Friday, December 6, 2013
I have just completed my annual week of seclusion. By seclusion I mean a personal and private spiritual retreat in prayer, meditation, study and silence (both outward and inward). It was Paramhansa Yogananda (whose teachings I follow as a disciple) who uttered the words which are the title of this piece: “Seclusion is the Price of Greatness.”
So, yes, I had a “great” seclusion! Ok, that’s a funny. By “greatness” I suppose Yogananda (PY) must have meant many things but for me I see that in this time spent alone with God and Guru, the greatness of one’s spirit are “made manifest.” When one’s only task is to “go within,” one has the opportunity to feel the vastness of Spirit that lies behind the mundane details and preoccupations of daily life.
Is it easy? Is it fun? Well, no, and no. There’s a lot more than just “joy within you”. One must combat desires, restlessness, aching limbs and back, gnawing hunger, withdrawal symptoms from one’s minor vices, and on and on. There are fears, too. As PY put it, “the soul LOVES to meditate but the ego hates to meditate.” There is a fear of losing oneself in the inner silence; there arises sudden and inexplicable “needs” to do housework, to get up from meditation and adjust the curtains, or to cook something one has never bothered to make (or even liked) before! Demons of regrets and self-judgment rise to slay the peace of meditation. They must be grappled with and the best solution is to call upon God and guru and to remain steadfastly calm and focused at the spiritual eye. One must refuse to yield to their portrayal of your self as unworthy or unfit for spiritual freedom and upliftment.
Yet, for all the obstacles, there come meditation periods when grace kicks in, thoughts mysteriously retreat into silence, and the inner light of joy dawns like the rising sun in summer! Deep and long prayers to the guru, by visualization or inner feeling, bring floods of peace and wisdom-insights. Calmness, deep and abiding, descends into every body cell like invisible healing rays of divine life. Life bubbles up like a spring of crystal clarity, with eyes seeing the world afresh and anew.
During seclusion I can chant without having to keep in rhythm for others chanting with me. I can go into deep whisper chanting; single-note chanting, off-key, on-key but all welling up as if the words were never sung before by anyone except perhaps my guru, and my teacher, Swami Kriyananda. If I awaken in the middle of night I can sit up and meditate without disturbing anyone!
This last week’s seclusion is the first to take place for me after the death of Swami Kriyananda last April (2013). He feels more present now because he is freed from the confines of his frail and elderly body.
Most years I bring one deeper book of Yogananda’s or Kriyananda’s to study from and find inspiration. This year I felt to dispense with reading except a little light reading (about the history of India) to give my mind a period break from the intensity of meditation and inner silence.
In my seclusions (which I have taken each year for a week since, hmmm, the late 80’s) food is greatly simplified. I used to do strict fasting but that puts more attention on the body and feeding it than a simple, light, fresh fare. Food is fortunately for me not much of a distraction, as I have never been a cook. In seclusion and at home I use my Vitamix blender which easily combines fresh fruit and vegetables for rapid and painless consumption. I also steam some veggies but minimize carbohydrates (avoiding bread or rice), eliminate sweets, and use few spices. I still have my morning cup of coffee.
In some past years I come into seclusion very tired and spent from intense activity. Not this year, fortunately. At such times it is not uncommon to need one or two days of rest before commencing more seriously longer periods of meditation. Concentration in meditation is “hard work, but good work!” This year I felt a touch of fatigue, mostly mental, but I also felt the effects of detoxing as I began my lean fast of wheatgrass and other green-healthy yummies after Thanksgiving feasting. This past quickly, however.
During seclusion I have the opportunity to go much deeper in my yoga practices: a daily stretching routine, for sure, but, more importantly meditation. This includes various pranayams as commonly taught and the particular ones emphasized by Yogananda and my teacher. The most important of these is kriya yoga, for which there are several levels of kriya. I can take the time to explore, go deep and go beyond all techniques into silence. I have the luxury, too, born of the depth and time and space of seclusion together with guru’s grace to practice as inwardly guided. Perfect stillness steals upon one at the most surprising moments. The end of any given exhalation may be blessed with perfect stillness of breath and mind into One.
Alone with God, the day (indeed, the week) is yours and His. I find, therefore, that I follow a natural rhythm of concentration and relaxation, both in meditation and in calm, inward activities between meditation periods. Such activities include going for a run, doing yoga stretches, splitting wood and tending the wood stove (it’s quite cold this year here), preparing and having my simple meals, showering and even taking rest breaks. I follow the inner movement of energy and thereby establish a natural pace that isn’t forced or apt to create inner tension. In meditation I can alter techniques and even suspend them if I sense the approach of the King of Peace.
