Saturday, August 18, 2012

What’s Wrong with Democracy?

Plenty, but no one’s come up with anything better except an improvement in the integrity of both a nation’s people and its leader. And that, in fact, is my subject today.

Yogis talk in terms of duality: the constant ebb and flow and fluctuation between polar opposites. We humans are so accustomed to this that we don’t tend to give it much thought: daytime, nighttime, activity, rest, work, relaxation, sickness, health, war and peace, and on and on. I doubt very few humans step back from this unceasing play to wonder if “There’s something fishy going on here?” Most hope and work for the best and try to get over the worst, but rarely consider that perhaps, in the long run, both good and bad add up to a big, fat ZERO.

What’s this have to do with democracy? Well, nothing, and, well, everything? J My spiritual teacher and friend, Swami Kriyananda (founder of Ananda and by now well known direct disciple of Paramhansa Yogananda, author if Autobiography of a Yogi), has pointed out that no government is necessarily better than the people who run it and the people are governed by it.

Consider (and I’m no historian or constitutional expert) that the original structure of the 13 colonies of America was much more a republic: only certain people could vote and senators were elected by state legislatures. If recall correctly, the electoral college had far more influence and a role than it does today.

“We the people” constituted a great fewer people (in terms of race, gender, and social status) than we consider it to be today in 2012.  In the early decades of democracy many aristocrats (and others) could not believe that the common man could be trusted to have an intelligent and ideal-guided say in his government.

But let us, as Americans, step back and consider some of the glaring shortcomings of our political system:
1.       How many of our voting citizens vote intelligently and with due consideration of all sides of complex issues? How many vote merely upon superficial characteristics of looks, mannerisms, professed religion, race, gender, or party affiliation? How many voters participate as involved citizens at any level (local or national)? How many citizens are blatantly prejudiced in their views? How many of us, checking the boxes on our ballots, have no idea whether so-and-so is the right person?  The biggest fallacy we possess in our country’s self-image is also our greatest strength: a belief in the equality of all people (despite common sense!). In extending the franchise to all, we have simultaneously debased its value.

2.       Democracy turns the majority into the “rule.” Prejudicial treatment of minorities is a plague that roams the earth and haunts democracy at its roots. Protections for minorities are the obvious solution but those protections are ultimately rooted only in the conscience of the majority, as the history of the United States and evolution of civil rights (both laws and attitudes) are a glaring testimony. Just because the majority thinks one way doesn’t make it true, right, moral, or wise. Truth is not something that gets elected. I would go so far as to say most people are wrong (or biased) most of the time, especially where their self-interest is involved.

3.       Leadership requires vision and vision requires both courage and charisma. Since a politician in a democracy must pander to the whims of the voting citizenry, great leaders are rare because the very political process requires one to bow and scrape to moneyed and voting interests. Such interests are, almost by definition, short-sighted, far from “enlightened”, what to mention courageous and self-sacrificing for the greater good of all.

4.       Thus the very concept of “representation” tends to push the expectations towards mutual self-interest and, in the extreme, what is commonly referred to as “pork barrel.” (“You vote for me and I will bring you favors.”) Not wanting to disappoint the expectant rabble, a politician must resort to lies or half-truths, postponing the day of fiscal or other reckoning off past at least the next election, if not the next generation.

5.       Compromise is necessary even between intelligent and high minded individuals, what to mention the diverse plurality of representatives of America’s very wide spectrum of people and interests. The art of compromise suggests a view to long-term goals and an innate respect for others. But the long-term view inherent in maturity and wisdom is itself compromised by the clanging dinner bell of re-election.

6.       Compromise fails, however, when faced with national or international crises, not all of which involve war. Economic crises, trade relations affecting thousands or millions of jobs, global warming, pandemics, nuclear proliferation and any number of countless issues may and do arise that require vision and decisiveness  from those in leadership positions. The paralysis of party politics, always with eye to the popular vote, emasculates the integrity and courage of many a leader and representative. Thus it is that the polarization in today’s politics is oft decried but rarely challenged by elected officials. The result is paralysis in key challenges facing our nation. The ultimate result of making no real decision is that, in time, the decision will be made by other nations, other interests, or objective circumstances — with potentially undesirable results.

