Saturday, February 25, 2023

Self-Realization: Church of All Religions! It's for Everyone!

Paramhansa Yogananda, author of "Autobiography of a Yogi," called his work a "Church of All Religions." It is a curious phrase because it implies a gathering of different churches under one roof, but that's not what he meant. Instead, Yogananda's teachings emphasize that the underlying goal of religion is to achieve Self-realization. When asked whether he was establishing a new religion Yogananda's reply was "It is a new expression." A new expression of that truth which is one and eternal, described in Sanskrit as sanatan dharma. 

Yogananda predicted that some day the goal of Self-realization would unite all religions. This does not suggest a new Catholic Church since the very nature of Self-realization is individual. Groups don't achieve Self-realization: individuals do. The meaning intended is that someday truth-seeking devotees would come to seek God by direct, intuitive inner perception. Jesus Christ put it well and simply: "The kingdom of heaven is within you." Meditation is the primary means for such a direct, spiritual perception. It was taught by Yogananda and is taught throughout the world by many teachers and traditions. The rapid spread of meditation in the twenty-first century more than hints at the truth of Yogananda's words.

Yogananda insisted that his was not a sect. From a historical or social point of view, organizations or groups founded to learn, share and practice Yogananda's teachings cannot but be viewed as sects. It seems obvious that he must have meant that the very nature of what he taught could not be (or should not be) sectarian! 

[A side note to the term Self-realization is found in the name of the organization he established with the addition of the word "Fellowship." In this simple fact Yogananda acknowledges the two great commandments of the Old Testament that Jesus Christ quoted when asked to summarize his teachings: love God and love thy neighbor as thyself. Thus Yogananda was suggesting that an individual seeking Self-realization would do well to share that journey with others in divine fellowship. But, I digress.]

In the July-September 1942 edition of Yogananda's magazine "Inner Culture," he writes about the newly created church in Hollywood that he called the "Self-Realization Church of All Religions."

At the time, he had a pulpit set up on the dais that symbolized all religions. It was opposite the pulpit that he and his ministers used. In the article Yogananda wrote he asks: "If our Father is One, then even though we may worship Him in different churches, why should we worship Him divided in spirit? Let us worship Him in oneness of brotherly spirit in Churches of All Religions, founded for the purpose of realizing God, not through belief, but through our Self's experience, by true devotion and meditation." He prayed that this new church of all religions "will help remove the dark shadows of ignorant division existing in many churches." Yogananda hoped that his church of all religions could inspire others to append this phrase ("Church of All Religions") to their name  to indicate unity in the worship of the one God. 

The truth in all religions to which he alludes is that each of us, individually, must return to our own inner center wherein divinity resides. Many have noted that Yogananda gave special emphasis to the teachings of Krishna and Jesus Christ. He did not expound upon other religions. One reason for his choice was that Jesus and Krishna (the latter in the reincarnated form of Babaji) are part of his spiritual lineage. But he was also emphasizing the "essence" of all religions and having shown the way for the teachings of these two great world teachers, it is not difficult to apply his insights to other great faiths. Put another way, Yogananda showed the essential oneness of truth itself, apart from its many and diverse forms, beliefs, histories, and rituals. God, the eternal Self, pervades the entire universe.

It cannot be denied, however, that the phrase "church of all religions" is too easily misunderstood. It would seem to suggest that any particular church with that in its name would be a kind of interfaith church where different faith traditions are practiced and acknowledged. Yogananda never did invite ministers of other faiths to use that pulpit in the Hollywood church. Very few ministers of other faiths during his lifetime, and even now, would use that pulpit except to declare the benefits and primacy of their own, "true" faith. Yogananda did not intend to teach syncretism for that would be skimming the surface. His goal was to identify the singular wellspring of wisdom out of which religion springs.

It strikes me that perhaps a clearer phrase could be "Church of the Eternal Religion." Unfortunately, this may not be an improvement because being in the singular suggests a specific sect and might even sound boastful.Yogananda's phrase points more directly at his intention: to suggest that all churches have something in common.

