Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Am I spiritual?

What does it mean to be spiritual? This question is similar to the one that asks, "What is good art?

As open ended as such questions are, it doesn't mean there's no answer that is helpful.

When speaking about atheists, agnostics, or stoics, we can say that being spiritual (for them) is having good "spirit".... being compassionate, kind, loving, having high ideals, personal integrity, energetic and creative, cooperative, and so on.

But neither can we deny the ordinary meaning of the term ("spiritual") nor especially its true and deeper meanings. For, virtue alone is not enough. It has been well said that "the road to hell is paved with good intentions." Good deeds create good karma, but good karma accrues to the ego which is ever unreliable because its most basic instincts are self-protection and self-assertion in the face of life's inevitable tests and trials. Eventually good karma simply gets used up and you either succumb in the other direction or at least start all over again. Ultimately, no matter how successful or happy in human terms a person becomes (and how few do), it will never be enough. "Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee," St. Augustine warns us.

Divine consciousness is not simply earned by will power alone, but is won by devotional and conscious self-offering. Why is this? Because superconsciousness is MORE aware than the conscious or subconscious mind; it is by definition transcendent of ego consciousness. One doesn't slide into higher consciousness by actions initiated solely by the will of ego alone. At some point, influenced by the higher spiritual vibrations of saintly souls, high spiritual teachings and true and sincere spiritual teachers, our soul is touched and inspired to seek "the pearl of great price: God alone!"

Reality is infinite: whether in time or space or in consciousness itself. Thus, the ultimate spirituality is to seek attunement and immersion into Infinity itself. This requires recognition of the inadequacy of ego and, ultimately (at least), a supreme act of what appears, to the ego, to be self-annihilation but which in fact is Self-expansion towards bliss. The ego rebels and is frightened and wary; but the soul thrills at the prospect. In God who is Infinite, how can anything be lost? What else is infinity if not every-thing, material, immaterial, or conscious. Described millennia ago, this state, which is called many things and no-thing, including God, is "Satchidanandam," ever-existing, ever-conscious, ever-new bliss.

Love of God is paramount and is therefore both the alpha and omega (beginning and end) of true spirituality. This simply cannot be denied. The steps toward perfecting this love is what Jesus meant, and he pulled "no punches," when he "be thou perfect, even as your Father, who is in heaven, is perfect!" (Why? Because in our souls we are already perfect but haven't realized this fully.)

Most ordinary, Sunday-going religionists obey the rules; go to church; try to be good and honest and all the things which in the yoga teachings comprise the most outward aspects of the first stages of spirituality called yama and niyama (do's and don'ts). I don't mock these for all of us must learn these lessons. They are the foundation stones, the house, of spirituality. Paramhansa Yogananda called the church the "hive" and the living experience of God's presence the "honey." He said BOTH are needed.

"The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath" Jesus chided his critics. The Jews of his time, like so many at all times, need to work from the outside in and can, at first, only see the outer trappings, the husk but not the kernel of religion. Obedience to rules is a good start but is secondary. Performance of rites and rituals or attendance at church, similarly, is also secondary but woe to he who thinks he is above this. Time proves all. If self-sacrifice and devotional self-offering is the ultimate price, you'd better start right now and if for you, child of Spirit that you still are, need to demonstrate that by going to church on Sunday to show that you are willing to give your all to the quest for Self-realization, then so be it! Do it, however, with Joy or you will gain nothing!

Study of and knowledge of scripture, though helpful, is also not the essence of spirituality. Yogananda's guru, Swami Sri Yukteswar, said of such (pundits and theologians), "They smell unduly of the lamp (kerosene)." A finely honed definition is not a substitute for superconsciousness. On the other hand, quoting Yogananda, "Stupid people will never find God (until their brains mature)." In my book, this includes dogmatic people. Study of spiritual teachings should bring one to a universal view of all life and all sincere striving. Love and kind acceptance are the fruit of true wisdom inclining as it must toward superconsciousness.