This year I’ve been especially inspired to focus on Yogananda’s presence and that too of Swami Kriyananda. Asking each for guidance at various points during meditation and throughout the day. I do this by silent, inner dialogue or prayer; or, other times, by visualizing their image in silence, wordlessly asking for guidance or for the feeling of their presence. While this is always a part of any disciple’s sadhana (“spiritual practices”), for me this year it taken front and center place.
I have returned home now, today, Friday, December 6. For days with temperatures below freezing the mountains with a carpet of fresh snow, and Mt. Baker, were in their glory. At dawn and dusk, they’d be wreathed in pink and red hues, as if to “reach up for the heights!” I have been blessed with two special graces in this week: both very private, but both fundamental to my life’s unfoldment. I pray that I can carry them forward as a permanent grace.
So, how do you take a seclusion? Well: one day at time? I suggest you start at home with a morning (or a few hours) of meditation, prayer and study. Chose a time when no one else is around. Do this once or more during the year. As you feel, expand into a whole day and then, later, into a weekend.
In addition, go on retreat with others at least once a year (twice a year is better). On retreat you get accustomed to deeper spiritual practices and maintaining an uplifted consciousness. Some retreats are silent retreats and these are very helpful. (Here in Seattle all of our retreats are silent retreats.)
If you try to bite off too much too fast, you might crash and burn. By this I mean that the mind (and body), unaccustomed to sensory deprivation, will rebel and you might find yourself plopping down and reading a romance novel, sitting at the computer surfing the net, binging on junk food, or otherwise becoming discouraged for not feeling any inspiration, or being able to meditate deeply etc. etc. Build your seclusion muscles naturally and gradually because outer and inner relaxation is the key to success.
Most yogi-friends who I know don’t take their first real seclusion sometimes for years after establishing the daily habit of meditation and adopting a yogic lifestyle (usually vegetarian diet, plus fellowship with like-minded souls, selfless service to the work of yoga and so on).
In addition to having spiritual reading material, plan to do some journaling, too. Meditate in bite size chunks so as not to exhaust the brain and nervous system, or to create aches and pains in the protesting body joints.
Should you take seclusion at home? Only if that’s your best choice. In principle and practice, best to get away from your usual environment. Find a place that is sacred and dedicated to meditation and devotion. Ananda’s retreat centers (near Assisi, Italy, Pune, India, and Nevada City, CA) have various ways to accommodate retreats (including classes, workshops and training) and personal retreat or seclusion. Recently, the Ananda Meditation Retreat near Nevada City re-opened for personal retreat and private, personal seclusion. Here in the greater Seattle area on Camano Island, we have a Hermitage (a single family home) dedicated and available for this purpose. As a result of having the Hermitage so near to the Ananda Community in Lynnwood, WA, many more members have begun the practice of taking seclusion than ever before.
The “greatness” PY speaks of has, as I said initially, many levels of meaning. When we are too much around others, too much involved and identified with our work and family, we lose sight of the innate greatness of our soul (and that of others!). Most people on this planet have never been alone for more than a short time. So, for some it can be daunting even to think about. The price of greatness is to know that we are never alone, for God is always with us, within us, and all around. The price of knowing is seclusion. The opportunity for seclusion is privilege and a grace. Embrace it!
Your very Self,
Thursday, November 28, 2013
Here in America we have the excellent and inspired tradition of a day of giving Thanks to God for the bounty of life. The (perhaps) apocryphal story of the Native Americans bringing food to the settlers in New England expresses the essential theme and ideal of America as a place where all can live in harmony. An affirmation, mind you, but one that has brought millions of immigrants to this continent and nation and has inspired untold others to dream of freedom from oppression.
It isn’t necessary that that America and its citizens and government express this ideal perfectly or imperfectly. Do not you and I but imperfectly do so in our personal lives? It does matter that we as a nation and a people aspire to the best of our ability to do so, however.
Many, including myself, feel that America has lost touch with the ideals upon which it was so grandly founded. I suppose our very success undermined our commitment and understanding. I for one and only one among millions both here and throughout the world, feel that the need to uphold these principles of liberty, respect, equality, and justice is greater now than ever before.
My prayer today and everyday is that America and its citizens may someday re-establish our connection with these high ideals. For now, however, I doubt this is possible until or unless we are reinvigorated by the compelling necessity of challenges and tragedy. Such is the stubborn and somewhat perverse nature of habit. But I still believe it is America’s destiny to do so and if it takes strong medicine than “what doesn’t kill us will make us stronger.”
I won’t say I am “grateful” on this day of Thanksgiving for our national loss of idealism, but I accept that it, too, can be used by the Divine Wisdom and Will for a greater good because there are sufficient numbers of us who are open to being instruments of that will — however imperfectly may be our efforts.
