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Finding Happiness

While visiting a spiritual community in northern California called Ananda (meaning “Joy”) an investigative journalist armed with a fair amount of skepticism and a dash of curiosity discovers that the key to finding happiness comes from within and that when you change, everything changes.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Thanks & Giving! Not Necessarily the Same Thing!

The American holiday -- Thanksgiving -- is soon to arrive. Many will pause, however briefly, to give "thanks"............there's "thanks" but there's also "giving."

It just so happens the Ananda center here (near Seattle, WA) is hosting a Gala Fundraising dinner Sunday night (November 16). We are starting a three-year campaign of pledge-raising to service loans for the construction of a building known as the Fellowship Hall. The Hall will be next to the meditation temple and completes the original site plan for the use of the property here.

Our Sangha (or "fellowship" or "congregation") here in the greater Seattle and Washington state area has long been an active, creative, and forward thinking group. I think this must reflect a characteristic common to the northwest: self-initiative for the good of all. Both the Temple (which opened in December 2006) and, next year, the Fellowship Hall are tangible, practical expressions of our members active and generous "giving." If we were to count our membership for and by itself, we do not need these buildings for our own purposes. They are a gift to untold numbers yet to be blessed and inspired.

Reflecting, as indeed one does and should this time of year, upon the many reasons to be thankful, let us also reflect how we can be "giving." Gratitude without giving back is like offering sympathy from a safe distance (and taking no action). And if there's one thing our planet needs, it is an attitude of giving back, rather than taking or feeling a sense of entitlement.

One of the great currents of consciousness on our planet is the slowly growing realization that all life is interdependent and we can live and prosper best if we think and act for the good of all. Voluntary cooperation -- creative and intelligent -- for a greater good allocates resources far better than Adam Smith's narrowly defined self-interest. Self-interest is expansive when it goes outward to include the well-being of others and it is contractive when it is limited to oneself, or stops at a predefined boundary such as one's family ("Us four and no more"), tribe or group.

Much of the twentieth century saw the involuntary imposition of "giving" and sharing in the form of communism. Nothing imposed upon others against their will can be said to be "giving." 

I admit that some days when I survey the headlines from around the world I can get discouraged, but that's not really the big picture. How could it be, what with the extensive travel, education, and admixture of cultures in every city and country in the world? 

It is grim, admittedly to consider this, but I am certain that if you were to graph the numbers of people, military and civilian, who have died during the twentieth century in and around wars, purges, pogroms, pandemics, famines, and genocide, we would see a decline in those grisly statistics as the twentieth century progressed and has moved into the twenty-first century. (That's not to say that trend is unalterable and permanent, but, for now, at least, it's in the right direction. I strongly suspect our planet will have to suffer much, much more before the tide towards peace and cooperation turns strongly enough to remain for a very long time.)

It's the "giving" part of Thanks-Giving that I am thinking about. I live in the Ananda Community near Seattle, WA and our community is part of a worldwide network of intentional communities with a supportive and interconnected web of businesses, services and organizations. To create this from nothing has taken the efforts and resources of thousands of dedicated people for whom narrow self-interest has been sublimated into a greater cause. The result is a bunch of joyful and creative people -- not just here in Seattle, but all over the world! Our first movie, in fact, is called Finding Happiness! (see the masthead for this blog)

Americans are a practical people. Ananda has never been funded or endowed and we've had to learn to be practical at the grass roots where real people have to work together to create and sustain themselves and our services to the public. Paramhansa Yogananda, the twentieth century spiritual leader and author of "Autobiography of a Yogi," counseled Ananda's founder, Swami Kriyananda, to "make your ideals practical." That counsel and that necessity has been integral to our experiences in America, in Europe and, more recently, in India.  

One who receives a precious gift and says only "Thank you," but does not otherwise reciprocate in some meaningful form dilutes the meaning of the gift. (Of course, a precious gift should only be given in appropriate circumstances!) Nonetheless, let's not just give thanks alone but give to an ideal and cause greater than our own in practical ways of time, money, creativity and harmony!  Gratitude is an appropriate and necessary beginning to the awakening of consciousness and recognition of our connection with others. It should ignite, however, the desire to give in return!

This world, sorely pressed as it is, by plagues, natural disasters, war, hunger, homelessness, violence, abuse and injustice, sorely needs Givers to spread the message of our Oneness in God: the message of Self-realization. Wish us "well" in our building of the Fellowship Hall, too!

Thanks for reading.....


Monday, November 3, 2014

Doing Good: Is there a Downer Side?

