There is a great passage in the book, Teachings of the Masters of the Far East, in which the writer has a conversation with Jesus. Jesus is explaining to him how he came to be Jesus Christ. He says that he knew he needed to claim a destiny that was so bold, so grand, that he would be forced to live into all of his glory. So Jesus chose to declare himself the Christ.
I know this is sacrilege for some and my intention isn’t to offend. So for a moment, put aside religion and just experience that message. The concept of claiming a life’s path that is so awesome, declaring it to the world at the top of your lungs, and then having to live with it.
All of a sudden CEO, President, Manager, even Guru and Teacher — they all seem so small, right? Jason Garner, ____________. What could I fill that blank with that would leave no doubt about my intention in this lifetime? What are the words that would describe my wildest dreams about myself, the ones I used to close my eyes and imagine as a little boy? And, most importantly, why did that little boy in me dream so big and then “grow up” and make himself so small as an adult?
Lately I’ve been thinking about these questions as they relate to our spiritual growth. For the last year, I have been studying intently the recent spiritual masters. I have immersed myself in their teachings, experienced their message from writings, videos, and by spending time with their students. They were all — are all — beautiful beings who had the courage to claim their destiny. Without hesitation the masters claimed the position as enlightened teacher, they knew — really knew — and had the courage to share regardless of the cost or opposition.
In the course of this study, something has been eating at me. I wasn’t sure what it was at first. It started the way an ingrown toenail does: a tiny poke, and then more and more poking until your toe is swollen and you can hardly walk until you figure out what it is you have. And today, while I was out walking on the beach with my wife, the festering of my ingrown spirituality revealed itself.
Not long ago I spent a week studying with Ram Dass. At 82, after recovering from a stroke, he doesn’t talk much. But that doesn’t matter. Everything I needed to learn was transmitted by his eyes. Without saying a word he filled me with unconditional love — with his gaze. During part of our sessions he performed a mala ceremony where he gave us a set of prayer beads that contained a piece of the blanket used by his beloved teacher, Neem Karoli Babba. The prayer beads were a way of Ram Dass sharing his experience with his guru in India and the love that persists to this day.
Ram Dass sat in his wheelchair, next to him a large picture of his guru, while sacred chants played in the background. When it was my turn to receive my mala, I approached Ram Dass and looked him in the eyes. The experience was pure love. He held my gaze for what was probably only a few seconds, but what felt like forever. I felt loved and cared for beyond reason. Then Ram Dass pointed to the picture of his teacher, offering me the opportunity to experience the love he shared with his guru. The sacred love that had transformed his life so many years ago.
It was beautiful. But you know what? The picture didn’t compare with what I was experiencing with Ram Dass. His guru was not mine. At that moment, he was my guru, my true love was found in his gaze, not in the picture; my teacher was in front of me, right here and now and that was all I needed. Just as Ram Dass had discovered love in the eyes of his guru, I had too … in the eyes of Ram Dass.
This experience renewed my thoughts about the role of the great teachers and their students. I wondered aloud to my family if, in some ways, the shadow of the great masters wasn’t creating a box around their students that they could never escape. I wondered if Ram Dass understood that he was now the guru. Would his love and loyalty to his teacher ever permit that thought? And the same question arose about so many great teachers from whom I have been blessed to learn.
Then I went back to that passage from The Teaching of the Masters of the Far East, Jesus claiming the title of Christ. I thought again about how large our lives would be if we all pinned such powerful descriptions onto our life’s mission. I remembered Ram Dass, his powerfully loving eyes, the way he moved me toward the altar with the picture of his teacher, and the way I just wanted to be with him.
And I have a thought, a suggestion for all the teachers, gurus, mentors, and all the students, devotees, and prodigies.
I think we all need to take a break from our altars. Those tables and shelves and sacred areas in our minds where we have all placed pictures of ascended masters, teachers, world leaders, our favorite quotes, pictures of our parents, and all the other things that we say inspire us to awaken and self-realize. Put them all away. Forget for just one week, seven days, about all of it. Just forget the whole exercise of looking toward the heavens for inspiration. And in that week, I suggest we ask ourselves two questions:
What is the destiny I was put here to claim?
Do my altar, my guru, my parents, my mentors, my teachers, and all the other things I say inspire me, actually, create a ceiling above which I don’t dare go?
I know for some this concept is audacious, crass, arrogant, and disrespectful — and that’s exactly why perhaps it’s necessary. The truth is that every person we place on our altars did exactly what I’m saying. They all broke the rules, they tested and shattered the boundaries, they asked over and over the question, “Why?” And when they didn’t like the answers they rewrote the rules. Now a generation later we are trapped by the lessons in their words while overlooking the lessons of their lives. They gave us tools to self-realize, time-tested tools they have adapted for the time and age in which they lived and, from that, we have created institutions, bylaws, boards, and processes with those tools, and fenced ourselves into a tiny corral from which we can never truly realize who we are because the answer is always “student of … “, “follower of … “, “member of … “, and “believer in ….”
One of my great mentors used to tell me all the time about business: “We are too young to accept the status quo. Our job is not to operate within the lines that someone else drew. We are to expand them, stretch them until they break, and then draw our own lines.” That sage business advice fits today’s spirituality like a snug pair of yoga pants.
So take down the altar. Start fresh this week. Ask “why?” again and again and again. Let’s challenge ourselves with the destiny we are claiming. Let’s have a few more of us claim the mantle of “Enlightened,” “Realized,” “Leader,” and all the other titles we love to follow but think are beyond our personal reach. It’s time to look at our teachers — and all they blessed us with — as tools, the tools to build the new temple, the temple of OUR lives and the message of OUR time. It’s time to be the next generation of rebels, to be branded unconventional, audacious, bold, blasphemous, and even crazy.
And when we put our altars back together, when we put our gurus back in their places of honor, we will truly be honoring their lives and their example, not by the altar in the corner but by the altar emblazoned in the trail of our lives.
Big hugs of love,
6 thoughts on “Put Away the Altar”
wendy st. john-devereeaux says:
hello, Jason…this was another excellent posting—-very thought-provoking, as always….
it must have been amazing to be with ram dass—such an interesting experience!.
I am currently re-reading “be here now” by ram dass, by the way–it is one of eight or nine books I am currently reading.
I do not have any pictures of anyone on my altar, mainly because I do not follow anyone, nor do I have a real teacher as such.
I learn independently, I am always reading, I meditate, and I ask Spirit to confirm things for me.
I believe what I believe simply because I find truth in that belief. if something does not ring true to me on a deep soul level, I do not believe it.
my altar is more like a “magick window”…….I have things hanging in a big window (glass globes, feathers, etc), and I have things placed on a wide window sill (rocks, fossils, crystals, pinecones, etc)…I also have some favorite nature photos there……
I find nature to be inspirational, healing, and calming.
may your journey be truly blessed
massive hugs xxoo
Jason Garner says:
What a beautiful visual – a window altar. So you are always able to see beyond the altar. Thank you for that gift. Big hugs as always.
Susan Keene says:
“And when we put our altars back together, when we put our gurus back in their places of honor, we will truly be honoring their lives and their example, not by the altar in the corner but by the altar emblazoned in the trail of our lives.” And perhaps by doing so, we inspire and unconditionally love those who come after us just as Ram Dass inspired and loved you. Thank you for this very thoughtful post.
Jason Garner says:
What a beautiful thought, thank you. Big hugs.
Ray Khelawan says:
I love this!!! I am really going to try and take down my alter….the thing that I find is that I always limit myself too much. It really sucks…..feeling restricted that way:( I want to live life to the fullest and stretch myself!