The best way to express, energize, and uplift our national consciousness is to live it in our own, daily lives. This means to be accepting of others and their rights and opinions; to be willing to dialogue with them when appropriate; to participate calmly and responsibly in your civic duties, to be a visible and willing participant in your local community (and church or other such forms of fellowship), to be a caretaker and steward for our natural resources and environment, and generally to live these ideals in thought, word, and deed. Honesty and integrity in your work, applying your talents and intelligence productively and creatively, to mentor and help co-workers as appropriate, to be a peace maker and not a gossip or negative influence at work (or school etc.), and to live within your means, to be generous and charitable with your material resources, to be prepared to help yourself and neighbors in the event of natural or other disasters, grow your own food, and generally to live simply and with contentment!
Paramhansa Yogananda, the renowned teacher from India whose life story, “Autobiography of a Yogi” has been read by millions, championed the future spread of small intentional communities outside of the cities. In such environments with like-minded people, he predicted, the negative influences of unhealthy city life and the pressures of globalization could be mitigated by simple living and high ideals. I believe that time is fast approaching. Ananda’s founder, Swami Kriyananda (1926-2013) and the members of Ananda worldwide have established nine such communities on three continents. Countless other communities ranging from co-housing to spiritual communities exist and flourish on every continent. Such is the natural instinct of human nature to seek others of like-mind. In this new age of universal education, advancing technology, communication, and travel, this tendency is necessary to balance the scales of global and impersonal forces, of galloping consumption, and a tragic and threatening disconnection from the world of nature and the world of other people as equals and individuals.
Let us give thanks, then, for the Divine wisdom that appears in hearts and minds seeking truth and harmony. Let us give thanks to those divine messengers who, in every age, race and nation, come to trumpet the “truth that shall make us free.” Finally, let us give thanks for our own efforts and those of others who strive to live by high ideals of honesty, integrity, compassion, creativity, and devotion to the Supreme Giver and Creator!
Joy to You, my very Self,
Swami Hrimananda, Thanksgiving, 2013
Thursday, November 14, 2013
Since the dawn of the scientific and industrial era on this planet, orthodox religion has been in retreat, defeated at every encounter, by reason and its applied powers of experimentation, proof, and practicality. No matter that our reason can also be ruthless and used for exploitation, violence, and destruction. The potential for reason to show the futility of negative or harmful behavior is touted as sufficient -- no other-worldly God, needed, thank you very much!
Humanity is in a race against time and the inadequacies of reason. The godless scientific attitudes of survival of the fittest, the clash of the classes, materialism, win-at-all-costs politics and power, ruthless competition, and the sacred cows of entitlement and self-interest are rushing us like lemmings to our mutual destruction over the cliff of “what’s in it for me?”
Sorry to have to tell you, atheists and scoffing humanists: reason alone is inadequate to the task of seeing the golden rule applied universally among nations and peoples. Put more bluntly: it ain’t gonna happen. What our reasoning minds have yet to admit or even see is that greed, violence, poverty, and abuse (inter alia evils) are powers or levels of consciousness that, while appearing in individual humans and their actions, are greater than any single individual. We are influenced by our family, our culture, and, more importantly (since individual actions often cannot be traced to these environmental or even genetic influences), by subtle influences which can only generally described as “radio stations” of varying types of consciousness enabling prenatal tendencies (from past lives). Why, e.g., might a child raised in a “good home,” turn to a criminal lifestyle? Why do substance addictions or pornography or human trafficking persist (or even grow) in the face of so-called “modern education?”
I will admit together with those who are also “spiritual but not religious” that orthodox religion deserves its fate of declining adherents. But like all institutions of influence it is struggling mightily to keep its place. I read of one church that serves beer as a focal point of interest to attract its congregation!
The body, mind and spirit-numbing and harmful effects of industrialization and now globalization (though not without their benefits) have prompted sensitive souls throughout the world to cry out for inspiration and true spiritual upliftment. As a young Catholic boy studying the life of Jesus and the saints, I recall bemoaning what seemed to be the absence of saints and sanctity in a world that has placed even rainbows in the catalog of ordinary things explained analytically.
Scriptures and saints of east and west have always attested to the role of God, through human instruments, to intervene in human and planetary history. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna promises to appear “whenever virtue declines and vice predominates.” The Christian Bible, both Old and New Testaments, are nothing less than a story of the “Word made flesh and dwelt amongst us.”
In response to this call of aspiring hearts, there took place in a cave in the Himalayan foothills in 1861, a meeting between renowned but secretive yoga master -- the peerless and now famous “Babaji” -- and a humble accountant from Benares who was initiated into a powerful and central meditation technique to which was given the generic name, “Kriya Yoga.” Babaji told this married-with-children householder, Shyama Charan Lahiri, that this technique would spread throughout all lands and would aid in establishing world peace based upon direct perception of one’s indwelling divinity and kinship with God and God-in-all.
