The miraculous paradox of love-in-action
Like the powerful, stark images from the streets of Varanasi that enrich Turn me to gold: 108 poems of Kabir, Kabir comes at us with full force, shoving a polished mirror right in our face, for us to contemplate our vanity, our hypocrisy, our illusion. With exquisite precision, poem after poem, he uses the sword of truth to slash away all garments of respectability, all pretenses of holiness, all affectation.
But if Kabir wields a sword in one hand, in the other he carries a fragrant rose. His ecstatic delight at life, his compassion for every living creature, his burning devotional heart, shows us that on the other side of this ruthless process of truth-facing, lies nothing less but naked, unfettered love. A love free from agendas, free from drama, free from sentimentalism.
To me, reading Turn me to gold: 108 poems of Kabir feels like free falling. Not the kind of falling that comes with and fear, but the liberating, exhilarating sense of losing all reference points, all ideas and conceptions about oneself, about the world, about life—until nothing is left but sheer existence, in union with everything, infused by love.
To get me there, Kabir held nothing back, bestowing on me both the exquisite devotion of a tender lover, and the ruthless intensity of a spiritual master. Love and consciousness, discernment and passion.
The rose and the sword.
A Burning House
Kabir’s transmission is paradox at its best: the kind of paradox that, if tenderly let into our system, can ignite a profound transformation. For healthy paradoxes act as a defibrillator, short-circuiting the rational, dividing mind and activating the heart, the only organ that can contain everything and its opposite. Kabir’s poetry is like a drop of poison encased in sweet amber, a dart designed to jam the mechanism of judgment and bring us to a state of immediate, shocking realization of unity with all that is.1
We create a description of reality based on pairs of opposites like “me and you,” “gain and loss,” “hot and cold.” But any opposition, measurement, classification, is ultimately a product of the rational mind. In fact, one could argue, one of the main functions of our rational mind is to compare, classify and oppose, divide and analyze so that we can carry ourselves around. Mystics of all times, however, have spoken about the possibility of reaching a deeper state, one where we experience ourselves and the world as a whole, undivided, beyond any description and classification.
“Paradox is the nature of the Universe itself,” and “God is a coincidence of opposites,” writes Andrew Harvey in Evolutionary Love Relationships (Harvey, 2016, p.89). This pretty much sums up the vision of God, or the Universe, seen as all containing and all-embracing. This mystical vision of unity and wholeness is Kabir’s “secret,” that he passionately wants to transmit to us. However, there is no way to speak about God, for everything we can say about him is partial, false, incomplete.
“How could I ever express the Secret? If I say He is within me The entire universe bangs its head in shame, Yet if I say He is outside me I know I am a liar.” (Kabir, 2018, p. 118). Kabir’s conundrum is the problem of anyone who has ever tried to speak about the nondualistic nature of reality. We could substitute the word Secret with God, Being, Source, or whatever name we wish to use for the ultimate reality—the nature of the paradox will not change. We all live init, and asit, but we cannot describe it. Nor can Kabir. He cannot because God, Being, Source, is so all-encompassing that anything he can say about it, is by necessity partial and therefore, false.
Kabir is one with God, marvelously pinned to truth in a moment of the most intense aliveness, and any attempt to describe God would require the impossible feat of separating from Him. So the only thing Kabir, and I as I read his poetry, can do, is witness the paradox with the fullness of our heart: “He is neither manifest nor hidden; He is neither revealed, nor unrevealed, There are no words to describe what He is. You are That” (Kabir, 2018, p. 118).
“You are That.” Tat Tvam Asi in Sanskrit, is one of the most significant pronouncements in the history of the human spirit.2 I take this sentence literally: you, as you’re reading these words, are actually That—Being, Source, God. So am I, typing away at my computer. It is as simple and as mind-boggling as that. What else is left to say, if we take this affirmation to heart?
Perhaps our journey could then stop here, reading those words. And indeed, many of Kabir’s poems are enough to awaken the reader to the full realization of unity with life. Most of us, however, are entrenched in our habit of separativeness, the ingrained illusion of being other than God, removed from Source, a lone fragment in a hostile, empty Universe. It will take more than one poem to break us out of that habit. So Kabir does not stop. Again and again, through hundreds of poems, he speaks directly to our hearts, using the sharp sword of reason as well as the enticing rose of poetry, trying to awaken in us the deep recognition of Oneness.