Selfless service is perhaps the most important because high thoughts and devotional feelings must be purified in the white-hot crucible of direct but selfless, ego-transcendent action. Even prayer and meditation are but (refined) action. Both true devotion and true contemplation find fulfillment in silent, inner communion. Action without personal desire, serving God with devotion and true understanding within and without in the fulfillment of one's rightful duties in life, are the surest path to God.

One could therefore say that spirituality is directional. Here, below, I offer a more or less random description of typical stages of spiritual growth. Such are necessarily suggestive of the precept of reincarnation:

1.  Virtuous behavior, moral integrity, and right living are the foundation
2.  Belief or, better, intuitive awareness of God or a higher power.
3.  Study and practice of religion and religious attitudes.
4.  Adherence to religious discipline.
5.  Increasing holiness, self-sacrifice, calmness, joy, and peace.
6.  Prayer and meditation with increasingly deeper inner experiences of superconsciousness
7.  Appearance of tangible evidence of sanctity recognized by others.
8.  From here, the stages are internal to one's consciousness, the supreme goal of which is Oneness with God (using whatever terminology is appropriate to one's tradition).

It would be absurd to insist that spirituality must take these stages literally in its unfoldment. Yet, there is a recognizable direction and logic to the steps described above. I do not intend that these steps be rigid or tightly defined. They are merely suggestive of the general idea.

Maybe some day I'll write about "good art," though this isn't my "field." Art as a Hidden Message is a book by my teacher (and founder of Ananda worldwide), Swami Kriyananda, brings clarity to the messy and subjective field of art and art appreciation. Art for art's sake is revealed for the fallacy it is, for art communicates.

Blessings to all, from Camano Island Hermitage,

Swami Hrimananda

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Breathlessness is Deathlessness!

What does "counter-intuitive" mean? Sitting on an airplane, ready for take-off, how many of us have wondered to ourselves: how can this thing, weighing 300 to 400 tons, possibly fly? And, yet it does: thousands of flights everyday, filled with hundreds of people, fuel, baggage and the airplane itself! But is this truly "counter" to our intuition? Or, is it counter to the experience of the senses?

Intuitively, in our dreams and aspirations, after all, flying is possible for us. Without the aspiration, fed by intuition which is the "knowing" that we can fly, we wouldn't even attempt it. So, instead of being counter-intuitive, it is really counter to our sensory experience! It wasn't until 1978 that two men climbed Mt. Everest without additional oxygen. Their feat may have defied (then) common sense, but it wasn't "counter-intuitive."

In this ascendant age of science and technology we are each day, each month, each year transcending limitations which, heretofore, would have seemed impossible. Some day, Paramhansa Yogananda (author of "Autobiography of a Yogi") predicted, we would figure out how to span the light years that separate us from distant planets and galaxies without paying the limitations imposed upon us currently by time and space.

Consider, too, our experience with illness, old age, death and all manner of suffering, including emotional and mental. When these things strike us, loved ones, or others, we know intuitively that this is NOT who we are; we knowingly separate ourselves from them, even when we accept them, at least calmly, as our present, but not permanent, reality.

It's not that we can't see these things are a fact of life for everyone. But at the same time we "know" that health is who we are and we know what is our true nature: happiness, freedom, goodness......all these are ours on an intuitive level.

Our intuitive knowing is the soul's power to fly and to seek freedom from all limitations. Our creative thoughts write novels, and plays, and make movies of past centuries and cultures; we imagine the life on earth in the future or on other, as yet undiscovered, planets. Every day in so many ways, we affirm our freedom from all limitations even if just in our thoughts, our desires, our fantasies.

