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Photo courtesy Kenrick Mills

“Where can we go to find God if we cannot see Him in our own hearts and in every living being.”

— Swami Vivekananda

Kat Reeves of the Cobb Institute asked me to write on their blog about how I came to call myself a nobody! I cannot deny a colorful autobiography, but being the main protagonist makes it a little suspect of a privileged story. We each have pivotal episodes in our lives when the unexpected occurs and life’s direction changes. I was born in the then Southern Rhodesia of an English mother, an Afrikaner father, and parents-to-be fleeing the death threat of rabidly racist family members in Upington, South Africa, who weren’t enamored of my mother’s skin burnt dark by the Kalahari Desert sun. Having just married after three months of meeting, my dad’s family couldn’t see the beauty and magnificence of my mother’s character, even though she had a touch of Moorish ancestry from Spain. The dire threat forced them to take a truck off the farm and flee to Southern Rhodesia. My entry into this world was almost as dramatic as I was born three and a half months early and cut out of my mother's womb to save her life as she had developed acute toxemia. We made Harley Street medical history by being the first mother and child to survive such an emergency. These upheavals were a continued theme throughout my life. Long story short, at age eight, I witnessed my father lose his right-hand fingers in a farming accident. Shocked by the catastrophic suddenness of this, I cried all the way to the emergency room, my dad driving over seven miles of dirt road in a stick shift. He lost his fingers and farming career but became a born-again Pentecostal Anglican minister working for the then Bishop Desmond Tutu.

After graduating as a fine artist from Cape Town University, I became a lecturer at my Alma Mata. I met my teacher in 1971 and became steeped in Advaita Philosophy. As I wasn’t taken with Dad’s rather simplistic view of things, he disowned me when I entered a Hindu Advaita monastery in London as a novice at age twenty-five.

My identity issue rose to greet me unavoidably. I found profound respite in the 4 to 5 hours of daily meditation, losing body consciousness and dissolving in the Ocean of Bliss. But the problem of why I couldn’t retain the sense of immersion in the bliss of world-disappearing meditation while not meditating pursued me. I opted to return to my art career instead, doing what I loved and was good at. Having my artwork in over 30 public collections, including the South African Art Museum’s permanent collection (same as if my work was in America’s Smithsonian Institute), might support that conceit

Fast wind to being a married man selling our five-bedroom Victorian home, overlooking the ocean from the bowl of the city of Cape Town, and also selling my wife Debrah’s two retail gift stores, and fleeing the scrutiny and monitoring of the State Police in Apart-Hate South Africa, we took our 9-month-old son with us to the sunny shores of Santa Monica where close family lived. Our first years were full of promise, with substantial sales of private and public art commissions, until the financial collapse of the nineties overtook us. About 18 years ago, the grinding burden of overwhelming financial pressure had me diagnosed with chronic disabling depression. At the same time, getting a full-time job teaching art at two local campuses, I came down with a radical case of disillusionment with the whole world enterprise, and I knew without any doubt that I had to end it all. I knew that physical death would not be a solution, so following my long-suffering and visionary wife’s insistence, I took myself on an emergency self-led spiritual retreat at the Hollywood Vedanta Society, a monastic setting I was most comfortable with.

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“WILD & FREE” ceramic sculpture (13” x 9” x 4”)

Over a three-week period of spiritual crisis, I entered such a deep inner state that it crescendoed with finding myself clenched in a fetal position in a locked monastic cell. I knew I was approaching the edge of a barely perceived inner abyss. I also knew that if I didn’t risk complete self-extinction by leaping into it without reservation, I would never finally discover who and what I really am. I vowed not to open my eyes or move a muscle until I touched God's face. At some point in the descent, all contents of any perceivable self-sluiced out into the void through a hole in the top of my head. Into that resulting vacuum rushed such an unavoidable overwhelm of divine presence that I had tears rushing down my cheeks in experiencing the inextinguishable, unearned, unasked-for grace of a cosmic love so beyond any concept or words to capture. After coming back to surface consciousness, weak as a newborn, I felt as if I had just run a thousand miles in the pitch dark. I whispered, “Who am I now, Lord, that you have so thoroughly robbed me of myself”?

“The winds of God's grace are always blowing,
it is for us to raise our sails.”

