Wednesday, June 25, 2014

60 and above: what next?

When I was 17 years old (1967) I tried imagining being 35 years old but it seemed so far away and so, "like," old, that I simply gave up--I couldn't relate to it. I wasn't even sure I'd live that long.....Sigh.............

In one's first half or so of life, when life seems still an open book with great hopes and promises and anything seems possible, our perspective and self-image is but an unwritten book. But in the later decades of life, we have enough life experience to gain a broader perspective on who we are, what we've gained, what we need to work on, and what's important to us.

I was chatting with a close friend who's about my age (you’ll have to guess), and we asked ourselves: “So, what’s different now? What’s this being 60 + really all about?”

I've noticed that usually the response to such questions revolve around the various things that we can't do as well, or at all, anymore, or, at least with as much stamina or endurance. And, yes, I admit, that there are times when a person's name or that just perfect word I know is right there ("on the tip of my tongue") eludes me when I need it. And sure, we joke about stuff like aches and pains and naps, going to bed early, eating a little earlier than before (catch the "Early Bird Special"?), needing more time to get out of the house in the morning and on and on.

But there's no lack of pluses to this stage of life. For example: I like the fact that I've lost a lot of commitment to personal dramas: mine, and yours! I find I can sympathize more sincerely because I feel less attached, whether to yours or mine! And by this point in life, one has seen many things by this point in life, whether yours or mine (they have begun to look suspiciously similar). Taking me seriously just doesn't "occupy me" quite the way it used to.

And you know what else is good? In many ways I am more productive and efficient than I ever was: and in fewer hours as well. Without the reduction of the internal friction that comes from my preoccupation with my likes and dislikes, my concern for doing a good job, pleasing other people and all of that "me" stuff that gets in the way of just doing the task at hand, I can plow through and get a lot more done. I find inspiration and ideas come more easily and, in the moment, I can be freer, kinder and more spontaneous than ever before.

As a life long devotee and meditator, I know that the truth, relative or absolute or whatever that is, is between me and my God (my guru, my conscience, my sense of right feeling). I am comfortable in this space which has already left at least some of the body and ego behind and below. I rejoice to see a flower, a white cloud and blue sky. Too hot? Too cold? Well, never mind, I'm still the same and I've been hot or cold many times before.

I don't bemoan what, if anything, I've lost; I rejoice in the wisdom I've earned and received, especially through my teachers (and there are many) and with the grace of God and gurus. Yes, I feel the pain of so much of the suffering and tragedy of this world but I've reconciled to the fact that, realistically and beyond my kind and prayerful thoughts and an occasional small contribution, there's nothing I can do about it. I recycle, too, but I know my recycling won't change the world very much. If I do something not kosher-green, well, I can say, "Sorry 'bout that, but look at the other good-green things I do. Besides, I LIKE trees."

I have found new priorities in my life, viz., my own consciousness. Whether I am efficient, proficient, liked or disliked, my highest priority is to remain centered, mindful, and living in the presence of God as peace, wisdom, calm joy and expanded self-awareness. I don't expect to have great visions but I am open to the possibility that my meditations could become ever deeper and that the miracle of life, which is God, will ever expand as the focus of my awareness and self-identity.

It has been well said by others that this time of life is characterized by self-acceptance. Self-acceptance is the first step in acceptance of others, and of the circumstances of one's life. That's a good thing because the "hope-springs-eternal" attitude which characterizes early and midlife has evaporated as the horizon line of the end of life appears in the not too far distance. I have to live in the present because the only choice is to live in the past and that's rather boring. (Ok, so I could live in a fantasy world of my own imagination, too, I suppose.....and many people escape to TV shows, novels, and imagination.)

Self-Acceptance can go in two basic directions: going downward, it can be a slouching acceptance of my narrowing scope of abilities, strength, mental power, or interests. This direction is like sliding towards laziness, self-indulgence, senility, and, of course, finally, oblivion.

The upward path of Self-acceptance includes the wisdom to know what is important in my life and what things are mine to do and what things are best left to others. It also means working "smarter" not "harder." Despite whatever mental challenges might appear owing strictly to age, I am more focused now than I have ever been in life. I am so focused in what I am doing or in simply being inward that I generally don't listen to or hear others who are talking around me. (If you want to talk to me, I suggest you start by saying my name first, then standing in front of me so I can see your eyes and then say what you have to say simply and clearly! I find it easy to tune out gossip, idle chatter, negativity or anything that isn't mine to deal with! More and more I prioritize the important things (like writing these thoughts?)! For many of us, this acceptance phase offers me the opportunity to step back and mentor, train, or let others step up.

I admit, however, that self-acceptance has also allowed me to indulge in "not suffering fools gladly," meaning people who waste my time or who don't listen. I think this is right to do sometimes and probably not a good thing other times. I am more likely to either say little or say directly what I think, with far little chatter in between.

Acceptance can mean realizing that it is the time of life to focus on deeper questions, issues, needs and priorities. The realization comes, appropriate to this life cycle, that I have (hopefully, presumably) fulfilled my material and familial obligations and I can now turn to more “internal affairs.” This means focusing on activities, people, introspection, or service to others that are not necessarily income producing, self-supporting, career enhancing, or socially obligatory.

