Monday, December 23, 2013

That Night When Christ was Born!

What a wonderful story the birth of Jesus is! Did you know, however, that the custom of erecting a nativity scene in honor of Jesus' birth did not begin for a thousand years and was started by St. Francis near Assisi, Italy?

Now, two thousand years later, how relevant is it to assert or deny the virgin birth? Or, the appearance of the heavenly hosts? Or, the presentation of the Three Wise Men from the East?

Joseph Campbell, the famous "mythologist," has helped modern Americans reconnect with the reality that a story can be meaningful and true with or without being a fact. The Bible stories, the Hindu Ramayana and Mahabharata, creation myths and on on show us that "truth is greater and more true than mere facts."

The power of the nativity lies in its hidden message. Like art, including music, it affirms a reality that our intellect is too dull (or distracted) to comprehend (or notice) but which our heart and soul knows, embraces and celebrates.

Orthodox Christians, viewing the nativity story from the point of view of theology and belief, limit their understanding to a literal interpretation of what they believe are the facts of Jesus' birth. I don't have a problem with that but it doesn't address the real issue: the power of this story to uplift generations for centuries in the embrace of its power, love, and light.

Really, after all: millions go to Christmas Eve Services and many don't normally go to church or have an orthodox religious life at all. Is their attendance merely a well worn habit? For some, yes. But for all? No, I don't think so. Millions, some not even Christians, surely feel a special grace or blessing of kinship with all during the Christmas season. There is a famous story from World War I when the close-by but opposing armies in the trenches came out to celebrate with one another one dark and cold Christmas Eve. Stories of spontaneous generosity are so omnipresent during Christmas that it makes no special point to remember any of them!

It is true that babies always attract a fair amount of ooohing and aaahing but Gee Whiz, two thousand years ago? We wax wistful and brotherly (sisterly) at the sight or thought of this child -- his birth, his life, his death, and resurrection. We know this child has for us a message that is true. It is a message of hope, of reassurance, of safety, of security, of love without condition and without end.

The hidden message is, at least in part, said plainly in Sanskrit, from India, from the Chandogya Upanishad: Tat Twam Asi. This "grand pronouncement" of the eternal teaching (Sanaatan Dharma) means, simply, "Thou art That." 

We recognize ourselves in that child for we, too, are eternal and "Before Abraham, I AM." (John 8:15) Further, Psalm 82:6 reminds us that "I have said, ye are gods, and all of you are children of the most high."

None of this denies the divinity of Jesus, the Christ (the annointed). The Star of Bethlehem, "His star," presages and symbolizes that this one is a true "son of God" and "one with the Father." So, too, the meaning of the virgin birth. But the difference between Jesus' spiritual realization and our own is matter of degree not kind. We have yet to awaken fully to our sonship in God. And that awakening was the purpose of his birth, and the incarnation of every such son of God whether it be Buddha, Krishna, or any number of world teachers, avatars, who come fully awakened in God. They come for but one purpose: to bring prodigal souls, souls thirsty and hungry for truth and God-realization, back to their home in God consciousness.

This is the hidden message of the nativity. It follows, though more by deduction, than intuition, that the birth of the hidden Christ within us requires action on our part. We must imitate His birth in the meaning of the symbols of his birth: the manger which was but a stable represents humility. Humility is the first condition of our spiritual awakening. Humility does not mean self-deprecation but realization of the wonder of creation, the smallness of our ego, and our need for and desire to love God, that Being of Love who is Infinite and the essence of all Life. To have this realization is the perspective of Infinity and it must needs be a form of humility for the ego.

The quietness of the animals in the stable means that our animal appetites must lie down and render service to this inner Christ. We have need of food, for example, but only in the context of nourishment not food greed, and to keep the body fit as a temple of our God!

The shepherds who watch over the flocks are our thoughts which herd (direct) our actions. These shepherds must come and worship this Christ and in so doing become protectors of our thoughts and actions directed toward selflessness, toward nobility, and toward devotion.

The Three Wise Men who come to worship the Christ child reveal to us that to our aid will come, if we seek and let them, wise teachers, both living and now gone, whose teachings can assist us to develop wisdom, devotion, and self-control.