Warning: this article will be more personal than some......, My kids, when they were kids (long ago), when I would warn them of dire things to come in the world we live, they would say, "Oh Dad, you're such a Downer!" Gita, especially, who's very upbeat and positive was particularly annoyed by what she called "Downer Dad." Well, I hope I'm not really that way but at a meeting yesterday, when our meeting worked out ok and I declaimed: "Gosh, I really thought that was going to be mess," someone in the group piped up, "Pessimist!" Well, so, there you have it! Downer Dad!

Living in a spiritual community as I have most of my adult life and teaching mediation and yogic philosophy as I do, and being a disciple of Paramhansa Yogananda as I am, you'd expect that I would reflect the upbeat, positive, life-affirming, joyful qualities that Yogananda, and my teacher (founder of Ananda), Swami Kriyananda, and, indeed as Ananda members worldwide do. And, yes I do.

Early in my life, as a college student of the 60's studying comparative religions in "smoke-filled" rooms, I was attracted, at first, to the dour existentialists and the stone-faced Buddhists. But, at such a young age, with a life before me, it wasn't fitting or even easy to continually wear the forlorn long face of the stoics. The shoe simply did not fit, future "Downer Dad" notwithstanding.

It wasn't long, then before I turned, to India: to its color, its chaos, its cacophony, to its exuberant embrace of life. My heart needed something more than "chop wood, carry water." But, at first, I was suspicious of all this joy. Isn't joy, I asked, merely the opposite of sadness? In affirming joy, would I not condemn myself to its dual?

In time, and after encountering Yogananda's now famous story, "Autobiography of a Yogi," and becoming a student of Swami Kriyananda (a direct disciple of Yogananda) and experiencing the infectious joy each, and so many other Ananda members, exuded, I gradually relaxed into the understanding and the actual experience of joy as a non-dual state of consciousness! "Joy is Within You," is the slogan of Ananda!

But even this nearly insufferable up-beat-ness (:-) could not so easily erase episodes of that existential dread or anxiety born of ego consciousness. My "Yes, but........." would always, has always, tempered my view of things lest on wings of hope I fly too close to the sun that I have not yet fully realized.

Well, getting back to my intention, and, in fact, as Yogananda and Kriyananda have also taught, virtue is not sufficient to find God. Virtue is a stepping stone. Is not the energetic enforcer of the law more likely, in a former life, a criminal now making good his past misdeeds? Virtue results from the use of will power applied by the ego toward goodness. This effort is right and true and just.

But how many churches and humanitarian organizations are infested by do-gooders? Oh, yes, without them the good deeds wouldn't happen: I know THAT! Why, then, do I say "infested." Because what comes with good deeds and their doers is just that: the doers! The sense of doership: the "I" principle is, for most, inextricably tied up with the doing of good. Admittedly, it's a step up from evil and from indifference or selfishness. But doing good deeds are, for most people, still born of ego. Nonetheless, good deeds are necessary to expunge one's past bad karma.

But good deeds do not necessarily derive from superconsciousness. In fact, their own, innate "evil" is the reinforcement of ego. "I am doing good." The pitfall that awaits do-gooders is judgement of their fellows. If I am working hard, I will hardly fail to notice that you are a slacker. If I am meditating three hours a day, I will certainly be sure to notice that rest of the devotees around me are NOT! Thus it is, that a judgmental attitude rises up among do-gooders. The habit of being judgmental is what "infests" religion and humanitarian efforts, and, in fact, every group of human activity.

A true devotee knows that his highest duty is to realize that God, not ego, is the Doer. We strive to be mindful of the divine presence within. The light of wisdom that radiates from this inner awareness shows us the divine light in all other beings, creatures and circumstances. Whereas many a do-gooder meddles in everyone else's business, mentally, verbally, or the name of doing good......a true devotee remains centered within. Krishna states in the Bhagavad Gita that to "do" someone else's dharma is to fail, even when doing one's own dharma is difficult, unpleasant or we are not yet successful. Uplifting our consciousness is our sole duty in life.

When our consciousness is uplifted, the good we do comes naturally and without expectation or judgment. It is a gift of the soul. It is guided by wisdom and by love.

Shifting the subject, then, and at the risk of seeming in self-defense, someone commented recently that many who work with me and for whom I am supposed to give guidance have experienced my "directness." Our subject was how to be a supportive leader. The question was whether being supportive always meant being "nice" and talking things out in a reasonable and understanding manner. Who would question the value of that? The laudable trend of conflict resolution through respectful interchange and the seeking of mutual understanding for differing points of view is essential. This is wonderful and an invaluable tool in group dynamics.