My friend and I acknowledged that at this time of life, “the chickens come home to roost.” By this we meant that if during one’s mid-life of busy activities, raising children, or fulfilling social obligations, one put aside or even suppressed other longings, desires, needs, talents, or fantasies, they now rise up like ghosts of Christmas past or demons from the netherworld to haunt us with their unfulfilled, repressed, or otherwise unmet energies. These chickens can also be the accumulated physical or mental effects of a life of stress, anger, nervousness, jealousy, over-indulgence, or, better yet, the beneficent effects of a life well led. These chickens lay eggs, so to speak and we are their beneficiaries, whether of the eggs are golden or rotten.

Thus, it is time for closure, friends! Time to wrap up the day’s work, clean and put away your tools, fill out your time sheet and expense report and submit your accounting to the mystic judge of your own conscience, personality and body (wherein are lodged the fruits of your lifelong labors). And while most of us have many years left of active service, nonetheless, there is a shift of priorities and perspective.

This is a time to share one’s wisdom and skills and to share one's story. My parents generation viewed retirement as pay-back and sitting on the porch. (Well, actually mine didn't but many of their generation did.) But in today’s culture, this stage of life is vibrant and active. It has, instead, become a time for pursuing interests such as art, education in new and interesting arenas, educational or humanitarian travel or service, introspection, yoga, meditation, and other forms of spiritual seeking and service.

As the body ages and one’s faculties lose some of their staying power, it is a signal to become more inward, more self-aware, more conscious in one’s thoughts and activities. Yes, it’s time to get our spiritual house in order. A preparation for death? Well, yes, of course: death is, after all, the final exam of life.

That fact need be neither morbid nor compelling. One's duties are coming to a close and it is time to reflect, to draw the lessons of wisdom, or, in the case of those chickens, to confront some unfinished or leftover business.

We who are yogis see this time as an opportunity to meditate more and to be guided more from within (than from external karma or dharmic influences). Being thereby more centered (or at least less influenced or pressured by externals), we can see who we really are freed from outer exigencies.

In India this third stage of life (called vanaprastha) is described as being a hermit. I can't comment knowledgeably on Hindu traditions but to me it is only "hermit" in the sense that it is introspective, self-aware, and reflective. The purpose of such pursuits is, ultimately, to change from within and to bring to closure to the lessons of this lifetime. (The fourth "ashram" is sannyas - complete outer renunciation and breaking of all community and familial ties----even more extreme but certainly more obviously a "hermit" stage.)

There is freedom and release that can be associated with this stage of life. The symbol of the grandparent is one who is no longer strictly identified with what he does and is more known for who he (she) is. From doing to being, so to speak. Think of the smiling grandparent beaming his or her love to the grandchildren, to neighbors, or to shopkeepers---now freed from having to play any specific role or accomplish any specific task.

If one has lived rightly the chickens who come home bring the golden eggs of inner peace, contentment, joy, forgiveness and, yes, flexibility (the willingness to step out and do new things and become one’s true Self!).
That’s worth living for.


Grandfather Hriman

Friday, June 20, 2014

Why a Solstice Celebration?

Tomorrow at the Ananda Community in Lynnwood we will conduct our own version of the worldwide celebration of the Solstice. I'm not sure how far back in history the solstices (summer & winter) and equinoxes (spring and fall) have been recognized as points of special interest and celebration by humans but I'd be willing to bet it goes back much farther than can be documented. The great megaliths of ancient times (Stonehenge, England or Newgrange, Ireland) all had some relationship to one or more of these annual celestial demarcation points, and these are but youngsters in the history of humanity.

We moderns hardly notice these points; even a full moon is but casually remarked upon. Are these phenomenon but remnants of ancient superstitions? I don't think so, but I'm not writing to explore the history of these celebrations nor yet their astrological or astronomical significance.

Rather, I simply say that throughout the world and since time immemorial people take note of the change of seasons. In this we also take note of changes in our lives, life cycles, or when something inside ourselves shift and we know it is time for an important decision or change.

The solstice and equinoxes are certainly reminders of our connection to the seasons and how they affect us, nurture, sustain, or challenge us. We are reminded that we are part of a great life cycle that repeats itself generation after generation. As we celebrate tomorrow so will millions of others on our planet and so have untold generations of our forebears. These are not insignificant reminders that we are part of the great wheel and cycle of life.

Summer solstice is, as I suppose everyone knows, the longest day (of sunshine) of the year for the northern hemisphere. I could wax eloquent about our relationship (of dependency) to the sun and its metaphysical symbolism (of wisdom and enlightenment) but, gee whiz, you already know these things.

As all things grow, blossom and become fruitful during the summer, the summer represents the fullness of life and we naturally celebrate the gift of life, vitality, energy, creativity, success, fertility and the innate and complex web of relationships which make life today and, indeed, life for the last many millions of years possible.

In celebrating life and vitality we celebrate the Giver of Life, in whatever form and by whatever name, or no name, we feel inclined to use. I think of a beautiful and celestial song my spiritual teacher, Swami Kriyananda, wrote: Life Mantra. The few words used in the song (a prayer, really) include simple phrases like "God is life, life is God."

