Divide by Zero
Updated: Oct 27, 2018
Self-inquiry is the cornerstone of most spiritual practices. From the ancient Greek aphorism “Know Thyself,” to the beautiful teachings of Ramana Maharshi’s “Who am I,” to the radical self-awareness of J. Krishnamurti, this rigorous introspection presumes that the path to
salvation points inward.[i]We must look within to find the gold nuggets rather than looking outward to the persons, places and things that surround us. Sure, our work, relationships and even possessions, might inspire us, but when we decide to really get down to it, we have to look inward. One of my favorite spiritual teachers, Sri M, says that the primary role of the teacher is to point the student in the right direction. Usually, this means: “turn around, look inside.”[ii]And to this he might add: the student must walk for him or herself.
This last point is very important. It has taken me a while to begin learning it. I have read the teachings of many spiritual teachers and have found them entertaining and inspiring. But for real change to take place, an incredible step has to be taken. One has to take full responsibility for one’s own development. Following a teacher can provide a collection of experiences, but ultimately these are just like any other, like grocery shopping, laundry, or eating ice cream, unless they provoke a sincere look inward. A good teacher holds up a mirror so that the student can do the work. What the student sees in the teacher, they also have. Some of these qualities may be inspiring, like one’s own higher self, divinity or creativity, while others, like possessiveness, insecurity, and fear, might be difficult to swallow. When we really want to get down to business with spirituality, we need to seize the mirror with all its projections and reflections, and be our own teacher. There is a sense of urgency in this matter. Life is short. Can we “know thyself,” completely? J. Krishnamurti might reply with: “Find out!”[iii]
When we turn inward, do we turn our back to the outside world? No. Our exterior life can be our greatest teacher, reflecting our interior in a different form. To neglect one is to neglect the other. To embrace one is to embrace the other. For example, so-and-so said nasty things about me and I got angry. I could call him a jerk and remain in anger. I could accept that maybe I’m the idiot and enter into shame. Or, perhaps, I could see how the mirror is sending very human reflections back and forth in a natural drama that is ultimately my own. Maybe I could take a look at this, internally. I can learn directly from the inner reflections of worldly experience. This is what is meant by the term “householder yogi.” Yoga means to “link with the divine,” and was traditionally practiced in remote caves, where there were few worldly distractions. Householder yoga situates the practice right in the center of everyday life, with its amazing assortment of disturbances of all kinds. Ram Dass (Richard Alpert) describes this worldly material as “grist for the mill,” providing substance that begs for our attention.[iv]How can my relationship, the interface between inner and outer,be engaged for getting real?
While visiting relatives when I was a little kid, I was left by myself in a room with a radio, while the grown-ups made dinner and got caught up. The radio was tuned to a public radio station with some kind of educational children’s program. There was a narrative with the characters embarking on a great adventure story, trying to “get to infinity.”
“Where do we go?”
“Where is the map?”
“How long will it take?”
It must have made an impression because I can remember the quality of the female narrator’s voice, exactly.
Let’s try a thought experiment. Picture a spinning wheel. Maybe it’s a merry-go-round, the wheel of a car, a whirlpool, or even the center of your being.Imagine that we are very small and are making an adventurous journey from the outer rim to the very center. The outside is moving very fast...for any moment of time, a given distance is covered. Standing there, perhaps our hair (if we have any) flies out from the spin. As we venture toward the center, the point we are standing on has less distance to cover to go all the way around; our spinning motion is slower. Our hair settles down a bit. As we approach the center, we are covering much less distance; we are beginning to approach stillness.
The Infinite Center
There is a center to every wheel. The absolute center–the singularity–of the circle is perfectly still. This is because at the very center there is no distance to cover for a given period of time. This center is a very real place, but it seems theoretical because it defies any attempt to visualize it. Try to picture the absolute center of a spinning wheel, infinitely small and perfectly still. Can you do it? Any picture that arrives to your mind will be tangible and will have bounds or limits. Take this example: maybe it looks like a tiny pencil point. But if we look closely, doesn't this too have an edge, however discrete? And wouldn’t the edge of this pencil mark be spinning with the wheel? Woops, it’s not the center! The absolute center of a wheel is a slippery thing. It is impossible to grasp because it is infinite. Infinity cannot be imagined, because the very process of imagining negates it.
The Infinitely Small is Infinitely Large
Our journey to the absolute center is infinitely long, because our destination is infinitely small and infinitely far away. Assuming we become infinitely small as we approached it, walking toward the center, we would never actually get there. The center has no area, no identifiable point or location. Our journey to this nowhere covers infinite distance, which will take us infinite time (forever) to never arrive! For such a tiny point, this sounds like an incredibly large place. Approaching the center sounds a whole lot like crossing the entire universe. The infinitely small is indeed infinitely large.
The Center of the Self
So what are we left to do with all this circular reasoning? From the ultimate "big wheel" of a black hole down to a tiny atom, spinning wheels are everywhere, with their absolute, infinitely small centers, or singularities. As human beings, do we have an absolute center? Not just in a physical sense, but on emotional, energetic or spiritual levels? Do we have a place that is both infinitely small and large, simultaneously nowhere and everywhere, and altogether beyond time? Could this be the universal, great Selfthe sages refer to? I know of a man who apparently once said: "I have no personal space; I am everywhere.” Perhaps we are already at the center and have been so, all along.
Pitfalls and the Abyss
Not simply relegated to realms of mathematics, physics, or art, infinity strikes to the heart of the personal. I am an everyday person with the usual concerns, burdens, joys and ambitions. When I sincerely look within, without a safety net, I begin to tremble. I feel the butterflies in the belly. The inner depths are cavernous, seemingly endless, approaching infinity. I feel a deep longing. As I deepen into the feeling, it seems to go on and on, forever. Is there a bottom to this thing? How far does it go? The Grand Canyon, while awe-inspiring, has been thoroughly surveyed and mapped out. The dark chasm of our inner psyche, however, is largely uncharted. Can we know this infinity within? Do we have the guts?