In the sanctuaries of the Blue Lotus Temple in Bothell, WA and the Temple of Light at Ananda Village near Nevada City, are symbols of the different major religions on the surrounding walls.

While these temples are dedicated to the teachings and lineage of Yogananda they yet affirm by these symbols the universality that Yogananda intended.

Yogananda's teachings are like a wheel: the hub at the center is Self-realization (union with God) through devotion, service and spiritual practice. The spokes of this wheel are the ways in which we "love thy neighbor" by bringing our ideals into creative and serviceful expression in daily life. Yogananda gave countless lectures and classes on success in business; marriage and relationships; vegetarianism; health; yoga postures; meditation for everyone; world trade and politics; future trends and predictions; and much more. 

Swami Kriyananda, founder of the worldwide work of Ananda and personally trained by Yogananda, followed in Yogananda's footsteps with some 150 books on all manner of subjects; he wrote music and chants; founded intentional communities following Yogananda's prediction of their future spread; and established schools for children and centers for meditation and yoga.

I think it is important for followers of Yogananda who seek to share his teachings to recall that he, and later, Swami Kriyananda, did not limit their teachings to disciples of Yogananda's lineage. Yogananda is a world teacher for our age and he offers practical solutions to the great challenges of our times. Even in respect to meditation, the central hub of his teachings, he taught meditation and universal spiritual teachings for all sincere seekers, not just disciples. His book of "prayer-demands," "Whispers from Eternity," contains a lifetime of inspiration for anyone who is sincere. The universality of his spiritual teachings he called Raja Yoga, following the tradition of yoga based on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and the Bhagavad Gita. 

Ananda worldwide emphasizes Yogananda's teachings for "everyone" through portals such as the Ananda School of Yoga and Meditation (Expanding Light Retreat, CA); Yogananda Academy of Europe; and the Institute of Living Yoga (Seattle, WA). These and other Ananda centers offer to all students teacher certifications in yoga and meditation. Countless programs on a range of how-to-live subjects are offered through the various Ananda centers. Such programs are increasingly being made available in virtual form on the internet.

Yogananda taught a "mindfulness meditation" decades before mindfulness achieved the widespread acclaim it enjoys now in the twenty-first century. The practice of observing the breath in synchronization with a silent mantra or affirmation didn't come from him because it comes to us from ancient times and is found throughout the world in one form or another. 

The technique he taught is termed "Hong Sau" after the mantra that is used. In the delightful story of the Pilgrim's Way, the Jesus prayer is used in synchronization with the breath also. There are other examples in various faith traditions that tell us that watching the breath with silent prayer is both ancient and universal. It is natural and effective for internalizing one's awareness.

Yogananda created a series of thirty-nine standing exercises which are also synchronized with the breath. These can be used as a prelude to sitting for meditation or independently, as a form of exercise. These exercises came to be known as the Energization Exercises and they can be found on YouTube. The basic idea is to alternate tensing a muscle (or a group of muscles) as you inhale and then exhale as you relax the muscle. 

Meditation and yoga have long been known to benefit everyone, regardless of belief or religious affiliation: even atheists. Teachers routinely note that some students whose initial interest was only for physical or mental benefits have an awakening of higher aspirations and awareness. Swami Kriyananda used an expression that Ananda teachers find helpful: "Prana (energy) has its own intelligence." The practice of yoga and meditation allows the practitioner to become more aware of the intelligent, vibrant energy that animates the physical form. This energy, called "prana" or "chi" in the orient, communicates a sense of well-being, peace, and joy as it distributes its natural vitality throughout the body and nervous system. The first step is to become aware of this energy and that awareness, by repeated practice, comes under one's conscious control.

In teaching the Hong Sau meditation technique and the Energization Exercises, together with his writings and classes on various "how-to-live" topics, Yogananda was addressing the needs of many people. He was content to have people of all faiths or no faith benefit by these practices.

