Saturday, May 31, 2014

Is Yoga Spiritual or is Yoga Exercise?

I'm supposed to be preparing my talk for Sunday Service tomorrow. So, instead, I'm going to write this because it's easier. Ok, it is somewhat related but my talks rarely are anything like these blog posts---so there!

Millions of human beings are practicing energetic health-inducing disciplines like martial arts and yoga. These help over-active people to slow down, get centered, and learn to move in the body and through the world with calm, conscious vitality.

The other day I was speaking with a fellow who has decades of experience in more martial arts systems than I had ever heard of. He had only been introduced to yoga and meditation recently. He made a simple comment of distinction. He said that in martial arts one gets hold of one's chi (energy) and directs it outward. In yoga, by contrast, you do the same thing but direct the prana (chi) inward (and upward to the brain). I found that helpful and it seemed intuitively clear (though I've had no experience in martial arts).

Is the practice of yoga (the physical poses, that is) simply another exercise system? This, in fact, is being debated around the world, from New Delhi, India to Delhi, California. As exercise, various governmental and non-profit organizations seek to monitor, license and otherwise control the quality and consequences of the practice. This patterns how we think about the sale of goods and services in the marketplace and how we think about the role of government to protect us from shoddy or fraudulent business practices.

Is yoga a spiritual practice or is it exercise? If spiritual, governments or other bodies may be forced to leave it alone in the name of separation of church and state and/or freedom of religious practice. If exercise, then government is likely to view its role as to protect our citizens from inadequately trained or even fraudulent yoga teachers.

Is meditation a psycho-physiological mental-health system or is it a spiritual practice? In the spiritual tradition from which yoga (including meditation) has arisen, a student seeks a teacher and undertakes what is usually a lengthy and rigorous training. The student may, or may not, be authorized, instructed or permitted to go out and teach others; or, he may simply do that with or without his teacher's sanction when his training is complete. Because the outer form of yoga practices are infinitely varied and because in the yogic tradition the purpose is to awaken a higher consciousness (which cannot, by its nature, be measured or quantified to the satisfaction of government bureaucrats or proven by consumer surveys), only the most egregious applications can be sanctioned and those, usually, by being unmasked, ostracized and "run out of town."

Yoga claims to be practical, scientific, and independent of religious belief or affiliation. Paramhansa Yogananda's mission statement when he came to America in 1920 was published in the ghost-written book, "The Science of Religion." (In recent years this was clarified and conformed to his actual teachings by his disciple, and founder of Ananda, Swami Kriyananda with the book title, "God is for Everyone.")

Because of this claim, yoga opens itself up to the view that it is therefore not spiritual! Let the battle begin! This is where "spiritual but not religious" enters the fray. But the fact is, much of physical (hatha) yoga IS taught and practiced strictly (or, well, mostly) as a form of exercise, with some mental health benefits in the form of calmness, relaxation, and self-awareness added in for good measure. So, some do; some, don't.

It's a perfect dilemma for a left brain, rule-bound society! In Washington State a few years ago, a state agency held hearings on this and some of us from the yoga schools testified. For the time being they concluded that in certain contexts yoga classes were off limits to their oversight, and in others, the practice had to be licensed with them. Ananda, being already a church and practicing yoga overtly AS A spiritual practice, we easily received exemption. Fitness studios and gyms, by contrast, did not. Seemed a reasonable line to draw.

It drives the orthodox religionists (except Hindus, of course) crazy. I read an article about yoga practice in Iran, for example! Yes, there are some 200 yoga studios but they are frowned upon big-time. A yoga teacher in my area re-named her yoga class (held in a Christian church) to suit the tastes of her orthodox Christian members.......Movement and Prayer, or something like that?

But the dirty little secret about yoga is that it IS this sense, at least: with consistent and focused practice (and irrespective of beliefs or expectations), some students will begin to experience states of awareness that enter their lives bestowing, as if from "nowhere," unconditioned joy, steady calmness and an experience of sacredness and reverence. Is that a threat to orthodoxy? That depends on orthodoxy, but it need not be so because all religions possess (somewhere) this same sense of reverence and sacredness.