7.       But if one is tempted to look with wistful eye upon a benign dictatorship, one doesn’t have to look very far to discover that there aren’t any. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Fearful citizens may cry out for decisive action to quell their fears but in so doing they will unquestionably lose their freedom. The result may even be, either way, rebellion or hardship, and more likely, both.

8.       Thus our so-called democracy vacillates between pandering to self-interest and selling our freedoms in return for security. What we clearly lack in our country today is a practical and personal idealism.

So, where am I going? Is this just a carping session? Well, I mean, is there more to it than that?

Yes, of course. The point is that it is not so much the system of government that determines its effectiveness but the consciousness of the society itself, overall. Now, we yogis would add to the “karma” of the nation, as well. For example, America was founded in a very specific way with a very specific intention and conscious affirmation of freedom for all. However imperfect it was then and has been ever since, the impact of those conscious intentions (courageously expressed against great odds) has been the impetus (read: the “karma”) that has influenced and affected the relative degree of success of this great experiment in democracy. The founders of this country balanced recognition of allegiance to God and to truth with an impersonal and nonsectarian view of that truth. How far we have come from such a bold, expansive, and inclusive faith!
What then are the qualities of leaders and citizens that, in terms of today’s culture, would seem necessary to produce a government and a society that yields the greatest good for the greatest number?

John F. Kennedy said it well and now most famously when he challenged Americans to “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” Nothing worthwhile and enduring in human lives and history is accomplished without sacrifice and cooperation with others of like mind. Therefore we need to encourage and support leaders who do not flinch from reminding us of this basic truth in life. This means not flinching from difficult choices and challenging facts and circumstances. It means outlining a plan of action that, while subject to the compromise and consensus process inherent in our system of government, nonetheless reveals foresight, courage, and vision. No such plan will fail to challenge entrenched interests or beliefs. The corollary is a citizenry that understands that entitlements, benefits, and so called “pork” must be earned by self-effort and not dispensed like the proverbial free-lunch.

More attention must be given to meritocracy rather than entitlement; to helping others help themselves rather than doling out charity. Charity cannot be legislated. It is gift of free-will from the heart and is best left to those individuals and organizations better suited to expressing and channeling and inspiring such acts. Rather than robbing one set of people (thereby generating only resentment and avoidance, if not evasion) to support another set (who may be tempted, or forced, to accept such charity as a way of life and their own degraded self-definition) let’s inspire and encourage one another (through appropriate tax and social incentives) to be compassionate and to do that which is right to do.

Let specific industries take the lead to form associations for self-regulation. Such oversight must, of course, include government, consumers and labor interests and must be subject to the overall review of legislative and executive bodies. Let us bring decision making from the ivory tower of Washington D.C. down to the level where it is implemented. There can be broad over-arching goals and policies crafted at the national level but their implementation should work with the creativity and dedication of those responsible for executing those policies.

The law of duality requires a balancing of interests, especially between national and local governmental bodies. Some issues in society (health care, energy, transportation, safety, individual rights) demand national policies, but even these can be broad and directional. There application in local settings will naturally vary and will require the creative and positive participation of state and local government, business, non-profit, and individuals.

One of the great strengths and curses of American democracy is the two-party system. Talk about the law of duality, eh? The two parties have a stranglehold on American politics and make a mockery of one-man, one-vote choices.  One should be able to vote on the basis of merit not party. I think some states allow this, but I am not certain how this works, given that none of the party system is incorporated into the Constitution.
What is the meaning of a president and party that wins by a mere 1% or less of the vote? It can’t mean much. If winner takes all we can have government policies that nearly half of the country doesn’t support while the other choice, a coalition government, including a divided Congress, could mean nothing worthwhile is accomplished.