I wonder if he foresaw the swelling tide of seekers who describe themselves as "spiritual not religious?" Or the growing number of people, otherwise sincere, who are challenged by the word "God," or "church?" During his life, these trends were not so visible. The use of the term "church" was, at that time, natural and appropriate. The fact that Yogananda offered the core concepts of self-awareness and energy awareness to the public at large and not just those who were followers suggests that he saw his life's work in the broadest possible terms. Those of us who would serve that work should do so likewise.

Because the "church" word can be problematic to the growing numbers of yoga students, Ananda has experimented in the past with alternate terms, the most popular of which was, for a time, "mandir." Mandir is a Sanskrit term for a building that is essentially a church or, more precisely, the place of the dwelling of God. (One's body might also be termed a "mandir.") But unfamiliarity with the term made it clumsy so, instead, the term "temple" has been used more often in recent years.

Might we consider the use of the term "Temple of All Religions" or "Temple of the Eternal Religion?" One term that has come into use is the "Temple of Light." This is the name of two of the three eight-sided, blue-tiled domes (hemisphere) that now exist: the first in Italy; the second, near Seattle, and the third at Ananda Village in northern California. (Near Seattle the dome is called the Blue Lotus Temple.) This is a intriguing alternative to "church of all religions" because "Light" is itself universally a symbol used by all religions. However, the word "temple" refers only to a building while "church" can be both a building and a congregation or fellowship.

As an aside, another experiment at Ananda worldwide has been to call the fellowship of members, students or supporters the "Sangha:" a Sanskrit term used by Hindus and Buddhists. But, like the word "mandir," it is less familiar to the public at large and we have too often felt to default to the term "church" because it is more familiar in the West and to the various government agencies we have to deal with.

It is the sectarian consciousness associated with "church" that is the issue. Yogananda railed against what he called "churchianity" -- the process by which organizational consciousness eventually eclipses the inspiration of its founder and true devotees. In the West we remain suffused in corporate and organizational consciousness. But both organization and inspiration are needed. Yogananda called the organization the "hive" and the inspiration and God-contact the "honey." The devotees bees create the hive wherein they can come together to sip and share the the nectar of inner peace. Unfortunately, the history of religion shows us the temptation we have to succumb to the former and lose touch with the latter.

But it's not just organizational consciousness: it's sectarianism. Even yogis can be fundamentalists because rigidity and dogmatism can manifest in the consciousness of anyone. I've heard that one international group of Krishna devotees insisted that because the Bhagavad Gita says one's meditation seat should have kusha grass then one cannot meditate unless you can get some kusha grass!

Historically, clergy, monks, nuns, Swami's and Abbots have been given power, prestige, status and even wealth. What arises all too easily is pride of position; in short, egotism. And then there's what I call the holier-than-thou-syndrome. We see it in the running baiting of Jesus Christ by the those rascal Pharisees. In the case of the Pharisees, their "holiness" consisted of nothing more profound than a hypocritical obedience to minor purity and ritual laws at the expense of true devotion. But even sincerely devotional people can fall into narrowness, insisting that their Jesus or Krishna is the only way, or, that any other aspect of the spiritual path beyond devotion is somehow "less than." Spiritual growth cannot be defined outwardly but surely it includes a growing expansiveness of awareness: one that includes the reality of others as manifestations of God.

The words we use are important but more important than these is the degree to which we sincerely strive to be channels for the inspiration to which we have been drawn. The real temple, ultimately, is our soul, surrounded by our physical form, and our feeling and perceptive bodies. In the far distant future, when perhaps a golden age of higher awareness dawns, the need for temples will vanish but for now and, until then, we need places and symbols for that higher state of consciousness. We also need one another in service, fellowship and devotion. Let our body-temples be churches of all religions seeking the One Father-Mother, Friend, Beloved God. Let this temple embrace all humanity, all Life.

Blessings of light and freedom to all,

Swami Hrimananda

Monday, February 13, 2023

Valentine's Day: what is Love?

