Exploring Namaste and Other Expressions of Love

Note: The following is a transcript from a talk I gave to the St. Croix Unitarians.

Namaste is a Sanskrit greeting or salutation that means, “I honor your sacred or transpersonal self.” Said another way: “My essential Being recognizes your essential Being.” Namaste is an intention to greet each other on Sacred ground, and is often accompanied with a hand gesture.

Namaste, or a variation of that word, has been around for almost 5000 years. I recently noticed a rather whimsical online variation: Nutmasde. It might be the language of squirrels. Nutmasde means: the nutty in me recognizes the nutty in you. I wouldn’t expect monks to be using that one any time soon. When a word becomes popular, it’s natural that we might engage in word play. What is more common is that our language becomes less mindful.

Any word can lose its impact over time. In India, its country of origin, Namaste is often just a word of greeting – nothing more. That’s what can happen from many centuries of common usage. But it is such a beautiful word that I feel it deserves a chance to convey its meaning, a word that comes alive with awareness.

Namaste vocalizes of an inner sense of connection. It’s a word that honors the unfolding of presence as people wake up to their potential. The spirit of Namaste is the field where the heart’s will is awakened – bowing to the living beauty, harmony, and sacredness that is flowing through all beings. Namaste is recognition of the Sacred. Namaste can be said with a word, a gesture, and with a caring look. Namaste can be said with your eyes.

The spirit of Namaste suggests a degree of empathy that, on some days, we may not feel. Sometimes, in our own pain, we shut down a little. Perhaps that is a good time to say Namaste to our pain. When we can, to some extent, embrace the pain inside ourselves, when we can have some tolerance for our own vulnerability, we are more likely to feel and understand the pain in others.

There’s a story of a woman who was practicing loving kindness in expanding circles – it’s a meditation where you mentally project goodwill to specific people: “May you be happy, may you be peaceful, may you find joy.” She went through this meditation with those she loved, then with someone she felt neutral toward. The practice then suggests loving kindness with someone you don’t like, so she chose to extend the practice to her ex-boyfriend: “May you be happy, may you be peaceful, may you be celibate.” She couldn’t quite do it. This woman still hadn’t dealt with the impact of her breakup, and it’s possible she wasn’t ready to see her ex-boyfriend and say Namaste and mean it. But seriously, if there is someone you can’t quite greet, you may do yourself a favor by at least saying Namaste to yourself, recognizing your own sacredness, and then responding or not responding from that.

Another challenge of Namaste is to see through the trance of separation – the objectification of Other that creates distance, stereotyping, projection, and exclusive tribalism. You may know that a lot of indigenous tribes basically called themselves The People, and the names given by neighboring tribes were often a bit maligning. So, Inuit means The People, and the word Eskimo means blubber eater. When you objectify, you can go to war if need be. The challenge is to see others, people we may not feel naturally close to, through the eyes of empathy and compassion. Namaste begins here and now, and can spread with every person we meet, at least on a good day. Namaste can spread like the ripples on a pond. The poet Rilke expresses the challenge of living openly. He states:
I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world.
I may not ever complete the last one,
but I give myself to it. –
The mysterious spirit of Namaste can open us to love at any moment. But for many, this single word may not create a depth or diversity of practice or experience.

So, I’d like to explore additional meanings and expressions of love.

Buddhism teaches that true love can be expressed through four aspects of love: loving kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity. But if you say true love in our culture, most Americans will think that you’re referring to the perfect romantic love. Romantic love gets all the media and social attention and seems to have an elevated status in our culture. Romance sells. Here’s an example you may not have heard: Blues singer and guitarist B.B. King began his career by singing gospel music, and everybody appreciated it but nobody gave him any money. So he tried singing secular, blues music, and used lyrics he knew from gospel songs, but sang “my baby” instead of “my Lord.” And from then on, he got paid.

In my opinion, romantic love is a triumph of Western civilization – the opportunity to marry or partner for love rather than by arrangement. It may also be said that cultural storytelling has idealized romantic love to an extreme. “Head over heals” in love may be difficult to find or to sustain.

In any case, it is not the universal true love as described by Buddhists. According to Buddhism, there are four elements of true love. The first aspect is loving kindness – the desire and the ability to provide a benevolence that demonstrates understanding and brings happiness. The second aspect is compassion – the desire and ability to ease the pain and suffering of another. The third aspect is joy – because if you are always suffering in a relationship then it is not true love. And the fourth is equanimity – to extend your own sense of freedom to the person you love. In other words, is your love spacious? These four qualities of love can be practiced by anyone, anywhere, anytime. Thich Nhat Han says that these four aspects of love are essential in all of our meaningful relationships – including romantic relationships and marriage. There is no end to the depth and duration of practice. And, by the way, the practice includes loving yourself.

I would like to extend the potential of love with a brief exploration of Platonic love. Platonic love is a philosophical musing of Plato, who wrote on a number of subjects around 400 BCE. While Plato is considered a philosopher, I’m sure he would have checked off the “spiritual but not religious” box in a survey. I first heard about Platonic friendship as a young man exploring romantic relationships. When I was in college, it was common knowledge that if someone said they wanted to pursue a platonic relationship that it was a fancy way of saying that they just wanted to be friends. In other words, it was a way to avoid the exploration of a romantic relationship, which was clearly deemed superior. Our priorities may have been influenced by hormones, and our knowledge of Plato was limited.