In the past, breathing meant you were alive: the first breath of a baby, and the final exhalation of the dying signaled the appearance or disappearance of life. Yet the yogis tell us that "breathlessness is deathlessness." This is counter to our sense impressions; it is repudiated by the subconscious mind, which includes the body's autonomic system, for these are efficiently designed to keep us in the body and breathing. And this is a good thing from a common sense and daily living point of view. But we also posses an innate, intuitive sense of our immortality whenever we contemplate the mystery of death or encounter its stark but physical reality.

For a long time, lack of breathe meant a person was dead. That was disproved with the onset of CPR. In more recent times, it was said that lack of brain activity is certain death. That, too, has been disproved. One example is of a boy who drowned in icy water and had no signs of life for over an hour and a half. By intelligent and sustained efforts of the medical staff, he walked out of the hospital three and half days later.

Death, while at the same time a socially taboo subject in both family and medical circles, is yet a new frontier for science. A well known meditation researcher is investigating a phenomenon known in Tibetan circles as thukdam. A monk, knowing of his coming death, enters a deep state of meditation. All bodily and biological functions cease, yet, his body remains without decay or other signs of death for periods of a week or more. When does death actually occur?

Humanity, having descended to the nadir of what is called "Kali Yuga" (the dark or lowest cycle of human consciousness) around 499 AD and having, from that point, begun slowly our 12,000 year upward journey to greater awareness, has lost many of the treasures of the wisdom of higher ages. Even in the science of yoga, e.g., we've inherited from the relative ignorance of Kali Yuga cycle the association, almost universal around the world in today's cultures, between the term "yoga" and the physical body. Ananda Yoga, taught as a prelude to meditation, is viewed, as if almost unique, and is considered by others as "spiritual yoga." This is ironic because the term "yoga" is refers to the highest state of spiritual consciousness (and to the concomitant techniques to achieve it).

Another example from the science of yoga is the term Prana, or life force. During Kali Yuga this term became associated with the physical breath and with physical breathing exercises. Its original and correct meaning is a reference to the movements of intelligent energy that inhabit the physical body and which comprise the essence of the astral body. Physical breath is but the grossest, most outward evidence of life force in the body. Kriya Yoga, one of the world's most sought after and advanced meditation techniques, emphasizes awareness and control of these subtle currents in and around the astral spine, even if it, too, utilizes the physical breath as a doorway to the subtle, astral breath.

In the declining yugas of the BCE era, as humankind increasingly lost touch with its ability to contact divine realms and consciousness, priests of the cult of Osiris performed a ritual reenactment of the entombment and resurrection of Osiris by going into the Great Pyramid and placing the new pharoah or high priest into a coffin and sealing it with wax for a precise number of minutes. By this ritual, they would attempt to induce a near-death experience for the new pharoah so that he could experience higher realms and claim his kinship with Osiris and his lineage! A crude and dangerous ritual, to be sure, and a desperate attempt to reenact the lost mental and spiritual powers of a higher age and induce an experience of superconsciousness.

Julian Jaynes, author of "Origins of Consciousness" (1976), studied ancient traditions and writings, e.g., the Iliad, and concluded, somewhat crudely, that in former times humanity claimed to have had access to divine consciousness and "heard voices" in our heads that guided our actions. He termed this "bicameral" thinking. Thus it is that ancient scriptures, including the Old Testament, do NOT emphasize the kind of personal, egoic, existential angst and burden of personal decision making that we take for granted today. The author's view of this may not exactly coincide with our own, but it is an interesting observation. Yogananda wrote (in his autobiography) that "thoughts are universally, not individually rooted." A saint is a saint for having attuned his consciousness to divine consciousness. As the Old Testament put it, "My thoughts are not your thoughts." But a saint speaks and acts with divine attunement. The Bhagavad Gita teaches us that we who think we are the Doer (and the Thinker) are deluded for all creation is a manifestation of God, whether wisely or ignorantly.

Medical scientists are studying how to induce a kind of hibernation level so as to slow bleeding in trauma victims, to give time for heart surgery patients to regain normal function, and to resuscitate people who might even have been without a heartbeat for several hours.

