Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Confrontation with God: the unspeakable truth!

I've been meditating for decades and teaching meditation publicly for at least half of those decades. Whenever I am tempted (in writing articles or speaking) to start describing "God" I know I'm heading down a slippery slope (to hell? or, to hell with it?). Can we just agree that "God is Infinite" and therefore beyond definition? That would make my article here easier to write, ok?

If you, as a reader, have been taught to meditate anywhere in the Ananda world you will know that we describe meditation as having three stages. Using these or other English words, we begin with Stage 1: Relaxation. In this we might use yoga or similar stretches to relax and also energize the physical body as we transition from ordinary activities towards sitting in meditation.

Stage 2 consists of internalizing our awareness and focusing our attention inwardly. We might chant, use a creative visualize, work with the breath, or observe the breath in a popular mindfulness technique which, in our version of it, Paramhansa Yogananda called, simply, "Hong Sau." There are many other techniques, some more advanced, such as Kriya Yoga.

Stage 3 is when we leave behind all techniques and sit in the silence. Hands down this is, for most meditators, the most difficult phase. Here, we let go completely of doing and relax into "being." While there are elements of this process in Stages 1 and 2, in Stage 3 its a bare-bones, down and out fist fight with the ego to shut up, let go, and go away!

So it's not God we are confronting, it's the ego. And yet, to the ego, it IS God we are confronting and "he don't want nothin' to do with Him." It's like a possessed person being confronted by a saint who commands that the evil entity leave the body of the possessed person. The ego kicks and spits and sends out a blistering diatribe of useless, dumb, or purposely hot-button images.....anything to keep our soul nature from emerging from the ego's prison of self-and-body-pre-occupation.

Oh, yes, there are moments of sweetness, calmness, joy, and surrender. But as Deepak Chopra described meditation: it's the "space BETWEEN our thoughts." I don't care much for this negative definition but I confess that for millions of meditators it's probably closer to the truth of their actual experience.

I could write a book about this issue and share ideas taken from Paramhansa Yogananda, and from my teacher (and Ananda's founder), Swami Kriyananda, and from the Yoga Sutras (Patanjali) and from the long and rich tradition of God-realized yogis and saints. But, well, I have other things to do, too. [There are some pointers to meditators that I could give here but .... maybe some other time.]

This is an unspeakable topic in the sense that a teacher of beginning meditation wants to inspire and encourage, not discourage new students. When I contemplate the challenge and what it takes to consistently have meditations where the ego-mind subsides into silence, and the invisible presence of the powerful, loving, joyful, and/or expansive God of the Self "appears," I tremble.

Yet there's a simplicity in truth. The simple truth of "seeing" God is that you really, really, really have to want to. Does that sound dumb? Trite? Well, too bad for you because it's really, really, really true!

We Ananda teachers enjoy telling the story about Paramhansa Yogananda's first kriya yoga disciple (a Boston dentist named Dr. Lewis) who confronted Yogananda, insisting that he be given a taste of cosmic consciousness. After pestering Yogananda repeatedly, Yogananda one day grabbed Dr. Lewis' (wide) lapels, bringing their foreheads close together and said, "Doctor, if I gave it to you, could you take it?" Dr. Lewis being given "stiff shot" of the stuff (so to speak), lowered his eyes and said meekly, "No sir."

When, even in fleeting moments, we are faced with what seems like the possibility of becoming the Self--this immense, invisible, overwhelming Self--the ego invariably stops and asks for a metaphorical "rain check." Like St. Augustine who prayed, "Make me good, Lord, but not yet."

Part of us does; part of us doesn't. Usually, and until only after great and repeated effort and grace, the part aligned with habit wins out. The "demon" of God has to be confronted and wrestled with. I say "demon" because that's more or less how the ego sees it.

