Earth, orbited but never made contact.
‘Just let go of effort,’ he added, indicating with a slight nod of his head that I should comply with his directive. Having nothing to lose, I tried it. And lo and behold, the mosquitoes began to back off, until eventually they were only hovering about me as well. I began to feel like Buddha in the forest, king of the giant snakes that according to legend would gather about him only to protect him from the elements, not to eat him.
I don’t remember how this Taster’s Choice moment vignette ended (it was a quarter of a century ago), but probably my sagely serenity was short lived at the time. Regardless, the experience always stuck with me as a solid metaphor for the whole process of ‘letting go’, or in more technical language, ‘non-attachment’, and in particular how it applies to the great principles of non-duality.
To make headway in experientially realizing non-duality, we have to mature psychologically. The essence of psychological maturity may be said to be non-attachment. However it’s important to be precise by what is meant by this term, because there is a faux non-attachment—what may be said to be the ego’s version—that frequently masquerades as ‘spiritual detachment’. This so-called detachment is really more a version of the fear of attachment. It is the desire to run from psychological pain without having fully assumed responsibility for the causes of the pain. The causes of the pain are almost always related to the denial of personal desires, and in this case, the desire to be attached.
Spiritual ripening, and the recognition of non-duality, is the result of having included and transcended psychological states of mind, such as the desire for attachment or intimacy. The ‘inclusion’ aspect is important, because transcendence without inclusion invariably becomes denial and repression. To ‘include’ in this context means to ‘take ownership of’. We cannot transcend anger, for example, without first ‘owning’ our anger (that is, taking responsibility for it). The same is true of fear, greed, jealousy, sexual desire, desire for power and recognition, and so forth. We cannot become a sage without first learning to be an adult.
Attachment is a normal part of human existence, but to truly embark on a path of awakening we need to learn the art of letting go. The impulse of the ego is always to grasp and control, because ego is based on the view that it is fundamentally isolated, an island unto itself. If that is so, then ego requires periodic energy-fixes in order to survive (according to its view). These energy-fixes are brought about by grasping, holding, using, and controlling.
The nature of attachment is such that the more we hold on, the more we are besieged by life—just like that the more that I flailed at the mosquitoes, the more they came at me. To let go is to stop flailing in life, to be in a state of equanimity. Paradoxically, it is in letting go that we recognize our connectedness with everything, and how aloneness is pure illusion.
Non-dualism, of course, moves beyond concepts such as 'connectedness'. Quite simply, from the non-dual perspective there is nothing to connect (because nothing has ever been 'disconnected'). 'Disconnection' occurs only in our mind (regardless of physical circumstances) via confused understanding.