Saturday, July 9, 2016

Ananda Leadership, Succession & Membership: Male and Female

Many years ago Swami Kriyananda had the perspicacity to appoint couples as the leaders of the core Ananda communities. I don't have a global perspective on just how unusual this might be in today's world, but from my own experience I can't think of any other organizations that have such a structure (except "mom and pop" businesses). About the only explanation I recall Swami Kriyananda (SK) offering was the obvious one: citing the benefit of balancing male and female energies.

SK frequently praised and acknowledged the rising visibility and influence of women as both an antidote and a solution to the dangers of too strongly a masculine one. Warfare is no longer a viable response to conflict for reasons that I don't need to dwell upon.  Having a couple in a leadership position represented his recognition of the need for a feminine influence. Recently in a talk given by Swami Kriyananda's hand picked successor, Nayaswami Jyotish Novak (who, with his wife, Devi Novak, are Ananda's spiritual directors worldwide), Jyotish commented on how this leadership model is well suited to the need of our age.

Recently, a female student asked me, "Why are there mostly women in this class?" I was nonplussed because I don't really have a factual answer. There's no doubt in my mind (absent actual statistical facts), that the majority of students in Ananda classes and amongst our members are women. Nor is this unusual in "New Thought" organizations or in yoga and meditation organizations (or so I would assume).

My own experience over 39 years as a member of Ananda is overwhelmingly that women jump to accept and successfully carry out responsibilities 2:1 over men.  Men, and I include myself, will more likely do so if it's their idea and if they can run it. (Mind you, once in charge, most people, women included, take complete control: for better or less.) I add my experience to that expressed all too commonly by both men and women that women are more energetic, articulate, and perceptive. There are some skills and talents that men, by tradition, or women, by upbringing, excel. Whether due to nature or nurture is of no interest to my thoughts today. I am just saying that in group dynamics, especially perhaps in volunteer or nonprofit type organizations, women leap to the top naturally. More naturally cooperative and harmonious (or so it seems to me), women fit the need of today's culture.

But is this unilaterally positive? No, it isn't! Men and women, and now I wish to move towards the terms, male and female ENERGIES (which inhabit BOTH male and female "bodies"), are simply two sides of the same coin. One simply CANNOT debase the other without debasing him/her self. We need BOTH! Let me explain this in terms that our founder, Swami Kriyananda, did: both by direct experience (that changed his life, and mine, and that of thousands) and in principle.

From time to time, you see, he would comment on the differences in male and female leadership qualities and styles. He rued the fact that Paramhansa Yogananda's organization, Self-Realization Fellowship Inc (Los Angeles, CA) fell into the hands of an all (or mostly)-female Board of Directors not long after Yogananda's passing and continuing, more or less, to the present time. He described how in that organization men were treated as second-class citizens towards whom it was assumed any personal initiative was rooted in the "evil-ego" that men seemed endowed with since birth. Though the women leaders couldn't change the fact that their guru, Yogananda, appointed men to the positions as public teachers, the women were ever watchful and suspicious that if any of them excelled at teaching that it would inflate their ego and a schism was sure to follow. Hence when not teaching, the men were assigned to physical labor tasks such as landscaping or construction; their living quarters were second rate compared to the women. The decades-long leader of that organization was quoted as saying matter of factly, "Women are more spiritual than men."

In addition to jealously guarding their authority from every conceivable, real or imagined threat, the board of directors controlled and ruled upon every minute detail of ashram and organizational life. Little scope was given to anyone else. The unspoken view of public service was, "Let them come to us. We'll decide what we give them (in spiritual teachings), though few are as ready as we who have given our lives to this work." It took fifty years to edit and publish Yogananda's second greatest work (his commentary on the Bhagavad Gita) when he, himself, in the last year of his life announced that it would be published that very same year! In instituting a twelve year lawsuit to "destroy" Ananda (as the judge viewed it), they considered Ananda an interloper who dared to "use" Yogananda's teachings for its own purposes! Admittedly, in the meantime, they developed their lands and properties to an exquisite level of beauty: something we and thousands, as visitors and pilgrims, enjoy to this day.

