Closer to Heaven, Closer to the Mud

Posted on in On Our Radar by Jeff Foster

I recall from the moment my dear father passed from this world. One final exhale, and he fell, into infinite silence and deep rest. I was filled with an ancient sadness, not just my own sadness but the sadness of all sons saying goodbye to their fathers throughout history. I was vast, filled with the hearts of all who have ever mourned, and yet I was minuscule, dwarfed by a sublime mystery that I had no hope of comprehending. Good-bye, dear father. Rest well.

And yet in the very same moment, I felt a great joy—the joy of being alive to witness such a moment. Such sacredness in this pain, such holiness in this most profound loss! I was broken, yet I was whole. In the depths of the mess of the moment, in this dark underworld of death, there was such ferocious light, such blinding love. When we are awake and no longer numb, we can open our hearts to all these paradoxes, and let go of ever resolving them. We enter life and are entered in return. We know less and we feel more. We break more deeply and more light breaks through. We are more transparent, more supple. We are beginners again, newcomers in the Garden of Eden, eyes wide open and full of wonder.

I sense that the old spirituality is crumbling. The sad patriarchal spirituality that suppressed the feminine, shamed the body—its feelings and its mortality—frowned upon our sexuality and our longings, and tried to numb our deepest questions and urges to protect the image of “the calm, peaceful one,” or worse, “the invulnerable, untouchable one,” or even worse, “the pain-free superhuman.” A spirituality that wanted to eradicate our anger, and tried to liberate us from our sadness, fear, and doubts, so we could be pure and enlightened and “free.”

Something new is emerging now: a spirituality that actually embraces our humanity in all its mess and its longings, its ecstasy and its bliss, its intense pleasure and its outrageous pain.

A spirituality that does not seek to eradicate our weirdness and our wildness, our humor and our originality and our broken, tender hearts…but renders it all so damn holy, and finds freedom in the midst of it. A spirituality in which there are no “experts,” no gurus in the old sense, no special states to attain, no “finish lines.” Just vulnerable human beings, falling in love with “what is,” drenching our ordinary moments with curiosity.

Spirit is not separate from flesh. The ocean is undivided from her myriad waves. The sky is in love with the sloppiest mud. The artist adores and needs his dark colors as much as his light ones, and the great canvas holds it all. Spiritual enlightenment is nothing if it is not warm and wild and sticky and gooey and human; if it does not allow and honor the full range of deep human feeling, from despair to ecstasy, from the most brilliant clarity to the most profound confusion. Nonduality is nothing if it is not a tantric love affair with this glorious, artistic mess of duality. Awareness is nothing if it is not radically in love with every form—every thought, sensation, sound, and smell, every wave of anger, fear, and sorrow—that arises and falls on its astonishing canvas.

We are not simply “Pure Awareness”—no, we are sex and dirt and longing too. We are blood and guts and passion. We are wildness and we are fire.

We are gods, and we are so very fragile—heartbroken gods, gods who ache, imperfect gods. We are invulnerable, untouchable, indestructible, and yet we can sometimes feel the world’s pain as our own. We live so close to life, so close to death, so close to tears, so close to joy, in every single moment.

Close to the heavens, close to the mud, close to insanity, close to the breath. We bleed sometimes. We feel exhausted sometimes. Sometimes we just need a brother or sister to hold us. Sometimes we tire of being “the spiritual one,” “the one who knows,” “the expert,” “the enlightened one,” “the good and compassionate one.”

Sometimes we just need to fall to our knees in humility and ask the universe for support and guidance. Sometimes we just need to weep until our tear ducts run dry. Sometimes we need to curse and rage at the sky and forget what it means to be “spiritual.” Sometimes, that’s how healing happens. When we give up trying and give ourselves permission to break open and make a mess and fall, and we let the ground hold us, and we remember, It’s all okay, it’s all so fucking okay. We are full of paradoxes.

Penetrated by mystery.
The age of gurus and disciples may be over.

The age of experts and their clever mind-made answers may be coming to an end. Let the birdsong be the guru now, the morning traffic, the touch of a friend, the tingle in the belly, your four-year-old niece giggling at pigeons and melted ice cream, your sweet father taking his final breath in the last light of the evening. Saying good-bye to a friend after a sweet day of conversation and comfortable silence, not knowing when—or if—you will meet again. A sorrow, a yearning, a joy or an emptiness that just longs to be felt. The dawn and the sunrise. The ocean and the light. Life, life, life. Let the holy books dissolve into a fresh new moment. Let us bow to the ordinary now, prostrate ourselves before it.

white doors opened

Here. Here. Be a disciple of this: the unspeakable feeling of the breath rising and falling. The heart pounding in the chest. An airplane roaring in the distance. The magical weight of the physical body as gravity pulls it down toward the earth’s core. The aliveness in the toes, the hands, the throat, the sexual organs. The pressure in the head, the yearning and the expectancy of the dear heart, and this wonderful sense of being alive, prior to words, prior to all the teachings of the world.

There are no experts, here where you are. There is only a single living question, the question that is meditation itself—unanswerable, yet complete and beautiful in its absolute unresolvability: What is life?

Jeff Foster studied astrophysics before becoming a spiritual teacher. This essay was adapted from On the Mystery of Being, edited by Zaya and Maurizio Benazzo, the founders of the SAND Conference.

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