It is devotion and the childlike faith and trust of our true Self that dissolves the invisible but ego-built barrier between me and Me and You. You have to sincerely and purely (and for no other reason) want God alone; Love alone; love without condition or expectation. You have to "know" without second thought that there is nothing greater worth having or being. You have to be convinced to your atoms that there is no other thing, desire, experience, person, or state of greater value. No opinion, no talent, no fantasy worth keeping.

I don't want to discourage anyone. After all, meditation has so many benefits (physical, mental and spiritual) that it really doesn't matter that you haven't "hit the wall," or even seen the darn thing yet. "Sufficient unto the day" is the meditation thereof.

Yet we are all -- beginning meditators and lifelong meditators -- confronted, at least sometimes, with the struggle and the wrestle with that invisible state and presence that calls to us out of the darkness of our unknowing. Is it a demon or an angel? We really don't know. Aren't my thoughts (and plans for the day) important? We won't know until we enter the arena. We won't know whether we are wrestling the ego or the angel until one of us, of them, succumbs to the other.

Entering the arena, then, is a supreme act of faith, and love. Faith is born of love and love, of faith. As Job said in the Old Testament, "Naked I came out of the womb and naked shall I return thither." We must leave everything thought, every self-identification, desire, memory, fear....all of it behind not knowing "whence I go."

I leave now chanting Yogananda's chant: "I shall be roaming, roaming, roaming...."


Nayaswami Hriman

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Fall has Fallen Upon Us! Let's Celebrate the Equinox!

So called "modern" man has lost touch with the seasons. As if to prove it, our pollution of the environment has caused the seasons, moreover, to spin out of control, crazily, disturbing traditional weather patterns.

Nonetheless, here in the greater Seattle area, Fall has come! The trees are turning to their Fall colors, bright yet hinting at nostalgia or self-reflection. The sky is mostly gray, with periodic drizzles, hardly worth even the wearing of a hat.

Having for so many years experienced the height of Fall while in Frankfurt, Germany, accompanying Padma to what was her annual trek to the international Book Fair (on behalf of showing [mostly] Swami Kriyananda's books to publishers in other langagues), I receive memory-born glimpses of the colorful trees, the ring of mountains (hills) surrounding the city, bright blue skies alternating with Seattle-like drizzle, the beautiful city park next to the home we stayed, the Fall trees lining the railway tracks that took us to and from the Messe each day......even the fresh, brisk air.

I have come to appreciate, however, in more recent years that Fall is somewhat different for those in the harvest mode. Not yet quite reflective or nostalgic, Ananda Farms staff on nearby Camano Island are busy with the harvest which must get "in" before the weather turns more seriously Fall with hints of Winter!

I suppose each season has at least two, perhaps three, subsets: early, mid and late. Early Fall is characterized by the so-called "Indian summer" of warm days and cool nights. These are sometimes a refreshing change from the unceasing heat of summer days. This is the time of active harvesting, and is a kind of extension of the active nature of Summer.

Consider, too, that school begins in Fall. Early Fall finds millions making key decisions: people move, change jobs, change or enter into new schools, projects start up and summer vacations come to an end. Fall has a quality of beginnings, too!

As a child I recall my own dismay for the undeniable fact of actually welcoming the reappearance of school, even of the familiar routine! Yes, we tend to need structure just as we also need free play!

Mid-Fall includes the October height of Fall colors and the clear transition of nature into withdrawal. The leaves turn and fall; the summer plants drop and wilt, frost may appear in the early mornings. The pace might slow a bit (or, at least we drop into our routines) and the period of reflection begins.

Late Fall might be touched by an early Winter-hinting storm or two but we have been pushed indoors now. This is a great time for Thanksgiving and personal reflection. Being driven indoors symbolizes our coming back together from our "going out" of being outside (in the fields of activity), on vacation, travelling or just being so busy as to not have time to connect.

This is the time of year when I have been blessed to take a week's seclusion at the Camano Island Hermitage (house) which was acquired for this purpose and is shared with many friends.

