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,