Monday, October 24, 2016

What and Who is God? What is Spirituality?

The NEW PATH, by Swami Kriyananda
(Editor’s note: I am currently listening to the audio file of Swami Kriyananda reading his own life story, The New Path and feel to share this except. Sold by Ananda's publishing house, Crystal Clarity, you can find many of Swami's books read "on tape" by him. Listening is a thrilling and dynamic experience: one that exceeds mere reading of words on a page.)
CHAPTER 12 – Who Am I – What is God?
Civilized man prides himself on how far advanced his present state is from that of the primitive savage. We look condescendingly on his tribal way of endowing trees, wind, rain, and heavenly bodies with human personalities. Now that science has explained everything in prosaic terms, modern man considers himself wiser for having lost his sense of awe. But I’m not so sure that he deserves congratulation. It strikes me rather that, dazzled by his own technology, he has only developed a new kind of superstition, one infinitely less interesting. Too pragmatic, now, to worship, he has forgotten how to commune. Instead of relating sensitively to Nature around him, he shuts it out of his life with concrete ‘jungles,’ air conditioning, and ‘muzak’; with self-promotion and noisy entertainments. He is obsessed with problems that are real to him only because he gives them reality. He is like a violin string without the wood for a sounding board. Life, when cut off from its broader realities, becomes weak, thin, and meaningless.
Modern technology alienates us from the universe and from one another. Worst of all, it alienates us from ourselves. It directs all our energies toward the mere manipulation of things, until we ourselves assume qualities that are almost thing-like. In how many modern plays and novels are men idealized for their ability to act with the precision and unfeeling efficiency of a machine! We are taught to behave in this world like uncivilized guests, rudely consuming our host’s plenty without offering him a single word of thanks in return. Such is our approach to nature, to God, to life itself. We make ourselves petty, then imagine that the universe is petty also. We rob our own lives of meaning, then call life itself meaningless. Self-satisfied in our unknowing, we make a dogma of ignorance. And when, in ‘civilized’ smugness, we approach the question of religion, we address God Himself as though He had better watch His manners if He wants a place in our hearts.


My probing thoughts led me one by one, however, to a dead end. How much, after all, can the theater [art, music, literature, science, politics, technology] really accomplish for people, spiritually speaking? Did even Shakespeare, great as he was, effect any deep-seated changes in the lives of individuals? None, surely, at any rate compared to the changes religion has inspired. I shuddered at this comparison, for I loved Shakespeare, and found little to attract me in the churches. But the conclusion, whether I liked it or not, was inescapable: Religion, for all its fashionable mediocrity, its sham, its devotion to the things of this world, remains the most powerfully beneficial influence in the history of mankind. Not art, not music, not literature, not science, politics, conquest, or technology: The one truly uplifting power in history, always, has been religion.
How was this possible? Puzzled, I decided to probe beneath the surface and discover what deep-seated element religion contained that was vital and true.
Avoiding what I considered to be the trap of institutionalized religion, of ‘churchianity,’ I took to walking or sitting for hours together by the ocean, pondering its immensity. I watched little fingers of water as they rushed in among the rocks and pebbles on the shore. Did the vastness of God find personal expression, similarly, in our own lives?


