Sunday, June 10, 2018

Pride Goeth Before the Fall : Can We Ever Really Fail (Spiritually)?

Paramhansa Yogananda was once asked by a disciple: "Will I ever fall from the spiritual path?" Gazing compassionately at him, Yogananda answered: "How could you? Everyone is on the spiritual path!"

That was certainly a kind response and also a true one in that we can learn and grow (spiritually) from our mistakes. 

Yogananda spoke of the betrayal of Jesus by his disciple Judas. He said that inasmuch as Judas was one of the twelve disciples, he must have been spiritually advanced. In fact, Yogananda used the term "prophet" to describe Judas.

At the risk of a tangent, Yogananda stated that Judas finally achieved enlightenment in the 19th century under the guidance of a well-known guru.

The topic here is not how ordinary worldly men and women fail spiritually, for such aren't even trying to do otherwise. The Seven Deadly Sins are, more or less, positively being sought (or is it "sot"?) by most people. (slight exaggeration)

The subject, then, is with respect to those who ARE trying to grow spiritually. Arjuna asks his guru, Krishna (in the dialogue of the Bhagavad Gita), what is the fate of those who, though seeking enlightenment, yet fail to achieve the goal in a given lifetime? What is their fate? 

Are they worse off? Do they have to start over? Krishna assures Arjuna (which is to say, you and me) that no spiritual effort is lost. (Chapter 6: 37-47) Krishna reassures devotees: "I make good your deficiencies and render permanent your gains." (Chapter 9:22) We can never lose our soul's eternal perfection. Any contact with it can never be lost.

Swami Kriyananda, the founder of the worldwide work of Ananda and a direct disciple of Paramhansa Yogananda, wrote about Judas in his book, "Promise of Immortality." His explanation is a priceless and deep examination of the slippery slope from heaven to, uh, perdition! (Chapter 23)

Inspired by the famous verses from the Bhagavad Gita (Chapter 2:61-63) that describe the step-by-step process by which one falls into error, in "Promise of Immortality" Swami Kriyananda examines the likely thought processes of Judas to show us how we are drawn progressively to the point of (apparent) no return.

(Note: there is no absolute point of no return for the perfect and eternal soul. But the dark enclosure of soul-negation can last a long time, even lifetimes.)

Coming back to pride a little later, let us turn, instead, to doubt: self-doubt. Elsewhere in the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna tells Arjuna that the doubter is the most miserable of devotees for such cannot step forward nor can go back for he simply cannot make up his mind. (Chapter 4:40)

Given our predilection for making mistakes, no wonder we doubt ourselves. Given the plethora of philosophies, lifestyles, religions, politics, cultures, no wonder we are confused. Given the abundance of fake news, no wonder we’re sceptical. Given the wide range of choices in life, no wonder we cannot choose one from the other. Given the constant distractions of life in the fast-device-lane, no wonder we cannot focus long enough to see "the forest through the trees!" 

Krishna goes on to say: “For the peaceless, how is happiness possible?” (Chapter 2:66)

Swami Kriyananda was told by Paramhansa Yogananda that doubting was his greatest challenge in past lives. With his guru's blessings, Swami overcame that obstacle and in this lifetime paid in the coin of the spiritual realm by a lifetime of teaching. Swamiji said, numerous times, that there probably wasn't one doubt that anyone could come up with that he hadn't faced at some point in the past. Thus by teaching and giving others faith, he could expiate the karma of the past. 

There are two kinds of doubt: constructive and destructive. Constructive doubt sincerely wants to know what is true and is open to truth and to taking action. So, here, then, in this article we are speaking of destructive or paralyzing doubt. 

Paralyzing doubt, too, has two faces: we doubt ourselves, OR, when we tire of that, we doubt (that is, criticize) others. But as Yogananda put it in the psychological terms of his day, "superiority or inferiority complex" are simply two sides of the same coin of egoity.

In the last year, a young man came to our yoga center and took some courses. He was so apt to measure himself with respect to others that, finding yoga and meditation challenging for his restless mind and body, he decided it was easier to find fault with others. Others must have been faking it somehow (he concluded). And so he left and retreated to a more fundamental view where mere belief was sufficient for acceptance (and "salvation," I suppose). The hard work of changing himself was simply to much for his fragile ego.

