Sunday, August 30, 2015

What Does it Mean to Be Spiritual?

We frequently hear the expression “Spiritual but not religious.” But what does it mean to be “spiritual?” Someone once asked Paramhansa Yogananda (whose life story, “Autobiography of a Yogi,” is now a worldwide spiritual classic), “Will I ever leave the spiritual path?” Yogananda responded, “How could you? We are all on the spiritual path.”

As it is said that “we are a soul having a human experience in a human body” we intuitively know that we are good, worthy and part of something much greater which is goodness itself. We readily excuse our faults claiming circumstances and outside influences (even if we are not so quick to dismiss the faults of others).

We hear, or perhaps truly know, that “love is the answer.” Or, that “God is love.” So, yes indeed, we have an innate sense of goodness and “God-ness.” We might say of even self-proclaimed atheists that those who love and care for others are as spiritual as most church-goers, especially the more judgmental ones.

Without denying any of these statements, it can also be said that spirituality is a conscious choice. “The road to Hades is paved with good intentions.” Goodness is simply the opposite of badness and the two alternate like day and night. Good karma will eventually be used up and we start over again. Can merely “good people” really say that if they win the lottery they won’t go to seed; or, if they were to be born into positions of power, fame or riches they would retain their “goodness”? What if, instead, they were abused, or born into abject poverty, violence and racial injustice…….would they still be “good?”

Yogananda taught that the ego, which he defined as “the soul identified with the body,” has the right to remain separate from God until at such time as it, like the “Prodigal Son,” chooses to return home to God. We must consciously make that choice. This is also the meaning behind the story of the warrior, Bhishma, in India’s great epic, the Mahabharata. Bhishma had the boon that he could never be killed, even in battle, until he choose to die. Lying on the battlefield with so many arrows in him that his body did not touch the ground, he yet gave an inspired discourse on leadership and rulership. Bhishma symbolizes the ego, just as Moses did. Moses was not permitted by God to enter the Promised Land. Though he had led his people out of captivity (as the ego leads us at first on the spiritual path), he, himself, could not enter therein! (Nonetheless, Yogananda said that Moses was a true master.)

Admittedly, the “dice are loaded” because the ceaseless flux between pleasure and pain, good and bad all but guarantees that in some future life, the soul will awaken to the “anguishing monotony” of endless rounds of rebirth and will cry out for freedom.

Nonetheless, no one achieves soul liberation (called by many names, including cosmic consciousness, Samadhi, moksha, etc.) by merely being good or without conscious effort. The goal might be expressed or felt in many different ways according to temperament, culture, or religious beliefs, but Oneness has no equal, no partner, no opposite. As taught from ancient times in India, this state, relishable beyond any other, is “satchidanandam.” Immortal & eternal, conscious and omniscient, all-pervading and ever-blissful. It is the reason for our existence; it is the One without a second; it is the essence of creation even while yet untouched by the illusion of separateness.

How do we get “there?” “There” is “here and now.” It is always present but yet hidden from our inner sight by our restlessness, but our desires. “Desire my great enemy” is a chant favored by Yogananda’s guru, Swami Sri Yukteswar. Krishna, in the Bhagavad Gita, replying to the question from his famous disciple, Arjuna, “Why do even the wise succumb to delusion?” explained that it is desire that deludes even the wise (from time to time). And most people, far from wise, are quite content to pursue their desires and wouldn’t have it any other way.

It is the nature of this creation to hide the truth; to hide the Godhead from our sight. For reasons beyond our ken until such time as we share the divine vision, we must struggle, indeed, “fight the good fight,” to overcome the qualities (known as the gunas) of nature that so engagingly occupy our interest in day to day life. Thus it is that the great scripture of India, the Bhagavad Gita, takes place on a battlefield where Krishna exhorts the devotee Arjuna to stand up and fight (his lower nature).