The question returned to me with increasing urgency: What IS God?
One evening, taking a long walk into the gathering night, I deeply pondered this question. I dismissed as absurd, to start with, the popular notion of a venerable figure with flowing white beard, piercing eyes, and a terrible brow striking fear into all those who disobey Him. Science has shown us an expansive vastness comprising countless galaxies, each one blazing with innumerable stars. How could any anthropomorphic figure have been responsible for creating all that?
What, then, about fuzzy alternatives that had been proposed to suit the abstract tastes of intellectuals? A ‘Cosmic Ground of Being,’ for example: What a sterile evasion! What a non-concept! Such formulas I considered a ‘cop-out,’ for they gave one nothing to work with.
No, I thought, God has to be, if nothing else, a conscious Being. I had read alternate claims that He is a dynamic force. Well, He had to be that, too, of course. But could it be a blind force, like electricity? If so, whence came human intelligence? Materialists claim that man’s consciousness is produced by ‘a movement of energy through a pattern of nerve circuits.’ Well! But intelligence, I realized, is not central to the issue anyway. Intelligence implies reasoning, and reasoning is only one aspect of consciousness; it might almost be called a mechanical aspect, inasmuch as it is conceivable for something electronic to be devised that will do much of his reasoning for him.
Rene Descartes’ famous formula: ‘I think, therefore I am,’ is superficial, and false. One can be fully conscious without thinking at all. Consciousness obviously exists apart from ratiocination, and is a precondition for any kind of thoughtful awareness.
What about our sense of I-ness: our egos? We don’t have to ponder the question objectively. We simply know that we exist. This knowledge, I have come to understand, is intuitive. Even a newborn baby making its first cry doesn’t become self-aware because of that cry. It requires self-awareness for it to suffer! Even a worm demonstrates self-awareness: prick it with a pin, and it will try to wriggle away.
Obviously, then, consciousness is at least latent everywhere, and in everything. God Himself must be conscious, and, having created everything, must also have produced it out of consciousness: not out of His consciousness, for consciousness cannot be something He possesses: He is consciousness: Essential Consciousness.
What about self-awareness? This, too, must be inherent not only in all life, but in everything. We are not merely His creations: We manifest Him! We exist, because He exists.
To ‘cut to the chase’: all of us, as His manifestations, have the capacity to manifest Him more or less perfectly. Surely, then, what we need is to deepen our awareness of Him at the center of our being.
What a staggering concept!
I recalled the days I had spent watching the ocean surf break into long, restless fingers among the rocks and pebbles on the shore. The width of each opening, I reflected, determined the size of the flow. Similarly, if our deepest reality is God, might it not be possible for us to chip away at our granite resistance to Him, and thereby widen our channels of receptivity? And would not every aspect of His infinite consciousness flow into us, then, like the ocean, abundantly?
If this was true, then obviously our highest duty is to seek attunement with Him. And the way to do so is to develop that aspect of our nature which we can open to Him. The way to do that, obviously, is to lift our hearts up to Him, and to seek His guidance in every thought and deed. In so doing He must since we are a part of His consciousness assist us in our efforts to broaden our mental channels.
I realized, now, that true religion is no mere system of beliefs, and is a great deal more than any formalized attempt to wheedle a little pity out of the Lord by offering up pleading, propitiatory rites and prayers. If our link with Him consists in the fact that we are already a part of Him, then it is up to us to receive Him more completely, and express Him more fully. [“But as many as received him to them gave he power to become the sons of God.” John 1:12] This, then, is what true religion is all about!
What I had seen thus far of religious practices, and eschewed in disappointment, was not true religion, but the merest first, toddling steps up a stairway to infinity! One might, I reflected, devote his entire life to this true religion, and never stagnate. What a thrilling prospect!
This, then, would be my calling in life: I would seek God!

Monday, October 17, 2016

What is free will?

How much choice do we have in life? How conscious are we when we act?

Let's start with the simple fact that despite good intentions, we make mistakes; we have accidents; we cause suffering, intentionally or unintentionally, whether to ourselves or others. People hurt us; things hurt us; we don't know why or what, if anything, we might have done to deserve it. "Stuff happens," in other words.

There's a lot about our world and our lives that is much, much, much bigger than we. Long before we commit a consciously and an intentionally selfish or hurtful act, there are lots of other, less conscious and less intentional acts, that cause suffering.

Read any classic novel or myth or modern drama and we see life is filled with strange twists and turns of so-called fate.

This world, we must conclude, is not of our own doing. Whoever we are and wherever we have come from or go to, the world around us imposes and impinges upon us in ways that we must simply deal with. Then there are the actions we take and initiate into the little tiny world of our lives that, to some degree, imposes and impinges upon others, or, helps and serves others or improves our own lives.

But consider how little is our impact on the world around us and, by contrast, how big the impact the world and the circumstances into which we find ourselves has upon us! It seems a bit out of proportion.

True there are giants of will power and dominion and influence who create for themselves an entire world view and reality. Yet the more self-centered are these "giants" the more their influence is soon washed away by time and opposing forces. Think of all the politicians, actors, artists that have come and gone. Few, only a few, withstand the eroding effects of time. Those whose impact is lasting are those whose imprint was far bigger than self-interest.

Like the narrow bandwidth of atmosphere that surrounds our tiny planet whirling through space, we operate in a very narrow bandwidth of freedom of choice. Most of what we do, say, like or dislike we cannot really account for logically unless it's universal like fearing death or illness or criticism or liking praise, pleasure or money. Why do you like red sports cars, or I, pistachio ice cream? Who can say?

And yet.....and yet......without human commitment to the precept that we can change our life for the better and that we are accountable for our actions, life would become unbearable. Within this narrow bandwidth of freedom, therefore, is our life, small as it may be and separate as we may view it to be from that great big, sometimes threatening world, around us.