Some, more than others. Not Unitarians, of course, but more likely Catholics, well, you get my meaning (all poking fun, aside). In principle, a Christian could direct this sacredness towards her Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. The orthodox religionist, however, detecting that this sacredness appears without being prompted by or without having an initial identification with an orthodox-approved outer form might call it satanic because it has no known source and takes no orthodox form (or has the potential to take UNorthodox form). So, again, we have cup that is half empty or half full.

But the reality remains that yoga practice MIGHT awaken its practitioner to state of being independent of outward circumstances and possessing the potential to find within ourselves the happiness we normally seek outside ourselves. This is, and probably should be, a threat to orthodoxy for the simple fact that orthodoxy wants its adherents to receive their spiritual wisdom and graces through the authorized vehicle of their priestly class and its sacraments and chain of approved dispensations.

Whether government has the right to control who can teach yoga (and meditation) must be left to society and government. The way these things are encircling the globe more or less leaves governmental control at least partly in the dust, if you include the internet as form of learning and practice. No doubt some ridiculously lame circumstance will be so outrageous that public cries for reform and control will bring the hammer of government oversight down again and again. Such is the way of the world.

But there will always exist either secretive or at least less public esoteric practices and practitioners reserved to whom those go who are willing to give their all to the "way" and who understand that true "yoga" is an "all-or-nothing" proposition in respect to the ego. There simply cannot be a more "religious" or "spiritual" end-game than "union with God, the Infinite Power!"

Never before in recorded history has something like yoga happened. Millions discover a wellspring of spirituality within themselves. What do they DO with that living water? It's as varied as the individual, of course. To keep the spring flowing it is essential to share it somehow; to associate with others who share it with you; to find some outward form of expressing it. No surprise, then, that "spiritual but not religious" is like a rising tide. Those who keep it to themselves will, in time, lose their source.

This article has already taken an unanticipated direction on me. So I'm going to go to a different vantage point and take it home for now. What I had intended to write about is on the theme that yoga (meaning, really, meditation, or for sake of clarity, "raja yoga") is coming to the fore of human society because our souls crave to balance our commitment to materialism and outwardness with inner Self-awareness. Modern life has given millions the freedom for ego to explore the candy store of the senses and the world. This inevitably brings over-satiety, suffering, nervousness, depression and existential dread. Truth simply IS and the truth IS that our true nature is greater than the ego, the personality and the body. We can never be satisfied with possessing material abundance and its satisfactions. Death itself mocks us.

Yoga is the natural antidote to a world, in historic terms, gone wild with newly-won freedom to grasp for life, liberty and the pursuit of material happiness. Egos everywhere have been freed from centuries of bondage in medieval caste consciousness and far too many now worship at the altar of selfish indulgence unaware that pursued to the extreme will destroy the very pleasure, prosperity and illusive security it worships, and in the process, harm many others around! It is impossible for everyone on the planet to be rich, young, beautiful, famous, and live the "good life" defined by today's rate of resource consumption in suburban and urban life in countries like America. We CAN be healthy and happy but not by living that way, by ignoring the consequences to others and future generations. Happiness comes from living in harmony with ourselves and with others, and the world around us. They are not the result of technology and wealth.

The cure for society's ills lies within us, for as Jesus said so long ago, "The kingdom of heaven is within you." Many up and coming nations are busy in the world's candy store but millions, like you and I, know that "dissatisfaction" is guaranteed. Humanity has the potential to destroy itself and all life if enough people do not claim our soul's birthright as children of God. Ego-aggrandizement ensures destruction when practiced worldwide. Ego self-offering to God, in service, in devotion, and in silence can save us from ourselves.