In the lineage of my guru, Paramhansa Yogananda, his guru, Swami Sri Yukteswar, would celebrate the solstices and equinoxes, too: in Serampore (near Calcutta) or at his seaside hermitage in Puri (Orissa State). He would organize a parade, a sankirtan (chanting sessions), and he would feed any and all in the neighborhood.

Tomorrow, we, at Ananda Community in Lynnwood, have had, for the past five or so years, the annual tradition of an Open House. We give tours of the Community, its gardens, a sampling of apartment-homes, and walking the grounds. Ananda enterprises and businesses have displays of products and services to share. There's an art display and live music. We invite leaders and residents of local intentional communities to celebrate with us. At 5 p.m. we will conduct a one hour celebratory service that will include guest speakers, a ceremony of celebration, and music. After that we feed one and all with a free spaghetti dinner!

Celebrate, then, with us, or in your own way, this gift of life, the sunshine of true friendship, wisdom, the gift of talents and creativity, the opportunity to be of service to others, of health and vitality, and, above all, because omnipresent in the "rain or shine" of life, the Infinite Power who has manifested Himself as our very Self.

Blessings and joy to you,

Nayaswami Hriman

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

How to Quiet the Monkey Mind (in meditation)

Once a person decides he or she wants to meditate, there's no question that the most common struggle for meditators, both new and seasoned, is the restless, "monkey" mind. If I could give you a prescription that would solve that I would be, ah, 'er, well............but, there are ways to tame the monkey.

But be forewarned that there's no pill, no bio-feedback device, no music or guided CD that's going to make restless thoughts go away effortlessly. There's no substitute for your own, finely-attuned, sensitive efforts linking mental focus, clear intention, and refined feeling.

But let's review some steps and basics that can help you. "Mind you," there's no lack of them, either:

Part 1 - The Basics

  1. Do you meditate consistently, day in and day out? Without consistency of effort there can be no progress.
  2. Why do you meditate? Remind yourself frequently of "why." This will include a quick review of the benefits and intentions. Without the motivation to meditate we become burdened by ambivalence or mental resistance and it is difficult to go deep. Paramhansa Yogananda put it bluntly when he said "The soul loves to meditate, but the ego hates to meditate." Be clear; be firm; be inspired!
  3. What is meditation? It is not thinking things over and, ultimately, it's not simply sitting with eyes closed enjoying a steady, random stream of consciousness thoughts, however interesting or pleasurable such an act may be. If you don't know what meditation is, any meditative efforts can be called "good." I am not going to be so presumptuous as to define the undefinable but let us say (as I paraphrase my spiritual preceptor, Paramhansa Yogananda) that real meditation (only) begins when thoughts subside into stillness. Hang onto this concept because it's the baseline measure of meditation. Yes, there are times when in a given sitting we never achieve this, or, only do so for brief fleeting moments, but it is important to know "what meditation IS" and what it is NOT. [Quoting Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita, "Even a little practice of this (meditation), will free you from dire fears and colossal sufferings."]
  4. Re-directing points 2 and 3 above, your calm but focused intention with each sitting should be to achieve quietness of mind (when thoughts subside into clear but silent perception) with each sitting. Be clear and firm about this EACH TIME! Don't be tense about it, however: that is counter productive.
  5. The Secret. The secret is this: you have to want to achieve stillness. Note the word "want." This is similar to "desire." Desire is similar to emotion and emotion, when refined towards true meditation, becomes devotion: intensity of aspiration that is, as yet, calm and non-attached. The secret to a calm mind is calm feeling. "Reason" (or thoughts) follow "feeling," my guru, Yogananda, often said. Jesus said that before going to the temple to pray, reconcile yourself with your brother with whom you've had a disagreement. When our emotions are calm and refined towards devotional aspiration, it's much easier for the mind to let go. Awaken, then, the desire to meditate before beginning to meditate. You will need to figure out how to activate this "desireless desire" to meditate according to your practice and temperament, but it is essential.
  6. My mind, a kingdom is. According to evolutionary biology, our human body and brain has developed in response to the impulse, among other things, to survive. Our brain, as investigated by science, is incredibly efficient and designed to watch for and respond to both internal and external threats, pleasure and pain, and ego satisfactions. Meditation, by contrast, seeks transcendence of the body-bound, instinct-driven mind. This takes time and re-training. What we have been given is a very good thing but what we seek is not only better, it is our truer essence. The "pearl of great price" cannot be bought with the debased currency of "that was easy!"
  7. I am of three minds. Our mind has three basic expressions: subconscious, conscious and super-conscious! Restless thoughts originate from the chatter and influence of the subconscious. Being "sub" conscious, this part of the mind is more like a restless child, hence the monkey analogy (and an apt one, pun intended). Sometimes good, sometimes bad, but generally restless and wanting attention and often mischievous. We should no more smack a child when he keeps whining at us for more candy than we should attempt to "sit on" the monkey mind. We have to coax it, train it patiently, and reward it for good behavior. The conscious mind is what "wants" to meditate (being inspired by the silent inspiration from the higher, or superconscious mind). Meditation is quieting the monkey mind, then turning the conscious mind to "look up" and offer itself to receive the inspiration, grace, power, and transforming influence of the superconscious, intuitive mind. 
Part 2 - Suggestions