King Herod, or King Ego, stands ready to massacre this child, and indeed, this child as it is born in others around us. We must flee to Egypt until he dies. Egypt here means we must seek the company of other truth seekers and avoid the soul-killing company of worldly people and circumstances. Until the ego has died (at least sufficiently to no longer challenge Christ the (inner) King), we must remain in the protection of the like-minded. Indeed, spiritually speaking, only highly advanced souls can afford to live apart from society or, in any case, without the ongoing support of other spiritually mind people.

As any newborn child, this inner Christ will need protection and nurturing until he can be "about my Father's business!" We must have daily prayer and meditation, and develop right attitudes of servicefulness, devotion, and right living: compassionate and kindly.

This is the good news of Jesus' birth. What it does mean to be good news because we are "saved?" The appearance of divinity in human form and in one who has achieved oneness with the Father through many incarnations is good news because it means we can do it too. It's also good news because (the bad news is) we can't do it by ourselves alone. It is the ego that awakens to the possibility of soul freedom but it is already trapped. A true savior, or guru-preceptor, has the spiritual power to "lift up the serpent in the wilderness" and thus to lift the serpent of delusion up in the wilderness of spiritual purification, prayer, meditation and self-offering, and, to transform the base metal of ego consciousness into the gold (brass) of the soul.

The good news of the birth of such a one is therefore two-fold: one, "we can do it, too," and two, " And, He is here to help us." Some are more attracted and in tune with other such avatars, like Buddha, Krishna, and in our times Paramhansa Yogananda, or others like Paramhansa Ramakrishna, and even great saints who, while not entirely free, serve to help others spiritually. The realization of others is not our concern. We must walk the path to freedom according to our heart's direction: to Jesus, or to others. Thousands were disciples of St. Francis but he was, in turn, a disciple of Jesus and one of the greatest (and the first to receive the stigmata, the wounds of Christ on his own body).

Let us both celebrate and get to work on achieving soul freedom. "The time for knowing God has come" Paramhansa Yogananda declared. Meditation, including Kriya Yoga, is for everyone and is the greatest single aid to soul freedom through self-effort.

A blessed and bliss-ed Christmas and New Year to all,

Swami Hrimananda aka Hriman

Friday, December 20, 2013

Will the Real Christ Please Come to Christmas this Year!

A door that leads to the outside also leads to the inside. A cup is said to be either half empty or half full. Both are true, but one may be more useful than the other.If you are trying to get outside the house, the fact that the door goes outside is keenly of interest to you. If you are dying of thirst, the half cup of water is earnestly appreciated.

The famous interchange in the New Testament that begins with Jesus asking his disciples, "Who do men say I am," is like that door or that cup. Most people, whether during Jesus' life or down through the centuries, see only the man Jesus, who lived in a particular time, said specific things, and lived in Palestine under Roman occupation. Others see his form, his words, and his actions as doorways to divinity itself. I would go further and say, as I have often said, that the answer to Jesus' question to his disciples is the same for him as it is for you or me. The one disciple who answered Jesus' question correctly was, as you probably know, Peter who said, "Thou art the Christ, son of the living God."

The Hindu "bible," the Bhagavad Gita, is a conversation between Lord Krishna (the Hindu equivalent of Jesus), and Arjuna (Krishna's Peter). In both scriptural conversations ("Who do men say I am?") and the Bhagavad Gita, the master (the guru: Jesus, or Krishna) reveals his divine nature as "one with the Spirit (Father)."

The incarnate form of divinity is like that door or that cup of water. As it is Christmas, we'll stick now to the subject of Jesus. Jesus, you, and I, and metaphysically speaking, every atom of creation, are what I say, tongue-in-cheek, "bi-polar." We have a dual nature. (In fact, like the Trinity, we have a triune nature, but let's hold that thought for now.)

While Christians may insist that Jesus' claim was an exclusive one, a careful and intuitive reading of the New Testament reveals this cannot be so. For example, St. John's gospel in Chapter 1 asserts that "As many as received Him gave he the power to become the sons of God." (Note "sons" is plural.) Jesus told his disciples "these things I do (miracles etc.), greater things will you do."