In the English language, the word "love" bears a great burden for it has to shoulder multiple meanings. We don't have the nuanced words of the Greek language such as Eros (sexual), Philia (friendship), Ludus (playful love), Agape (universal love), Pragma (committed), Philautia (love of self).

 In human life, we have the love of toddlers and children for their parents and siblings; teenage infatuation; romantic relationships; marriage; partnership; friendships based upon shared interests; the love of uncles, aunts, cousins, and grandparents and so much more. In recent years I see articles on what is narcissism (love of oneself) and we have twisted forms as in co-dependent, addicted, sadistic and so on. We have the term "making love" which as often as not, is, at best, a euphemism that generally describes passing passion than lasting love.

In religion, we have the love of and for God as Father, Mother, Beloved or Friend. I recently read that the Church of England was struggling with the patriarchy of God as Father. (Someone should suggest to them the oriental solution of the mantra "both-and!)

In Catholicism, the veneration of the mother of Jesus has steadily grown. Reported apparitions of Mary have occurred around the globe. St. Joseph of Cupertino (17th century Italy) had a special devotion to Mary as an infant! In India, devotees have a similar devotion to Krishna as an infant just as Christians have a devotion to the infant Jesus. Love of the beloved appears in medieval courtly love and in traditions such as the Sufi tradition (as illustrated in the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam or the popular poet, Rumi).

But here we are in the 21st century. In America, especially, debates rage around transcending binary labels of male of female. Yet for the relatively small contingent that wants to transcend labels there are far more cohorts exulting in their differences as attested to in the popularity of pornography, OnlyFans, "Free the Nipple," and a fashion industry employing less and less cloth. This culture here in America has weathered waves of rising gay pride, same-sex marriage, and changing gender identities and controversies over the lowly pronoun.

Do we dare "celebrate" Valentine's Day in this cacophony of confusion? Valentine's Day is celebrated by children sharing heart-shaped candies, and by adults giving gifts to friends and co-workers, and not just lovers and partners.

Love certainly deserves a celebration but what is it we are celebrating? 

Paramhansa Yogananda came from India to live and teach in America in the year 1920. Though at first careful, he gradually permitted himself to express his love for God in the form he called "Divine Mother." With his upbringing as a Bengali, the particular form of divine mother to which his devotion was directed was the goddess, Kali. Of all the Hindu goddesses, Kali is perhaps the most confusing and even frightening. Yogananda took care to explain the somewhat shocking symbolism seen in depictions of goddess Kali. But he tuned into and early-on expressed and affirmed a devotion to God in the feminine form.

It is no coincidence that not long after Yogananda's passing the quietly rising tide of feminism broke into a large wave recognizing the need for change and equality among men and women. Ananda's founder, Swami Kriyananda--trained by Yogananda--taught that the time has arrived when God can and should be approached in the feminine form. This teaching can help elevate the social and psychological movement towards a higher, divine expression. In the masculine form, God tends to be distant and expresses more naturally justice and wisdom. God is closer to us in the feminine form, especially as mother.

And here, then, we have a budding solution to our cacophony. God is neither male nor female and neither are we, made as we are, in the image of God. In India the traditional counsel given newlyweds is for each to see God enshrined in one another's forms: God as Father, and God as Mother. Whether we are comfortable in our body's gender or not comfortable, either way we are not our body, nor even yet our personality. We are the immortal soul. 

But neither need we deny our body and its influence upon our consciousness. The gender of our bodies, the customs of our culture and our own personal karma may influence us to behave in certain ways considered masculine or feminine but we can also choose our influences and aspire to transcend binary self-definitions or at least not reinforce them. 

Best then it is to relate to one another as souls rather than bodies. We can consciously aspire to live more in our center wherein is found a balance of each gender. To be a soul and a human first and only secondarily have a male or female body (just as secondarily we may be American, Indian, Chinese, black, white or red) is the invitation God is gently offering to humanity at this time. This is part of what is meant by Self-realization. 