Life without oxygen is possible! The wealth of testimony from the studies of near-death experiences (NDEs) shows a consistent pattern of experiences about a state of awareness never before thought possible. One study showed that a group of NDE'ers had very accurate and precise descriptions of the procedures performed on their otherwise "dead" bodies (while being resuscitated) compared with a survey of a group of medically savvy people who were nowhere near as accurate or successful when asked what procedures would likely be performed under such circumstances.

Returning now to the subject of breathlessness, quoting Chapter 26 (Kriya Yoga) of Paramhansa Yogananda's now classic story, "Autobiography of a Yogi," he wrote:

Kriya Yoga is an instrument through which human evolution can be quickened,” Sri Yukteswar explained to his students. “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.”

In Chapter 12 of his autobiography, his guru gives to him an experience of cosmic consciousness. Entering this state, he describes it thusly: "My body became immovably rooted; breath was drawn out of my lungs as if by some huge magnet. Soul and mind instantly lost their physical bondage, and streamed out like a fluid piercing light from my every pore. The flesh was as though dead, yet in my intense awareness I knew that never before had I been fully alive. My sense of identity was no longer narrowly confined to a body, but embraced the circumambient atoms."

Rather than the materialistic view that matter has produced consciousness, the ancient teachings of a much higher age aver that consciousness has produced matter. God has become the universe by vibrating His consciousness to create an illusion of separateness. 

Scientists debate whether the mind has an independent existence apart from the brain, More and more evidence is piling up to suggest that it is so. But the mind, then, would need a source of energy. The yogis say that this is source is the source of all things, all life and is called, in Sanskrit, prana, or Life Force. This intelligent and divine life source is both macro and micro: it is the essence of all creation and the manifestation of our individualized consciousness. 

Yogic techniques are emerging than can show us how to safely and naturally transcend the slavery of our mind to the body. Yogananda taught a mindfulness technique (watching the breath), taken from ancient times, using the mantra "Hong Sau." He called this the highest technique of concentration.

The breath is the single most obvious barrier to concentration: when we need to focus on something, we automatically quiet the breath, or even hold it temporarily. At the same time by focusing one-pointedly upon the breath, it begins to calm down and, with proper training in the technique itself, we can relatively easily experience moments of cessation of breath. It is therefore the natural focus of our meditative attention.

The respiration rates of humans and of various animals shows that the faster the rate, the shorter the life expectancy. Scientific studies are all ready showing that meditation can slow, and even reverse, the effects of aging. Though it may seem counter to our natural, biological instincts, breathing less gives us more life; more awareness; greater health; and sustainable joy. 

Certain techniques (kapalbhati pranayam, double breath exhalation, and others) can produce momentary experiences of breathlessness: not unlike the training of astronauts in weightlessness when they are taken up in an airplane as high as they can go and then begin a rapid descent during which weightlessness occurs for a brief time.

Centering one's inner, visual focus through the forehead (the point between the eyebrows....the "kutastha") can also instantly bring breath and heart to a near standstill. This, combined with other advanced meditation techniques, is powerfully effective. No such techniques should be attempted on one's own, however. Not because they are dangerous so much, as why waste time doing something worth doing but doing it ineffectively?

As explained in Chapter 26 of the "Autobiography of a Yogi," Kriya Yoga introduces an "extra atom" of oxygen to bring the metabolism into stasis and reduce the need to breathe and thus gradually become acclimatized, like those who climb Mt. Everest without oxygen, to the rarefied "atmosphere" of breathlessness.

As we approach "absolute zero" of stillness of breath, the sense of separate identity, aka the ego, begins to dissolve. Not surprisingly, the ego is sustained by the autonomic system and sometimes balks at the possibility of its own dissolution in breathlessness. A meditator might experience momentary fear, or with the very thought "I'm not breathing," the heart and lungs kick back in. 