But among true devotees, bent upon achieving God-realization through superconsciousness, and living by intuitive, inner guidance, we sometimes act in ways that, to the ego, may be abrupt or unwelcome. A self-defensive insistence upon respect can also be, for the devotee, a smokescreen for ego protection. Many a spiritual teacher, enlightened or not, wisely or unwisely, have been known to give a psychic blow to the student's ego. In today's psychological, ego protective culture, the seemingly harsh training given by gurus in former times would be labelled abuse! (And, no doubt, it must have been in some instances.)

My teacher sometimes took advantage of (what turned out later to be) inaccurate accusations against a student to upbraid or correct a student without making any effort to hear other points of view. Unfair? Yes, apparently! An opportunity to develop ego-detachment and dissolve ego-defensive impulses? Absolutely! I've witnessed fellow students receiving such a corrective from him and, yet, whether immediately or upon reflection, expressing gratitude for having learned an important lesson from one whom they viewed as their best friend. I'm not describing wimps but people of will power and intelligence. (A "wimp" wouldn't attract a valuable lesson so directly nor would handle it so wisely.) Such instances were testimonies to the greatness of each of them.

Any such correction to another ought to be arising from a calm, inner detachment free from likes or dislikes. A perfect world, this is not. A perfect opportunity, it might be: for both! To rephrase Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita, "One cannot achieve spiritual victory be refraining from action." This may seem self-justification and it might seem risky behavior, spiritually. I agree. In my own life, if I have dispensed it, it has been infrequent and it has always been sincere. More often, my emotions have not been involved, but sometimes they have been, but always under some degree of self-control and awareness. Almost always the circumstances arose that allowed me to say something that has waited for a long time to be said. Perfect? Wise? Effective? Well, sometimes, at least!

(Is this not, in fact, the duty and obligation of parents, and not just supervisors and leaders? A parent is often compelled to correct a child under circumstances where his or her own emotions are involved. The correction will be increasingly effective as those emotions are dissolved by wisdom and a foundation of love and deep respect. But sometimes, whether towards a child or an adult, "tough love" demands a display of urgency and intensity .... though best rendered with self-control and conscious intention.)

The downer side is that most people will long remember words of censure from another. The ego holds tightly its hurts. There have been times I had to be willing to sacrifice the goodwill of a person, perhaps lifelong, by rendering a correction to him that circumstances demanded. Or, to risk the support of others by taking a strong position. But leadership is not a popularity contest: whether in the spiritual or material realm. Making errors in judgment should be assumed but responsibility too often demands timely action and gives not the luxury of inaction. The spiritual path is not for sissies. As it is, and for all of us, on the spiritual path or not, the world dishes out plenty of censure, hard knocks and more. That isn't the issue. It is always a question of our response to life: faith, hope and charity; or, self-justification, revenge, and anger?

Do good; be good; but reach upward beyond goodness. The ego's progressive steps from unawareness, indifference, and evil, and finally to good can only be ultimately resolved in God alone; in Oneness; in superconsciousness. This is why and how meditation can powerfully accelerate our freedom in God. Kriya Yoga and similar advanced techniques can more rapidly dissolve the knots of doership inherent in both good and evil.

In prayer, meditation and right action, strip away the bark of ego, that the Tree of Life might grow taller and ever more beautiful. If we give to God our failures, He will take them. To those who come to God with love and self-offering, He promises that "I will make good your deficiencies and render permanent your gains" (words of Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita.)


Swami Hrimananda

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Does Satan Exist? Do Demons Exist?

Having just returned from a visit to the shrines of St. Francis and other saints in Italy, I am “inspired” to ask this question: Do demons exist?

From what I understand, a great questioning took place during the 20th century among Protestant theologians, ministers and members regarding the core beliefs of the Christian faith. Without wishing to explore the history of Protestantism, let us simply say that the rationally-minded skepticism of the 20th century found expression among religionists to the point of questioning all of the miracles of the Bible, both New and Old Testament. The existence of Satan, likewise, was among the debates. So pervasive was the skepticism among ministers that the self-described “modern mystic, Frank Laubach, conducted a campaign among ministers to remind them to even mention God in their sermons!

Catholics were not permitted most of these questions but even amongst them, in the form of what I believe is called, “scholasticism,” questions were raised. In the life of the famous stigmatist, Padre Pio from southern Italy, for example, Vatican hierarchy sought to question, ostracize and distance themselves from what some felt were medieval and superstitious beliefs in miracles such as the stigmata, the devil, bi-location, psychic powers, levitation and so forth. Catholic hierarchy was sensitive, reactive, or influenced by the thinking and the accusations of Protestants, what to mention science-inspired rationalism, and therefore were eager to hush up claims of miracles so that Catholicism could be seen as a rational and appropriate in the 20th century world of politics and “‘isms.”