Yoga teaches us the science of mind: how our consciousness is connected to the body through the neutral medium of Life Force (chi, prana). Yoga teaches us how to use the breath and body to awaken that intelligent energy, bring it under our control, withdraw it from the senses, and direct it upward toward the brain, the only true "garden of Eden" in the East of the body (forehead) where true and lasting happiness is found. Finding that happiness exists within us, we no longer have to go begging for it in the marketplace of sense satisfaction and resource consumption. We can live simply, harmoniously, with health, vitality and friendships born of divine attunement.

Well too much said already. Enough a'ready....

Blessings to all, yoga is for everyone!

Nayaswami Hriman

Monday, May 26, 2014

Elements of Meditation: What You Need to Know (and Do)!

I have just completed leading this year's Meditation Teacher Training at the Institute of Living Yoga (part of Ananda Sangha in Bothell, WA). Many insights flow from nearly fifty hours of in-class practice and discussion of meditation among those who meditate. So it seems fitting to offer some basic thoughts about meditation. There are so many techniques that it can be overwhelming. I will attempt to summarize the process in its own natural flow from physical, mental to spiritual or, described slightly differently, from relaxation, to focus, to expansion of consciousness.

The Goal. It's so easy to be so caught up in the details of a meditation technique and routine that we forget the goal.

1.    Physical. To relax and retreat and withdraw from physical activities and involvement with the world around us and from the constant input of the senses.
2.    Mental. To release the mind from its ceaseless self-preoccupations and sense impressions so that it can be purely Self-aware, present, and mindful.
3.    Spiritual. To achieve a state of wholeness, of Being, of completeness. In such a state we feel connected and it is natural to feel loving toward all and to experience Life as conscious Joy, Love, and Peace.

The Practice. The practice, or the Way, follows the lead of the goal and the goal is embedded in the this "Way" the goal is not necessarily outside or beyond ourselves, nor is outside or beyond the Way, but within both.

1.    Physical. The goal, being embedded also in the body, must be stimulated and its memory reactivated. The body is sub-conscious. It operates on its own, somewhat independent level. We "use" the body and its functions for our own purposes, but it otherwise is designed to function largely on its own. Thus stopping all outer activities and jumping into our meditation asana (seat) is not normally how we begin. Instead we engage, activate, stimulate and awaken the body with some kind of mindful movements. Traditional yoga postures, Tai chi, and similar exercises are well known and highly recommended. Newer and in some ways more to the point, are the Energization Exercises such as we teach at Ananda. These were discovered and refined by our guru, Paramhansa Yogananda. You can see them demonstrated here, online at All such movements should be practiced with a meditative and mindful attitude in order to be effective.

2.    Mental But, first a word from our "sponsors":
1.    Focusing the mind inwardly and away from day to day preoccupations requires effort and purpose. It is essential to stimulate the desire for meditation, and, even more to the point, desire for the GOAL of meditation. Thus the traditional emphasis on devotion. For us to take any kind of action there has to be a need. A need implies something we don’t yet possess. This is true even if all the world’s teachings on meditation say that the goal is within us! Odd, isn’t it? This feeling of lack effectively creates an “I-Thou” relationship between the meditator and the goal of meditation. The feeling or surge of the “I” toward the “Thou” is called devotion, or perhaps the divine romance. “Thou” can be personal (guru, God, deity) or impersonal (peace, oneness, love) but, in the beginning, what we seek is necessarily “other.”

2.    It seems odd to define devotion but perhaps we could call it the internal, upward surge of the sincere seeker to achieve a state of Being transcendent of his own, separate ego awareness. There is, in other words, a directional aspect of meditation even if the goal, when realized, is already present at the heart of the complex outer matrix of our consciousness. Something of this intangible goal must already be within us, even if only dimly remembered; otherwise, we would not put out the effort to seek what we don't know. We necessarily begin with our ego awareness which is uncomfortable with its separateness (something is lacking). It seeks the full-filled state of Being. When the two becomes One, we find the One has always been, and, is here and now. But, why quibble? Meditative effort lies on the razor's edge between doing and being. It's a little like trying to remember a person's name: it's right there on "the tip of my tongue!"