In SK's years there (the 1950's) as a monk, and indeed, even as one of the leaders (being for a time both Vice-President and a board member), but always being outnumbered by the older women leaders, he found that his expansive ideas and energies were consistently thwarted and worse, viewed with suspicion by them. Indeed, it was no small measure the key factor to his being summarily dismissed from that organization in 1961. We are grateful for that because although his greatest test, his labor gave birth to Ananda.

Consider it from their power of view: the power and magnetism of Paramhansa Yogananda. Those female disciples who served his ministry all those many years were understandably no match, in their role as successors, for Yogananda's dynamic energies. No doubt they were, in fact, somewhat exhausted by Yogananda's ceaseless projects and tireless campaigns. This is not a criticism but an explanation for why, after Yogananda's passing, they "closed  the gate" and turned the "place" into a museum. (Admittedly an exaggeration, here, but only somewhat; nonetheless, their devotion to him cannot be questioned.)

Jump forward to Ananda present day: Swami Kriyananda, tireless campaigner, lecturer, writer, and inspiration to thousands, is now gone. Working as we, the first generation, did during his lifetime to support his ministry, we are no match for Kriyananda's dynamic and creative will power and attunement to Yogananda.

Preservation of his works and memory is, in fact, an appropriate priority for us at this time. We have an obligation to preserve the traditions, music, customs, and policies established by our founder. The vast reservoir of music, books, lectures, and other writings left to us by him could keep us busy for a lifetime extracting and adapting their inspirational and practical value in our service to others.

Fortunately, we have a distinct advantage over the pattern that befell SRF because Swami Kriyananda trained and encouraged us to be creative and expansive. He appointed couples as the primary leaders of Ananda. Since his passing in 2013 there's been a veritable explosion of growth and creative endeavors throughout Ananda worldwide.

Nonetheless, it is a distinct possibility that the gender imbalance either simply reflects the new phase of preservation that follows Kriyananda's passing or will influence Ananda's directions towards consolidation and preservation of what has been established. Either way, it seems to me that it will be a long time before anyone has the energy and magnetism to make any substantive contributions or initiate new directions to Swamiji's legacy. This is not necessarily a problem; at least not yet.

A balance of energies is necessary even if minor fluctuations naturally occur. When Kriyananda would speak of the gender differences in terms of leadership he would say things like the male influence tends to be expansive and impersonal; the female, personal and nurturing. And, he would add: we need both. To use an outdated archetypal image: someone has to go out and hunt to support the home, and someone has to stay home to protect it and its offspring.

With our modern awareness and sensibilities we can now distinguish between the biology of a person and their "energy." "Male" and "female" in this discussion refers not to bodies but to the dominant direction of interest of a person's energy. At the same time, we are asking for trouble if we pretend that biology doesn't influence consciousness! (Consider the world of entertainment and advertising to see the emphasis placed upon gender distinctions and traits in attracting success and sales.)

In Ananda's current phase of consolidation and preservation, appropriate though it is, an invisible, magnetic shield silently says, "This is what Ananda is." Implied in this is the even less conscious thought: "don't think to change it." It is as though we could be saying: "Ananda has come of age and is maturing in our self-identity and confidence around who we are. We have arrived for we now possess the spiritual wealth of our founder: his attunement with Paramhansa Yogananda!"

In contradistinction to the statistics of the gender makeup of Ananda membership, it is worth noting that our rapidly changing culture surrounding gender awareness makes it possible for women to confidently and openly express male energies, and, for men to express feminine energies. (I am not referring to sexual orientation.) To some degree, this potentially undermines the observable statistical imbalance and may, in fact, suggest that there's very little imbalance. But I have no way to measure that and my own experience of people is that most of us are distinctly influenced by biology.