Paramhansa Yogananda, a world teacher from India, lived in this same 20th century. In his teachings he stated that the saints are true custodians of truth, not the bishops or theologians, or worse. The great saints of east and west down through the ages (including the twentieth century) testify to the existence of evil as a conscious Force that can sometimes take on human or individual appearance.

I contend that whether evil is personified as outside oneself or “merely” a projection of the subconscious mind, the difference is not as significant as one might imagine, at least not to the person “imagining” it! I say this early on so that we don’t get into a sparring contest over “how many angels fit on the end of a needle.”

Human incarnations of evil can perhaps be recognized in the form of great evil-doers such as Stalin, Hitler or serial killers who inflict suffering intentionally and repeatedly, even wantonly. Metaphysically or ethically, at least, are these people not, in effect, human incarnations of the overarching consciousness of evil? The other side of this coin might be viewed in the long-standing religious teaching that the greatest of saints and saviors are considered direct incarnations of God! On a lesser note, we sometimes refer to special people as “angels in disguise!” On a deep level, humans sometimes reveal that we do understand that each of us is an incarnation of a greater spirit than what our physical form, our habits and personality might suggest.

Turning now to mental illness, such as schizophrenia, multiple personalities, and other forms of extreme mental illness, (adolescence count in this?), it seems just as plausible to at least consider these illnesses to be the result of possession by disincarnate entities as it is to puzzle it out medically, behaviorally or environmentally, doesn’t it? Even if mental illness can be traced to aberrations in the brain, are these aberrations the cause, or the result? It’s not as if modern medicine has been all that successful in finding wonder drugs for mental illness! Maybe something else is going on?

I just read, moments ago, that Pope Francis sent an encouraging message to a convention of exorcists, thanking them for their important work and acknowledging that their case loads are growing rapidly in today’s stressed and extreme world!

How about drunkenness or drug addiction? At least in more extreme cases, doesn’t it seem as though the person is not himself, to put it mildly? Unrecognizable, in fact? Yogananda taught (and I don’t imagine only he did so) that in bars and other places (proverbial “opium dens”), “ghosts” hover to find bodies to inhabit in order to have a taste of sensory experiences. Yogananda was not alone in warning people from trance channeling or, worse yet, parlor seance "games." I personally know of a case in which a person went too far into using a pendulum to help him become a medium. In time he lost his job, his marriage, his health and his mind -- to whom?

James van Praagh, “ghostbuster” and author of “Ghosts Among Us,” seems to be a credible witness to the presence of disincarnate entities who, for various reasons, refuse to leave us and move on to the “other side” in order to continue their journey. He has found ways to help them detach. His description of such entities, their motives and behavior match, in most respects, that of Yogananda's experience.

We can speculate at length but we might also at least consider the testimony of Jesus Christ, Buddha, Yogananda, St. Anthony of the Desert, Padre Pio, many others, and even Martin Luther (who threw an ink pot at the devil — the spot is still on the wall in his room): Satan DOES exist and can take a human form. The essence of evil is not a person with cloven hoofs, a red suit, and a pointy tail, however, but a Conscious Force that has the power to take any form or no form.

Such witnesses of evil incarnate or disincarnate are people who, themselves, demonstrated power over material objects; psychic power (seeing at a distance; knowing the future; bi-location; levitation, even, in some cases, raising the dead) and more. What do we think of that supposedly scientific attitude of inquiry that dismisses such testimony on the basis of an a priori assumption that the evidence must be false simply because they can’t replicate it?

For all the impotence of modern medicine to treat extreme mental illness with drugs, why not consider what indeed might be an obvious, if alternative, explanation? If so, and applying appropriate techniques of exorcism (not just rituals) but the power of an intuitive person, to work with the “victim,” might not equal or better results be found?

It is my understanding, derived from the teachings of Paramhansa Yogananda, and from things I have heard my spiritual teacher, Swami Kriyananda, say (or write) that the reason most of us have no commerce with demons is that we are not worth their time! We have our own demons of desire, anger, revenge, lust, jealousy and so on —already within us, so to speak. Indeed, the teaching as I understand it is this: when our spiritual consciousness is so advanced that we come close to achieving Self-realization, the delusive force of “maya” takes note and takes human form in a last ditch effort to dissuade us from dissolving forever our identification with our body, our ego, and the world of matter over which maya rules. Thus Jesus was tempted with having dominion over the world, and power over the angels (disincarnate entities, however benign), and power of matter (stones into break).