To be spiritual is not to reject the world; nor is it to reject the help and company of others of like-mind; nor is it to refuse to share one’s path and spiritual blessings with others. As Ananda’s founder, Swami Kriyananda put it so well, “It is the nature of bliss to want to want to share.”

No one claiming to be spiritual (but not religious) can afford to do so alone. We are not this ego and we are part of a greater reality. To achieve infinity is to expand our hearts natural love to embrace all beings, all creation.

The worldwide work of Ananda was established to create communities and fellowship for those on the inner path as given to us in the form of Kriya Yoga by Paramhansa Yogananda and the line of spiritual giants who sent him to the West.

If members of Ananda simply practiced in their own homes and never came together in meditation and in service, we would lose a great spiritual opportunity. We would find our spiritual progress bogging down.

Swami Kriyananda wisely created two forms of association by which kriya devotees could advance spiritually together. In 2009 he was inspired, as a swami of the Giri branch of India’s ancient order of swamis, to found a new swami order: the Nayaswami Order. “Naya” means “new.” Taking from what Paramhansa Yogananda called a “new dispensation” for the ancient and universal divine revelation called, in India, Sanaatan Dharma, Swamiji established the Nayaswami Order with a new and positive emphasis for spirituality in a new age. The Order describes the goal of the spiritual path as the achievement of bliss in God through the inner path of meditation. Rather than life-rejection, which characterizes spirituality of the past, both east and west, the time has come to see that seeking God is the “funeral of our sorrows.”

Quoting from the Ananda Festival of Light (written by Swami Kriyananda and recited weekly at Ananda Sunday Services), he wrote that “whereas, in the past, sorrow and suffering were the coin of man’s redemption, for us now, the payment  has been exchanged for calm acceptance and joy.”

This universal affirmation finds expression in the Order through the fact that the Nayaswami Order has no organizational association with Ananda’s worldwide work and is open to anyone who seeks and who has demonstrated attunement with these goals and who practices meditation in one form or another.

It thus expresses purely and solely the essence of spirituality in a new and advancing age of consciousness. It acknowledges the importance of ego transcendence but affirms that the goal of ego transcendence is Bliss. There are four levels in the Order: the initial intention of the Pilgrim; the emerging success of the Tyagi (married) or of the Brahmachari (single), and the final vows of renunciation of ego (sannyas) of the swami (whether married or single).

To balance this purely spiritual association is the Sevaka religious order. The Sevaka Order is also worldwide but it is part of Ananda and forms a vehicle by which devotees of the kriya path can, if they choose, dedicate their lives in service to the work of Yogananda through Ananda. Sevakas begin with conditional commitments and after seven years may be invited to make a life commitment.

A kind of subset of the Sevaka Order is a “lay” order organized in some of the individual Ananda communities. It is called the Sadhaka Order. It is strictly local and is open to any kriya devotee who, as part of their life, wants to support and serve the local work of Ananda.

To be spiritual but not religious is not an excuse to cast off any visible form of association with others or form of outer renunciation. Ananda has been blessed to create these forms by which to energize and give practical, meaningful expression to the spiritual path. By creating these forms, like building a beautiful meditation temple, others can be inspired even if only by the example of the dedication of those devotees who have made sincere and recognizable commitment to the spiritual path.

Blessings and joy to you,

Nayaswami Hriman, life member of the worldwide Sevaka Order

Friday, August 21, 2015

Meditation Beyond the Brain!

updated: Sun, 8-23-15

Studying the teachings and life of Lahiri Mahasaya, and the teachings of one of his great disciples, Swami Sri Yukteswar, and finally, their emissary to the West and to the modern age, Paramhansa Yogananda, one encounters a tradition with very ancient roots. The teachings of India are almost impossibly complex and variegated. But here I am speaking more of the breadth and depth of yoga techniques, almost as a subset of the theology and philosophy of India which is known as Sanaatan Dharma. Yoga is the applied spirituality of India. The essential message and purpose of the yogic science was announced at the beginning of Yogananda's public life in America with the publication of his first book, which he called The Science of Religion.