For the human soul to aspire to know God directly, as a Spirit -- infinite, omnipresent, omniscient, all-pervading etc. etc. -- is a tall order. How can you love or even approach something so abstract, so beyond human comprehension? By seeing God, God-consciousness, God's goodness, wisdom, love and so on incarnate in a human being we can relate more meaningfully. Nor does such a fact demean either us or God, for the very universe itself is a manifestation of God's intention, consciousness, and goodness. Yet form (whether subtle such as various forms of energy or gross such a physical objects and human bodies), the universe also cloaks that divinity.

The world, including our bodies and acquired personality traits, dutiful activities, and desires, is both a doorway into and toward the hidden divinity, and, a door that keeps us outside and apart from that divinity. Well meaning adherents or disciples of a great teacher all too often miss the point, mistaking the form of their guru (his appearance, his words, his actions) as the essence and that essence as to be distinguished from all other forms, teachers, teachings and so on. Only true and wise disciples see through the form to the divinity which animates the form and in that broad perspective recognize the divinity in other forms, other great teachers, and, indeed, in all people and all creation.

Is Jesus Christ, however, the "only" begotten son of God? Is he somehow qualitatively different than Krishna, Buddha, and others? Is Jesus Christ, or Krishna, or Buddha direct incarnations of God: God taking on human form?

God has already taken human form in you and I! And, in all creation. This has already happened, in other words. The only greater thing that can happen is for those forms to become self-aware of that divine nature, to become as Paramhansa Yogananda and others have described it, Self-realized in our divine nature. This doesn't deny or reject our form (our human form and nature); rather, it elevates and ennobles the human body and persona to true goodness and godlike qualities.

Jesus announced that "I and my Father are One!" For this alleged blasphemy he was killed by the religious authorities for whom such a claim was the ultimate threat to their privileged lives and positions. Yet he had a body and, one presumes and can sense from reading his words and considering his actions, a personality of his very own.

Thus Paramhansa Yogananda (author of Autobiography of a Yogi), whose own followers including me, believe that he was also "one with the Father," taught that when the soul, after countless incarnations, at last achieves Self-realization, the soul retains characteristically unique traits which, in order to be incarnate at all, are both necessary and part and parcel, eternally, of the soul's Being. Oneness, in other words, does not destroy or sublimate the soul into some amorphous mass consciousness. The soul can plunge into God, swimming in Infinity, but is not destroyed and may, if called upon by other souls (not yet free in God) seeking spiritual enlightenment through the vehicle of that soul and the deep bond between them, reemerge with its unique traits as yet intact. This free soul may take physical form (then becoming an "avatar") or appear in vision, or render assistance through thought-inspirations. In this way devotees have prayed to their respective gurus for many centuries after the guru's human incarnation. In so doing, they have been uplifted, taught, and received true communion with God.

Our nature, then, is divinity in form and therefore dual (or as I like put it, "bi-polar"). But it is also triune because the bridge between these two is the vibration of God from which all forms manifest. God beyond and untouched by creation (as "the Father"), vibrates His consciousness with intention, intelligence, and love in order to "boot-up" or initialize creation. All things in form are moving on the atomic, sub-atomic, chemical and electrical levels, if not in outward appearances (think rocks or minerals). The intelligence of a star, a tree, or a human is hidden because intelligence is "no thing." But the evidence of its intelligence is the form and its functions (including self-perpetuation) that clothes (even as it cloaks) that intelligence. Trees look like trees; chickens, chickens, and so on.

This vibratory energy of creation has many names. It is chanted as Aum, Amen, Amin, Hum, or Ahunavar. It is called the Holy Ghost or the Divine Mother because being holy, pure, a virgin it is the "stem cell" vibration underlying and out which all things become differentiated and take separate form.

The divine intelligence or nature that exists in creation is the only begotten and true son of God. Like a true human son, this intelligence reflects the image of its father, having the intention and attributes of divinity, at least in latent potential. Jesus was the Christ, or anointed one, because he had realized his divinity both within his form and beyond his form in the Father. We all are Christs but we, by contrast, have not yet realized that and cannot yet demonstrate mastery over life and death itself, as Jesus, Buddha, Krishna, and Yogananda demonstrated to close disciples.