We are confronted by the conditions in which we live, including our bodies, their age, gender, health and abilities, and we must face the conditions we ourselves have created. Complex stuff, eh and, in the the big picture, we must admit that our choices in life have been very narrow. And yet, how impactful upon our lives are those choices: who we marry; what career choices we make or accept; what addictions we fall into; what habits, good or bad. A narrow but potent bandwidth. Does not happiness, itself, exist inside a narrow bandwidth of attitude where the cup is either half empty or half full?

Consciousness itself exists in a very narrow bandwidth of self-awareness. How close to existence of non-existence do we live? My friend who was "randomly" struck by a car that jumped the curb as he was walking along the sidewalk? How many cars whiz past us......the margin of life is indeed narrow.

More than one saint has stated that the only freedom we possess is whether to turn toward God or away from God. All else is more or less the function of our past actions (aka karma). Ananda Moi Ma, the now famous woman saint of 20th century India, described our free will as the equivalent of being on a speeding train and having the choice to walk up or back inside the passenger cars while yet remaining on the speeding train.

But what does it mean to turn TOWARD or AWAY from God? "God" is a pretty BIG idea if you consider "God" deeply and if you can get past the baggage that the "poor fellow" has to carry.

Instead, let's start with something more useful. Let say that our choice is whether to respond positively, or to respond negatively, to life's circumstances.

Ok, then, what does "positive" mean? Or, "negative?" What does it mean to respond "positively" to the fact that you are born into a wealthy family? Or with excellent health? Talent? Beauty? "Positively" means expansively....unselfishly......with non-attachment....with a desire to help others.......

Let's say you are indeed born into a wealthy home, or at least one with comfort and advantages and therefore choices like education, hobbies, health, security, and also into a loving family. Do you recall the phrase (seemingly out of date), noblesse oblige? It recalls the implicit obligation that those of privilege bear to help others. (Yes, that's not really so old fashioned is it?) To see your life as a privilege and an opportunity to do something meaningful would be a good example of a positive response. A negative one would be the all too familiar one of feeling entitlement and becoming lazy, mean, or selfish as a result of your otherwise favorable birth.

Thus "toward" God can begin with the concept of expanding one's awareness to include the needs of others. Call this, therefore, an expansive response. A selfish response would be contractive, meaning ego-centric, selfish, or self-absorbed.

Faced with disease or illness, a positive response would be to be calm; to have faith in the ultimate goodness and value of the inherent lessons of one's challenges; to think even first of others, than of yourself; to affirm your love for God.

[It should be pointed out also, as I have in other articles, that acting or responding positively is not sufficient for those seeking eternal freedom in God. The latter is a far bigger subject and is one derived from faith and intuition (or, more commonly, starts at least from belief). "Virtue may be its own reward" but in the teachings of "Sanaatan Dharma" good karma that derives from the sense of personal doership (ego) is insufficient to win freedom for the soul. For that, "yagya," or personal self-offering with devotion to God (inter alia) is necessary.] 

The line between passive acceptance and a dynamic outpouring of energy to confront challenging circumstances may seem obvious but it's ultimately a matter of expansive or contractive. Acceptance can be expansive if it's calm, joyful and even-minded, and, willing to do what is needed; it is contractive if submissive and fatalistic. Dynamic energy can be contractive if ego-active and ego-protective but expansive if joyful, enthusiastic, creative and without rancor or pride.

Our real choice is remain "in the Self," untouched by outer circumstances. This, more correctly, defines a saint but it is a goal brought steadily into manifestation by the practice of meditation, the company of others of like mind, and the spiritual power of grace born of our attunement with a true "son of God."

"The only way out is IN." This is our real choice, for "tat twam asi," -- "Thou art THAT (Spirit)."

Swami Hrimananda

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

The Intolerance Born of Life Experience & "Mature" Years: Future of Ananda Communities

The very first Ananda community (near Nevada City, CA) is approaching fifty years of existence. Those of us who came in their twenties are, well, do the math.......yes, in their seventies (more or less). But with the power of yoga and divine grace, we're still kicking and going strong!

Think back, my friends, to the craziness some of us brought to Ananda Village in those years. Skinny dipping, gardening in the nude, serial relationships, food and fasting fads, infatuation with passing spiritual teachers, and on and on. "Lord knows" what else our founder, friend and spiritual guide, Swami Kriyananda put up with. 

He looked through us to our souls' potential. No doubt he saw that for some they would stay a short while while others have been part of Ananda ever since. Yet I suspect many surprised him whether they left or stayed! We've all seen friends, good people, come, and go.

Are we finding, now, that we look askance at the attire (or lack of it), the chatter and the talk, the self-righteous opinions, and the goofiness of some of the young ones who arrive at our communities now? Do we see justification for our coolness in the fact that some do not stay very long? Is that fact perhaps due to our coolness toward them? 