This line of great spiritual teachers, who we view as the greatest of teachers--avatars--represent a tradition that focuses on techniques ("yoga") that utilize subtle aspects of the human body and mind to achieve states of consciousness that exist beyond and independent of the human body, including its nervous system and the brain.

It is no coincidence that scientific studies of the brain and the effects of meditation upon the body and brain are growing exponentially. Looking back we can see that Yogananda and his guru and param guru were tuning into the consciousness of a new age even as they are, simultaneously, carrying on a teaching that is incomprehensibly ancient. Not only carrying on, but clarifying and unwrapping this science from the dustbin of indifference and medieval secrecy. The clarifying aspect includes stripping away, as one who prunes branches from a rose bush or apple tree, techniques, superstitions and non-essential elements from the yogic treasury which had become dusty, hoary, misunderstood, and "overweight."

Science is taking human knowledge and awareness to the very edge of matter and energy: indeed, beyond the fringe of what can be observed, verified, experimented upon and proven. In this, science is beginning to hit a wall beyond which it will find exponentially increasing difficulty to penetrate. I have read, for example, that "string theory," though the current best guess explanation for certain esoteric (to most of us) phenomenon, cannot, the scientists admit, ever be "proven," at least not in the conventional sense we attribute to testing of drugs, rockets, and the human brain.

It is the human mind that is driven by curiosity and thirsting for knowledge. Beyond the edge of matter and energy is a realm of subtlety that can easily be viewed as "mind" or consciousness. At least it has suspiciously similar characteristics. It's like time and space being curved and turning in on itself. We've gone so far in our search for the essence of matter and energy that we find ourselves facing ourselves: the observer of the experiment cannot but effect, even by his expectations, the result of the experiment!!!! And that's not even attempting to describe what we discover out past the fringes of matter and energy.

The mind, seeking ultimate knowledge, finds its Self. Mind turned inward upon observing its Self finds its Self looking into a mirror. Like two mirrors facing each other, the image goes on and on into Infinity.

Yogananda was very much a "bhakti:" a lover of God, especially in the aspect of Divine Mother. Yet, like his guru, Swami Sri Yukteswar and like Lahiri Mahasaya, he explored and shared the yoga techniques as a science. A science is something anyone can explore and use and discover the same basic results. In the science of mind, however, the only laboratory is the mind itself and the tools in the lab of consciousness are the human body, the mind, and self-awareness. The mind-body-breath of the yogi scientist must be refined and honed no less precisely than than the calibration of the Hadron Collider or any of the most sophisticated electron microscope or the most esoteric mathematical formulae.

Modern science requires a high degree of education and dedication. Higher education is costly. The tools of science, like the Hadron Collider, costs billions of dollars. Yoga techniques don't require expensive tools but the price of exploration to the edge of discovery is no less in terms of dedication and personal commitment. Just as only a few can be top level, leading edge quantum physicists, so there are but a few yogis who would be masters of the yoga science. As Yogananda's guru put it, "Saints are not produced in batches each semester like accountants." Just as millions of people work in scientific fields (engineering, medicine, research, etc.) so only a handful can be "Einsteins" in their area of expertise.

But that doesn't mean that millions can't benefit from the discoveries of the yogi-scientists, just as millions benefit from the fruits of scientific advances and discoveries. Few of the millions of those now meditating intend to, want to, or even contemplate the existence of highest states of consciousness achieved by advanced yogis and saints. Yet, they benefit in countless ways -- physically, mentally, and spiritually -- from their daily practice.

Scientists are grappling with trying to understand the human brain. Their professional dogmas and their tools dictate that they must look only to what they can see and touch (i.e., the brain) for the source of human thought, emotions, memories and health. And they are right to do so. Even common sense suggests to our minds, whether from the overarching evidence of biological evolution, or from the functions of the human body itself, that the brain produces consciousness and not the other way around. For now, they must even largely ignore the growing body of evidence that consciousness exists outside the brain. That's ok -- for now, and, for their present purposes.

