“Purity” is one of these words. Somehow it brings to mind a puffy-sleeved-seven-layer cake of a wedding dress made of some un-namable man-made material. I hear banjos. I smell aqua net. I am transported to sweaty back seat congress and resounding no means no’s. There is a demand. There is a judgment. And it almost always has to do with sex.
It seems an idea that went out with the aerosol can.
And yet in spiritual circles it gets bandied about with the same vigor, and the same lack of real understanding, as it did in the writhing congregations that the spiritual set deem fanatic and dogmatic. Even when its name is not uttered, purity is alluded to in the heavy handed use of oatmeal colored formless clothing and carefully chosen, never-ever-ever confrontational vernacular. To be spiritual seems to mean to never curse and never let anyone know that you have breasts.
What is it? And why do we want it?
Do we want it?
Purity’s step-godmother purification is somehow even more widely discussed. “I’m going through a strong purification.” “We need to purify the ego.” “The anger he’s going through is just a purification.”
Do we know what we are talking about when we refer to purification, or has it just become a generic term to describe undefined shitty feelings or an excuse to eat cake and not do sadhana? It’s like a mystical “I’m washing my hair tonight”.
What does it mean for something to be pure?
It means for the thing to be only and exclusively the very thing that it is. If I buy pure orange juice, what I am expecting is; that within the container, the juice of oranges is the sole resident. I didn’t pay for sugar, or added flavors, or feces or any other thing that is not the juice of oranges. Pure. One only thing.
It’s the same with us, only that we are a tad more complex.
We start out as one thing. Pure. But as time passes we begin to collect things from the outside. Things that aren’t inherent to our beings. Things like beliefs, behaviors and an entire web of defense mechanisms. This creature that was once spontaneous and free, learned, through a series of mishaps, that the way that it was would not, er, do. That the way that it was would need some tweaking.
Let’s imagine that a child is born with an innate sense of adventure. This child is a pioneer, an explorer, they are curious and brave. They aren’t this way because they learned it, they just are. Babies are already something when they are born. So the something that this child is, is ever-so-slightly wild. It is daring, enthusiastic and joyful. Let’s also imagine that the household that this child was born into as being a rather rigid one. The father is a military man, and the mother a hypochondriac and chronic worrier. When this little creature starts to express its natural way of being, it will likely not be met with a round of applause. Perhaps the father likes the household to be tidy at all times and the mother worries constantly about germs, and the little one adores running around, climbing trees, playing in the mud and he scratches his knees, and dirties his clothes. He doesn’t wear warm enough layers and the mother is sick with worry that he’s going to catch his death of cold. At the very best he won’t bee seen for the explorer that he is. He won’t be encouraged and recognized. His bravery will not be rewarded. At the worst he’ll be prohibited, reprimanded and even beaten for following his heart up a tree or out into the mud. Over time he will learn.
He will learn to do it right, because no baby or child can fend for themselves. That’s kind of the deal of it; when you are a child you need help. In some cases you can’t even hold your own head up, in others you can barely walk, other times you experience incontinence; in all you are utterly unemployable. Because of your lack of marketable skills you need to depend on the kindness of others. Sometimes you are lucky and you fall into a family who is ready to really receive you, however you show up, in other (and more frequent) cases you fall into a family who has basically placed an ad in The Astral Times:
“Baby wanted; must be healthy, happy, playful, docile, and ready to become exactly what we always dreamed of. Must be a self-starter, a team player and have the same values, belief systems and world views as us. Souls with a tendency toward depression, rebellion, substance abuse, gender confusion or existential angst need not apply.”
So, there are two factors: one is that these people are your meal ticket; the other is that they are your world. As adults we often forget how big our parents were when we were children. How much they knew when we knew so little. They were our whole reference for how the world worked. They were the ones who taught us how to get by, how to navigate this crazy place. They were everything. And even if it later changed drastically, when we were children we trusted them. Up to a certain age we did whatever they said. If they took us by the hand, we just went – we didn’t even question where we were going.
Not only did we trust them, but we loved them. Even if that changed at some point, and even if that point was very early on, all children adore their parents. Even their shitty parents. And all beings incarnated into a human body share a common denominator – they all want to be loved.
This capitol shame renders our adult relationships fraught with neediness and confusion.
But it is a fact; when we get here we don’t even know that we are not love. We can’t even imagine anything else. So, when something else comes , it is a bit of a shock. Especially if it comes from the ones who it loves so much, and who are supposed to be ‘in charge’, the ones who are going to keep it safe and warm and fed. There are a series of confusing events that cause a series of unfortunate ramifications which end up in us believing that we need to be something else in order to survive.
