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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.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Am I "Spiritual?"

We hear frequently the term "spiritual but not religious." Some say we are spiritual beings having a human experience and, accordingly, "Of course I am spiritual!" Paramhansa Yogananda once addressed a person's concern about leaving the spiritual path by reassuring this person that "we are all on the spiritual path." I think he was being "nice" while at the same time affirming a metaphysical truth.

Coming back to earth, however, I read a quote from Mark Twain who supposedly quipped that "If Jesus Christ were alive today, there is definitely one thing he would not be: a Christian!" Cute, and, understandable! Jesus' consciousness ("I and my Father are One") could not abide by narrow sectarianism in any form (such as we see all too often among some self-defined "Christians").

What makes a person "spiritual?" In the New Testament (Matthew 25:40), Jesus says that if you help others in need you have done it for God and will have earned the kingdom of heaven. By this yardstick, some will say that an atheist can be a Christian, well, or at least "spiritual." I'm not about to argue with this deeply compassionate and inspired teaching from the New Testament. From the standpoint of Vedanta we would say that it is more "sattwic" (uplifting) to help others in need than to be selfish. According to such good actions (karma), one can advance spiritually. Any good and kind and virtuous person, therefore, can gain merit and is, spiritually speaking, above someone who lives selfishly. "Above" here means that such a one has a consciousness that is expanded beyond the little ego-self and includes the needs of others.

Again, this is the "long view" born of the teaching that we are souls (eternal and perfect) made in the image of God. I won't debate that teaching but it still doesn't answer my question satisfactorily. This view, admittedly, is essential and I do not reject it.

Still I am probing to go beyond what could be called "liberal theology" or an egalitarian theology that says blithely "I'm ok, you're ok (as you are)." My daughter's blog (http://gitagoing.blogspot.com/) has an article "Going for Good or Going for God" that addresses my question squarely. Is virtue enough? Is virtue the same as spirituality?

I've heard the quote that "The road to hell is paved with good intentions." This medieval cliche can mean, to me, that good karma may balance or mitigate bad karma but once it's used up you start all over again. Unless we consciously seek God (which is to say, "transcendence of duality, ego, and mortality"), we are locked onto the wheel of samsara (repeated rounds of birth) for what might as well be termed an eternity.

In "Autobiography of a Yogi," Paramhansa Yogananda writes something to the effect that only when the soul awakens to the "anguishing monotony" of repeated rounds of rebirth does it cry out for freedom. Once when I was discouraged, I wondered if that was enough to grant me spiritual freedom. Of course it is not. You have to want God: eternal bliss. Rejection is not enough, else, suicide would be our ticket to salvation.

Infinity embraces and IS everything. Nothing in God is foreign or evil. But when we are caught in duality, good and evil are very real. God IS and HAS everything, but one thing: our attention; our love; our sincere yearning to reunite with our Father-Mother, Beloved in Oneness.

There are good and virtuous people whose lives are a great inspiration and blessing to this world but who have no desire for God. There are devotees who are selfish, irritable and sometimes even proud but who deeply love God and seek to know God as their very Self. Such is the endless and complex play of karma and delusion. But only those who seek freedom, find freedom. How long that takes or how arduous depends in part upon the intensity of their effort.

Where each soul is on the journey home to God cannot be seen except by a true saint. The virtuous man might have an epiphany and rise to freedom: perhaps he would be blessed to meet a saint and instantly have the vision of God or superconsciousness, thus igniting his fervor for transcendence. The devotee might encounter a karmic bomb that would blast from her all her devotion and send her plummeting into the living hades of depression, anger, or fear. Or.............the opposite...........the virtuous is hit with the karmic bomb and the devotee is uplifted into an ecstatic divine vision. In all cases, it is we who must make the choice in response to life's tests and opportunities.

Karma is exacting and not whimsical, however. The fact we cannot see it doesn't mean it doesn't function, just as the law of gravity works just fine without our consent.