Speaking of our temptation to be critical of others, it is useful to make a distinction. There is a difference between calm, detached observation of a flaw or shortcoming in another person and your claim to superiority over them or your dislike of that person on the basis of your observation. Superiority or dislike constitutes being judgmental. Simply observing is neutral and discerning. 

Jesus put it this way: "Be wise as serpents and harmless as doves!" (Matthew 10:16). Too many people "throw out the baby (of discernment) out with the (dirty) bathwater (to avoid being judgemental)." 

By contrast, to admire the spiritual qualities of another person can inspire you to emulate those qualities and doesn't have to put that person on a false pedestal of your own creation.  The perceived spirituality of another should not be a reason to be discouraged in your own progress. Who can truly judge the heart of another; or, their karma; but God alone? If someone you once admired (spiritually) suffers a fall (in your eyes at least), be grateful for the inspiration you received by their example and simply pray for them to recover quickly from whatever spiritual test they may have failed.

Another common cause for seeming to fail spiritually is guilt. Guilt is only useful if it motivates you to make amends and to change. Like pain, guilt exists to spur us to reform and do better. Don't be like those who imagine that feeling guilty is sufficient compensation for their missteps.

The consequences of error must also be understood directionally. A slip may not be a fall if we make amends; if take action to change for the better; and, if we don't identify with our mistakes. But, be careful, because our ignorance, negativity, or ego-affirming habits open the door to influences that may increase the momentum in the direction first taken. A strong, even heroic, effort must be made to draw the grace that will lift us back up on our spiritual feet.

"Thoughts are universally and not individually rooted." Yogananda makes this profound statement in Chapter 15 of "Autobiography of a Yogi." As we express anger, for example, then we attract to ourselves the support of the preexisting and overarching consciousness of anger. We do not invent anger. It already exists in the cosmos of consciousness. Human addictive tendencies exist not merely because of individual past habits but because of their universally attractive magnetism and vibration. 

A dramatic and historical example of this brings us back to Swami Kriyananda's analysis of Judas. He writes that Judas’ betrayal of Jesus set into motion a karmic pattern that was to haunt Christianity: the betrayal of spirituality in favor of worldly power, money and position. 

The spread of Christianity into the authority-and-law-consciousness of Roman culture and its acceptance as the state religion prematurely bestowed upon the young religion the mantle of power and self-importance. 

The acceptance of these worldly powers steadily eroded the true spirit of Christ which, in time, was eclipsed in the hierarchy of "churchianity," though partly salvaged from time to time by great saints like St. Francis and St. Teresa of Avila. (Saints are the true custodians of religion! Not theologians, clerics or bishops.)

Our betrayal or fall from our own spiritual ideals can begin with pride (“which goes before a fall”). Think of some talent or knowledge that you are good at. In your association with others of like mind and your spiritual service together with them, beware of the opinion and critique that might rise as a consequence of your skills and knowledge being employed in that service. Notice with whom you share your perfidy in the quiet corners and whispered voices of conspiratorial negativity.

Judas’ pathway to his fall was his affirmation of superior insight and wisdom. He alone knew best how spread his guru's teachings. His guru, Jesus Christ, was deluded; ignorant; out of touch and could not see what benefits would accrue to his mission if he could but win over the rich and powerful priestly caste. Or so Judas must have thought. Anger then arose as Judas perceived Jesus' intransigence. And on it went until it ended in tragedy.

The downward path of critical comparing of oneself to others sows the seeds of pride, discouragement, self-doubt, and provides, in time if indulged, all the reasons for you to give up and turn away. Oh, and how many have turned away.

In the last years of Yogananda's life, how many came and went, imagining Yogananda did not meet their standards, or, alternatively, not feeling they could live up to his. Of one who left the ashram, the Master said it would take him another two hundred years to regain his current spiritual consciousness. Of another, he said that if she had stayed just twenty-four more hours that temptation would have past.

As a teacher who over decades has seen so many bright lights appear and then fade out to dullness and then disappear from whence they came, I sometimes chant Yogananda's chant that begins with the words: “Whence do they come….whither do they go?”