But the yogi-scientists have proved otherwise using their tools and techniques to reach those conclusions. These conclusions -- that consciousness exists outside and independent of the brain -- are just as provable as the experiments of the scientists, provided you use the only tool and method that exists to discover this reality: consciousness itself. This tool needs sophisticated calibration through a strict diet and vibrant healthy lifestyle, a strong moral and ethical code that assists in overcoming narrow self-interest and helps gain mental detachment from the body, the senses, and personality.  It requires wholehearted commitment to the pursuit of a level of consciousness that is ego and body transcendent. It requires one-pointed attention to the details of one's training and the regimen given by one's highly advanced teacher.

Let me digress for a moment. My son, Kashi, recently described a scene (from a movie? I'm not sure.) where three robots were talking to one another. One of them declared something like, "I know that it was I who just said that." Kashi reported that the consensus was that this proved that the robot was self-aware. "Really," I said, "does it?" I believe that most people today, being exposed to the rising rash of robot-awareness but not having thought particularly deeply about AI (artificial intelligence), have yet to make the most basic distinction there is: the distinction between the appearance of consciousness and self-awareness itself.

Just as a drunken person might talk or act but not remember what he said or did, so self-awareness is personal and individual. It cannot be detected or proven outside of itself (meaning by others) unless it takes on the appearance of sentience. Walking, talking, writing, typing, moving, etc. all are signs of life and life suggests some degree of awareness. By mechanical or electronic means (preprogramming), no matter how sophisticated is your imitation of consciousness, the appearance is NOT proof of the reality! Only I can say of myself, I am conscious. Yet saying it doesn't prove it. Only "I" can know it.

A movie may seem lifelike but we know, when watching it, that it is only a movie. And even though we get caught up in the movie, laughing and crying, getting carried by the story, its impact very quickly fades away, just like all the other emotions and thoughts that we, ourselves, have. You see, not even our thoughts and emotions are, themselves, the proof of our self-awareness. They are like leaves on a tree, bright and green for the summer, then fading into Fall and falling away in winter while yet the trunk and roots of the tree remain impervious to outer, superficial change.

Descartes said, "I think therefore I am," and, pardon me, old friend, but it is truer to say "I am conscious, therefore I can think." With our cleverness our robots may be able to imitate life and art and intelligence, but we can NEVER create self-awareness. Great art and ideas descend from a higher level of reality where no form, no logic, no past memory nor merely regurgitated conglomeration of preprogrammed data can be substituted for the flow of intelligent, self-conscious awareness. I say, "I had an idea." This is true, but it is truer to say that an "idea appeared in the mind." It might be a melody, or formula, or a solution to a problem.

What science cannot and presumably will never detect with instruments is that invisibly encoded in the flow of energy which is called many things (say, for now, "Life Force"), similar to DNA, is innate intelligence and the impulse power of intention. (After all, nothing that science can observe or test will ever explain "Why we exist at all.") Like wires inside conduit, or language embedded in a digital cell phone signal, ideas and intelligence exist within the very channel of life's energy from conception to our departure at death. Let me ask you this: "Will robots have "ideas?"

I admit that I don't know where the boundary is in the distant future between biological, human genetic material (sperm and ovum) and human, self-aware life. But I do know that no amount of data or manipulation of data can create inspiration or consciousness.

Returning now to the science of yoga, the yogi-scientist, in addition to the regimen outlined above, uses the breath and the mind as vehicles or highways that can take the human mind back to the place of awareness that transcends the functions of the brain. Life in the human body begins with our first breath and ends with our last breath. It is the most fundamental sign of life and consciousness. (BTW, robots don't breathe!) Wherever life comes from and wherever it may go when it leaves the body, it comes and goes evidenced by and carried upon the back of our breath. In Paramhansa Yogananda's famous life story, "Autobiography of a Yogi," he wrote "The ancient yogis discovered that the secret of cosmic consciousness [consciousness beyond the brain] is intimately linked with breath mastery. This is India's unique and deathless contribution to the world's treasury of knowledge."