  1. Take note. In your at-home and private meditation, have a small notebook and pen nearby. Promise your subconscious mind that should an important thought or reminder appear during meditation you will be happy to write it down provided the subconscious then subsides into silence. This is an agreement that each side must honor. 
  2. Counting. I can't know from here what techniques you use, but there are a ba-zillion breath control techniques (pranayams) and mantras. Most meditation routines do something or another with breath or heart rate. So, without wanting you to change the technique as you've been taught, I would propose that you consider this suggestion (i.e., counting) as a warm-up to your technique and not a substitute for it......
  3. Counting con't. Let's say you are doing simple, diaphragmatic breathing as a warm up. Mentally count your inhalation, retention (if any), exhalation, post-exhalation retention (if any). Counting can help your mind focus. There are variations from the equal count system (equal length of inhalation, hold, and exhalation) so let your counting follow the pattern of your choice or as you've been instructed. Important: your goal is to be counting without intrusion of thought(s). If you discover thoughts taking place, stop, and begin again. Start by setting a goal of between 5 and 10 breaths (counting all the while) without an intruding thought. If at breath number 3, a thought intrudes, stop and begin again. Continue until you achieve your goal. (Set the goal lower if need be to get some momentum and success in this. Set a higher goal if you can.)
  4. From here....Do not allow yourself to enter into your usual meditation routine until your mind cooperates  and settles down according to the goal you've set in your counting. 
  5. Other. Yes, it is true that the general recommendations include doing some yoga or stretches first, a prayer, chanting, and so on. I certainly don't exclude these items but it may be that for you, you do all of these things and still have the monkey on your mind. So, let's not exclude these more standard suggestions. It may be that you are jumping too quickly into meditation without making the requisite transitional steps like stretching, prayer and chanting to relax and energize the body, awaken inspiration and set your intention. (see part 1 above re intention). If you are ill or upset, the most you can accomplish in meditation may be only to chant, do affirmations, or read inspirational thoughts and be quiet but momentarily. (But this is a temporary condition, whereas we are speaking of longer term monkey mind syndrome.)
  6. Positive focus. I don't want to interfere with your meditation technique  but there are two points of internal focus that are most helpful (on several levels). The first is the heart (chakra) and the second is the "third eye" (point between the eyebrows). In my tradition (of raja/kriya yoga), the latter is the most important but one's focus in the prefrontal lobes must be energetically supported by the calm and refined feelings of the heart lifted upward to that point. They must be, in all events, balanced or at least both activated.
  7. Heart centered meditation. If you tend to be feeling oriented by temperament, rest in the heart center (not the physical heart, but opposite near or above the sternum, in the center of the body) for a good portion of your sitting time, especially in the beginning, and touching in, as it were, throughout your sitting time. As you do so, feel the heart relax and an invisible, inner smile appear, relaxing your face.
  8. Oneness meditation. Focusing (gazing inwardly) at the point between the eyebrows must be done correctly in order to achieve optimum effect. I can say that to the degree my attention is wholly engaged there, random thoughts evaporate or are, at least, kept at bay. (In the latter situation it's like being in one room and hearing the sounds of voices from another room nearby.) With complete, one-pointed, heart-supported focus, thoughts don't have a chance. This fool proof method, however, is among the most difficult even if ultimately the best. For starters, too much will power tends to "hurt." You can even get a headache or feel sore in the forehead. For another, you have to know exactly where to focus your gaze. This blog is too clumsy to get into this aspect. (You can make a special point of warming up with a few minutes of inner gazing at the spiritual eye, adjusting to the relative darkness behind closed eyes, calming your mind so that you can hold in a steady gaze whatever visual sensations you observe at that point.) Write to me if you want to know where to focus. But gazing through the point between the eyebrows should be the kind of intensive interest that you equate with fascination, aroused curiosity, and positive interest. In short, it should seem natural, interesting and engaging, not forced. Connect it with the heart's energy and power by offering your calm feeling upward into the (as yet unseen) inner light at the point between the eyebrows.  
  9. Two-ness leads to One-ness. Thus it is that the two-ness of the two energy centers (heart and spiritual eye) can gradually lead to complete, steady, absorption in which all subconscious, random thoughts vanish. Another and more complex variation on the technique of gazing through the point between the eyebrows (and another way in which 2 becomes 1) is to use the power of visualization at that point. You might practice a little bit visualizing the eyes of your guru gazing back at you at that point; or your image of God, whether personal or abstract. By abstract I mean you might visualize a golden light bathing your mind with enlightenment. Or, you might visualize a sacred mountain, the ocean, a rainbow or other aspect of nature that suggests to you certain qualities of higher consciousness: such as peace, wisdom, vitality, love, calmness and so on. Practice this technique to steady the mind. Again, use this as a concentration tool separate and apart from any techniques you've been given and are otherwise committed to. This way it is a warm-up for your real practice(s).
  10. Counting on steroids. To return to counting, a more complex technique, perhaps for more experienced meditators who are familiar with various chakra meditation techniques is to chant syllables or mantric words with the breath. This is complex enough that there's little chance for the subconscious mind to get a word in edgewise! I'll give one example but there are countless ways to apply this. My example is to take the eight words (in Sanskrit) which comprise the stages of Patanjali's famous 8-Fold Path. For my example I'll use the fourth stage which is called "pranayama." Thus each cycle will take eight breaths. As you inhale you mentally and slowly chant the word (in my example, then): "pra--na--yam--a." Pause and hold the breath if you wish, or not, but with the exhalation you slowly and mentally repeat the syllables of that stage. Gradually let the inhalation and exhalations equalize. Continue through the eight stages of yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, and samadhi. Repeat at least four cycles, perhaps eight, (as you feel) until your mind quiets down. (I use an even more complex version of this not fit for blogs.) Keep in mind that this is not merely mechanical. The Sanskrit words of the 8-Fold Path from Patanjali's Yoga Sutras are incredibly ancient and more or less constitute the equivalent of mantras. In any case, there is power and vibration and deep meaning in each one. You draw into your consciousness their vibration if you practice this not just as a mental exercise but as a meditation. You can choose other "lists" such as the Sanskrit names of the chakras, a line of gurus or masters, chakra qualities and on and on. Try to keep it simple enough that you can get it down fairly quickly, though.
Conclusion. You can see from these suggestions that we are giving the conscious mind something more interesting and meditational to focus on. The suggestions above may be warm-ups for those of you who have been given a sacred or otherwise effective technique but are struggling with the monkey. Ultimately however, true meditation transcends any meditation technique as an experience of superconsciousness which might be described as intuitive perception and realization of higher states of consciousness in which "knower, knowing, and known" merge into one. And even a little bit of this experience will bring you back to the cushion day after day drinking in the nectar of soul-bliss.