3.    Intention and prayer Thus it is that, whether before our stretches or at the beginning of our sitting, we rekindle that devotion or feeling, that sense of yearning. Devotional chants, will-stimulating affirmations, a prayer, and other internal statement of intention is vital, lest we descend into the pleasant labyrinth of stream of consciousness images while meditating.

4.    Focusing the mind. So, now what? We are charged up but what do we DO? The greatest contribution Indian culture makes to humanity’s humanity is revealing how the breath affects our consciousness and vice versa. Just as with yoga postures, the position of the body can help induce a state of calmness and relaxation, so it is that controlling the breath rate and flow can do the same. But the initial stage of motivation is essential. There are innumerable breath control techniques. Using too many of them is self-defeating and the simplest is often just as good, perhaps better, than the more convoluted ones. One to three such techniques are best for daily use. At Ananda we’ll use one or two breath-control techniques to get centered, and one breath “watching” (non-control) technique to develop a steady, inward focus. In this way we go from ego control to letting go. There is a natural progression as the increasing slowness of breath rate eventually becomes so shallow that it begins to pause and momentarily cease. Rather than having the mind wait passively to enjoy the benefits of increased clarity and concentration, we also give the mind a mantra or affirmation so it too can participate. The mantra, timed with the breath, makes a powerful combination.[1]

3.    Spiritual. In the end, however, all techniques should cease as our heart, mind and consciousness rest in the Self. This can be described in an infinity of ways such as communing inwardly with peace. At first we feel and observe peace and enjoy it. By degrees and with non-effort we become peaceful and the sense of “I” diminishes. The same could be said of communing inwardly with the image or feeling of the guru’s presence; or God in one form or another.[2] Some would say this is a state of negation: stillness, perhaps. Others, expansion: communion, that is. The words are less important than the deep state of relaxation and satisfaction that steals upon us. At the end of our sitting time, we can share our spiritual blessings with healing prayers for others or in asking gently but confidently for guidance in our lives. The efficacy of these closing activities we leave to the higher Mind of Super-consciousness to work out (just as we leave behind techniques in order to receive the cleansing action of inner peace).

Which meditation technique is best? Aren’t there literally dozens and dozens of different breathing techniques and pre-sitting positions and movements? Yes, there are. But just as you don’t marry a dozen people but one, go “a-courtin’” and when you find your soul’s guide, marry and unite “happily ever after.” Once you do it will serve no good purpose to keep looking around.

The journey toward Self-realization cannot be known in advance any more than the rest of your future. It is not ours to say “It is this.” Or, “It is now finished.” We must act with faith and confidence, and also humility and receptivity. A dash of common sense and large dose of communal support, giving and receiving, are also vital, for we are not alone and we are not the first! There are those who know more than we. Be open to their guidance. Support those who support you in your spiritual journey and all will be well.

Begin the day with meditation. Carry on the day in the vibration of meditation. End the day giving it all back in meditation.


Swami Hrimananda!

[1] The more advanced kriya technique system works slightly differently where the kriya technique is the breath control technique and the letting go follows.
[2] To bridge from the doing into the state of being, it is often helpful to use imagery to focus the mind and heart. As the state of Being comes into focus and into our Being, we dissolve the image into Being.

Friday, May 23, 2014

If a Corporation is a Person, Can a Corporation become Enlightened?

I've taken a break from writing for a few weeks and this article is a non-sequitur, something my goofy mind threw up to me from below. I made the mistake of catching it and chewing on it, so now I have to spit it out. So, here goes.

I believe I've read somewhere that the first corporations in western history were formed around exploration and commerce, viz., the East India Company and its Dutch equivalent. I believe these, like Sir Walter Raleigh, were given a royal charter or permission to trade in the name of and with the protection of their respective governments (in return for wealth and favor, of course!).

In any case, I know enough about state-chartered corporations to know that corporations exist as creatures of law by the various state legislatures. Corporations are deemed "persons" who can be sued and can sue in turn and do various other "corporeal" acts otherwise reserved for human beings.