The important part is that we get hurt. Although in relative terms it’s something that as adults we could totally handle – for the child it is devastating. This pure thing doesn’t yet have any protection mechanisms…everything gets in. In order to protect against something of the like recurring, something must be done; barriers must be erected, reasons must be put in place (“I got yelled at because I was bad, if I am calm and quiet I will be good and get love”), a whole myriad of complex chain reactions are set off, all of them completely unconscious to the entity that they are taking place within. They remain unconscious, working, until they become conscious, or the being dies…maybe. There are some who would say that these mechanisms, which are just decisions about how to process pain, ways of ensuring that it doesn’t recur, stay with us after we die and then into the next incarnation, where they lie dormant, awaiting a trigger to be reactivated and spring like a set trap.
These decisions become conclusions, things like; I must be strong, I mustn’t cry, I must smile, I must play nice. These are all well and good if the child were able to recognize them as conclusions – as something outside of itself. But the need for love and acceptance is so strong, and the pain of the lack of these things so great, that the child ends up swallowing these conclusions whole and not just believing them, but believing that they ARE them. I am nice, I am strong, I am good.
Except that no one is always nice and strong and good. If we believe that, upon penalty of pain, we must be, we will end up losing ourselves to an act. Take the example of our little adventurer. The pain of his parent’s rejection will likely force him to behave in a certain way. He will learn to be on time, to be neat, maybe he will even learn how to worry, to fear germs, to dislike mud and tree trunks. Remember that we learn everything from our parents; how to understand and interpret our environment, what is good, what is dangerous, they literally initiate us into this plane of existence. In the beginning he will know it as an act and be able to ‘behave’ when we need to, but then to still run amok when it seems like no one is watching. After some time we will fall so deeply under the conditioning’s spell that we will forget ourselves entirely.
Let’s not fall into the trap of blaming the parents. The parents were also conditioned. They were also once free and spontaneous, and were brought to believe certain things about the world and their place in it. They were once pure. Remember that these conditionings become beliefs. If you truly believe the world to be dangerous, then it is your responsibility to teach your children that it is so and to give them as many tools and tricks as possible to avoid getting hurt. If you truly believe that crying is a sign of weakness and will cause you to be preyed upon, you must teach your child this. If you truly believe that in order to be accepted and successful in this world you must look good at all times and pay a lot of attention to your appearance, then you must pass this along to your child.
The problem is that none of these things are really true. They might be relatively true, depending on culture and view, but they are not ultimately true.
The definition of spirituality that feels like the most accurate to me is; the search for truth. All forms of spirituality, at their core, try to give us answers to the big questions; who made the world? Why are we here? What is all this anyway? Why is there suffering? Why is there so much suffering? Is there a God? What happens when I die? Is there a point to all this or is it just arbitrary?
In these terms, what is ‘spiritual’ is what is true. It is a direct experience of reality unmitigated by the filters of the mind. The spiritual search, which is often twisted into a fluffy cartoon reality of eternal woo-woo, can be reduced to the search for how things really are. A search which is much more akin to science than mysticism. (Though to be fair, I love me some good mysticism and wouldn’t extract the magic inherent to reality for anything – but that’s for another article).
By the time we are grown-ups we are sure and certain of so many things that it almost restricts our oxygen intake. We almost have no more space for anything else. And if that grown-up finds themselves on a spiritual path they will invariably be faced with the need to evaluate and let go of some of these beliefs that crowd their psyche.
This letting-go is purification. The side-effects that come along with it; the bouts of anger, the colds, the fevers and what-not are the recalcitrant roots that these beliefs have sprouted in our physical being’s being expelled. It’s a kind of undoing in which we get rid of what we’ve acquired over time that have been imported from the external world and which are not really us.
So, what is purity? Being yourself. One thing only. This is why there is some link to sexuality, because sexuality necessarily refers to the other. Someone else’s energy, someone else’s bodily fluids, something other than just you.
Being yourself sounds romantic. It invokes visions of being in our fullest expression, climbing mountains into the sunset. In truth, though, before we can find our glory, we often have to face our truth; that we are not always strong – that there is fear in us. That we are not always nice – that in some cases we are sitting on a volcano of suppressed anger that is threatening to explode. Part of ‘purification’ is when all of that unallowable reality starts to rear it’s pointy little head. Part of purification is acceptance, and what transforms it into a difficulty is the incapacity that we have in accepting some of our inner content.
This is why ‘purification’ tends to be unpleasant. Whether it be the removal of the limitations that give us our identity, or the purging of the false knowledge that made us feel equipped to handle life efficiently, or a belief about who and how we are, when these elements go they leave behind a vacuum.
These belief systems, though they restrict our reality and limit our expression, are old friends whose presence we’ve come to depend on. They act like parameters, giving us a sense of self, and when they start to get challenged we find ourselves faced with a terrifying freedom that feels like a lack of references. Purity is a free fall. Just you, nothing else to grab onto. Nothing but what is.