Nonetheless, since we have no equivalent "Swami Kriyananda" to embody the expansive public service energies that are part and parcel of our "work," we, left to our own tendencies, might too easily prefer to shepherd our existing flocks with the care and compassion such duties require (and thus, unaware of the consequences of our actions, perhaps "closing the gate" behind us to protect them).

During his lifetime and in the building of Ananda, Swami Kriyananda instinctively established a dynamic, yet fruitful, "tension" between caring for our "home" (the various residential communities and the needs of our members) and engaging in public service; between nurturing our membership and serving the public. His books tended, generally, to reach out to the broadest segment of the public with interesting and varied topics that could show the underlying message of unity and spirituality beneficial to all through meditation, philosophy, parenting, marriage and much more. By contrast, those to whom he appointed to lead the communities that he had established were given the role to tend and nurture the needs and spiritual welfare of individual members. Outreach, though important, was and generally still is limited to a local service area and directed towards students and members.

Not long after Swami's death, Ananda's worldwide leadership affirmed our commitment to outreach and public service. Recently this was reaffirmed and focused towards SK's successors: Jyotish and Devi Novak. But that's easier said than done because our generation of leaders does not have the public recognition or karmic role of SK. Not surprisingly, the resources committed to outreach lag behind the resources committed to what we are used to making as our priority: the maintenance and growth of the communities, and the training and support of our members. Perhaps this is as it needs to be for now. We can coast for a while on the lifelong public service of our founder. But just how long?

In all fairness (returning now to the gender identity of Ananda members), yoga and meditation probably does attract more women than men. Perhaps our statistics are in line with the reality everywhere at the present time. Nonetheless, the frequency and clarity with which Swami Kriyananda commented upon the need for male energy should be a warning to us. A true leader is compassionate and understanding and good with people. But we cannot expect all future leaders to express all aspects of the ideal leader, and certainly not in their younger years as they are learning and growing. A potential leader might prove, at first, to be a gadfly of new ideas (just as SK was long ago) or even critique. (Just as some of the brightest students in school are not those who are the teacher's pet.)

It is true, as he, himself wrote, that the devotee (male and female) must begin the spiritual search with qualities of humility, devotion and receptivity, but strength and will power, too, are essential to spiritual growth. Given the dynamics of cultural conditioning in modern times, and as Swami Kriyananda found himself a victim of, it is all too easy to assume that softer qualities are spiritual and outward flowing energies are egotistical. Easy, in part, because so often true: but not always!

For, in fact, the emergent form of spirituality rejects the historic tradition that expansiveness is born of ego. The time for rejecting the world in the name of spirituality is rapidly vanishing. The time for "bringing Spirit to "work" in the world" is gaining acceptance by virtue of the need in our times. Men and women of greater awareness express this instinctively. But the old habits cling and resist as well.

In the last two weeks or so, and taking place at the Ananda Community and Center near Assisi, Italy, was a gathering of younger members, many of whom have leadership potential for the future. Ananda IS making an effort to nurture and recognize leadership qualities. SK taught us that in group dynamics and organizational activities, leadership, while not better or more important than other roles, is, nonetheless, a necessary talent, role and skill. Given the positive changes in culture and consciousness away from hierarchy, leadership energies tend to be mistrusted even if the role remains essential to any successful venture. We must avoid that inviting view, born of an extreme affirmation of egalitarian principles. "All men are created equal" is a pleasing affirmation (applicable, truly, to our potential) but quite obviously is untrue in actual fact.

It is my hope and prayer, and expectation, that the present leadership of Ananda, wherever situated, will have the wisdom (and the remembrance of the example of our founder, Swami Kriyananda) to recognize and nurture leadership qualities in those men and women inspired to serve the public work of Yogananda in the world today and in the years to come.

In thoughtful recollection,

Nayaswami Hriman