It is only with the heart, I believe, that we can genuinely receive Kabir’s transmission. A passionate heart, a heart that can feel, suffer and eventually break open, the heart of a lover: this is for Kabir the true seat of divinity, and therefore the part of us that can immediately, intimately, realize union with God. “Look into your heart! It is there that Ram and Allah live.” (Kabir, 2018, p. 10). This affirmation is a bomb of truth thrown at every dogma and particularly at Hinduism and Islam, the two organized religions that Kabir was in direct contact with. For in Kabir’s world, there is no space for mediators between God and the human heart, no room for elaborate rituals, but just the invitation to wholeheartedly, frantically, passionately love God. If we do not do that, rituals, chanting, and prayer are utterly meaningless, empty formulas devoid of any profound impact on our lives.
“If saying Ram bestowed liberation… everyone would be free” (Kabir, 2018, p. 78). In order to be free, we require something more than the mere repetition of formulas. And Kabir knows precisely what we need: a passionate, vulnerable heart.
A Vulnerable Heart
“Look for Me with passionate sincerity; I’ll be beside you immediately” says Kabir (2018, p.4), and I can hear Love speaking through the holes in Kabir’s heart, “pierced by the arrow of God’s love” (2018, p. 124). Kabir is a poet, not a scholar. His is a way of passion and intensity, longing and ecstasy. Kabir speaks about the power of a heart that is aflame and, to use a fashionable word in today’s spiritual circles, vulnerable. Vulnerable comes from the Latin vulnus, “wound,” and being vulnerable means being exposed, being open to being wounded. Only a heart that can be wounded, that can be pierced, can be a portal to God. For many of us, and for Kabir, the moments of deepest revelation happen right after the times of most intense agony: “When my Lord hurled his spear into my heart he wounded me—and vision erupted.” (Kabir, 2018, p.18)
Vision, the taste of unity, erupts from the wound, for a protected, guarded heart is incapable of accessing the sublime. Kabir knows that only when we are inwardly “torn to shreds” (2018, p. 142) can the light of Truth pass through the holes in the thick smoke screen of our personality, the tangled web of excuses, patterns, projections and stories that we have so painfully constructed over the years.
I had a taste of the power of my vulnerable heart as, while reading Kabir, I was transitioning through a difficult time in my primary romantic relationship. As the circumstances challenged my sense of security and stability, I could hear a voice asking me to “do something” to stop the feelings of sadness and heartbreak I was experiencing. Kabir came to my rescue, reminding me that “The ones Love never savages live in boredom and pain” (2018, p. 58), helping me to recognize my heartbreak as one of the natural states of a human heart.
As soon as I was able to zoom out from my personal story, I recognized that life offers an infinite number of reasons to feel heartbroken. The world is in turmoil; the environment is being steadily destroyed; millions of humans live in conditions of atrocious poverty. The sheer gap between the world of peace, justice, and love we all dream of, and the reality of human life is enough to break our hearts; being heartbroken, therefore, is the sign of a healthy, not a dysfunctional heart. “The world is struggling, so am I, so is my relationship” says Chris Saade in Evolutionary Love Relationships (Harvey, 2016, p.100), speaking into the necessity to live the full spectrum of our human emotions in relation to ourselves, to other individuals, and to the entire world, rather than try to create an artificial island of comfort and safety. And I am sure Kabir would agree to that: living a protected life, one where we constantly hide away from love, is the most insidious form of defeat.
“I’ve burned my house down… I’ll burn yours down too, if you join me on my march home” proclaims Kabir (2018, p.44), the spiritual arsonist. A century and a half later, in Japan, samurai-poet Mizuta Masaide will declare: “Since my house burned down, I now own a better view of the rising moon.” (Mizuta Masaide, n.d.). When the house we invested so much time and energy in building, the house of our beliefs, personality, habits burns down, we have an opportunity to see the pure light of Being. When “the hut of illusion, so carefully crafted, has come careening down, and the two posts of duality have crashed to the ground” (Kabir, 2018, p.176), then we can thank Love’s hurricane for having done its job. Then we, exposed to the elements, are one with life, in direct contact with existence, with no barriers standing in between, unprotected and, paradoxically, completely safe.
A Drop of Water
“Wherever you go looking for me I’m already always by your side” (Kabir, 2018, p.4). In one strike, Kabir slashes any pretension of spiritual seeking, any illusion of a destination other than exactly where we start from. This is, in my understanding, the path that we all follow, be it over years or lifetimes: we all long for union with God. We start looking for God outside of ourselves. After a few years and disillusionment, some of us look for God inside. That’s already some progress, and usually marks the beginning of a “spiritual journey,” a time of reflection, a phase of self-discovery. But the irony is that, eventually, God is nowhere to be found, because God is the very entity that is doing the seeking. If we are lucky, we realize this while alive.
