Friday, January 10, 2014

Search For Meaning - Part 1 (of 7)

This is the first of seven articles on the search for meaning, for happiness and God. This series reflects the teachings of Paramhansa Yogananda, and also specifically, the lifelong efforts of Swami Kriyananda (a direct disciple of Yogananda) to see the cup of modern consciousness as half full, instead of half empty. This is a message of "Hope for a Better World," to use the title of one of Kriyananda's books.

Part 1 - To What End, Creation? Survival?

Introduction: Before I begin, I’d like to start with some acknowledgements and references. My spiritual teacher, Swami Kriyananda (SK), wrote nearly 150 books in his long and productive life (1926-2013). One of his first books was originally published under the title “Crises in Modern Thought.” Later revised and expanded, it was renamed, “Out of the Labyrinth.” In this book, SK grapples with the 20th century issue of meaninglessness -- a cultural and philosophical malaise which brought much suffering, both physical and mental, to millions (and a lot of meaningless art--see also his book, “Art as Hidden Message”). For those interested in going into this subject far more deeply and lucidly than I can here, I recommend this book highly (and its sequel, “Hope for a Better World”). Both can be purchased online, or from the publisher (, or from my favorite bookshop, (or an Ananda center near you!). The culmination of these two books comes in a re-write of Yogananda’s thesis, or personal mission statement: a ghost-written book he called “The Science of Religion” but which Swami Kriyananda re-wrote with the title: “God is for Everyone.”

In his own life story, originally titled “The Path” in 1979, but also revised and expanded thirty years later (2009) with the title, “The New Path,” SK describes the turning point in his life (at age 21) when walking out under the stars on the beach, desperate to understand the meaning of life. Using the only tool at his disposal and with which he felt secure--his reason--he concluded that as he is conscious and asking himself these questions about the purpose of life, so too God, if He exists, must be a larger version of himself: or, to sum it up: Consciousness Itself. As he, SK, exists, God must exist. As he is conscious, God must be Consciousness itself. Until his dying breath, SK would repeat this story to audiences time and again. He often would choke up in the telling, so deeply moving and life changing was his realization.

Matter or Consciousness? Or, does it matter? As SK would put it time and time again throughout his life in lectures and writings: either nothing is conscious, or everything is conscious. Extending that, I would add that either life is meaningless or life is meaningful. Skeptics, scoffers and materialistic scientists maintain that consciousness arises from the electrical and chemical activities of the brain in its fevered attempts to survive and prosper. Thus, for them, consciousness is merely a useful function and has no intrinsic meaning in itself. It is as useful to us as, they might aver, the trunk of an elephant is to the elephant. This is what, I believe, SK meant by the phrase “nothing is conscious.” Put another way, the materialistic view is that consciousness is a mere functional byproduct and not the very essence or the source of matter. They might say, if they had a sense of humor (and often they do not), “It doesn’t matter.”

I once read an article in National Geographic that explained, quite unselfconsciously that human love and romance were “merely” responses stemming from these core “Darwinian” impulses! The article went to great lengths to explain the chemical processes involved. It was sad, or perhaps silly, actually, but this form of explanation is the accepted dogma of science and of culture today. In many so-called intellectual circles, it is an accepted dogma that all human activity has its origins in the impulse to survive and propagate! (Speak for yourself, I say!)

But these pseudo-philosopher-scientists are not being logical or true to their own rigorous methods of reasoning and experimentation. If you want to remain logical and objective you must by sheer logic alone agree that Darwinian compulsions, while factual, do not limit other influences or possibilities. These impulses could just as logically be but aspects of a bundle of influences and elements related to the interplay of matter and consciousness. Just as we have “lower” animals so too we, humans, may possess lower impulses as well as higher ones. The two might, at times, be in conflict, but, at other times, in cooperation. Darwinism need not be the final statement on the meaning and function of life. It is not exclusive. It simply points out a demonstrable (and useful)  fact of sentient life.

Is there not more to human life and its motivating impulses and myriad activities and interests (and, demonstrably to animal life, at least the more highly developed species)? Is the possibility of higher consciousness, of preexistent intelligence really such a threat to science? Why don’t they just admit it’s outside the purview of their interests or present ability to measure or predict (with the possibility of being forever outside their control!). Just look at human emotions, even in a single day, going from angry to forgiving.

A cup half full. Is it not at least just as possible that the material universe is a manifestation of consciousness as it might be that consciousness is the product of electrical and chemical processes? That it seems to us that the brain and nervous system are prerequisites for mental processes, does not logically preclude the possibility that behind the development and evolution of such sophisticated organisms lies a hidden but guiding intelligence, like the oak tree hidden in the seed. Sensitive awareness and sophisticated analysis of high functioning or unusual (but demonstrable) mental processes discloses conditions and instances where cognition and consciousness exist independent of the body and its organs.

There’s no point disputing the existence and value of the impulse to survive or to procreate, but primal impulses cannot answer the question, “Why?” Or, “What for?” Whatever may the compelling impulse to survive and procreate, organisms, both human and otherwise, don’t necessarily spend an enormous amount of time or energy dwelling on these impulses. It’s not unlike defining the human body as a composting mechanism: a rather narrow and pedestrian point of view, and of limited utility. Why, in any case, does the instinct for either arise to begin with? What’s so great about surviving and propagating? As I like to put it, “We don’t get out alive” in this world!

Given the depth and profundities of our very inquiries, and those of humankind down through the ages, moreover, it is at least slightly more likely that consciousness is the bedrock source of matter, not the other way around! On what basis and for what Darwinian purpose would we, and untold numbers like us, be having this conversation? Why has this conversation been repeated in every generation since the dawn of human history?

Part 2 - What is Happiness? stay tuned........

Swami Hrimananda!