Fall, perhaps more than the other three seasons, represents for me the "tense and relax" cycle of activity and reflection. Nonetheless, this yin and yang is experienced in all four seasons. For example, the intensity of activity of summer is balanced by vacation and nature. Spring awakens our energy to break out of our routines and get outside: our reflective nature now moves outward into appreciation of nature, beauty, life, and diversity. Winter, while obviously indoors and inward, is yet also a time of deep focus upon our work and life's dharma.

Still, Fall is "my" season, for I was born on a Sunday, October 1st, 1950, and I shall soon be 65 years old! Hard to believe. 65 is the new young, right?

Some days I feel that I've "seen enough" of this world and I want only to be free of the unceasing play of desires, fears, self-identities, success and rejections. I think of the song my teacher, Swami Kriyananda, wrote towards the end of his life: "I don't want to play any more." This feeling (and the song itself) is not a rejection; nor is it sad, either. It is an affirmation: a hard-won affirmation, I might add. I feel the tug of omnipresence, the infinity of God-consciousness.

Other days, the sweetness of pure friendship, the joy of deep meditations, the loveliness of nature, and the diversity and amazing scope of human creativity and inventiveness, are endlessly inspiring as if God has incarnated in so many forms.

I hope for each of us that we commit ourselves to personal soul-time this Fall. Time for reflection. Time for taking retreat or personal seclusion. Life is short and our habits are so deep that too often we live like zombies wandering at night thirsting for life but devoid of joy.

The "Christ" within us yearns to be harvested, but the old habits born of the past must first be shed like Fall leaves. Oh, they might take a "Custer's last stand" by glowing brightly just as you intend to withdraw from them, but fear not, Fall they will as you reach up to pick the harvest of self-reflection in the form of inner, divine joy.

Right about now, mid-September, the night and day are poised in equilibrium. This is an excellent time to feel the growing stillness that is now accessible and which alternates with the intensity of daily activity.

Fall into Joy,

Swami Hrimananda

Monday, September 14, 2015

Breath Mastery: India's contribution to the world's treasury of knowledge

Paramhansa Yogananda, in his now classic life story, “Autobiography of a Yogi,” wrote that “breath mastery” is “India’s unique and deathless contribution to the world’s treasury of knowledge.”

What “knowledge” perchance was he referring to? Knowledge of the Self.  “Know thyself.” (Gnothi Seauton, inscribed in the forecourt at the Temple of Apollo in Delphi, Greece.) Or as Shakespeare said in the words of Polonius:  to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man.

Since ancient times and from the wise in every tradition comes this counsel to turn within, to introspect, to become self aware and know the Self.

Yet, so far as I know, only the yogic tradition gives us the “how” of gnosis, of going within. That, formerly secret, knowledge is the science of breath and mind: the science of yoga that is spreading rapidly throughout the world. For yoga is far more than physical movements or static bodily positions, no matter how beneficial they may be. Far too long has the word “yoga” represented only the physical branch of yoga (called “hatha yoga”).

It is no coincidence that our first breath signals our birth and our last, our death. Only the most unthinking would limit the experience of life to the simple act of breathing. As Jesus put it (John 10:11), “I came that they may have life, and may have it abundantly.”

This breath, this life is abundant when we have health and happiness. But life is rarely, if ever, a static experience. Joys alternate with sorrows. So if abundance is measured in things, pleasure, human love, material security, fame or name, few will have it if but fleetingly, while those who bask in these are haunted by the shadow of loss ever ready to darken their door.

Breath, taken as the most elemental aspect of being alive, functions like a river. For daily life appears to flow only in one direction: out through the senses into the world around. This direction reverses only during sleep. Following the life-breath inward to its source would seem, therefore, beyond our conscious control.