“If you are lucky, at some point in your life you’ll come to a complete dead end,” writes Peter Kingsley in In the Dark Places of Wisdom, a deep study of the initiatory rites at the roots of Western thought. (Kingsley, 1999, p. 5). According to Kingsley, philosophers like Parmenides understood that the great journey of the human soul is one of death and rebirth, of going through the “dark night of the soul.” This journey was lived in the body through incubation rites, experiences where one would literally go underground—usually in a cave—for days on end, staying absolutely motionless, waiting, until they emerged back from the darkness. But if it is true that every genuine spiritual journey ends up where it started, it is also true that we cannot dispense with the journey. Claiming identity with God without having gone through the dark night of the soul, without having died while alive, amounts to illusion and spiritual bypass.
For Kabir, our journey of spiritual search resembles the adventure of a drop of water looking for the sea. “Searching for Him, friend, Kabir lost himself; When drop has merged into ocean—who can find the drop?” (Kabir, 2018, p. 136). Once it finds the destination, the drop is lost, forever disintegrated, and yet fulfilled. This is the paradoxical, somewhat suicidal quest of the individual personality: a journey whose destination is death by dissolution of the agency that initiated the search in the first place. And death whilst alive is precisely what Kabir has to offer to those of us who are willing to listen.
As life brings us, through suffering and joy, through failure and success, to more and more dead ends, presenting us to the edge of the precipice, we may find ourselves in that dark alley where Kabir is waiting, patiently, with a loving smile and a polished, shining knife. Most of the times we flee horrified at the sight and go back into the more illumined avenues and bustling boulevards of our everyday life. But once in a while, driven by madness or by inspiration, one of us looks at the poet straight in the eyes and throws himself willingly onto the knife.
Is then Kabir a lover of nothing, a proposer of the annihilation of the human experience? Far from it. Kabir knows that the journey of the drop of water ends with the merging into the sea. He knows that when we allow ourselves to die while still alive, life begins. On the other side of the process of inner death, there is a life of embodied, compassionate activity in consciousness. A life of action and stillness, passion and peace.3
A Golden Potion
Kabir showed us that relentless inquiry into the nature of Being can only have one final destination: recognition of unity with God, the Beloved. But by no means is he suggesting to drift into a passive life of contemplation. As Andrew Harvey said answering my question in the last encounter of the Ubiquity University webinar on Kabir, the nature of God is love-in-action. A love that’s burning in compassion, a love that cannot not act, for how could creation exist without the spontaneous acting out of consciousness, moved by love? (Ubiquity Wisdom School, April 9, 2019).
The realization of God as love-in-action has as its only possible outcome an active, ethical lifestyle, involved with the immanence of the worldly life while deeply anchored in the transcendent, based on an ever-fresh realization of loving unity with all that is. “My Father is the absolute Godhead, my Mother the embodied Godhead, and I am their divine child dancing for them both on their burning dance-floor.” (Kabir, 2018, p. 163). This is the eternal, unpredictable yet ever centered dance of a full human being, one that acknowledges both his transcendence and his immanence, both his connection to Spirit-Father and his unbroken link to Matter-Mother. This is what it means to be fully human, living and loving on the ever-changing, burning dancefloor of life.
Kabir does not hold back from showing a passionate stance about life. “Don’t kill the animals, human!” he intimates (Kabir, 2018, p.84), with an involvement with animal rights that is unparalleled in other spiritual traditions. Every life is equal in Kabir’s non-dual experience, and therefore every life is equally sacred. All violence, and most specifically religious violence, justified by supposed closeness to God, is absurd and impudent.
Ethical action, in Kabir’s view, does not spring forth from a cold judgment of good and evil, for those that most defy God are those that “cast blessings down on some and slash others with knives.” (Kabir, 2018, p. 57). In fact, such polarization is an offense towards God and, ultimately, the foundation of fanaticism and holy war. Ethical action is born out of a loving identification with reality, rather than on definitions and dogmas. Right action is then an act of surrendering to the ecstatic current of life, moving from a place of inaction, practicing what Taoism would call wu wei, “not doing”—a state of being whew our acting is in alignment with the present moment. (Reninger, 2018). When we “do not do,” then we can just be, and action springs effortlessly from us.
This fullness of living, this deep joy at being love-in-action is one of Kabir’s characteristic transmissions: he shows us not only that the mystic can be an involved activist, but that he must be one. In this sense, we could call what Kabir is advocating as the result of deep spiritual practice not “enlightenment”, but rather “engoldenment.” Gold and light have both been widely used as symbols of a high and refined state. However, gold, compared to light, is something we can touch and make precious objects with. Gold has a weight and a density. Gold, I would dare to suggest, is light embodied. And Kabir’s transmission is indeed one of embodiment and immanence.