Yogananda called his mission to the world the Second Coming of Christ not because he claimed to be Jesus but because the second coming takes place in the birth of the Christ child of divine consciousness in our own heart and mind and soul.

So, will the real Christ come to Christmas? That depends on you! "Tat twam asi." "Thou art That," it says in the scriptures of India. This is who we should say we are! Who am I? I am the Christ, the son of the living God! (Then behave accordingly!) Be careful, however, for he who says he is, isn't. He who says he isn't, isn't. He who knows, knows. One should not boast nor say "I am God." Rather, "God has become this form."

With the blessings of the great ones of self-mastery, we can be guided to Self-realization. Attune yourself to them. Study their lives, teachings, and actions, and make them your own. Walk like St. Francis in the footsteps of the master and He will help you to be free as He is Now.

Meditate daily, serve selflessly, endure hardship and difficulties with equanimity and cheerfulness, and watch and wait, for, "like a thief in the night, He will come!

Christmas blessings to all, and to all, a good night!

Swami Hrimananda aka Hriman

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Why I Believe in Santa Claus--and so does Patanjali from the Yoga Sutras!

In Paramhansa Yogananda's commentary on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, specifically the yamas and niyamas (the "do's" and the "don'ts"), he emphasizes the consciousness underlying the precept and not merely its literal application to daily life. Not surprisingly, therefore, his foremost public service teaching disciple, Swami Kriyananda (founder of Ananda's worldwide work), carries this theme into his now classic text, The Art and Science of Raja Yoga. 

So, for example, in the yama of non-lying (satya), Yogananda asked the question (pertinent to his lifetime) that if you were living in Germany and hiding Jews from the Gestapo, would it be dharmic (righteous) to tell the Gestapo who show up at your door that "Oh, yes, I've been hiding them.....look behind that wall"? The obvious answer is NO! Thus, he would explain that to be truthful can't always be applied literally.

Swami Kriyananda gave the additional example that it can be a dharmic application of the yama of ahimsa (non-violence) to act in either self-defense (including a just war) or for the defense of others for whom you have the duty of protection to even have to kill another person. Self-defense in a just cause does not presume or require one to hate, he would add. To be harmless is to be devoid of the impulse, desire or tendency to get revenge, to hurt other people whom you don't like, to gossip or be judgmental. To be truthful includes ridding oneself of the tendency to wish things were different than they are, or to dwell in merely imaginary wishful thinking, or holding on to the past, which cannot be changed. And so on through the different yamas.

Patanjali was speaking therefore of a state of consciousness and to the reality that we need only to step away from false identifications and impulses to realize or become what we are already when we are centered not in things or sense experience but in the Self within: kind, truthful, and appropriate in thought and deed.

Swami Kriyananda told the story that, as a small boy, he asked his father whether Santa Claus was real. His father was more literal in his application of being truthful and confessed that "No, Santa Claus is not real." Swamiji (then, little Donald) was crushed. Later in his own life, indeed as an elderly man, Swamiji in telling that story would add, with an appropriate twinkle in his eye, "I still believe in Santa Claus."

Who is Santa Claus? We read stories of St. Nicholas, taking different names and with variations on the story of his compassion and charity, from different cultures. His story and persona persist Christmas after Christmas despite all reason, all facts, all knowledge about sleighs, reindeer, and chimneys. "A fact is not a truth." Truth is beneficial; it is healing; it connects with a greater and broader truth.

Is not Santa Claus the ideal and the embodiment, indeed, the human incarnation of generosity, compassion, kindness and everything good and jolly about him?

Can we not say, therefore, on the basis of a higher truth, that "Yes, Santa Claus exists." He is in you and me. He lives in us to the degree we express his lovable qualities of kindness, humor, self-giving and so on. Therefore, he lives on!

So next time your son or daughter, niece or nephew, or a small child anywhere asks, "Is Santa Claus real" or "Do you believe in Santa Claus" you can say YES, and, if helpful, quote Patanjali.