In the end, I cannot help but feel that if the country as a whole is not clear on its direction, it is better to proceed slowly than to push citizens beyond what they can accept. What this means is that external circumstances (economic, e.g.) or nations may force our hand. But, then, that’s the choice citizens have effectively made based on either their indecision or lack of inspired or practical options offered by those seeking public office.

In the case of sharply polarized issues such as, in American life today, gay marriage or abortion, it is similarly incumbent upon a society to move slowly and incrementally, not satisfying anyone, unfortunately, but avoiding unnecessary rancor at least to the extent possible. It takes time for cultures to take on new attitudes. Usually at least a generation or two is needed. Wise leadership leads but doesn’t drive, sometimes even going a step or two backwards, before advancing.

So we have this duality between compromise, which includes incremental change, and decisiveness, which includes a vision for new and fresh directions. “Patience,” it has been well said, “is the quickest route to success.” Democracy is messy and in many ways inefficient. But the key to success in national life is maturity in personal life.

Training in responsible citizenship and leadership should become universal, applied to everyone in general and to elected and public officials specifically. Cooperation should replace ruthless competition as the model in government and business alike. A business can emphasize quality or service, and a politician can emphasize creative solutions. Isn’t this preferable than wasting resources on beating one’s opponent down?

Every public servant should be schooled in the art and science of good government and personal, ethical behavior. The consequences of failure, too, should be clear and transparent. I believe the same should be true, to some degree, to responsible positions in business. Both are a privilege and a responsibility. There should be an element of self-sacrifice for a greater good. Excessive compensation or personal accumulation is anathema to the essence of effective leadership, in any field.

For, you see, it is consciousness that ultimately determines the course and fate of nations and individuals. A lousy political system, yes even a dictatorship, compromised of high-minded, honest, serviceful people will bring greater happiness and prosperity to a nation than a “pure” democracy comprised of selfish, self-seeking voters and elected officials.

Our system is a good as it gets, so far as we can know at this time in history. But a return to universal ideals must be re-affirmed and practically applied.

Blessings to you,
Nayaswami Hriman

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Does God Exist?

How Can We Know God?
God seems distant from our daily lives, our sufferings and our joys, and He seems irrelevant to our desires and ambitions, unless, of course, by invoking Him, we believe that He will fulfill our material desires! Humankind views the existence of God through the entire spectrum of belief to nonbelief: atheism, agnosticism, stoicism, humanism,  blind belief, worship, devotion and, finally, seeking union with God.

Even scriptures and spiritual teachers reflect, at least in part, much of this spectrum. India’s Shankya scriptures declare “Ishwar ashidha,” God is not provable. No wonder the never-ending debate and argument — no one can win! The modern mystic, Frank Laubach, campaigned among ministers that they would even mention God in their sermons! Perhaps, discouraged by the wide range of opinions, these ministers thought it easier to skip the subject!

While saints do not come to dash humanity’s hopes for a better world through God’s grace, or to suppress our faith in Providence, there is, nonetheless, a need, spiritually, to understand the role of self-effort and personal responsibility. Self-effort is the first step towards attracting divine grace. Buddha emphasized the former while those bhaktis (worshippers of God) in all traditions, like the Hare Krishna’s who insist that by only chanting God’s name can one be saved, emphasize the transforming power of divine grace. Somewhere in the middle path lies the truth.

Buddha urged his followers to be spiritually self-reliant, compassionate, noble in thought and deed, and to meditate. He also came to free people from Brahminical power and complex and costly rituals, and to reawaken their understanding of the need for personal effort and away from passive dependence upon an unseen and fickle deity.

But the followers of Buddha wrongly mistook the Buddha’s silence on the subject of Providence as disbelief. I read of a court case in Los Angeles where a Buddhist sued a school district for a school prayer because the Buddhist declared that he did not believe in God. But the Buddha’s motives were as simple and earthy as his teachings. His silence implied nothing except, by its own good example, an affirmation of the words of Lahiri Mahasaya of Benares, “He only is wise who devotes himself to realizing, not reading only, the ancient revelations.”