Gradually, over time and with practice, we overcome this hesitation. The key to this is NOT however the psycho-physiological description I've offered above. Higher consciousness is not, or should not be, a "circus." These realms are for those who sincerely, and with deep devotion and self-offering of the ego at the feet of the Infinite Spirit, seek the "truth that shall make us free" (of all limitations of ego and body). This is not for the faint of heart or for those whose wounded egos require extensive surgery: we cannot offer back to God that which, we, ourselves, do not yet possess. To become Self-possessed we must first become self-possessed!

Our hearts must be cleansed and purified by right action and right understanding. Breathlessness is, itself, only a doorway to the Divine Presence. In fact, without proper training and guidance, breathlessness can descend into lower forms of subconsciousness, including trance states, which offer to us no pathway to enlightenment whatsoever. One can, I am told, press on certain nerves and induce trance-like states. There are chemical means of inducing states of hibernation or feigned death. None of these is what this article is about. 

Think of lifting your arms up high in celebration! Imagine lifting your eyes as if at the sight of a awesome panorama! Even in such simple and ordinary acts, the mind becomes instantly still and the heartbeat can become immediately quiet. "It left me breathless!" Even human love, in its deepest forms, is silent and still. In addition to the yoga science, each of us can practice "breathlessness" at any time. 

May your breath be taken away in blissful, divine ecstasy!

Swami Hrimananda

For some follow up reading you might enjoy:

also: "Closer to the Light," by Melvin Morse, M.D.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

I Was Lost, and then Found! Life's Little Miracles

All my life and, indeed, one of my earliest memories, was suddenly being unable to find some object I had just had in my hand! As a small child, I still recall jumping up and down with great frustration having had some object, no doubt a toy, just "disappear" in front of me! I swore aloud that the "Devil must have taken it." (Naturally, being a good Catholic fellow, all such things were the work of the devil. When Cannery Row went up in flames on Thanksgiving Day in the 50's, a few blocks from our home in Pacific Grove, I was sure the devil had come up from the center of the earth--so great were the flames shooting high into the air and thick black smoke enveloping the town.)

I recount this story so you won't be tempted, when reading my account below, to think, "Ah, gee, the guy's gettin' old and forgetful!" (While that may, in fact, be true, it is not, by any means, the big picture here.)

Once, in my forties, Padma and I took a trip to Orcas Island. I think we gave a class on Education for Life at the Indralaya Retreat. While sitting outside and enjoying the beautiful ferry ride through the narrow San Juan straits, in and around its many islands, I had (as so many men do) taken the wallet out of my back pocket because sitting on it was uncomfortable. I placed it next to me on the bench and later just got up and walked away leaving the wallet where I had placed it. 

When I got to our hotel room at the famous and classic Rosario's Inn, I suddenly discovered I couldn't find my wallet. I called the Ferry dock (long before cell phones existed) and, sure enough, it had been reported found. They said, however, that I would need to come down to meet the next Ferry a few hours hence. Everything was there, intact--even a $100 bill that had been part of a birthday gift! 

Well, a month or so ago, we hosted visitors from the Ananda Center and Church in Palo Alto, CA. After picking them up from SeaTac on a Saturday afternoon, we stopped to visit the East West Bookshop in Roosevelt Square (corner of 12th and 65th, upper plaza). Afterwards, we sat outside at the adjacent Starbucks to enjoy a cool drink and chat some more. I had my usual blue shoulder bag with me, containing all my valuables, so to speak. In fact, let me digress....

The night before I had, for some unknown but intuitive reason, reorganized all my two-thousand credit cards and shopping cards, library card, etc. etc. etc. At the moment of completing this task, long overdue, I had the distinct thought: "I shouldn't carry all these things around with me all the time!" Well, I was in a hurry and too busy to know how to divide them all. So I simply put them all back into the shoulder bag.