Our capitalist culture has some of its philosophical roots in Adam Smith's hypothesis that individual self-interest operates for the good of all. From this comes the idea that competition is a good and efficient mechanism for the allocation of goods, services and scarce resources. An entire genre of behavioral philosophy, culture and psychology was given birth from this premise which was given a mighty push by precepts derived from evolutionary biology, aka, "survival of the fittest." Class warfare and, in general, materialism as the greatest good for the greatest number all owe their social legitimacy to the basic idea that struggle and competition bestow benefits of economic efficiency and prosperity upon society.

Not long ago (2010) there was a United State Supreme Court ruling that more or less lifted the limits previously imposed upon corporations in respect to their contributions to political campaigns. I think it was a free speech question but I assume it is predicated on the legal premise that corporations, are "persons" (and thus entitled to free speech).

Many sincere people around the world are concerned that corporations, especially those that operate in the global sphere, are in a position to outwit the various governments in whose jurisdictions such corporations conduct business. Some larger than many governments and are far more sophisticated, as they can hide resources by moving them around the globe. Many people and groups with whom I have a natural philosophical affinity accuse global corporations of all manner of deceptive practices and environmental neglect. I am not prepared to comment on any specifics and even if I did I would be quoting other people for I have no personal experience or expertise in these matters. In any case, for my point here today, it's not necessary.

What occurs to me is to reflect that the very existence of the corporate form stems from the social contract: which is to to say, from government "fiat." Without the laws that permit these creatures to even exist, they, well, wouldn't exist and wouldn't "enjoy" the benefits of various legal protections, as you and I do.

If therefore we in society are concerned that corporations have gotten too large and too powerful relative to their historical overseer -- the various levels of government -- then we should modify their privileges. We don't need to argue whether corporations are a person or have rights of free speech. We can perhaps reform their capitalist heart in the following manner:

Their power lies in their ability to raise capital on the stock exchanges around the world. Adam Smith's idea of "self-interest" was, I believe, never intended to encourage or praise rapacious or exploitative behavior. No intelligent person of goodwill would have espoused greed an an instrument of social goodwill!

As a man of the Age of Reason (and Enlightenment), I assume he meant (or should have!) "enlightened" self-interest! I think many corporations, at least in America and Europe, try to hold their corporate employees to a decent standard of integrity and enlightened self-interest; some, presumably, only pay lip service to such ideals. (I'm not in a position to know or say more or less than this.)

Local, state, and federal government agencies don't seem to have enough "police" and economic power to balance the global muscle of some of these corporations. Besides, I, for one, would hesitate to give government more power both in principle and for the fact that "buying" of politicians is one of the key forms of abuse of corporate power. I think that in exchange for having access to the capital markets, these self-same corporations can be made to expand their own, internal decision making to include their natural constituencies. Let me explain:

An economic enterprise utilizes capital, natural resources, and labor. (I added resources to the traditional explanation.) Such an enterprise makes an impact upon society and upon the environment as a result of its commercial activities. To pass an ever increasing number and complexity of laws to regulate a corporation's social and environmental behavior seems, to me at least, to operate under the law of diminishing returns.

But what if the very management of that corporation included persons who represented the interests of employees, vendors, the environment, and the consumer? They need not be given shares of stock because they can, by virtue of the regulatory requirements of the capital markets, be given a voting place on the Board of Directors of each corporation. There's no requirement that a member of a board of directors has to own stock in the company.

The agency overseeing the exchange where the corporation seeks to be listed would have to oversee the selection and behavior of the non-shareholder members of the board, but that seems far less onerous and feasible than passing more laws and giving more police power over such corporations, especially when they conduct activities in other countries beyond the reach of our laws.