Buddha was a Hindu as Jesus was a Jew. Neither essentially rejected their spiritual heritage so much as they came to correct misunderstandings that had emerged, and to offer a new understanding and a renewal of spirituality. As Jesus put it; “I came not to destroy the law and the prophets, but to fulfill them.” Buddha openly taught meditation and reincarnation whereas Jesus, though he remained silent or circumspect  on both subjects, at least publicly, taught the Old Testament precepts to love God with all one’s heart, mind, and soul and to love others as one’s very Self. Buddha minimized the importance of his role but of course that was fitting in the context of his teachings. Nonetheless, Paramhansa Yogananda taught that Buddha was no less than an avatar (a “savior”).

Jesus’ teachings went a different direction, concurrent with his teachings. Jesus declared “I and my Father are One.” At another time he added, “Before Abraham was, I AM.” Not only was he killed for his blasphemy, but, as if to balance the equation, Christians decided to emphasize the “I” rather than the “Father,” and thus have overly personalized Jesus as the only savior down through the ages. This dogmatic insistence runs counter to Jesus’ teachings, for as St. John declared in the first chapter of his gospel, “As many as received Him gave He the power to become the sons of God.” Jesus was an individual incarnation of the Father-Spirit both beyond and immanent in creation. He did not limit or define that Spirit. “Tat twam asi,” as the Hindu scriptures aver: “Thou art THAT!”

Paramhansa Yogananda asked his audiences, “How can the wave call itself the ocean?” It is correct to say God has become manifest in me, and in all creation, though, as Spirit, He is hidden by the outward forms of creation, but it is incorrect to declare “I am God.” Only when the soul has become fully realized in his Oneness can he declare openly with divine inner sanction, as Yogananda did, “I killed Yogananda long ago, no one dwells here but He.”

It has been popular in recent years for certain scientists to disdain, scoff and mock belief in God. So, of course, have many people down through history. It is perfectly correct for a scientist to say “We cannot prove the existence of God,” but science has no basis to disprove that existence, either. The true scientist must remain silent on the subject if he is to represent science itself. It is just as rational to say this universe was created intentionally by an Intelligent, conscious Force as it is to say it came from nowhere and evolved more or less randomly to produce the profusion, quantity and complexity of life forms, the probing intelligence and creativity of the human mind, and the boundless capacity and drive of the human heart for feeling, compassion, and love. Well, actually, of the two choices, the former seems the safer bet. But never mind, let them feel like they have a choice since they can neither prove nor disprove either!

In the midst of all this confusion, the question some ask is, “Why does God hide Himself?” Paramhansa Yogananda said “You will know when you will know!” So long as we are caught up in the wheel of karma and unceasing duality, it is difficult for us to have the perspective that God has in being untouched by it. What is suffering to us is not suffering to God. The playwright is no less a good person for writing the villain into the play. Without an antagonist the play is uninteresting and will never be performed. Without suffering we would never delve deeper into the mysteries of our existence: why? How?

God manifested this dream universe, it is said, that He might know Himself and share his Bliss nature through others in a grand show and entertainment. Well, that grand show is all too often not very grand from our point of view. So, “you will know when you will know.” As unsatisfying as it may be, our more practical question is, “What can I do about it?” “How can I achieve freedom from suffering?” Besides, never has there been one who testified as to God’s presence who declared “What a mess He has made!” Admittedly, however, Yogananda said that he often argued with Divine Mother over the fact she did create this world and she owed it to us to help us.

Indeed, Buddha also asked the same question: How can I achieve freedom from suffering? Through his seeking and through his meditation-samadhi, he pierced the veil of delusion (maya) and declared his freedom, and, by extension, our potential freedom, for all eternity. Buddha saw through the unreality of pleasure and pain and, identified with his transcendent, omnipresent and eternal Self, could no longer be touched by the roiling oscillations of the play of opposites.

Paramhansa Yogananda taught that God has hidden Himself and His true nature from us that we might seek Him by choice and for His love, the one thing He does not possess unless we give it to Him. He is so humble even as the creation hangs upon His power. He will not disturb our free will except through his law of karma (consequences of our own actions) through which we have the opportunity to question, to wake up, and to yearn for freedom from error.