Now, continuing.....by now you've guessed that upon leaving Starbucks I left my blue should bag right there in the open (outside seating) next to the table and chairs we had been sitting at. But, did I notice? No! I had this odd feeling a few hours later going to dinner that something was missing but amidst the chit-chat with our friends there was no time for reflection or listening to that funny feeling in my gut.

It wasn't until the next morning, Sunday morning, on the way to church, that I knew the bag was missing. There was, in my view, at least, nothing I could do. That afternoon we were scheduled to go up to Camano Island for an all afternoon gathering of core Ananda members for lunch, chanting, meditation and discussion. There wasn't a moment to do anything. It wasn't until evening that we got home. Again, nothing I could really do. In fact, I had a friend at East West check in at Starbucks but with a casual inquiry like that, well, why would I be surprised if none of the clerks knew anything about it?

Late that night I sat on the floor of my living room with my banking records in front of me ready to call all the credit card companies. Padma and I checked online: no activity anywhere: checking accounts or bank cards. She suggested that I wait until the morning and come to bed. I did just that.

By now many hours, a day and a half had passed. No phone call, nothing. Still I had this funny feeling: mostly of disbelief that I was going to have to go through this whole process related to two checkbooks and a fistful of cards, driver's license....the whole "nine yards!" Just couldn't believe it. Was I just in shock? Lazy? Frustrated? Or, was there some intuition here?

The next morning I was up early. I was NOT going to waste my time with a phone call to Starbucks during their busiest few hours. I drove back to East West and sat in Starbucks waiting for the line to thin out. But all I saw were the young and very busy clerks: oblivious to anything but waiting on customers. I was about to leave when suddenly out from the back (a door I hadn't noticed) came a woman of "authority!" Right away I knew SHE was the one to ask. But, she was in a hurry to get out of there. I hesitated, and then stepped in her path. "Sorry to bother you, but ...... " Right away before I could finish my sentence, she said, "Oh yeah, I was about to call East West about the blue bag." 

Puzzled, I asked, "Why East West?" She said I saw all the Ananda stuff and figured East West was the best bet! I said, "Well, you're in a hurry or I'd kiss your feet!" Needless to say, I bought an expensive hot coffee drink and sipped it contentedly all the way home in the car to join my friends at breakfast!

All my life I have found that I need to clasp my car keys to my pants (through a belt loop); clip my cell phone to my belt and hang on to that wallet....I've tried everything: shoulder pouch under my shirt; a tiny wallet with a leather or metal clasp.............let's not even talk about my glasses!!!! Maybe I just move too fast and clearly don't pay sufficient attention to putting things down. I am hardly alone in this.

On a trip to India with my daughter Gita (we did the pilgrimage known as the "Char Dham," visiting the holy headwaters in the Himalaya of the Ganges and other holy rivers), we were leaving the Himalayas driving downstream along the Ganges. We stopped for lunch at a lovely restaurant. There again, hung on the chair, I had again left my small day pack with everything I own in it! When I discovered it many miles downstream as we were racing to the Dehra Dun airport for a flight to Calcutta, our guide uses his cell phone to call the restaurant. He finds a cab driver to get the bag and drive in our direction as we drive back toward him: in hopes we'd see each other! OMG! Well, we did  see each other, and I got everything, and I mean everything (cash included) back!

Not sure when my "good" karma will run out but I try my best to stay present with my "things!"

My sense is not so much of "Thank God" for such favors, it is, rather, the quiet, calm, knowing smile that, though I do my best, somehow, at least for now, Divine Mother makes "good," as Krishna puts in the Bhagavad Gita, "my deficiencies." For me the blessing isn't a material one, it is that sense of divine play; the sense that the world we inhabit is far more than we think it is; that "magic" (divine magic) exists for those with eyes to see and ears to hear. It is the playful sense of God's presence in even the littlest of things.

Joy to you!

Swami Hrimananda