What if the board of directors of such a corporation were required to have one-third of their number elected by shareholders in the traditional way; one-third elected by a combination of employees (including so-called contract employees otherwise barred from employee status) and vendors (excluding vendors effectively controlled by the corporation); and, one-third representing social interests such as the environment and consumers? (Government is by necessity a regulator. It is not appropriate to have board representation.)

The employee group of directors together with the shareholder-elected board members would appoint the social group. The stock exchange could set standards for the qualifications and relative make-up for the social group and for the process through which employees and vendors are represented. In some corporations environmental concerns are few while others such concerns are great. For some corporations (exporters or financial entities) there may be few real "consumers." A degree of finesse would be required.

Non-shareholder board members would be required to submit annual reports (publicly available) to the stock exchange that discloses their voting record, their investigative and oversight efforts, and their summary of the corporation's success in its relations and impact upon the groups and interests represented. The corporation would be required by the exchange to make some reasonable allowance for the costs of the oversight by these board members (including suitable staff and access to data), just as allowance is provided for the cost of outside financial auditors. (But more than just auditors are needed for, decade after decade, financial auditors have proven themselves ineffective.)

But what about a director's fiduciary responsibility to look after the interests of the corporation? Well, good question! Remember our definition of "self-interest" (the enlightened version, that is)? The "best interests" of the corporation are achieved when the interests of all stakeholders are taken into account and balanced appropriately. Indeed, the support, approval, and goodwill of employees, vendors, and consumers and the health and well-being of neighbors and the environment help ensure the long-term survival and success of the venture. Naturally, compliance with all just laws is a given, though only a baseline, insufficient in itself, for success.

Up until now I believe outside interest groups (like environmentalists) either make a lot of noise with boycotts and media to crash the party of shareholder meetings or they have to acquire blocks of stock (or both). It takes a lot of "noise" to make anything happen in such an adversarial environment. But with this approach as I propose it, each major corporation will be empowered to consider the greater impact of its actions. Bottom line, short-term profits are no profits at all if they amount to thievery of a sophisticated kind. Rewarding a long-term view stabilizes the economy and society as well.

You might object that such otherwise competing interests might paralyze decision making. Yes, that possibility exists but there are some of us who believe that such corporations are already too large and cumbersome. Enlarging the scope of their interests might exacerbate the slowness of decision making and response, but such is the price for due consideration of legitimate interests in a large and publicly held institution of any kind. Let the race go to the swift. It does now, anyway, doesn't it? Innovation seems to come primarily from the lone wolves and small operators. The one has immense resources (and commensurate responsibilities), the other, flexibility, creativity, and swiftness! (Economically, they need each other.)

What about our concept of "private property." Would such a proposal rob shareholders of their financial interests? Why? It is common for corporations to enlist the counsel of all manner of public figures or esteemed business associates to guide them. There's no requirement that board members or officers be shareholders. Such boards in reflecting a wider scope of interests would be in a better position to resist the pressure to reward officers with obscenely high salaries. (While a separate proposal and subject, I don't see why the privilege of access to capital markets doesn't also justify some basic limits on the ratio of officer salaries to rank and file.)

I would imagine that financial exchanges in Europe would be even more inclined in this direction (if they've not done so already). Perhaps also, Japan. China remains a feral nation (why do we pretend, otherwise?), so I doubt they would do anything more than superficial. Nonetheless, the American financial markets alone are substantial enough still to weather this en-lightening-up.

What I am essentially saying is proposing a broader standard of what constitutes success and what constitutes self-interest. The time is nigh. A corporation that takes a balanced and fair approach to considering the well-being of all of those segments of society (employees, vendors, consumers) and the environment it affects is far more likely to survive, flourish and grow. Substituting long-term success for mere short-term profits, profits, as it were, everyone, including the corporate shareholders who stick with it. The line between speculation and investment lies, in no small measure, on the timeline of one's holding period.

Well, that's as much time and effort as I am willing to put into this subject. Perhaps you'll agree or think it's interesting, or goofy, or even a good idea.

Sayonara dear friends and on to more meditative subjects.....

Nayaswami Hriman, CPA