The brain and nervous system are designed to operate the physical body, to protect, sustain, and defend the body. But these fulfill, for human life at least, a dual role: not only to create and protect the human body, but also, endowed with the power of abstract thought, logic, reason, and memory, to explore and question the very essence and basis of life itself. In the highly developed and advanced potential of the human brain and nervous system, consciousness finds the means, an organ, fit to express and reveal itself as it Self: self-aware and, ultimately, independent of its own vehicle.

Just as most of us cannot survey the heavens above or the intricacies of life within without a sense of awe at the overwhelming power, majesty, intelligence and beauty that cannot but be the motive force behind it all, so too the evolution of life has for its highest purpose, the yogis tell us, the revelation of Self-discovery: a game of divine "hide-n-seek." No matter that this Infinite Consciousness bides its time through incomprehensibly long eons of time and seemingly microscopically slow evolutionary processes, for in the mind of Mind it is all but an idea, a dream: real seeming only to the players in the dream but not to the playwright.

Every night in sleep, the world and our body is whisked away on a magic carpet of subconsciousness. Our troubles are, for a few hours, gone as we sleep in space unmindful of the bag of bones which is our prison. In this prison the bars of bones and walls of flesh prevent us from seeing the blue skies of omnipresence. The yogi learns conscious sleep wherein the alpha brain waves and the theta brain waves are brought into equilibrium between conscious and subconscious states.

For brain transcendence is, like the horizon line at the sea, a thin line between the ocean of subconscious and the sky of the conscious mind. The yogi learns to "escape" through the worm hole that lies thinly between the two. The vehicle that takes him there is the breath. For when the breath can be made to be quieted (by consistency and intensity of yoga practice), the brain functions that tie him to the body are sufficiently quieted that the "escape route" appears.

In conscious freedom from the pounding heart and breath which tie us to the body, the yogi's consciousness can soar and feel a joy that is without sensory or circumstantial conditions. Tasting this frequently and then daily, the yogi gradually achieves control of autonomic functions of the body and eventually this state of consciousness can be retained regardless of outer involvements and activities.

This in brief and narrowly described summary is the science of religion. No use of religious terminology is needed to free us, though it contributes greatly given the fullness of the human character and its need for feeling, inspiration, and self-giving. One cannot aspire or love or be devoted to a merely abstract concept. The effort it takes and hinted at above demand a dedication beyond any form of human self-giving to a cause or person. Love for the guru (as in incarnation of God); love for God as joy or peace; love for God in any sincere and pure, as dedication and commitment and as the willingness to sacrifice all lesser things for the pearl of great is the beginning and bliss is the end.

"Think" beyond the brain; beyond the ego; soar in breathlessness outside of the prison of ego. Think freedom; be free; give your all to the All. Meditation will take us beyond the brain; beyond the body; beyond the ego, and, finally, beyond the mind and perceive objects into pure and infinite Consciousness. No matter how much time; effort (whether mild or intense); how many lives.....for, indeed, God is always with us; God IS us; God is within us, forever.

When does it all end? Yogananda, when asked this question replied, "When we achieve endlessness."

Joy to you in the contemplation of No-thing!

Swami Hrimananda

Monday, August 17, 2015

Karma vs Dharma: the Importance of being Self-honest

When a devotee or yogi makes a life decision, how can he know whether he is impelled by past karma (including desires, fears, biases and the like) or whether it is truly the right thing (dharma) to do?

This is a difficult question to answer, especially when in the grip of emotions that surround the impulse to make an important decision. After all, a positive outlook, faith in God, and, indeed, good karma, can make a spiritual silk purse from a "sow's ear." We can find the good in anything that we do. But by the same token, we can also self-justify about anything we do from a spiritual perspective! We might fall back upon Krishna's promise in the Bhagavad Gita, to the devotee, "I will make good your deficiencies and render permanent your gains," to bail us out!