Ho, ho, ho.......Merry Christmas, and to all goodwill and peace on earth!

Swami Hrimananda!

Friday, December 6, 2013

Seclusion is the Price of Greatness: My Week, and How & Why to Do It!

I have just completed my annual week of seclusion. By seclusion I mean a personal and private spiritual retreat in prayer, meditation, study and silence (both outward and inward). It was Paramhansa Yogananda (whose teachings I follow as a disciple) who uttered the words which are the title of this piece: “Seclusion is the Price of Greatness.”

So, yes, I had a “great” seclusion! Ok, that’s a funny. By “greatness” I suppose Yogananda (PY) must have meant many things but for me I see that in this time spent alone with God and Guru, the greatness of one’s spirit are “made manifest.” When one’s only task is to “go within,” one has the opportunity to feel the vastness of Spirit that lies behind the mundane details and preoccupations of daily life.

Is it easy? Is it fun? Well, no, and no. There’s a lot more than just “joy within you”. One must combat desires, restlessness, aching limbs and back, gnawing hunger, withdrawal symptoms from one’s minor vices, and on and on. There are fears, too. As PY put it, “the soul LOVES to meditate but the ego hates to meditate.” There is a fear of losing oneself in the inner silence; there arises sudden and inexplicable “needs” to do housework, to get up from meditation and adjust the curtains, or to cook something one has never bothered to make (or even liked) before! Demons of regrets and self-judgment rise to slay the peace of meditation. They must be grappled with and the best solution is to call upon God and guru and to remain steadfastly calm and focused at the spiritual eye. One must refuse to yield to their portrayal of your self as unworthy or unfit for spiritual freedom and upliftment.   

Yet, for all the obstacles, there come meditation periods when grace kicks in, thoughts mysteriously retreat into silence, and the inner light of joy dawns like the rising sun in summer! Deep and long prayers to the guru, by visualization or inner feeling, bring floods of peace and wisdom-insights. Calmness, deep and abiding, descends into every body cell like invisible healing rays of divine life. Life bubbles up like a spring of crystal clarity, with eyes seeing the world afresh and anew.

During seclusion I can chant without having to keep in rhythm for others chanting with me. I can go into deep whisper chanting; single-note chanting, off-key, on-key but all welling up as if the words were never sung before by anyone except perhaps my guru, and my teacher, Swami Kriyananda. If I awaken in the middle of night I can sit up and meditate without disturbing anyone!

This last week’s seclusion is the first to take place for me after the death of Swami Kriyananda last April (2013). He feels more present now because he is freed from the confines of his frail and elderly body.

Most years I bring one deeper book of Yogananda’s or Kriyananda’s to study from and find inspiration. This year I felt to dispense with reading except a little light reading (about the history of India) to give my mind a period break from the intensity of meditation and inner silence.

In my seclusions (which I have taken each year for a week since, hmmm, the late 80’s) food is greatly simplified. I used to do strict fasting but that puts more attention on the body and feeding it than a simple, light, fresh fare. Food is fortunately for me not much of a distraction, as I have never been a cook. In seclusion and at home I use my Vitamix blender which easily combines fresh fruit and vegetables for rapid and painless consumption. I also steam some veggies but minimize carbohydrates (avoiding bread or rice), eliminate sweets, and use few spices. I still have my morning cup of coffee.

In some past years I come into seclusion very tired and spent from intense activity. Not this year, fortunately. At such times it is not uncommon to need one or two days of rest before commencing more seriously longer periods of meditation. Concentration in meditation is “hard work, but good work!” This year I felt a touch of fatigue, mostly mental, but I also felt the effects of detoxing as I began my lean fast of wheatgrass and other green-healthy yummies after Thanksgiving feasting. This past quickly, however.

During seclusion I have the opportunity to go much deeper in my yoga practices: a daily stretching routine, for sure, but, more importantly meditation. This includes various pranayams as commonly taught and the particular ones emphasized by Yogananda and my teacher. The most important of these is kriya yoga, for which there are several levels of kriya. I can take the time to explore, go deep and go beyond all techniques into silence. I have the luxury, too, born of the depth and time and space of seclusion together with guru’s grace to practice as inwardly guided. Perfect stillness steals upon one at the most surprising moments. The end of any given exhalation may be blessed with perfect stillness of breath and mind into One.

