All in a name

penLet’s take a look at names and what they mean – and especially how this relates to spirituality, consciousness and being. Everybody has a name, but of course not every name is the same. They sound different. They derive from different cultures: perhaps Latin, Greek or Hebrew. They signify different images or concepts: such as light in the names ‘Lucy’ and ‘Lucian’, or even sloppy/untidy, as in the famous name of ‘Mozart’ (from the German: motzen).

In this article I’d like to focus on the difference between ‘given’ names and ‘spiritual’ names, for these two basic categories reflect on a much deeper level the two basic approaches of spiritual paths. Everyone has a given name: it’s the one you were born with. It’s the Lucy, Lucian or Mozart kind of name. At some point in your life, depending on who you are and what you do, you may also be given or choose a spiritual name. Spiritual names exist in many traditions across the world. In the East, for instance, a swami is given a spiritual name by his/her guru upon entering the Order. In the West, the Pope chooses his own name upon election. Jesus gave the spiritual name ‘Cephas’ (Peter) to Simon when he became a disciple. The list goes on.

A given name is who you are – or, at least, this is how most people relate to their own name. It equates more or less with the personal pronoun ‘I’ on the deepest level of identity, and roots back to the earliest years of childhood. Just think of any toddler. When learning to talk, kids always refer to themselves by their name rather than using the first person, as in: ‘Lucy/Lucian want the toy’ instead of: ‘I want the toy.’ For a variety of reasons, it’s only later that they discover the equation: ‘I = Lucy/Lucian’. So you grow up, joined like a Siamese twin to your given name.

A spiritual name tends to serve two functions. If you take monastic orders, for instance, the giving up of your birth-name symbolises an element of renunciation: giving up the everyday, material world in order to devote yourself to God, to spirit, to inner meaning – call it what you may. The other main purpose of a spiritual name is that of transformation: something to which you aspire through the meaning of the name. For example, the current Pope Francis (born Jorge Mario Bergoglio) chose his spiritual name because he admires and aspires to the work of St. Francis of Assisi.

Given name versus spiritual name. Or, in deeper spiritual terms: simple being versus renunciation and transformation. All spiritual traditions fall into one of these two basic categories. One path aspires just to being who you are. The other stresses the need for growth and change. Both approaches have their pros and cons.

Let’s take a deeper look into this.

zen meditationWe’ve all heard of the Zen approach: just be. It’s similar to the spiritual trend nowadays in ‘following your heart’ – for if you do truly follow your heart, you can only express who you are. Sounds simple, right? Sounds true, right? In a certain sense, yes, it is simple and true. What could be more perfect than just being? The only problem is that you can only really be if you’re already there, ‘enlightened’. But most of us aren’t. Otherwise, in just ‘being’, in just ‘following your heart’, you end up replaying and reinforcing the hard-wired behavioural programs and addictions already ruling your life. In ‘just being’ or ‘following your heart’ you can easily end up instead doing what you want – that is feeding the desires of your ego. This is one of the paradoxes which so perfectly characterises Zen and other similar paths. You really can only ‘do’ Zen once you’re already there: a path which isn’t really a path at all (given that a path must actually lead somewhere!). Of course, people practising this approach often claim to be able to distinguish between the voice of their heart and ego. But when it reaches the subtler levels of self, can you? Really? All you can do is try to follow, as honestly as possible, what your heart is telling you. But there are no guarantees.

Spiritual paths based on renunciation and transformation take precisely the opposite approach. There’s no attempt to pull the wool over your eyes. Yes: very clearly you must grow and change through renunciation and transformation precisely because you aren’t there. Yet. You must renounce the physical world because it is the source of the ego’s self-misunderstanding. You must transform your mind and inner energy in order to experience greater reality – for only after gaining such insight into the nature of the universe will you ever be able to let go of the ego’s fears and just be. Nevertheless, this approach contains its own landmines. Renunciation can easily lead to self-denial and self-hate. In hating your physical being (and therefore the ego which is running the show), you only direct more energy towards the ego itself, ironically strengthening it in the process. Yes, you end up shooting yourself in the foot. Transformation also runs a similar danger of inflating the ego, but this time, to cut a long story short, it is a much more transparent process of becoming attached to the greater flow of energy running through you.

Is one approach better than the other? No, but it might be fair to say that different approaches are more suitable for different people. Buddhism describes fundamentally three different paths: (1) Sutra, based upon the principle of renunciation, (2) Tantra, based upon the principle of transformation and (3) Dzogchen/Zen, based upon the principle of pure being. Sutra is described as the path for the masses, Tantra as the path for the few and Dzogchen/Zen as the path for even fewer. Rightly so. Is one better than another? Think about it: the word ‘better’ only reflects the ego’s judgements…

The main thing is: whichever path or combination of paths you’re on, it’s important to be aware of the potential pitfalls!

shiva dancingReturning to names again, let’s take my own. My given name is Tallis Barker. It’s the one I was born with. Here on this website and in my book I’ve also used my spiritual name: Shivantar. Tallis is who I am, while Shivantar provides a very direct reminder of the need for growth and change – not just because any spiritual name does this, but also because of its specific meaning. Consisting of two parts: ‘Shiva’ reflects the Hindu god of death, destruction and rebirth, while ‘antar’ means ‘inner’. We all need an ‘inner Shiva’ to remind us that in order to really live we must also be able to embrace death. In order to release the ego, we must be able to embrace nothing-everything

Perhaps most importantly, though, it’s important not to get too hung up on names. The moment you identify with any name, it can only limit your infinite potential. Ultimately devoid of any real content, a name is just a sound – just like the whole universe. 🙂

All in a name. Or perhaps better:

Nothing in a name…


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