Yes, true enough: we can learn from our mistakes. Yes, we can use up some of our good karma as a devotee, too! But is it dharma to make spiritual mistakes? No, of course not. It is karma--obviously.

On the subject of karma, there's really no such thing as good or bad karma: only what we make of it. "All conditions are neutral," Paramhansa Yogananda, would is only our response to outward conditions that determines whether we grow spiritually (and work out karma in the process) or not.

For all of these reasons, therefore, it can be difficult to know karma from dharma. This is not an excuse, however, to do whatever one likes and call it "spiritual growth" or "my path" (which, of course, it also is). Having lived most of my adult life in one or the other Ananda intentional communities, I have seen my share of creative spiritual justifications for all sorts of behaviors.

It would be better, then, to calmly admit that one's desires or fears are compelling one to act a certain way rather than to imagine there's some deeper spiritual inspiration behind it. Yes, we'll be able to salvage some wisdom and grace from just about anything, but let's call it what it is.

Krishna explains to Arjuna (in the Bhagavad Gita) that it is very difficult to know what is right (dharmic) action. As Swami Kriyananda put it when the subject of whether a person should take one job or another, "God doesn't really care what you do. It's not WHAT you do but HOW (with what attitude) you do it!"

But again: do you see how tricky that can be? All I am saying, here, is that it is wiser (and more honest), to be calm enough to distinguish desire (or fear or bias) from inspiration or guidance. If your sincere attempt to do so fails to clearly yield an answer, well, fine: do the best you can. But you will grow in discernment immensely if, over time, you bring to bear the laser lens of introspection and intuition upon your actions and motives.

The big decisions are the ones I'm thinking about but, in truth, a million small ones are just as worthy of our attention --- short of being overly scrupulous. Discovering your desires and ego motivated actions isn't the end of the world: these are, in fact, our starting point. There are even times when it's simply easier to indulge than to make a big deal about it. But at least you do so consciously and in that, alone, you will gain the calmness and clarity that self-acceptance bestows. Acceptance can also help stave off the temptation to indulge first and then afterwards to wallow in guilt, thus imagining that guilt substitutes for reform and thus perpetuating a bad habit! (Furthermore and as a potential alternative, there's no point pointing out that suppression "availeth nothing," to quote Krishna.)

When more important issues are at stake, this habit of introspection and self-honesty might well "save" your spiritual life from a karmic bomb from which even lifetimes could be sacrificed before you pick up again spiritually where you left off. Paramhansa Yogananda said of a disciple who left the ashram after yielding to temptation when only one more day of resistance would have brought success, "It will take lifetimes" before he returns to the path.

Leaving the spiritual path to follow the will 'o the wisp of desires masquerading as inspiration is a tragedy all too commonly encountered. Abandoning dharma in the name of a "higher" but desire-driven karma is a self-delusion too easily and all too frequently indulged.

If you err and later discover your error, then, that's the time for making a silk purse out of the sow's ear.

As a spiritual counselor to others, I am tempted to add the advice to seek counsel from someone you trust and feel has your highest, spiritual interests in mind. But in my training from Swami Kriyananda in regards to counseling others, I am cautious about going beyond what I sense a person is open to hearing. I'd rather have the person himself express insight into the right action because it comes from the person himself. I can then add my support.

But if I feel a person isn't yet self-aware or self-honest enough to see how his desires are influencing his decision (and even the questions he asks), I might say nothing at all. Or, I might only hint though this carries the obvious risk that the person might not get the point at all. So while counseling is of course a good thing, we can only "hear" what we are ready from within to recognize. There's no substitute, in other words, for introspection, self-awareness, and the habit of self-honesty.

The ounce of prevention, then, that I wish to share is the suggestion to develop the practice of introspection in minor matters in order that when the big ones come you will have the tools to distinguish dharma from karma!


Nayaswami Hriman