Monday, July 26, 2010

Narrow is the Way?

Dear Friends,

Someone dear to me remarked recently that in her opinion the Ananda Communities and Sangha groups (wherever located though with some variations) are focused upon themselves and not welcoming. This was not the first time I have heard this comment. As much as I would like this not to be the reality, I had to ask myself why this might be true, is it a problem, and what can we do about it?

Putting aside any individual expressions of narrow mindedness or parochial self-interest, we have several aspects of Ananda that are relevant to this perception. For starters, a spiritual lineage that focuses so strongly upon meditation is bound to seem a bit "inward" to newcomers for whom meditation is not a daily or deep practice and lively and entertaining church services are perhaps the norm.

For another, a work so "alternative" and new is bound to require a much larger focus upon its core work than one better established and expanding outward in its interests. Ananda has been in existence barely forty years and while there are some eight residential communities and numerous centers and small groups around the world, this is far from explosive and the road has been a rough one on every level.

Though thousands of small communities were begun during the Sixties and Seventies when Ananda first started, few remain today. The odds against survival have been great and I won't attempt to catalogue the cultural, economic, legal, and environmental challenges. Even in the intentional communities movement (which as movements go is all but insignificant, socially), Ananda's communities are orphans. First because religious and not relying upon a consensus decision making process. The presence of a single founder, a spiritual leader and Swami, who is dynamic and a leading public figure, is itself anathema to most of the communities' movement.

Second, because not defining itself in terms of farming, ecology, sustainability, or social engineering goals, Ananda is largely ignored in the communities movement. (Ironically, in these areas of activity, Ananda has had a strong and long-term interest but simply hasn't made these a point of self-definition.)

Thirdly, Ananda's essential message is one of Self-realization. This relates to the goal of "moksha" or finding Oneness with God. This is not exactly your typical Sunday church-going message of doing good and behaving. It's not one that naturally spawns support groups, activities, or spiritualized entertainment for singles, marrieds, or youth groups. The intensity and revolutionary message of Self-realization (what to mention the effort required) comes across as somewhat "off-putting" to anyone seeking only comfort or even spiritual solace. (It should be acknowledged that religion does legitimately serve the human need for healing, whether physically, emotionally, or spiritually. Ananda has a dynamic and active healing prayer work around the world.)

Ironically, however, many of the support group activities mentioned above do in fact exist. But the goal of ego-transcendence does tend to dampen the proliferation of outwardly obvious emotionally satisfying expressions of ego-comfort. Nonetheless, you will see individual kindnesses and personal support expressed in many different forms from the birthday celebrations to medical advocacy. You just have to look more deeply perhaps.

Fourthly, the teaching of the need and role of the guru is very much a challenge to many. Perhaps some take umbrage at the outward signs of devotion and respect that are naturally tendered in speech and action. I know some object to even at the presence and role of ministers, what to mention having a charismatic leader (Swami Kriyananda), and not just one guru, but FIVE masters whose images command attention the moment one walks into an Ananda home or sanctuary.

Fifthly, the practice of kriya yoga meditation is, unlike all the other yoga practices at Ananda, only given after intensive training and discipleship initiation. In our modern era of freedom of information, this time-honored spiritual test of the student's commitment and intention are often not understood or appreciated. One pledges, moreover, not to reveal the kriya technique to others without permission. Holding to one "way" tends to offend modern (especially Western) sensibilities. Loyalty, as a human trait, is much lacking in modern culture and the value of going deep and staying true (in relationship, health habits, career, etc.) is not understood or valued in the age of texting and sound-bites.

Sixth and last is that "energy" is the basis of the spiritual practices. I could explore this from numerous angles but suffice here to say that at the heart of Ananda's philosophy, practices, and, most importantly, culture is the opportunity, often extolled, to put out "high energy." Few, especially those exploring tentatively a new faith or spiritual path, are prepared for embracing this message and not reacting to the intensity of energy encountered when first meeting a group of people, experiencing the ceremonies, and participating in the activities at Ananda.