For, returning to our metaphysical truths, we are not our karma; we are not our ego or body or personality. Our soul here and now is already free. Time and space are a product of God's consciousness. We could be free right now, Yogananda claimed, if in declaring it so we realized it without reservation and in every cell of our being. Try it: it's not so easy. Hunger and desires and fears rise up instantly, clinging to us like ghouls from the underworld trying to pull us into their haunts.

But this much we can say: no one achieves God consciousness by accident or without choosing it. When someone called Jesus "good," his reply was curt: "Why do you call me good. No one is good but God." The Bhagavad Gita proclaims that all human virtue and excellence comes from God. Only those who acknowledge this and seek God alone can rise to God consciousness.

Yogananda stated that "The drama of life has for its lesson that it is simply that: a drama." If we can laugh and cry watching a movie and, when it is finished, call it good, why cannot we do this for our life? God plays all the parts but we cheer the hero and hiss the villains. Play your part as a hero and when the play of your life is ended, walk off the stage free and into the Director's loving embrace.

Yes, you, too, ARE spiritual.

Blessings,

Nayaswami Hriman


Saturday, August 30, 2014

What is the best meditation technique? What is Kriya Yoga?

What is the best meditation technique? Can a device with sound or images or other electronic stimulation really deepen your meditation? Should I use a pre-recorded, guided meditation aid? Are all the techniques which use the term "kriya" the same? There are so many mantras and pranayams and gurus, where does one even begin?

The short answer ("All roads lead to Rome") has some validity and is a tempting rejoinder and end to all these questions, but . . . . the "real answer" is both subjective (personal) and objective (demonstrable).

A proper response also requires an understanding of the purpose of meditation, whether, too, from the one's personal motivation or from the tradition and history of meditation itself. But I have addressed the question of "What is Meditation" in other articles on this site. For my purposes, I will assume that our shared understanding of the purpose of meditation is primarily a spiritual one.

"What works best for you" is a fair yardstick although be forewarned that you risk "the blind leading the blind and both falling in a ditch" of ignorance. It's like practicing hatha (physical) yoga because it's a good body workout experience: just because everybody does it, it still misses the true purpose of yoga by a "country mile."

Let's start with the personal: the meditation technique that is right for you has to work for you; it has to appeal to you: enough in the beginning to be attracted to it, and enough in the end to stick with it. This is not the same thing as saying your technique is effortless, easy, and blissful. Think of marriage (or a meaningful profession or career) as a comparison.

Notwithstanding the internet, CD's, DVD's and old-fashioned books, it is also worth noting that no effective (and long-term) meditation technique is divorced from its source: the teacher (or tradition). Partly it's a matter of your own confidence and faith in that technique. If John Smith down the street writes a book on meditation, it might strike your curiosity but I doubt it's going to change your life through daily, deep practice. Both the message and messenger are equally important. Meditation is personal: never forget that!

Not only, therefore, must the technique appeal to you and work sustain-ably for you but you must feel a connection, confidence, inspiration and/or faith in the teacher and/or tradition from which your chosen technique has come. I will stop short of talking about gurus and a disciple-guru relationship. I have written of that in other articles on this site.

There is one further point on the question of personal: the teachings and philosophy that surrounds your technique and teacher. Meditation, viewed in the vacuum of this article discussing technique (as such), might seem disconnected from the need for philosophy, theology, or teaching. Indeed, many meditation teachers say just that: you can be an atheist and practice meditation. Fine: who would argue with that! (I've said it myself!) But that, too, is a philosophy and a teaching. And maybe that really inspires you!

Thus some meditators practice under the auspices of one of the many Buddhist traditions; or Indian traditions; or Christian monastic traditions, or Sufi, Taoist, or Shinto and so on.

So, on a personal level, and as my own teacher, Swami Kriyananda put it in a talk he gave: we need to find the "right teacher, right teaching and right technique" for US and OUR spiritual evolution. All three (like Father, Son and Holy Ghost) are integral components of a successful (i.e. life changing) meditation practice.