Do we wonder to ourselves whether we should offer the "advice" that life is stern, work hard, stay in line, listen to me? Worse yet, do we actually say it? (Why, are WE bitter for having sacrificed "so much?") In so doing, are we simply manifesting the generational disconnect that has existed since time immemorial?

In case you are on the edge of your seat (still), yes I think we are repeating that same intolerance born of life experience. From whence does this sternness come? 

Still on the edge of your seat, no doubt? Let me tell you, then:

When you've seen people come with high ideals and leave discouraged, not understanding that they didn't or couldn't give it their all, or couldn't find self-acceptance, or couldn't see that their criticism and complaining was hurting them more than the issues they claimed were at can't help but want to warn new ones about how difficult the spiritual life is and how precarious is our divine attunement and right attitudes. 

It is natural to want to remind newer ones that sometimes falling off the spiritual path can cost (as Yogananda once mentioned in respect to at least one of his disciples who left the path) many lifetimes before the former spiritual zeal returns that one has left slip so nonchalantly from one's grasp.

We cannot help but see how thin a line it is between the magnetism of playing with the fire of desire versus the fire of devotion and self-offering: the same energy but a different direction.

So, sure, we have our reasons and they are good ones, too, except for one important fact: finger wagging doesn't work. It wouldn't have worked with us, either. We were fortunate that Swami Kriyananda was a wise, spiritual father. He looked toward eternity and saw the perfection of our souls.

And another thing: we don't want to see destroyed by ignorance or lack of awareness or loyalty all that we have worked for most of our lives in establishing these spiritual communities. We don't want to simply hand them over to neophytes who have yet to deepen their commitment through the fires of trials and tribulations (as we have had to do).

So, sure, we have our reasons and they are good ones, too, except for one important fact: it doesn't work! (Am I repeating myself already?)

The solution is to abandon the false perception that comes with the age of physical body and the accumulated experiences of one's present life. Dividing the community into camps of "old" and "young," "leaders" and "followers" is to put a pall of spiritual death upon the very life we all aspire to lead and to share. 

Learning from one another; openness and receptivity; serving, praying, meditating, and playing together. Creating bonds of heartfelt appreciation and respect through listening and calm sharing.

A new member has to go through the "dues paying" of listening, paying attention, learning, struggling and growing; of holding at bay his or her opinions in a state of readiness to learn from the wisdom of experience; the older member has to stay present, awake, listening, avoiding the know-it-all tendency, staying conscious and respecting the ideas and insights, questions, needs and realities of the newer member.

Swami Kriyananda left for us these guidelines for our personal and organizational lives:

  1. "People are more important than things." This is the main one that applies here. The "things" at stake are our view, as leaders and the older generation, of what constitutes spiritual attunement from outer appearances. The people part is the wisdom to give others the time to mature and grow in grace and wisdom. Not to judge others by outer appearances or by lessons yet to be learned or by lessons which are theirs, but not ours, to learn. Compassion and wisdom!
  2. "Where there is dharma, there is victory." We will only be "successful" if we honor what it is right and true, no matter at what cost to ourselves personally (well, within reason!). "What's trying to happen here" is the question Swamiji taught us to ask ourselves when change, or pressures to change, show themselves.
We need to be people-centric not form-centric. All organizations, including intentional communities, churches, and yoga centers, are subject to change in their outer forms and expressions: whether in growth or in shrinking; in material success or acceptance; or, rejection. 

All organizations -- like all organisms -- have an innate impulse to thrive and grow. There's nothing wrong with that if the intention is to serve, share, and grow spiritually in the process (rather than for money or public acceptance and acclaim).

We need to "err" (if indeed "err" it be) on the side of acceptance, tolerance, and growth. Our only measure can truly be our personal spiritual growth in the process, and, the spiritual growth of those whom we serve and accept as community residents or center members.

Swamiji would say, from time to time, "It's not the WHAT, but the HOW!" If we make a group decision that runs the risk of diluting our spiritual attunement but we do it with the intention to serve, welcome, and be open to share with others, we will likely find that Divine Mother will see to it our efforts and errors will be mitigated. As Krishna promises us, "To those in tune, I will make good your deficiencies and render permanent your (spiritual) gains."

When I think of all the craziness Swami Kriyananda tolerated, or all the risky ventures and projects that he, himself, undertook in the name of serving our guru, Paramhansa Yogananda, I am inspired and hope that those who lead this great and good work will carry on in his spirit and in his name.

Joy to you!

Swami Hrimananda