— Ramakrishna

I walked around for three weeks in a state of divine drunkenness, as Sri Ramakrishna would call it, and all that I could see was love beyond any possible expectations flowing in, through, and as everything around me. I was riveted to the eternal moment as with infinite shafts of light, with such a torrential out-pouring of love through my heart center that I could witness the full content of each person’s character that I passed, incapable of the least judgment, and I knew that I was seeing as God sees, feeling as God feels. Towards the end of this heightened state, I didn’t need to eat, sleep, or do anything but sit in a chair, grinning like a divine Cheshire cat. My dear wife was so concerned about me leaving the body in the final days of this profound ecstasy that she got Frankincense and Myrrh to rub into my feet to ground me. My life since that transforming moment has been a slowly unfolding integration of the massive cosmic coherence that invaded my smallness and gave me an expanded glimpse of heaven on earth through the vastness and enfoldment of the Self of All. All traces of depression ceased never to reappear. Sadness, boredom, and loneliness still visit me, but more as temporary visitors than paying tenants.

Back to the challenge and opportunity of living with conditional reality and the limits of the flesh-enrobed self! How precious is this enfleshment, even with all its betrayals, insufficiencies, and never-to-be resolvedness?

The phantom of being somebody, a monetizable relevance, is the whisp most of us seem to be chasing. We all want our projects to succeed. Speaking personally, I would love to have my books published and my art gain currency and visibility to a broader circle of influence. I’d be lying if I didn’t want that. But for what purpose? To inflate my fragile ego? Or to fulfill a destiny I sense is mine to fulfill?

Life is infinitely generous in its continual offering of choices beyond the reach of our present vision and understanding. We all want answers to questions we have barely articulated and want the divine to speak directly to us. The question is always, are we listening?

So, how do we affirm that our path is the right one? By following the trail of cosmic breadcrumbs that glow in the dark of our purified yearning to belong to more than just our habitual cultural self-concept.

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Born of the Sun” ink on paper (14” x 8”)

Why The Case For Being Nobody?

Because being somebody means claiming a specific lineage in time with all of its prequalifying characteristics of a history of identification with details in time that limit our emerging common cosmic identity, our identity with, as Sophie Strand would have it, The All That Is. Meister Eckhart says, “If the heart is to find preparedness for the highest flight… it must aim at a pure nothing because in this is the greatest receptivity.”

Does this mean I do not have a specific lineage of personal characteristics? No, not at all. We all have a time-bound human identity that we are given as a go-between to negotiate the space between time and eternity. To bridge the gap between condition and conditionlessness. As a go-between, bridging the narrowness of historical identity and the impersonal vastness, breadth, and depth of a sense of being that cannot be defined by any characteristics at all except unconditional love, reasonless joy, imperishable existence, and undying awareness.

We aren't here simply to fulfill the endless list of human wants. Life is too urgent for that. It wants more for us than we want for ourselves. We get stuck on the local details as if they are everything, yet the moment we breathe into the present moment with all that we are, we discover an indefinable wholeness that the details can't own. Being stuck in the foreground of our experiential journey, means losing the sky view, the big picture view.

It doesn’t mean that we must be in big picture view or perfect mindfulness all the time; that’s the perfectionism of poor self-esteem talking.

Our longing for relevance and meaning means developing and expanding our capacities to listen to life’s unfailing prompts. In Christian terminology, it means listening to the still, small voice within. To what end? Certainly not just for the betterment of our local tribe but to adequately respond to the whole of life’s chorus of possibilities, for the enhancement and flourishing of all that is life, in all its forms and varied ever-changing expressions. To play our part in this cosmic drama.

One of my bumper stickers is “Don’t take yourself personally”!

The universe is longing for us to feel the embrace of its ultimate coherence, undivided breathing into the inherent perfection of this NOW moment, to allow that blessing of Presence to infill each act, each thought and impulse, each perception as an ongoing prayer of praise and gratitude for the rare privilege of life.

So, who and what am I now? I am, as you are. Being both human and divine, having improvisational access to the full breadth of possibility in each moment of expression, undistracted by the drama of the senses, with heart and mind wedded in simplicity to hearing the heartbeat of life itself, an unceasing hymn of love. This is a high ideal, but something worth trying to embody. As a nobody pretending to be a somebody! As the ultimate reality of Brahman pretending to eat through all mouths.

About the Author

Author

  • Andre van Zijl

    Zimbabwean born, Andre van Zijl is an award-winning artist with work in over 30 museums worldwide, including the South African National Gallery. He is a spiritually inspired award-winning poet, published author, and non-dual philosophy teacher. He is also the founder and director of Van Zijl Art and Design Studios, and a co-founder and co-director of All Paths Divinity School.