There's an even far more subtle betrayal amongst devotees. One that cannot be seen with the eyes. It is the story of Martha and Mary. How many Marthas in churches, ashrams, monasteries and sanghas busy themselves in service, and even in meditation and devotion but with their minds far from God. 

Even in outward ritual, prayer, and service, we can avoid the divine summons and awakening of the soul-Self, thus postponing our divine destiny. The inner Voice says, wordlessly, "I will wait. I have given you this freedom and when you seek Me for my love alone and not my gifts, then I will come."

You can meditate every day and never even think of God. Never even go beyond your own, restless thoughts. Never offer yourself wholly into the Unknown where awaits you the light and bliss of your soul: a spark of the Infinite Bliss. God is the Divine Elephant in the Cosmic Room of your Mind; yet, even devotees see him not.

Yogas chitta vritti nirodha” We must neutralize the reactive thought and emotional processes of the ego-mind by calm, inner awareness. And that we can do, like Bhishma in the epic "Mahabharata," only by the free choice of our heart.

There are two kinds of meditation: emptiness and fullness. In general, we teach fullness. It’s easier for most people. In fullness we use chants, affirmations, mantra, prayer and devotion to re-direct our natural restlessness and self-preoccupations. Stillness is not empty; it is full: full of energy, joy, and love.

The path of emptiness is “neti, neti” – not this, not that! It too is a valid path. Both emptiness and fullness are actual states of consciousness which alternate in the life of a meditator; or, from the point of view of the path of ascension, can represent steps or stages. 

Yogananda clarified that those who teach emptiness as the final state are incorrect. For while emptiness (the apparent threat of personal extinction) is the final challenge to the ego’s willingness to surrender, when we do surrender with faith, courage and energy, bliss flows into us like a relentless tsunami or a thousand suns crushed into one.

In fact, however, we should understand and approach each state for each are valid and necessary: both emptiness AND fullness. Thus, after our practice of techniques, we should empty ourselves of all thoughts and let the divine states of Superconsciousness appear like the stars that come out after sunset: at first they are dim, and then gradually, they get brighter. Then the moon appears on the horizon of our consciousness. As it rises it outshines the stars with the comforting brilliance and cooling rays of peace. If we welcome its all-embracing rays into our mind soon we too—our sense of separateness—will be eclipsed into Divine Love.

And so it also with God as personal or impersonal. Some begin their journey approaching God in personal form: perhaps as the guru, e.g. Others, the impersonal as light, peace, joy, energy, love, e.g. But God has no form and is all forms and so cannot be limited by either. Thus, as we advance spiritually our chosen form morphs into its opposite. 

Here we tell the story of Totapuri, the guru of Ramakrishna. Totapuri helped (rather dramatically) Ramakrishna go beyond the "I-Thou" relationship with Divine Mother into the formless state of samadhi.

We are destined to know God; to be free. Just as in sleep we are free from the burdens of our conscience, our karma, and our past, so too in Super-consciousness we are free. But freedom in subconscious sleep is temporary and is not life-changing. By contrast, the freedom experienced in super-consciousness grows on us gradually and, with ever deeper immersion, replaces our separate identity with that of the freedman! No longer a slave to the body and ego! We are TAT TWAM ASI. EKAM SAT! God alone.

Behind our self-doubt, our judgments of others and ourselves lies the realm of the land of the free reached only by those of  brave heart: the land beyond the duality of our dream-world of matter, thought, and emotion.

It is in our souls that we are One. It is to this affirmation that our July 14th day of celebration of East Meets West is directed. This day is a celebratory fest of like-minds and open-hearts. Outwardly we may appear different and separate but inwardly we are ONE.

The divine awaits us and haunts our soul-dreams. Let me close this overly long article with the first paragraph of this much beloved poem:

THE HOUND OF HEAVEN-1893
Francis Thompson



I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
   I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
   Of my own mind; and in the midst of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
             Up vistaed hopes I sped;
             And shot, precipitated,
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmed fears,
   From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.
             But with unhurrying chase,
             And unperturb√®d pace,
     Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
             They beat—and a Voice beat
             More instant than the Feet—
     'All things betray thee, who betrayest Me'.


Joy to you,

Swami Hrimananda