A few words of caution are in order for our intrepid adventurers. The spiritual is indeed tumultuous. It requires rigorous self-inquiry without compromise. Yet fanaticism and nihilism lurk closely by. We can turn against ourselves. We can assault our spirit with perfectionism. Or on a good day, the ego can latch on and take us for a ride, inflating us. The process requires attention, and careful, discerning steps. While peering in, be aware of tone and timbre. Do we condemn anything that we see? Do we judge and tell ourselves, “well, that’s not good enough; that could use some improvement.” Or on the other hand, do we see something brilliant and start a narration about how special and gifted we must be. Is it possible to simply be aware of what we observe, from a neutral place, dispassionate, without any words? Can we simply see things for what they are, matter of fact?
When I started a regular spiritual practice of Kundalini Yoga, I quickly became a fanatic. My teacher, Hari Kaur Khalsa, outlined a morning sadhana (or spiritual discipline) with an invitation to do as little or as much as I saw fit. Of course, I took it to the maximum, waking up daily at 4:30 am to practice an hour of yoga followed by an hour of meditation. At one point I added cold showers to begin the whole routine. I wore white clothes and a turban. This went on for years. It was a compulsion. Even my teacher called me a fanatic! There was simply no question about it: missing sadhana was a horrifying notion. This rigorous practice broke me many times over and I experienced many beautiful moments. Slowly the rigidity began to soften. I started to experiment with the process. What if I actually did miss my practice, on purpose?What might happen? What if I ventured out of the prescribed methods and brought in other practices? Maybe I would try a different kind of mantra. What heresy! As I began this testing, my practice became less robotic. As I discovered my own unique way, my practice gained much in substance and color. To this day I maintain a regular sadhana, but it now feels more personal, authentic, and kind.
Infinity, Awareness and Compassion
When we turn inward during meditation, maybe we notice a particular thought, emotion, or energy. Depending on our mood, it might be light or perhaps heavy. Pleasant emotions are comparatively easy to behold, but should we accept the mission for an authentic life, we have to work with everything. Rather than avoid or resist what is below the surface, we invite it, coax it, and embrace it. This can be a scary proposition, especially if the emotion is disturbing or unpleasant on the surface. Why would we want to dig any further?
When we talk about infinity, we are really talking about transcendence, about oneness with everything, including ourselves. This can be extremely helpful for working with powerful emotions. If my sadness seems infinitely large and it frightens me, I do have choices. I can avoid it, I can resist it (also a form of avoidance), or I can surrender to it, completely. The latter is most frightening because it puts me face to face with infinity. My sadness feels infinite; it literally scares me to death. Will I get swallowed up? Will I die?
What happens when we surrender? We give up all resistance and accept what is. It is a courageous act. When I surrender to the infinity of an emotion, I let my resistance fall into the void. Like jumping from a diving board, after standing for a long time at the edge, I finally do it. I go for it. The resistance that held me back dissolves and I’m swept away. Without this resistance the emotion explodes toward infinity just like I feared it would. Yikes! But then a funny thing happens. My attention, compassion and perspective also increase toward the infinite. Could it be that my very surrender is what invites my greatest capacity to meet the challenge?
With infinite sadness, the attention required for healing would need to be equally or more infinite. But wait a second, here. You can’t have more or less of the infinite, can you? No. Something is either infinite or it is not. When we open the floodgates and attend fully to the infinite presence of anything (an emotion, a thing, a concept), our attention expands infinitely to see the whole. All things cross at infinity.
With a calculator, we can choose any number and divide it by two. What happens? We cut it in half. We get a number with half the value. It is reductionist. It’s predictable. We are working the system, as we know it. It’s like walking halfway to the wall. We can keep dividing by two and never get there. What happens when we divide any number by zero? The calculator gives us an “error.” It overloads the program. It doesn’t compute. It blows up. All numbers divided by zero get the same error. This is the realm of infinity where all is one.
We could resist infinity. Instead, why don’t we leap into the void, divide by zero? The zero brings fathomless expansion, enveloping everything, including us, unto infinity. Can I get to the very bottom of this infinite chasm? Like venturing to the center of the wheel, it seems impossible. We cannot divide our journey with discrete footsteps because we are…already there. We are the center. When we divide by zero, we divide by our self. We divide by our compassion. The feeling becomes infinite. It blows up. My awareness of the feeling also becomes infinite. It also blows up. Any solace or healing that is required is also infinitely available. Infinity is anything divided by zero. Compassion is the zero.
Like the dewdrop on Indra’s web, we can start with a single human experience, like an emotion, and see how it reflects an infinite totality. Even if we cannot “get to infinity” in a conventional sense, we might catch a whiff. What is the source of this beautiful fragrance? How long does it take to get to infinity? No time at all. Infinity is closer than we think. And it smells so sweet. To begin, let’s close our eyes.
[i]Ramana. Who Am I: The Teachings of Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi. Tiruvannamalai, India: Sri Ramanasramam, 1990.
[ii]M., Sri, Nayana Kashyap, and Roshan Ali. Jewel in the Lotus: Deeper Aspects of Hinduism. Kodagu: Magenta Press, 2011.
[iii]Krishnamurti, J., and Raymond Martin. Krishnamurti: Reflections on the Self. Chicago: Open Court, 1997.
[iv]Dass, Ram, and Stephen Levine. Grist for the Mill. Santa Cruz, CA: Unity Press, 1977.