The spread of kriya yoga is now a historical fact. Its use grows exponentially throughout the world. First brought to America and the West by the renowned yogi, Paramhansa Yogananda, author of the popular “Autobiography of a Yogi,” kriya yoga is spreading through not only Yogananda and his disciples but through many branches of teachers related in various ways to Babaji and Lahiri Mahasaya. (Not all techniques labelled “kriya” are the same, however. Best to do one’s homework in this regard. The internet, travel and communication have their downside, too,of course.)
Kriya Yoga expresses the spiritual science which is the corollary to the material sciences. As the natural sciences reveal a vast outer universe, so the yoga science reveals the far vaster inner world of consciousness: the source of all created things. As materialistic scientific “progress” brings comforts and knowledge, so meditation brings inner peace and wisdom. As control of nature can yield material wealth, so control of the mind yields happiness free of outer circumstances. As our planet searches desperately for clean, cheap, and abundant energy sources, so Kriya Yoga puts the yogi in touch with cosmic energy: the source of life, creativity, health and divinity.
As Yogananda put it, it is time in the history of humanity for the best of East and West to be united in the common and divine purpose of uplifting humanity in material and spiritual realms. Harmony of earth and heaven and spirit and nature is needed for the survival and sustainability of humanity and all life on earth.
As 19th and 20th century material “progress” shouted down the “old time religions” with promises of unending prosperity, health, security and pleasure, and as science proclaimed the insignificance of human life in the face of the scientific facts and the inviolate rule of the law of survival as the mechanism of life itself, tens of millions suffered or perished in the struggles between socialism, communism, and capitalism. But as science purported to show our insignificance in the face of a vast cosmos and of epochs of geologic time, so meditation reveals the vastness of human consciousness which is “center everywhere, circumference nowhere.” (Autobiography of a Yogi) Our significance is not as an ego with a human body that is tiny and lasts only a brief time, but as a spark of Infinite consciousness out of which this vast universe has come.
Yogananda predicted many challenges for humanity before his death in 1952. Though he didn’t specifically use terms like global warming, he saw the materialistic and exploitative trends of modern society, big business, war-enriched industries, and global power. He foresaw an economic depression on scale far exceeding the 1930’s during which the dollar would become all but worthless. He saw many wars to come and the appearance of what he called international criminals (and we call terrorists). After much worldwide suffering, he said humanity would experience two hundred years of peace--so sick of warfare would we become.
The pace of consumption of natural resources on this planet is unsustainable. The lifestyles of countries whose relative wealth and comfort was leveraged by cheap and plentiful energy resources (both natural and human) at the expense of other nations is doomed. Wealth creation by fiat money without regard to any measure of value or useful productivity cannot last. Many governments, national and local, around the world are de facto bankrupt. So-called democracies are being strangled by their dependency on constituents who demand their entitlements in return for their vote without regard for the fiscal consequences, the greater good or their own civic and personal responsibilities. Increasingly it would appear that multi-national corporations, including makers of weapons of vast destruction, hold the reins of apparent power.
There is, however, a rising tsunami of shifting consciousness that is forming to fight these crushing global forces. We lovers of peace are not yet strong and haven’t learned the necessity of personal sacrifice as modelled to us by Gandhi and M.L. King, but our time is coming to enable the worldwide revolution that is needed and is coming. We are not interested in simply replacing ourselves in positions of power (political, economic, or religious). We are forming networks of sustainable communities (of all types) that emphasize the importance of individual creativity and initiative, and our essential unity as children of God. We are the hope for a better world. But we, too, must pass through the “valley of the shadow of death,” meaning personal commitment and self-sacrifice. Meditation, however, including kriya yoga, is at the heart of our revolution. This not another “ ism “ but a shift in consciousness based not on mere belief but actual, individual experience and Self-realization. Yogananda predicted that in the centuries ahead the concept of “Self-realization” (the necessity of personal, direct, intuitive perception of divinity) would be accepted by religionists of every stripe. This is seen already in what is now accepted as a growing tide of “spiritual but not religious.”
There are practical ways to prepare for challenging circumstances but that is another subject altogether. The greatest protection, however, lies within you, and meditation is the key. Learn to meditate; check out kriya yoga; find others who share your ideals and practices; move out of cities if you can, especially with others; grow your own food; live simply; be prepared for difficult times; don’t depend on the government!
Meditation is for everyone, regardless of belief or religious affiliation. With meditation one readily comprehends his unity with all life and with Giver of life. No special distinctive creed or ritual is needed. Chapter 26 of Yogananda’s autobiography describes kriya well (read online for free at www.CrystalClarity.com). It is the science of how higher consciousness is developed, experienced, and nurtured in the holy temple of the human body and consciousness. It is the science of “finding happiness.” (A movie of this title has just been released: the story of Ananda and finding happiness within. (http://findinghappinessmovie.com/)
Joy is our “gun!” Stand tall and smile wide! Rejoice, for “We are Won!”