Bliss-filled meditations to you,


Saturday, June 7, 2014

"What do you mean by "yoga"?

In the past two articles I made the case that the practice of (true) yoga is the future of spirituality, whether in the context of established faiths or no faith. Obviously I am referring to something beyond the practice of the physical stretches and poses (the physical branch of yoga, known as hatha yoga). Just as obviously, by "future" I don't mean next year but perhaps the next century!

While I attempted to explain this prediction, I did NOT really describe "What is this yoga I speak of and how is it practiced?" I only really went so far as to explain that the term yoga is a reference to a state of consciousness that, for a shortcut, one could call God but which, in fact, is called by many names but, allowing that poor 'ol "God" carries a lot of baggage (owing principally to some stone tablets, I'm told...there's no "d" at the end of stone, btw), let's use the term Oneness.

Further, I explained that the term "yoga" (which means "yoke" or "bind") refers both to certain psycho-physiological disciplines that lead to Oneness as well as to Oneness itself.  This interesting fact warrants explanation but I refuse to give it, as I know you, the reader, are so perspicacious as to have already drawn the correct conclusion.

Unfortunately, that left a lot of readers hanging very high and very dry: both "shaken" and "stirred." Some of you muttered, "What's that got to do about 'What's for dinner?'" Or, "Why is Putin causing so much trouble in Ukraine?" In short, my prior article begs the question, "Is there a takeaway here?"

Yes, there is! For starters, let's start with where "we" are: the worldwide popularity of the yoga postures! Hatha yoga demonstrates a very practical takeaway, even if hatha yoga is only a toe in the yoga-water. Add to this the exponentially growing practice of meditation, and you've dipped an entire foot in.

[Now: I want to pause here and make my language simpler. Despite the fact that it must be obvious that I am on a campaign to educate the world that "yoga" is more than hatha yoga, I will henceforth drop using the term "yoga" to refer to true yoga. Instead, I will use the term "meditation" even though as my prior article pointed out, the term "meditation" is unsatisfactory.]

I stated before that one of the attributes of meditation that makes it a good candidate for universal adaptation by religionists and "spiritual but not religionist" is that meditation is "scientific." Meditation techniques are simple, demonstrable, and specific. Virtually anyone can receive instruction in its simple breathing or concentration techniques. Anyone who practices the techniques (as taught to them) will achieve similar and consistent results. No faith or belief system is required to get consistent results. Just search on the internet for "benefits of meditation" or "benefits of yoga."

While the same could be said of fitness routines or time-tested diets, meditation works directly with and upon our mind. By "mind" I include emotions, feelings, thoughts, insights, and levels of consciousness (ranging from dreamy subconsciousness to clear-minded everyday consciousnesss to elevated states of heighted awareness and intense feelings of joy, or peace). Meditation can produce experiences that are readily and commonly compared with, and considered to be, states of spiritual consciousness. And, it requires no drug use. Because it can produce feelings associated with spirituality and because it doesn't require or derive from any specific faith or ritual, it is ideal as a universal spiritual practice that can be integrated into any faith or no faith.

The primary tool of meditation is self-awareness. But traditional meditation practices often include some physical component to relax and energize the body. Like most faiths in general, there are guidelines regarding fasting and diet. It is much easier to meditate when the body is fit and healthy and the brain well oxygenated and the blood stream decarbonized. Indeed, hatha yoga is an excellent preparation for meditation. It can assist the body in sitting for long periods of time without discomfort.