Paramhansa Yogananda also declared that “The time for knowing God has come.” By this he meant that in this age we would begin to prefer direct perception and personal experience over dogma and beliefs. To this shift in consciousness would come from God the means to fulfill this desire through the art and science of meditation. He also put it this way: “Intuition is the soul’s power to know God.” Now, of course, with intuition we can know all sorts of things, far more mundane than knowing God. But it’s by the same power that we receive an idea that is important to our daily life that we experience the ineffable presence of Peace in our hearts.

Paramhansa Yogananda described his life’s work as a new dispensation. One important part of this was his bringing the technique of kriya yoga, an advanced meditation technique. Kriya shows us how to retrace our steps from identification with the body and matter to soul realization by directing the Life Force through specific subtle nerve channels  which are the paths through which we have descended from Spirit into matter. In reversing the “searchlights of the senses,” we discover the “great Light of God” as our own and the only Reality.

He also brought a new understanding that has the potential to sidestep centuries of debate on the subject of the existence of God. He brought forward into modern culture the ancient teaching of the Adi (first) Swami Shankycharya that the nature of God is bliss, or, more correctly, Satchidanandam. Yogananda translated this to say that God is, and our soul’s purpose in being created is, to achieve the state of immortality, omniscience, and ever-new Bliss.  It is by seeking and experiencing the ever-new joy of the soul through meditation that the proof of God’s existence is found. And, as his guru, Swami Sri Yukteswar added to this, “His adequate response to our every need!”

Thus one who seeks God as the joy (or peace) of meditation finds Him and finds Him ever increasingly the most relishable. From this contact we find, as Jesus promised, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and its righteousness (meaning in right attitude and action), and all these things shall be added unto you.” Let inner peace, even-mindedness under all circumstances and cheerfulness be your religion born of your direct perception in meditation of the truth that shall make you free from, as the Bhagavad Gita puts it, “dire fears and colossal sufferings.”

Blessings to you,

Nayaswami Hriman

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Are You Breathing?

In the chapter on Kriya Yoga in the classic story, Autobiography of a Yogi, Paramhansa Yogananda declared “The ancient yogis discovered that the secret of cosmic consciousness is intimately linked with breath mastery. This is India’s unique and deathless contribution to the world’s treasury of knowledge.”

The meditation technique of focusing upon the breath is found throughout the world. Concentration is the fundamental and universal constant of all meditation techniques. Meditation is a form of concentration upon any object:  outward, inward, gross or subtle. Paramhansa Yogananda defined meditation as “concentration upon God or one of His aspects.” But in this statement, he was holding up the goal of meditation (at least as meditation) whereas the techniques of meditation begin with concentration upon a single object. To experience a free 10 minute online guided meditation visit 

Besides focusing on the breath, one can concentrate upon mental images such as a deity, one’s guru, a lotus (or any object of nature), a white (or blue) light, a mantra or word formula, sounds and on and on. Deeper in meditation, one may be counseled to focus on inner experiences such as the spontaneous appearance of subtle sounds, light, color or movements of energy or feeling  (“prana”) in the physical or astral body.

The appeal of focusing on the breath has several advantages. One, it’s obvious (everyone can feel his own breath), and two, it’s ubiquitous (everyone breathes). But there is a more important reason and it is much deeper than these two. (Compared to the most common alternative objects of meditative concentration, watching the breath is much easier. Few people can hold a mental image of any kind for very long and only more experienced meditators can hold steady to their inner sight the subtler aspects of the inner astral world.)

For us, living in a physical body, breath is life itself. We breathe, we live; if we don’t breathe, we die. The breath connects and holds our consciousness (self-awareness) to our physical body. The yogis demonstrated long ago that it is possible to suspend the breath cycle and live, indeed, perhaps forever (although in suspended animation). (Why live forever in such a state, however.) Such demonstrations have been repeated, even in modern times, to the observation of skeptics and scientists alike (oh, there’s no difference, you say?). Saints — even in the twentieth century — both east and west, have similarly proved that one can live without food or water. The point isn’t that anyone should live either in suspended animation (which is pointless) or without food and water, which would deprive much of humanity of the means of supporting themselves. The point is that the real Self is not limited by the body or by dependence upon material sustenance of any kind, including the breath.