The reason most humans do not encounter demons of anger, lust, revenge (etc.) attempting to dance upon our soul’s grave is that we simply don’t have sufficient mental energy and psychic sight to call such to appear before us. We are neither terribly bad nor exceedingly good to matter much. We don’t warrant a visitation! We are not yet royalty, you might say. 

Our physical brain is the accepted seat of intelligence. In raja yoga, we practice techniques of breath and mind control (the two are inextricably linked!) which effectively raise “energy” to the brain (re-directing it, as it were, from the body, the tissues, and the senses). By stilling the natural turbulence of our thoughts and related metabolism, caused by the constant interaction with the world around us and the mind within us through our senses and our ego-directed fears and desires, we can “raise our energy” (and consciousness) from identification with body and ego to a higher and more subtle level of awareness.

Just as a child, becoming an adult, outgrows the interests and preoccupations of childhood, so too the adult — striving for maturity — accepts an ever expanding awareness of the world in which we live. We are concerned about wars and poverty in other parts of the world; we read about Ebola and terrorism as threats to our world. The yogi, by raising his energy within, to the inner world of consciousness (sans tangible objects and personal emotions), becomes increasingly aware of the subtle realities of consciousness and the forms taken by consciousness. This can include not just a subtle awareness of divine realities but also lesser forms, including such beings that are traditionally given names as angels, devas, or demons.

As the soul gradually expunges from its aura behaviors that are sense and ego affirming, subtle forces and beings and states of consciousness become increasingly apparent and real to us. Lest you dismiss such a description as being hallucinatory or self-deluding, I can say with assurance that to achieve such a level is to have the power to accomplish material goals far more effectively than the average person. Psychic power and sight are not debilitating but empowering. The mind rules matter. Intelligence and genius have more power not less.

If I have forever banished from my consciousness inclinations to be competitive, angry, or sensual, I begin to experience states of consciousness as preexisting their manifestation in one form or another. Lust is a universal state of consciousness that beings, including human, experience from time to time. If I have worked to overcome this particular tendency, I may find that in the final stages of my looming victory, lust incarnates in either human or a subtle form as part of my last temptations. The magnetism of my efforts (my karma) might attract to me some final opportunities to either re-affirm it or expunge it forever. The form of temptation might come as a person, or, if by this time, I live almost exclusively in the subtle atmosphere of consciousness, it may take the form of an apparition of one sort or another. Besides, you don’t have to be a saint to become aware of the fact that sexual desire is “all in the mind” anyway! A cow in its pasture happening upon the centerfold page of Playboy Magazine is going to walk right by it towards the greener pasture beyond it.

If good and evil exist in human form, then, according to metaphysical precepts, they preexist in subtler forms. All that exists already exists in latent form or else it could not come into form.

Fortunately for us, we need not fear the appearance of the Great Deceiver any time soon. But, sufficient unto today are the demons of temptation and habit within us. When the time comes when we are soon to merge into pure goodness, we will certainly be tested then, too. At such time, we must not imagine our reason or will is sufficient to outwit the powers of darkness. We must call upon God and guru with faith, even if, temporarily, our inner sight goes dark. It is only a test. It might be the final test! 

Thus while St. Anthony of the desert (in Egypt) was being attacked by demonic forces, he called upon God and Christ to save him. Though they failed to appear at his call, the evil One was nonetheless vanquished by his faith. Anthony, when Jesus finally appeared to him, asked Jesus “Where were you when I needed you?” Jesus replied, “Anthony, I was always with you!” 

Faith, you see, is the ultimate test. Before our moment of final victory, it is our faith that must, at last, be tested. All else is taken from us, even the consolation of God’s presence that has otherwise grown steadily in our soul’s evolution. This final test is the true "dark night of the soul." We must give up everything, even what might seem our very existence and consciousness, even (seemingly) what we have come to rely upon as God's protection in that final test. Our choice to enter into God's bliss must be an act of complete self-offering: given freely and dynamically. Jacob's being tested by God to sacrifice his own son is a metaphor for this final act of faith.

Like St. Anthony, we will discover that we have never been separate from God, for God is all there is. “God alone,” as Sister Gyanamata (advanced disciple of Yogananda) put it.

So, yes, demons do exist; angels do exist; saints exist; God exists! We have nothing to fear but let us be, as Jesus counseled, “Wise as serpents but harmless as doves.”

Blessings of Light,

Swami Hrimananda