But just as a boat with a motor can travel upstream towards the river’s headwaters, so too, can we, if we are trained in the science of breath and mind. The legend of the Fountain of Youth has its origins in the all-but-lost knowledge of this science. The Fountain of Youth, like the Garden of Eden, has no earthly location. It is, as Jesus put it, “within you.” Every night in sleep we are refreshed and baptized, at least partially, in the river of life. But sleep returns us to neutral. It is not life changing.

Long ago, the yogis discovered the methods, the means and the science of breath mastery. They discovered how to slow the breath and heart rate so that the river becomes languid and we can “row” upstream. By analyzing the experience and the psychophysiological attributes of the state of sleep, the yogis devised methods by which to enter progressively deeper states of conscious sleep. Conscious, yes: indeed super-conscious; but this state is akin to “sleep” only in mimicking the brain’s methods of turning off the five “sense telephones” (as Yogananda put it) and slowing the heart and breath.

In sleep, we enter the dream state which is as real to us (while dreaming) as the activities of the day. While the reality of the dream state is as easily dismissed as the stars at night are by the sunrise, reflection upon the dream state reveals to us how our reactions, using the brain and nervous system as instruments, create our reality during the day. The introspective mind gradually realizes that all sensory input is interpreted and filtered by the senses and by the attitude, memory, and health of the mind. With poor eyesight we easily mistake one thing, or person, for another. We thus “create our own reality” largely by our expectations, emotional filters, and past memory experiences. I don’t mean to espouse solipsism. Rather, I am saying that our experience of life is largely, as it relates to what is important to us, a matter of our mental and reactive processes.

The yogis discovered the intimate relationship between inhalation and positive reactions and exhalation and negating responses. By slowing the breathing process we gain control over the reactive process, detaching life experiences from our unconscious reaction. We thus gain control over our life. We become more conscious; more alive; clearer; wiser, happier because no longer a helpless reactionary. We grow in detachment while intensifying our inner awareness of a silently flowing river of calmness, contentment and confidence.

The science of breath mastery allows the meditator to enter a state of conscious sleep. By calming and monitoring the breath and heart rate, one can turn off the senses (as we do in sleep) while yet remaining conscious. This is what scientists observe in meditators when the alpha brain waves coincide with the theta waves: conscious awareness paired with sleep-like relaxation.

The meditator can observe the mental processes that otherwise produce the dream state. I am not referring here to lucid dreaming (which can be interesting and useful to a limited degree), because meditation has other goals, such as to transcend the body and sense and memory bound mental processes of the brain. An experienced meditator focuses the mind one-pointedly in order to eventually strip the mind and its mental processes of all self-created images.

Ironically, or so it might seem, most meditation methods use the mind to focus on a single image or object in order to hold at bay, or pacify, the habit-induced onslaught of subconscious images. There’s a saying in India: “Use a thorn to remove a thorn.” When this finally occurs, the image or object of meditation can be released. The meditator then resides in a state of awareness devoid of objects.

[Images or objects of meditation vary widely but for the sake of clarity can include focusing on a mantra, the flow of breath, energy in the body, especially certain channels and places (chakras, e.g.), the feeling of peace and related states, the image of one’s deity or guru, or various subtle phenomenon experienced in meditation such as sounds or images of light.]

The science of meditation encompasses a large knowledge base of techniques and instructions on how to use the breath to achieve what has been called, somewhat incorrectly, “altered states” of consciousness. “Incorrectly,” I aver, because the actual experience of true meditation is so elemental and so refreshing that anyone who has “been there” with any consistency says that it is our natural state. All else is just details and the busy-ness of daily life. It is like finding the pure headwaters of the river of life that, as it runs to the sea of outward activity, becomes polluted by the debris of involvement, limitation, and identification! It is like bathing in pure water or being “born again.”

So life altering are the higher states of meditation that healing and health consequences are inescapable. In fact, different yoga teachers and traditions are resurrecting the health benefits of breath control techniques (traditionally called “pranayams”). The field of yoga therapy, for example, though still focused primarily on physical postures, is one sign of the application of yoga science to healing. Use of pranayams for various health cures is also being rediscovered and subjected to field tests.