Alone with God, the day (indeed, the week) is yours and His. I find, therefore, that I follow a natural rhythm of concentration and relaxation, both in meditation and in calm, inward activities between meditation periods. Such activities include going for a run, doing yoga stretches, splitting wood and tending the wood stove (it’s quite cold this year here), preparing and having my simple meals, showering and even taking rest breaks. I follow the inner movement of energy and thereby establish a natural pace that isn’t forced or apt to create inner tension. In meditation I can alter techniques and even suspend them if I sense the approach of the King of Peace.

This year I’ve been especially inspired to focus on Yogananda’s presence and that too of Swami Kriyananda. Asking each for guidance at various points during meditation and throughout the day. I do this by silent, inner dialogue or prayer; or, other times, by visualizing their image in silence, wordlessly asking for guidance or for the feeling of their presence. While this is always a part of any disciple’s sadhana (“spiritual practices”), for me this year it taken front and center place.

I have returned home now, today, Friday, December 6. For days with temperatures below freezing the mountains with a carpet of fresh snow, and Mt. Baker, were in their glory. At dawn and dusk, they’d be wreathed in pink and red hues, as if to “reach up for the heights!” I have been blessed with two special graces in this week: both very private, but both fundamental to my life’s unfoldment. I pray that I can carry them forward as a permanent grace.

So, how do you take a seclusion? Well: one day at time? I suggest you start at home with a morning (or a few hours) of meditation, prayer and study. Chose a time when no one else is around. Do this once or more during the year. As you feel, expand into a whole day and then, later, into a weekend.

In addition, go on retreat with others at least once a year (twice a year is better). On retreat you get accustomed to deeper spiritual practices and maintaining an uplifted consciousness. Some retreats are silent retreats and these are very helpful. (Here in Seattle all of our retreats are silent retreats.)

If you try to bite off too much too fast, you might crash and burn. By this I mean that the mind (and body), unaccustomed to sensory deprivation, will rebel and you might find yourself plopping down and reading a romance novel, sitting at the computer surfing the net, binging on junk food, or otherwise becoming discouraged for not feeling any inspiration, or being able to meditate deeply etc. etc. Build your seclusion muscles naturally and gradually because outer and inner relaxation is the key to success.

Most yogi-friends who I know don’t take their first real seclusion sometimes for years after establishing the daily habit of meditation and adopting a yogic lifestyle (usually vegetarian diet, plus fellowship with like-minded souls, selfless service to the work of yoga and so on).

In addition to having spiritual reading material, plan to do some journaling, too. Meditate in bite size chunks so as not to exhaust the brain and nervous system, or to create aches and pains in the protesting body joints.

Should you take seclusion at home? Only if that’s your best choice. In principle and practice, best to get away from your usual environment. Find a place that is sacred and dedicated to meditation and devotion. Ananda’s retreat centers (near Assisi, Italy, Pune, India, and Nevada City, CA) have various ways to accommodate retreats (including classes, workshops and training) and personal retreat or seclusion. Recently, the Ananda Meditation Retreat near Nevada City re-opened for personal retreat and private, personal seclusion. Here in the greater Seattle area on Camano Island, we have a Hermitage (a single family home) dedicated and available for this purpose. As a result of having the Hermitage so near to the Ananda Community in Lynnwood, WA, many more members have begun the practice of taking seclusion than ever before.

The “greatness” PY speaks of has, as I said initially, many levels of meaning. When we are too much around others, too much involved and identified with our work and family, we lose sight of the innate greatness of our soul (and that of others!). Most people on this planet have never been alone for more than a short time. So, for some it can be daunting even to think about. The price of greatness is to know that we are never alone, for God is always with us, within us, and all around. The price of knowing is seclusion. The opportunity for seclusion is privilege and a grace. Embrace it!

Your very Self,

Swami Hrimananda!