This feeling of freedom was what I encountered when I came to Ananda Village in 1977. We were mostly young then: in our twenties and thirties but the example of Swami Kriyananda and the influence of the yoga teachings we practiced suggested a "non-binary" lifestyle and attitude. It was refreshingly clean and freeing. We were friends and souls first. Little notice was given to our gender differences. When we relate in this way, we find that men and women working together can re-direct their naturally occurring animal magnetism into forms that are creative and serviceful. Most of the leaders of the various Ananda communities worldwide are couples. Relationships and marriage came naturally and so did also, from time to time, divorce, for we were not immune to the consciousness of our times. But the elation of the one and the pain of the other were mitigated by the simple fact that first and foremost we were friends in God.

In Swami Kriyananda's book of counsel to the yogi, "Sadhu Beware," he counsels men and women not to gaze into the eyes of the opposite sex. However, even without gazing and basking, it is uncomfortable to avert one's eyes in ordinary conversation. Looking into the spiritual eye (point between the eyebrows) is helpful but most important is one's own intention and consciousness. Otherwise we might appear nervous or shifty-eyed and that's almost as unhelpful.

I once complimented a young woman on her singing and said, "Thank you, Mother!" Perplexed she said, "Huh? Mother?" Realizing that didn't make any sense to her, I just laughed and said, "Well, it's safer that way" (safer, that is, to see her as "mother" or "sister" rather than to view her as an attractive young woman). St. Francis was reported to have warned a woman who was constantly wanting to serve him, "Be careful, I can still father children." Age, you see, unfortunately, has little to do with imagination and desire. (That's why we have reincarnation!)

Let us be children, or brothers and sisters, again, mixing as circumstances and culture may require, but happily relating to one another as souls, as Spirit incarnate. We can do our part, also, not to act out our gender roles when circumstances tempt us to do so. Our words, dress, and comportment can be calm, modest and respectful, free as much as language allows, from an emphasis on gender. And even with one who is our partner or spouse, calm respect and courtesy go further than the ever-oscillating waves of romance idealized at weddings or on Valentine's Day! 

May our beloved Friend, Father-Mother-God, be our Valentine!

Swami Hrimananda

Friday, February 3, 2023

Practicing the Presence of God on the Inner Path

A good friend of mine recently endowed me with a copy of Brother Lawrence's classic, "Practicing the Presence of God". This little book is a favorite among Christians. In the last century, this practice was energized further by the missionary, Frank Laubach, as expressed in his book, "Letters by a Modern Mystic." My friend also reminded me of an essential editorial passage from Paramhansa Yogananda's commentary on the "Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam Explained." The editorial was written by the editor, Swami Kriyananda.

In the editorial, Swami Kriyananda pointed out a distinction that has been very meaningful to me in my inner, spiritual life: the distinction between my practice of the presence of God and my realization of the presence of God. These are two, distinct experiences just as the practice of meditation is not necessarily the same thing AS meditation. Meditation begins, Yogananda taught, when motion ceases (meaning physical movement, emotions and thoughts).

My inner spiritual conflict or confusion has long been between my efforts to visualize or affirm spiritual states (such as peace, love, etc.) or the presence of God in the form of the guru versus being uplifted into such states (called by Yogananda: "superconsciousness"). My conflict centered on whether to drop my efforts in favor of being open to the descent of these states into my consciousness. 

Was I, I would wonder, preventing my own upliftment by grace by the static of my mental efforts to pray? Does prayer more or less, despite its seeming intention, keep me separate from God? Even worse, is prayer a clever way by which the ego guarantees that my separateness remains firmly intact? Shouldn't I be perfectly still, awaiting the Spirit? Like St. Teresa of Avila before the angel, shouldn't I await the piercing sword of divine love without expectation?

