Wednesday, May 14, 2008


Excuse me. I've been away, here on the ranch, reading The Border Trilogy by Cormac McCarthy and listening to Tom Waits. It is the Strange Season for a self-employed of my sort: enough work to keep me in cigarettes, if I smoked 'em. But not enough to buy that big boat. If I even wanted it.

Anyway, not a cultural diet for the faint of heart, nor for the committed romantic. But both artists I listed are amazing in their own creative, dysfunctional way. I'll get around to writing more about them soon.

Back in my transcendental meditation days--Hey! Did you hear Maharishi Mahesh Yogi died?--I spent a lot of time listening to the old Hindu master talk about ways to approach life whilst awaiting Enlightenment.

One of the cooler terms his most divine and majestic self spoke of was the concept of Tapas. I've been looking for a parallel idea here in the west. Here is what I remember of it: It is, of course, a Sanskrit term, but don't let that unnerve you. I've been there. There is a lot of awful stuff and some dangerous stuff and then there are a few things you can take away with you, should you escape. I think this is one of them.

Tapas. A simple translation would be "withdrawal" but not what you're thinking. It is better described as the sort of angst--spiritual or whathaveyou--that occurs when one leaves or is forced from one area of activity, for another. It is the discomfort of stepping away from what has engaged you. You stop sleeping and wake up. Captain Video (as we used to call Maharishi) spoke of it as a sort of harsh spiritual discipline that fostered flexibility, a gift life gives. Fasting would be a good example of the tapas he's speaking of. It is not normally associated with something pleasant, but is instead a rough, somewhat tearing experience. There is a separation from the norm; there is unsettling and disorientation. Extreme Tapas would be described by the bitter, sudden experience many Jews had when hauled away from their lives to go live and die in Nazi concentration camps.

Tapas is seen as an injustice to the mortal, fleshly man. It flies in the face of entitlement, position, accomplishment. That is why it is so startling, so resented. Maharishi would speak of it when we would complain of boredom, discomfort, disillusionment with the results of meditation--this would be months-long residential meditation. "Whatever tapas you are going through", he'd say, "Just remember to stay the course", and blah, blah, blah.

I know a man who lost his wife recently after a several-months-long battle with brain cancer. His tapas endured throughout her illness as the inevitability of her condition became apparent. It continues as he wakes up each morning to a new , strange life.

Tapas does not go on and on. It is the experience of the process of change, but life settles down again for most of us. I believe Jesus was speaking of something like tapas when in John 15 he spoke of the pruning that goes on in the life of a disciple of Christ. "I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit He prunes it so that it may bear more fruit." I've always been struck by the fact that the action for the believer and unbeliever is very similar: in one case the unfruitful unbeliever is pruned away. In the other, the believer is pruned in order to be fruitful. Tapas is the experience of being pruned, I think.

My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,
Nor faint when you are reproved by Him;
For those whom the Lord loves he disciplines,
And He scourges every son whom He receives.

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