Now, let's move on to the "objective" aspects of techniques. Almost any sincere and intelligent effort to meditate will produce positive results. That being said, we enter into the science of meditation. Keeping this article to a reasonable length, let us simplistically say that a successful technique or sitting in meditation experience will yield a mind that is focused and free from random thoughts; a body that is perfectly still (being relaxed but alert); and a "heart" or "mind" that experiences an expansion of consciousness and/or deep satisfaction in the form of inner peace (joy, love, etc.). Let's just leave it at that for now, ok?

The science of meditation teaches us that there is an intimate connection between our mind and body through the medium of breath. Our breath (in its various and measurable attributes of inhalation and exhalation) reflects our state of mind. Our state of mind affects our breath. This relationship is the bedrock of meditation.

The mind, however, can be influenced by conscious and intentional body movements (think yoga, martial arts), by mental concentration (mantra, visualization and affirmation), and by inspiration (chanting, prayer, and devotional images). Each of these, relative to breath, are still somewhat "outside" ourselves. They are effective when employed intelligently, consistently, and as guided intuitively. But the ultimate tool and the source (both) is the mind which in its purest form transcends any specific mental image or physical form. The breath has more directly than any of these other techniques a psycho-physiological impact upon the mind.

I am not saying that breath techniques are BETTER than mantra or devotion, for example. Rather, I am saying that the breath, relatively uncolored and free from the image-making faculties of the mind (which, in the end are abandoned in the higher states of meditation), works directly upon the mind. In the Yoga Sutras by Patanjali, the core sutra states that oneness is achieved when the mind transcends creating and reacting to stimuli (mental or otherwise): Stanza 2: "Yogas chitta vritti nirodha."

That fact doesn't invalidate the wide range of meditation techniques. St. Teresa of Avila discovered from direct experience how to go from formulaic prayer to silent, inner prayer and finally beyond all mentation into ecstatic, breathless states of divine communion. She was known to levitate and even bi-locate.

Nonetheless, the discovery of the mind-breath-body connection IS the science of meditation. It is HOW the mind rediscovers the transcendent state of pure consciousness even while in a body. Thus it is that breath techniques (aka "pranayama") abound and are very often at least part of the most effective and popular meditation techniques that are taught and practiced today.

I practice the popular Kriya Yoga technique as taught by Paramhansa Yogananda and his lineage (Babaji, Lahiri Mahasaya, and Swami Sri Yukteswar). It has been made known principally through his famous story, "Autobiography of a Yogi." Chapter 26 of that book ("Kriya Yoga") can be read for free online: http://www.ananda.org/free-inspiration/books/autobiography-of-a-yogi/.

While most of the popularly used pranayams focus on the breath, diaphragm, and lungs, Kriya Yoga focuses on the internal, subtle breath whose movements, yogis tell us, cause the physical breath. These currents of energy (known as "prana") revolve up and down in the subtle (or "astral") body which inhabits (creates, sustains, and, at death, leaves) the physical body. The intelligent vital Life Force of prana flows out to the physical body through doorways known as "chakras." Kriya Yoga organically and gradually teaches one how to control this life force so as to consciously coax it inward and away from its captivity in the organs and tissues of the physical body so its power and intelligence (which is divine) can reunite with its commander-in-chief, the Soul, residing in the higher(est) chakras in and around the head. This goal is the state of yoga: union with the Soul and then, eventually, with the Infinite Oversoul which is God.

Each conscious rotation of the prana in the astral body through the chakras is equivalent to living one full solar year in perfect harmony with the body, with the world and with the soul. Excluding the seventh chakra, the soul, the remaining six chakras becomes twelve by the polarity of the movement of prana up and down and through these chakras (producing, in turn, in each rotation, one breath cycle of inhalation and exhalation). These twelve constitute the true inner astrological constellations under which our karma (past actions) reside and which must be untied and released so their energy may seek soul-union above in the seventh chakra.

In this manner, Yogananda taught that the practice of Kriya Yoga is the "airplane route" to God because it accelerates our spiritual evolution by resolving karmic patterns without having to wait many lifetimes to work out each and every desire and make good each and every debt.