The traditional forms of practicing the presence of God as illuminated by Brother Laurence, Frank Laubach and even the delightful and inspired book, "The Way of the Pilgrim.," are similar to the Hindu practice called "japa." As the Russian pilgrim recited the so-called Jesus prayer: "Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me," so Hindus and yogis will silently chant a mantra throughout the day. 

Though slightly different, Brother Lawrence and Frank Laubach "talk to God" throughout the day, sharing their thoughts silently and mentally with God or Christ.

There's no question that all of these practices are life-transforming. Though they are simple, that doesn't make them easy to practice. In the Way of the Pilgrim and in a manner that is both obvious and traditional, one begins where you are: a few seconds; a few minutes; and on and on increasingly until the silent, mental prayer literally overtakes one's mental awareness and subconscious. The chant or prayer becomes the backdrop to one's consciousness. 

Life being what it is in the effort to "stay tuned," it just so happened that three "coincidences" occurred in my life that set the stage for this reflection. First, my friend sent me the book by Brother Lawrence. Second, I was assigned to give a brief talk on "Making Room for God in your Mind." Thirdly, that very morning I was asked to respond in writing to the question "Did Yogananda teach the practice of japa?" 

Returning to the editorial comment in the Rubaiyat, the comment appears as part of Quatrain 31: one of the deepest stanzas referring to the inner path of spiritual awakening. I'll copy that quatrain here:

Up from Earth’s Centre through the Seventh Gate

I rose, and on the Throne of Saturn sate,

And many Knots unravel’d by the Road;

But not the Knot of Human Death and Fate.

Yogananda's commentary on this quatrain launches into a lengthy exposition on the system of the energy centers in the subtle body which are known as the chakras." Most readers of this blog will require no further description of the chakras. 

A profound explanation follows: 

The nerves are channels through which the life-force enables the mind and body to interact. As the life-force moves down the spine and out to the body and its senses, the mind is drawn outward also. Sense-stimulation from within impels one to seek fulfillment in sense-pleasures.

This same nervous system, however, constitutes the one and only path to spiritual enlightenment, regardless of a person’s formal religious affiliation. When the energy can be coaxed to reverse its flow from the senses to the brain, it reveals to our consciousness another world. This stimulation of the nerves at their inner source awakens the desire for self-fulfillment and for Self-realization. With progressive interiorization, through daily meditation, one develops subtle, inner perceptions vastly more satisfying than their muted echoes from the senses. The knotty problems of life and death are resolved, and the heart’s feelings are extricated at last from the need for further incarnations of material involvement.

It continues with this paragraph:

Stimulation of the nerves at their inner source promotes divine consciousness. It helps also to think of God, certainly, but it is not strictly necessary. If atheists experiment with this teaching, they too will get results. Indeed, to think of God is to define Him, and to define Him is, in a sense, to limit Him. The steady expansion of consciousness surpasses all definitions of Him who is undefinable. Let your devotion to God, and your thoughts of Him, proceed as much as possible from your experience of the Divine, in the silence.

Meditation is the supreme way to internalize the flow of energy and consciousness. In daily life, too, one can transform “absent-mindedness,” and the fancied need for “fillers,” by concentrating on the life source within.

Yogananda's commentary on the Rubaiyat and especially this stanza, so rich with meaning, is well worth the read.

What I take from this reminder of the inner path, then, is to "pray, praise, and glorify God" through inner communion with the indwelling grace, power and presence of God in the form of the Life Force (or prana). Even belief is secondary. As Swami Kriyananda's beautiful choral piece called Life Mantra reminds us: God is life; life is God. Jesus spoke plainly in this regard: "I am the Way, the Truth and the Life." The advanced technique of Kriya Yoga is a form of communion with the river of life in the subtle spine of the astral body. In that river, we are bathed and transformed by grace. Yoga practice has come to free us from dogmas and rituals, which while they too can have a place at humanity's table, are no substitute for the living experience of God's presence where it alone can be found: again, in the words of Jesus Christ, "The kingdom of heaven is within you."

May the Light of the universal Christ/Krishna shine upon you!

Swami Hrimananda!