But this primary tool of consciousness is linked to the physical body via the breath. Breath is more than oxygen and carbon dioxide; the one flowing into the body, the other out of the body. Breath includes the circulation of oxygen and of intelligent vitality the subtler aspect of which is termed "prana" (or "chi"). The awakening of one's awareness and control of this "life force" (prana) is one of the cornerstones of meditation.

Breath is life. A person is alive (usually!) when breathing and not alive when not breathing. Our breath links our mind (consisting of feeling, perception and self-awareness) to our body and this mind-breath-body conversation operates in both directions. It is easily demonstrated that quieting and calming the breath quiets and clears the mind. But the reverse is true, also: a quiet mind reflects in a calm breath. When we are excited or upset, our breathing is out of control, uneven, ragged. If in extreme fear, our "heart" leaps into our throat! (A figure of speech, merely.)

Paramhansa Yogananda in his now famous life story, "Autobiography of a Yogi," quotes his guru, Swami Sri Yukteswar describing the highly advanced technique of kriya yoga as: “Kriya Yoga is an instrument through which human evolution can be quickened. 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 life force, which is ordinarily absorbed in maintaining the heart-pump, must be freed for higher activities by a method of calming and stilling the ceaseless demands of the breath.”

At an earlier point in his story, he wrote: "Like any other science, yoga is applicable to people of every clime and time. Yoga is a method for restraining the natural turbulence of thoughts, which otherwise impartially prevent all men, of all lands, from glimpsing their true nature of Spirit. So long as man possesses a mind with its restless thoughts, so long will there be a universal need for yoga or control."

Meditation shows that a very effective way to calm one's restless thoughts (spurred on by our emotions) is to work with the breath in very specific ways. Thus, the real secret of yoga is to bring the breath under control using time-tested, simple, and scientific breathing methods. As the breath becomes calm, then the emotions and consequent restless thoughts begin to subside.

Once the mind is reasonably stable, it is often the next step to focus the mind on a single object, usually internal to the mind itself. Chanting a mantra, or a syllable, or an affirmation can be very effective for focusing the mind and awakening inspiration (usually done mentally, silently). Visualizing a deity, the eyes of one's guru, or an image from nature, or an abstract quality or state such as peace or love.........all of these mental images can calm the mind and in turn calm the breath. Where one goes, the other follows! They are two sides of the same coin. Visualizing the moonlight, a vast ocean, rushing water, a majestic mountain, the rising sun......all of these images drawn from nature convey higher states of awareness such as peace, power, adaptability, wisdom, strength and so on. In deeper states of meditation and using special mudras or other techniques, one can attune oneself and meditate upon certain subtle, astral sounds universally recognized in all traditions and symbolized by the sounds and images of a bell, a reed or plucked instrument, sounds of water or wind, a motor, or a bee and so on.

In some traditions one is simply given a mantra, nothing else. In others (my own, e.g.), we combine a mantra with watching the breath (two for the price of one!) The combinations are endless.

Imagine standing in a field at the base of a tall mountain, like Mt. Everest or Mt. Rainier or Mt. McKinley. It's a long way up but many people have done it: one step at a time. The peak is that state of Oneness where our ego-separateness is expanded (or dissolved, if you prefer) into Infinity! Just as one takes one step at a time to ascend the mountain, so one takes one breath at time to transcend the bondage of heart/breath that ties our awareness to the body and its five sense telephones, ringing incessantly! As we are given life when we take our first breath and as we leave this body with our last, so it is that while the breath ties us to the body it is also the only way out! What at first is an elemental obstacle soon becomes with the science of breath and mind, the way of transcendence! As I have heard it said: "The only way out, is in!"

As the breath is calmed, thoughts subside; as thoughts subside, our awareness expands (or shrinks away from the body). We do something similar every night when we sleep. We "dump" the consciousness of our physical body and personality into the peaceful realm of deep, dreamless sleep. But sleep only refreshes us; it doesn't change our consciousness. For that we must expand our consciousness, raise the level of our awareness past the formidable and thick barrier of skin, bones, organs and ego-self-involvement and everything represented by them.

Advanced meditation techniques, like kriya yoga, might start with the physical breath but then leave the physical breath behind in favor of working with the astral breath (a term that describes the life force, subtle energy, prana or chi). As the physical breath subsides, this subtle energy is withdrawn from the senses and the periphery of the body and organs and is directed by advanced techniques to return to its main spinal channel through specific psychic plexuses (doors) located along the spine called "chakras." From there, life force is coaxed or magnetized up the subtle spine to re-unite with cosmic energy at the point between the eyebrows. It is here that enlightenment occurs. But to go further in this aspect of meditation is to go beyond the scope of this article.

The fact that the techniques of meditation bring enhanced health and well-being even to the veriest beginner attest to the substantial and elemental nature of the techniques and their goal. It feels like home; like Om; like the real "me."

But meditation is more than hygiene for the mind, kind of like brushing your teeth everyday. Instead, it becomes a way of life, a life of living yoga. Why seek inner peace through daily meditation if during the day (when you are not meditating), you are angry, irritable and selfish? Makes no sense! Hence, meditation as a way of life is supported by a lifestyle that includes a simple diet, pure thoughts, calm emotions and harmonious actions. As we become transformed by meditation, we become less and less self-referencing and more and more Self-realized. We become more joyful, happy, content, compassionate, wise, and on and on!