You see, the breath is the link between the mind (consciousness; soul, spirit) and the body. The ebb and flow of breath sets up the out and in, push and pull, back and forth motion by which we are kept in constant flux and reaction to the input of the senses and to our mental reactions (emotional and cognitive). This in and out motion of the breath sets up and makes possible our interaction through the senses with the world of objects around us. This world of objects is also in constant flux: the sun, moon, stars, the wind, the tide, night and day all have their motions which never cease. The breath sends Life Force to and from the senses; it sends energy out into activity based on necessity or interest, and away from activity in search of rest or in rejection. As all atoms, molecules and light are in flux, it is only by becoming part of the flux can we experience this dream world as being apparently real. 

More important than this, however, are the oscillations of our reactions — like and dislike, fight or flight. It is our reactions that bind us and cause our identification with change to seem so real. We inhale as we embrace (mentally or otherwise) a positive response and we exhale as we reject or withdraw in reaction to outer stimuli (or thoughts and mental images). 

By going to the very foundation of this oscillation — the breath cycle itself — we nip the reactive process before it can even encounter an object (sensory or mental). Thus by meditation upon the breath we gain control over its fluctuations. By the act of concentration upon the breath, we slow the breath. Because the breath, as such, forms the basis for but does not contain within itself any character, color, or reactive quality in and of itself, our focus upon it is devoid of any further reactive tendencies (which are then calmed as a result). As the mind empties itself of reactive feelings and images and as the body is relaxed into stillness (shutting down or off the senses), the breath automatically slows and subsides towards perfect stillness. 

A steady focus upon any object will gradually cause that object to vanish from sight. Try concentrating upon a candle, or the smell of incense, or the touch of an object: in all cases motion is necessary to perpetuate the awareness of the sight, smell or touch as belonging to a distinct and separate object. Everyone has had some experience with staring off into the distance, or daydreaming to the point where objects of sight or hearing no longer intrude upon the mind.   Sleep itself is the most obvious daily experience whereby the sense “telephones” are turned off and we lose contact with the senses and their objects. We are yogis every night. Unfortunately, we are only dimly aware of our state of sleep, though we always know how well we slept and when we sleep well we know that we enjoyed it.
God, in the Bible, in the Old Testament, declares: “Be still, and know, that I AM GOD.”

While any act of deep concentration will slow down the breath and heart rate, the breath is, itself, the primordial cause or vehicle for our involvement with the senses and the world around us. It is fitting, therefore, that our concentration be upon the breath itself. To perceive the subtle substratum of energy (and then later, the even finer substratum of consciousness) which forms the building blocks for the seeming separateness of material objects, the motions of breath must cease. “When motion ceases, God begins” Paramhansa Yogananda taught. Fortunately for meditators, even slowing the breath brings intuition and re-vitalization of tissues, cleansing of negativity, and clarity of mind.

Focusing on the breath requires no complex belief system, which is another reason for its popularity and universality. It requires no religious affiliation as breathing is as universal as the human body!

That having been said, it is a mistake to think that ethical behavior, compassion, wisdom, or devotion are unnecessary. The simple fact is we need a reason, a motivation to engage in the practice of meditation. Except for peak moments (a crises, public speaking, extreme sports, artistic inspiration, or brain surgery), deep meditation requires more concentration and will power than anything else most people do during a typical day. Wisdom and devotion provide the rocket fuel needed to boost our energy to withdraw from outward and restless activities in order to go within and rise upward to the brain through the subtle spinal centers known as the chakras.

Both the relatively passive techniques of “watching” the breath and the more concentrated techniques of breath control (including advanced subtle techniques such as kriya yoga) are powerfully effective and well suited to the technology and results-driven values of this culture and this age.
Blessings to you,

Nayaswami Hriman