Platonic love is the nurturance of friendship between kindred spirits. Plato’s love inspires the mind and elevates the soul. For Plato it is the highest form of love. It is both personal – the love expressed in friendship – and divine – the love that evolves through attention to the Sacred. Through platonic love we encourage our dear friends to become their best or most true selves. Plato thought that personal growth and development of our innate talent contributes to the growth of our soul. Platonic love nurtures that growth, and by doing so, draws the attention of gods or the muse. If you prefer, platonic love invites the transpersonal forces of Mystery.

Another way of saying this, using Native American terminology, is that friends help friends bring their personal medicine into the world – either actively or in vigil. I’m reminded of St. Thomas Aquinas as he defines the New Testament Greek word for love, agape, as meaning: to will the good of another.

The notion of platonic love parallels the Buddhist notion of Dharma buddies — two people on a similar path encouraging each other’s growth through insight, reinforcement, and positive regard. Dharma buddies assist each other through difficulties, challenges, and uncertainty. Dharma buddies help each other navigate the human condition and alleviate unnecessary suffering.

Dharma buddies also have the opportunity, if they choose, to practice the four immeasurable aspects of love: loving kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity (freedom).

There’s a story, called The Rabbi’s gift, that really sums up what I’ve been talking about today.

This is a story about a monastery that fell on hard times. They were down to a handful of monks. Clearly it was a dying order.

In the deep woods surrounding the monastery there was a little hut that a well-known rabbi used for a hermitage. It occurred to the abbot to visit the hermitage and ask the rabbi if by some possible chance he could offer any advice that might save the monastery.

The rabbi welcomed the abbot at his hut. When the abbot explained the purpose of his visit, the rabbi seemed to understand. “Yes,” he related. “It is the nature of change.” They shared company until it was time for the abbot to leave. They embraced each other. Then the abbot said, “Is there nothing you can say that would help me save my dying order?”

The rabbi responded: “The only thing I can tell you is that the Messiah is one of you.”

When the abbot returned to the monastery his fellow monks gathered around him to ask what the rabbi had to say. The abbot answered: “The only thing he said — it was something cryptic — was that the Messiah is one of us. I don’t know what he meant.”

In the days and weeks and months that followed, the old monks pondered this and wondered whether there was any possible significance to the rabbi’s words. The Messiah is one of us? Could he possibly have meant one of us monks here at the monastery? If that’s the case, which one? Do you suppose he meant the abbot, he’s our leader. On the other hand, he might have meant Brother Thomas, who is a holy man. Certainly he could not have meant Brother Elred! Elred gets crotchety at times. But come to think of it, Elred is virtually always right. Maybe the rabbi did mean Brother Elred. But surely not Brother Phillip. Phillip is an ordinary person, but he is really helpful. Well, as they looked about them, they came to realize that any one of them could be the Messiah.

As they contemplated in this manner, the old monks began to treat each other with extraordinary respect and kindness on the off chance that one of them might be the Messiah. And on the off chance that each monk himself might be the Messiah, they began to treat themselves with respect and kindness.

People came to visit the monastery, and they sensed there was a spiritual aura that made the place attractive. The word got around and families came to picnic, and younger men decided they would like to spend some time there. Within a few years the monastery had once again become a thriving order, a vibrant center of light and spirituality in the realm.

So I’ve circled back to the spirit of Namaste, the awareness we can groom to see the good, the sacred, or the love in each other. Of course, that doesn’t mean ignoring the crazy or crotchety. It does mean taking time to recognize and honor the potential good in each of us.
Minute Meditation:
Now I’d like to shift into the opportunity to share a minute meditation on the subject of Namaste and love.

Let’s take a moment to recognize one person in our lives who has encouraged our innate qualities and abilities, someone who has honored our essential being – supported the expression of who we are. Feel the appreciation for their honor or support. Connect with them in your imagination and say: thank you. There may be more than one person who comes to mind. Express your gratitude.

Or, you might see yourself recognizing the sacred in others, or perhaps in one person to begin with. Imagine that person, and say: I honor your innate abilities, and what you have to give to our Fellowship, and to the world.

So, at the sound of the bell, you have the choice of expressing gratitude to someone who has seen the sacred in you, or imagine yourself seeing the sacred in others. Of course, you can simply enjoy some quiet if you’d like.

Bell: Now is a good time to express gratitude to someone who has seen the sacred in you, or to see the sacred in another. And I invite you to feel the love. End Bell

Friendship can be defined as two or more people moving towards the best aspects of one another. Aristotle defined the highest form of friendship as philia – friendships of the good. Recognizing the sacred self in others and expressing love are qualities of being that are truly immeasurable.

I’d like to end with a very short quote by Mary Oliver

So every day
I was surrounded by the beautiful crying forth
of the ideas of God,
one of which was you.”

Thank you for this sharing opportunity.

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