There's another aspect to meditation. This aspect is more personal. It is also easily misunderstood and is most certainly rejected by the ego. (Yogananda described meditation, in general, thusly: The soul loves to meditate but the ego hates to meditate.) And yet for all its subtlety it is also essential, even if the form it takes is unique to each person. It's called devotion and it's the fuel that powers the engine of meditational motivation. If the fuel is diluted by a weak will or unclear intention, the engine runs rough and has no pulling power up the mountains of life's challenges and temptations. If the fuel is high octane it drives us quickly up the Mt. Carmel of the soul's aspiration toward liberation in God!

In its traditional and outward forms throughout the world and throughout history, you will see devotion expressed in poetry, dance, prayers, hymns, chanting, rituals and sometimes extravagant displays of self-offering and even, seemingly, self-abasement. Ok, so, I've let it all out. These outer forms are NOT the essence of devotion; they are but its husk. Sometimes a husk is dry and empty, other times it is like the discarded first stage of a rocket.

Devotion is related, in some ways, to the disciple-guru relationship. We see Buddha, the founder of Buddhism; or Jesus, the founder of Christianity. We see the great disciples of these world teachers as great devotees, whether they lived with their "christ" or whether they lived a thousand years afterward (like St. Francis).

I say devotion and discipleship are related and I mean this in many different ways, but for now I mean it in the sense that both are personal and neither can really be faked (except to outer appearances, that is). For God watches the heart.

What we have here is the intuitive recognition by the ego that it must die or at least surrender to the higher power of grace, of God, or of God in the form of the savior/guru (who leads us to God and who is God incarnate for this purpose).

Admittedly, most meditators, most spiritual aspirants, most orthodox religionists are considered candidates for heavenly reward if they just try to be good; go to church on Sunday; take the sacraments, punch their meditational time card, and so on. But devotion and discipleship are the inner "meat" of what meditating for long hours every day symbolizes for the average meditator who struggles to do so for even just a few minutes each day. But we don't gain much by measuring ourselves by the yardstick of giants. We might only get discouraged (much to the delight of the ego). Yet, if we don't have the courage to see where the path leads we are far less likely to get there anytime soon (in relation to repeated rounds of rebirth, that is).

Real devotion is what you see in the lives of great saints, like Milarepa, Tibet's greatest yogi. Fortunately for us, we are encouraged to start where the sign says, "You are HERE!" Krishna promises us in the Bhagavad Gita that "even a little bit of this practice (of meditation), will save us from dire fears..."

However hot or tepid may be your inspiration and devotion, you can be sure that without at least some of it, regardless of what form of expression it may take, one cannot make real progress on any spiritual path. Dedication to truth, my teacher, Swami Kriyananda once said, is a form of devotion. Dedication to your daily meditation practice, too, is a kind of devotion. Don't fret about it. Your inspiration to meditate is already a kind of devotion. Let it guide you but be open to what the real winners (the saints) have modeled for us.

Indeed, as stated in the beginning, yoga presents such a high goal that it, too, suffers from the same tendencies of being dumbed down to feed the ego just as much as other high ideals or other forms of religion and spirituality. Someone told me, for example, that there exist yoga classes called "naked" yoga classes (I guess you practice sans clothes for some reason not difficult to imagine.) All aspects of spirituality can be polluted by ego consciousness.

The essential appeal and beauty of true yoga is that it really is for everyone. You can start with the motivation to improve your health, both physical and mental. As you "awaken" to the "joy within you," you may "fall in love with your (higher) Self!" You begin to identify and realize that happiness is within you; it is a conscious choice! This is increasingly freeing. Bit by bit your are bitten by the cosmic snake of divine joy lifted up the brass staff of the straight spine (a reference to Moses in the Old Testament) and cured of the satanic bite of delusion.

Just as life begins with the first breath, you can say that yoga begins with the first conscious breath! Start with "watching your breath". There is a pleasure, a little bubble of happiness that comes when we come self-aware. Follow that thread, like Theseus in the labyrinth, to inner freedom!

Joy to you,


Monday, June 2, 2014

Why Yoga is the Future of Spirituality

What do I mean by "yoga?" This is a constant and frustrating issue for those who us share the true yoga. The term refers in the common view to the physical exercises, movements and positions of but one branch of yoga: hatha yoga. Why not just say, "meditation?" Meditation connotes too narrow an image: that of just "sitting." (This term, more popular, it seems, with Buddhists, suggests a passive activity. "Mindfulness" is used by both Buddhists and the secularists seems, to me, rather banal.)

Why beat around the bush or allow the correct term to be hijacked? The correct term is "yoga!" And "yoga," which means "yoke" or "union," refers to both the practice and the goal of that practice: a state of consciousness that is not limited to confinement and identification with the body and ego. It is akin to the state referred to by such words as enlightenment, liberation, moksha, satori, nirvana, samadhi, salvation, cosmic consciousness, oneness, mystical union and on and on. This state is said to be the true state of Being and the only true reality from which all differentiated objects and states of consciousness derive. It is the underlying, primordial "soup" of God-consciousness that wills into manifestation the cosmos and which sustains, maintains, and dissolves the ceaseless flux of thoughts, emotions, and objects.