For the no-less-than cosmic broadness of scope, and the emphasis upon individual self-effort that is characteristic of Ananda's philosophy, it is ironic that some might feel that Ananda members are self-enclosed in their interests.

In the end, however, each person's path to spiritual freedom is unique and each one's need and form of spiritual support and association must needs reflect that uniqueness. More than this is the undeniably deep commitment to personal self-effort to achieve "moksha" which is modelled by our guru, Paramhansa Yogananda, and our founder, his direct disciple, Swami Kriyananda.

While room for improvement is a constant need, I cannot help but conclude that some of this unfortunately negative impression comes with the turf of what it takes to strive for Self-realization amidst a culture so committed to ego gratification. At the same time, joy and humor are in no short supply at Ananda. I sincerely hope this is no mere self-justification, but as the sands of this life's time on earth show signs of running out,  I find myself drawn more and more to remain "in the Self." I admire Swami Kriyananda's unremitting commitment to be a divine friend to so many.

In time, Ananda's message, communities, and Sangha will expand and include many others with a wider range of commitment and understanding of that message. Swami Kriyananda has frequently redefined and redirected Ananda's work to keep inspiration fresh and energy high. I have faith that Ananda will carry on this legacy far into the future.

Joy to you,


Saturday, July 10, 2010

Who am I?

In the reading at the Ananda Sunday Service for July 11, Jesus explains that as a branch of a tree cannot bear fruit unless it remains part of the tree, so life itself comes (and comes more fully) as we consciously live in the awareness of God’s presence within. Krishna, in the Bhagavad Gita, declares that all who are glorious are but a spark of the glory of God.

Some of us have just returned from the July 4th weekend at Ananda Village where we welcomed Swami Kriyananda back from India and Italy. His life is a dynamic illustration of what it is to live consciously as an instrument of God.

Swamiji (the suffix “ji” expresses respect and closeness) frequently recounts the story of how he, as a young minister being trained by Paramhansa Yogananda, experimented with how to have God act through him. Once, while giving a Sunday Service talk, he paused to see if God would speak through him. While the audience was gripped in suspense thinking he had frozen out of fear (of public speaking — he had not), he waited for God to speak for upwards two full minutes! Well, you can guess that God did NOT speak.

He realized in this dramatic experiment that he had to do the speaking but, while doing so, he had also to invite God to speak through him: through his thoughts, inspirations, and understanding. As a popular and effective public speaker who speaks from inspiration and without prepared notes he has demonstrated the power of this approach thousands of times.

Swamiji has composed over four hundred pieces of music but once, when a student commented on the strong need and desire that the student had to compose music. Kriyananda remarked that he felt no such need. Music, he said, simply came to him when he needed it for the purposes of his ministry. In fact, his first foray into composing songs came when he visited Yosemite National Park and sang folk songs with others. He knew that devotional chants would not touch these young people but the usual folks songs had no message he felt in tune with.

So, on the drive home to San Francisco, a song suddenly came to him. While driving (he admits this was unwise) he scribbled the words and melody on a napkin. Thus began several decades of composing music. The songs came in response to the desire to serve God in tune with the teachings of his guru, Paramhansa Yogananda. The inspiration was not, in other words, driven by his own desire to compose music for its own (or his own ego’s) sake.

This illustrates beautifully how we can each act as a divine instrument. “How may I serve Thee, Lord?” is the prayer that opens the floodgates of divine power and inspiration. Most of the time we think in terms of what I want to do; how I feel right now about this or that.

As Krishna teaches in the Bhagavad Gita, we are compelled by nature to act. “I will reason, I will will, I wll act, but guide Thou my reason, will, and activity in everything that I do.” This prayer Yogananda has given to us shows us the spirit with which to act.