A blog like this is not the place for a long string of health references but they can be easily found. I just typed in this question in my search engine: Can pranayams help the body? I got 394,000 results!

But when our purpose for meditation is towards higher states of being, we find steadily that the importance of technique wanes in relation to motivation and will power. In fact, in any given meditation sitting, we are taught to leave a portion of our sitting time for inner silence after techniques. Real meditation begins only as techniques dissolve into the sought after higher states.

[Don’t be fooled, as some meditation seekers fool themselves, in thinking, “Therefore, forget the techniques.” That might work once in a blue moon but such dilettantes rarely stay in the game very long.]

Techniques function much like the motorboat that takes us upstream; or, the training needed by an astronaut before lift off. Once we are in space, well fine, that’s when the training pays off. Once we bathe in the pure headwaters of the river of life, we don’t need the motorboat (we can float back down the river without it!)

People sometimes ask why kriya initiation requires almost a year of training and, when given, requires a pledge of silence, an agreement not to reveal the technique to anyone without prior permission!  The reasons for this are, in part, because it takes training and development to get used to the rarified oxygen-less atmosphere of inner stillness. The brain and nervous system require refinement. Like climbing Mt Everest without oxygen, we have to get used to the thin atmosphere where thoughts subside, the body is left behind, and the emotions have vanished like clouds beneath the intense summer sun.

You may think you want all this but your entire body, nervous system, and reptile brain and ego want nothing to do with being asked to step aside. So far as they are concerned, they are being dismissed and dissolved into nothingness. Who in their right “mind,” would accede to this without a fight! “The soul loves to meditate; but the ego hates to meditate.” So counseled Paramhansa Yogananda.

One needs not only to get used to meditation but also to demonstrate by will power and motivation the necessary “right stuff” to stick with it long enough to get results. Otherwise it’s “pearls before swine.” Not calling anyone here a pig, but what would diamonds be if they were ten cents each? They wouldn’t be diamonds. It takes will power to learn the science of yoga and to go deep into the Self.

If given too soon and one gives up in frustration, rebellion or restlessness, the seed of rejection and doubt is sown. It can take more than one lifetime before that vasana, impression, or vritti, karma, weakens sufficiently so that one’s interest and desire to try again might be re-awakened. One doesn’t give a child a gun or a hammer.

But that’s kriya yoga: an advanced pranayama given to us by masters of the yoga science for dedicated seekers of Self-realization. Only when by sincere self-effort one seeks the “pearl of great price” and knows the obstacles ahead does one accept the pure and grace-bestowing guidance of an enlightened One.

But for most new meditators, there are many pranayams and meditation techniques well suited to stress reduction, health and healing. You can use breath techniques to warm or cool the nervous system; to help you sleep; to still the mind and, as the internet search suggests, heal, help or cure lots of ailments.

Technique, therefore, is a good starting point. Motivation relative to our needs and wisdom is the fuel of our pranayama rocket. With self-effort we can accomplish much. With grace, we leave the “we” behind lest our victories revert and yield, in time, to the grinding wheel of samsara (duality).

Start where you are. Learn to breathe consciously, deeply. Try to be conscious of your breathing throughout the day as well as in meditation. Detective stories say “Follow the money.” Sages say “follow the breath.”


Swami Hrimananda

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

For Ananda Kriyabans only: How to Deepen Your Kriya Practice

Here for the Ananda Seattle kriya members, we have recently written four sequenced articles on "How to Deepen Your Kriya practice." These are for those who have learned the kriya meditation technique from an Ananda kriyacharya. If you are eligible, and would like me to send you these articles, please let me know. I will need an email address, and, if I don't know you well enough already, I will need confirmation of your kriya initiation. If you don't already have my email address, you can use the "comments" below to contact me and I will simply NOT "publish" the comment.

Blessings to you,

Nayaswami Hriman