Kriya Yoga is not only a technique: it is a spiritual path. It therefore uses devotion, chanting, affirmation, mantra and good works, right attitude....in short all the tools of the spiritual "trade" that one sees universally employed. By adding this direct perception and control of our inner, soul anatomy, we have a meditation technique suited to our cultural inclination toward science (and away from sectarianism).

I will not conclude by saying "Kriya Yoga is the BEST technique" but it is a great gift to the world for those who feel drawn to it and inspired by its preceptors and precepts.

Blessings to you,

Nayaswami Hriman


Monday, August 25, 2014

Meditation: Is Effort & Technique Enough?

One of the great themes of spirituality is "self-effort vs. grace." This can be stated another way: "Who is the Doer?" Christians might quote St. Paul in support of "By grace alone are you saved." Yet Jesus himself said not everyone who says "Lord, Lord" will enter the kingdom of heaven but those who do the will of God.

In one sense, it is obvious that we must strive to grow spirituality by our own will! It's as true in spirituality as it is true in business. Human life would be unbearable if we did not believe innately in "truth and consequences," in cause-and-effect. Imagine if we really believed that nothing we could ever do would improve our circumstances, our health, our happiness? Life would not be worth living.

So, of course self-effort and will power is needed. It is axiomatic in the practice of yoga (and meditation---which is true yoga) that by the knowledge and use of the science of meditation one can advance spiritually. The "bible" of yoga is the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. These have little, if anything, to do with yoga postures and everything to do with meditation and the unfoldment of human consciousness toward divine consciousness and union with God, the Infinite Power. Paramhansa Yogananda, renowned for his life story, "Autobiography of a Yogi," and bearer of the now famous technique of Kriya Yoga to the world, would claim that he could essentially transform anyone, no matter how unspiritual, if he or she would faithfully and correctly and regularly practice kriya yoga. Swami Kebalananda, an advanced disciple of Lahiri Mahasaya, claimed that “I myself consider Kriya the most effective device of salvation through self-effort ever to be evolved in man’s search for the Infinite.”

I have practiced Kriya Yoga since 1978 - 36 years: twice daily. I know how the transforming and illuminating impact of this advanced technique. Yet........

Yet........."from whence cometh the Lord!" Deep spiritual experiences come, as Jesus put it, "like a thief in the night." One cannot force from "superconsciousness" its blessings in the form of deep peace and greater states of consciousness, no matter how "hard" one meditates. One can no more achieve higher states of consciousness through will power than can one "try" to go to sleep. Swami Kriyananda describes meditation in his excellent book, "Awaken to Superconsciousness," as "the upward relaxation into superconsciousness." In meditation, we offer our energy, our will, our act of devotional self-effort into the flow of grace from "above."

Kriya Yoga is given as a form of initiation into discipleship. The opening sentence of Yogananda's autobiography says: "The characteristic features of Indian culture have long been a search for ultimate verities and the concomitant disciple-guru relationship." We cannot escape the reality that God has manifested this cosmos by the power of his illusion (known as "maya"). We are not the ultimate Doer or force behind our own life.

Thus our effort may be every ounce of will but the final result of liberation is largely the flow of grace. It is not whimsical: our effort is the trigger, but neither can it be commanded by our will, for we cannot see or know either the obstacles or the channels through which in time or in space that grace will flow. Yogananda gave this formula for our salvation: 25% our effort; 25% the guru's effort on our behalf; and 50% God's grace!

So I add my testimony to that of wiser ones when I acknowledge that the peace and inspiration of meditation flows "where the wind willeth" and not under my control. As one practices kriya yoga or any form of valid spiritual seeking, one learns, bit by bit, that the true Doer is the Divine Will and when we place our will at the feet of the Infinite Power, the little self is transformed by the Great Self of All.

In your meditation, then, offer yourself at the feet of Infinity and ask that God, in the form of a true teacher, come into human form with right teachings, right technique and as the right teacher (for you), to guide you to the Infinite shores of Self-realization.

Joy to you,

Hriman