How then do we become engoldened? Kabir does not suggest that we escape from the troubles of mundanity and spend our life ascetically in some remote abode. He himself didn’t; having realized a state of consciousness that most of us would regard as supreme, he lived his life in the busy street of Benares, working as a weaver.4 We do not know exactly how Kabir came to embody the non-dual state of consciousness, but his poems suggest not so much a gradual process as a quantum leap, a radical alchemical reaction.
“If even one drop enters your body, your whole being turns to gold.” (Kabir, 2018, p.52). The image I have when I read these words is that of a single drop of gold entering my organism and changing the very DNA of my cells, like a spiritual virus. And I suspect that this experience of radical transformation by virtue of a small quantity of a mystical elixir may be archetypal, deeply encoded in our collective subconscious. Countless fables and myths speak about a magic potion that, when drunk, initiates the most fantastic transformation. It is usually enough to drink one drop of the potion to be transformed, because its potency does not reside in quantity so much as in the sheer power and “otherness” of the liquid.5
Kabir, armed with a sword and a rose, comes to offer all of us that magic potion, because engoldenment is not the privilege of a few, but the birthright of every human being. This is what makes human life so precious, something that we had better not lay to waste (Kabir, 2018, p. 72). Kabir comes to tell us that a life of love-in-action, of profound unity with all that is, of peace and passion, is not only possible but the only life worth living—and that such a life is just one thought, one feeling, one realization away.
That realization, the indescribable feeling of being one with everything, may come to us unexpected, as we look out of the window, or reading one of Kabir’s poems, or on our deathbed. We may be brought to it through discernment or love, through the harshness of the sword or the tenderness of the rose. We may circle around it, speaking about it but never fully embodying it, for one or many lifetimes. And then one day, in the blink of an eye, we may find ourselves engoldened.
Because we just need one drop of gold to enter our hearts to be transformed, forever.
 Although Kabir does not identify himself as pertaining to any specific lineage, his approach is essentially non-dualistic and centered on unity between individual and absolute, human and God. Non-dualistic spiritual masters have often used paradox as a way to bring the aspirant to a state of consciousness where the separation between knower and known, subject and object, is transcended. This is the state that, according to Kabir, “cannot be described and cannot be seen, but it can be lived” (2018, p.31).
 Tat Tvam Asi, Thou art That, is one of the Mahāvākyas (Grand Pronouncements) of the Vedanta, one of the six main schools of Hindu philosophy. Although interpretations of Tat Tvam Asi vary among different sub-branches of Vedanta, the common denominator is an assertion of identity between the individual and the Absolute. (Tat Tvam Asi, n.d.).
 The New Age movement has often glorified peace and shunned, or criticized passion. Coming from a background of twelve years of political activism, I know that at a small and large scale peace, by itself, is not enough to create radical change. To quote Andrew Harvey, “without great passion, peace will make you passive” (Harvey, 2016, p.40)
 All of Kabir’s biographical details are shrouded in some degree of mystery, but the general consensus is that he lived in Varanasi (Benares) in India in the fifteenth century and that he worked as a weaver. (Stefan, 2019)
 I sometimes imagine that the potions of the fables are potions of reality. If that is so, drinking one drop of reality or a whole Universe of it does not make any difference, because reality is all there is and by definition, nothing exists that is not-real. But coming into contact with even a single drop of reality means that nothing else can survive; only what is real can stay after drinking the potion, and what is real is all there is, and we are that. Again, Tat Tvam Asi.
Harvey, A. & Saade, C. (2016). Evolutionary love relationships : passion, authenticity & activism. Acton, Ontario: Enrealment Press.
Kabir., Harvey, A. & Hurd, B. (2018). Turn me to gold : 108 poems of Kabir. Unity Village, MO: Unity Books.
Kingsley, P. (1999). In the dark places of wisdom. Inverness, Calif: Golden Sufi Center.
Mizuta Masahide. (n.d.) In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved April 19, 2019, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Mizuta_Masahide&oldid=861636507
Reninger, E. (September 20, 2018). Wu-wei: The Taoist Principle of Action in Non-Action. In Learn Religions online version. Retrieved April 19, 2019, from https://www.learnreligions.com/wu-wei-the-action-of-non-action-3183209
Stefan, M. (2019). Kabir. In Encyclopaedia Britannica. Retrieved April 19, 2019 from https://www.britannica.com/topic/Hinduism/Tantrism#ref303813
Tat Tvam Asi(n.d.). In Encyclopaedia Britannica. Retrieved April 15, 2019, from https://www.britannica.com/topic/tat-tvam-asi
Ubiquity Wisdom School (April 9, 2019). Great books course, Andrew Harvey presentation, April 9, 2019, retrieved April 19, 2019 from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SAOhRjcQ4No