Paramhansa Yogananda wrote in his famous life story, "Autobiography of a Yogi," that divine vision is center everywhere, circumference nowhere. God is not to be found in some antiseptic corner of distant space. God is within us. All we need to do is to improve our knowing and realization of this simple fact. Daily meditation is the most effective way to experience God’s presence on a consistent and ever deepening way. In an experience of cosmic consciousness Yogananda said “I cognized the center of the empyrean as a point of intuitive perception in my heart.”

We can no more “kill” the ego than can consciousness itself ever be extinguished. For God, who is consciousness itself, exists at the heart of every atom. Thus to “know thy Self” is to reach that center and dwell there. The more frequently we commune with God within ourselves the more we begin to identify with that center and to act from and in harmony with its innate intelligence (which includes love, joy, and peace).

At the same time we must also work at re-directing the deeply embedded tendency of ego to assert itself and to want to steal the center stage of our attention. Humility is not self-effacement. Instead it is self-honesty! How small we are in size; how brief our lifespan in relation to the universe around us; how few are our talents; scant, our knowledge. In tune with divine grace, however, we are infinite: infinitely wise and unconditionally loving.

The constant reference of all actions, feelings, and perceptions to the false self of the ego is what we should re-direct. I saw a New Yorker Magazine cartoon of a down-and-out man sitting at bar saying to a fellow patron, “I’m nothing, yet I’m all I can think about!” It is not easy to expand our consciousness beyond self-interest. Nishkam karma (action without self-interest) is how Krishna counsels the devotee to act.

A story from India that Swamiji frequently tells is one he heard Yogananda relate. A man who was pestered by a demon came upon a mantra that would get rid of the demon. So one day the man recited the mantra onto a special powder and when the demon appeared the man threw the powder at the demon. The demon laughed saying “Before you could say the mantra I entered the powder!”

One day Swamiji awoke to discover that after working assiduously to develop humility, he was suddenly infected with the (thankfully passing) thought of how “proud” he was of his newly found humility!

You see, we are infected by the demon ego and cannot extricate ourselves from its influence by the mere wishing. We must introduce into the magnetic aura of our consciousness a current of energy from above. This current (shakti) is the awakening of our latent divine memory which is transmitted by the guru directly or through living disciples. Yogananda once remarked to some others “Look how I have changed Walter.” (Yogananda called him "Walter.")

So when we receive, or fail to receive, praise we must learn to re-direct our attention to where it belongs: God. Don’t laugh AT people but laugh WITH them! Another New Yorker cartoon shows two hyenas walking along and one says to the other, “You mean all this time you’ve been laughing AT me, not WITH me?”

Swamiji has often told the story how one evening he hosted a dinner party for well known authors during the course of a conference on communities. Though he was the host and the only one among them who had actually started a community, the others were better known to the public. During the party they completely ignored him as they talked with each other about their upcoming books and programs. Kriyananda simply chuckled to himself and enjoyed the experience of being ignored.

“But you’re famous!” someone once objected to Swamiji when, during a casual sidewalk conversation he introduced himself. Most famous people act self-important creating and perpetuating a cycle of ego affirmation.

Stilling the ceaseless flux of thoughts, emotions, and restless actions is the essence of meditation. Refocusing our attention from the ego-self to the divine Self in the I-Thou relationship using whatever form of God we hold dear (whether guru, deity, or divine attribute) is the key to Self-realization.

Swamiji's life has been one of intense service and meditation. He has shown enormous creativity and inspiration in the arts, in organizational matters and deep wisdom in lecturing and writing. Through him has come the sacred chants, ceremonies, and music that comprises Ananda's devotional services. Creativity and enthusiasm have too frequently been suppressed and condemned in the religious life as being pride filled and assertions of ego. This is an error, if an understandable one.

In his over sixty years of public service, Swami Kriyananda has demonstrated the power, the grace, and the bliss of living for God alone. What he, or anyone else has done, we can do! For as Krishna promises us, “even a little bit of this practice will free us from dire fears and colossal sufferings.”

Joy to you,      Hriman