The practice of yoga includes a wide range of disciplines from the bodily positions of hatha yoga to the advanced meditation techniques of kriya yoga. It is supported by a lifestyle of high ideals, integrity, moderation, and self-control in the form of simple living and includes, by tradition, the practice of vegetarianism. Codified by the sage Patanjali in the renowned Yoga Sutras, yoga is achieved through eight stages of practice and eights levels of ever expanding consciousness.

Despite the overlap of Hindu culture with the practice of yoga, its emphasis on practice (and the results derived from practice) and on technique make it highly attractive and suitable to those "spiritual but not religious," and, to those of a results or evidence-based mindset. We in the yoga field too often say that the practice of yoga requires NO belief system and that is true enough but it also doesn't go far enough. It's true enough in the fitness centers, perhaps.

But once you start talking about the spiritual or transcendental goals of yoga -- which require a wholehearted dedication to its practice -- no one is going to make that kind of commitment without an equally serious expectation or goal! Who engages upon a diet or fast without the "belief system" that she will lose weight?

So, of course there's a belief system! Traditional yoga has come down through the ages with a clear view of its transcendent goal. Nonetheless, yoga doesn't "work" unless and to the extent one releases all expectations of what's in store. The goal itself is only in the present tense and remaining in the present is the only way to get there. A paradox, eh? Nonetheless, the gift of the rishis is a long list of sign posts and way stations that can aid the traveler on his journey to the unknown.

In addition, the dedicated yoga practitioner knows that complexity of yoga practices and their subtle relationship to consciousness dictates the need for a good teacher. The long-standing and traditional guru-disciple relationship is so interwoven with yoga's highest ideals that there is virtually no way around confronting it. Nor should one try to avoid it. But this article is not going to explore this cornerstone of yoga. The cliche "When the disciple is ready the guru appears" pretty much answers all questions. My own way of putting this goes like this: "Sure, try achieving enlightenment on your own. When you realize how difficult it is or how lost you are, come on back and we'll talk." For many, it is a gradual awakening, but for all, when that realization appears, there naturally arises an openness to and, indeed, an admiration for and an attraction to learn from those who have achieved the goal.

Returning to my thesis, ours is an age that seeks individual liberties; we are a human race increasingly impatient with monarchy, dictators, or, indeed, anyone who we think wants to tell us what to do. Ours is an age of personal initiative. Self-effort, in fact, is absolutely necessary: not only for worldly success but for enlightenment, as well.

Thus it is and for the reasons already stated above, yoga is ideally suited to become the "religion of spirituality." Already and worldwide yoga is available in person, in books, audio, video, and internet. For most people, their "guru" is whatever form it comes to them in. And for most people and for the purpose of my thesis, that is sufficient. I am speaking here of the role of yoga in the future of spirituality. (This is not the same as trying to describe the role of yoga in achieving union with God.)

Consider, after all, that in any given traditional religion, there may be millions who follow it but out of those millions how many are saints or even truly living their faith? A true ("sat") guru is for true disciples. "Out of a thousand," Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita, "one seeks Me."

As described in the previous blog article, yoga has two faces: a secular face (health and well-being) and a spiritual face. Its spiritual face also has two faces: it can be highly individualistic ("spiritual but not religious") or it can be practiced in the context of other religious activities including communal worship, community service, temple-building and so on. Private practice has little cultural impact and will generally degenerate for lack of magnetism. Group practice in the context of association with others especially in serving and sharing yoga has far more magnetism both for individual transformation as well as cultural transformation (the real reason for yoga's appearance at this time of history). [Thus worldwide cooperative networks of yoga communities and centers such as Ananda already have had a noticeable impact on thousands, indeed, more.]

Paramhansa Yogananda predicted that the emphasis upon one's direct and personal perception of divinity using techniques of meditation would someday find its way into all traditional religions. His way of expressing this was "Self-realization would become the religion of the future." This may take many centuries to manifest but it doesn't seem such a far fetched idea. He didn't mean that there would be a new and worldwide church called Self-realization. Rather, it seems more likely that religionists of all types and persuasions would come to view and put a priority upon direct perception through inner communion with God. By the weight of its immense body of knowledge and centuries of experience, they would naturally draw inspiration from the science of yoga.

Consider, too, that despite the suspicion or rabid opposition today's fundamentalists might have to meditation, more thoughtful religionists in each of the main religions tend to view meditation as an appropriate form of prayer and as a practice that existed in their own tradition at least in the distant past. One can superimpose pretty much any decent religious "credo" onto meditation and, in meditation, one can pray to or seek communion with God in any form or name held dear and sincere.

Yoga is more than a pretty face and figure. Yoga is here to stay. It will grow. Someday the very term will be used in its correct and true sense. Yogananda predicted that someday lion-like swamis would come from India. That may well be but I also believe that some day great yogis will be recognized and accepted throughout the world. Some may be world leaders, artists, scientists as well as spiritual leaders. They will demonstrate feats of self-mastery and live lives of high ideals that will inspire millions. For the moment and in our lifetime, a great yogi is simply odd and irrelevant. So, for now, it's just you and me, so to speak. But this will change.

Jai Yoga!

Nayaswami Hriman