Monday, November 23, 2015

Occupy Thanksgiving with Gratitude

In America, this is the week of Thanksgiving. Just when the world (of America and Europe) seems upended with violence, fear, hate, confusion, and conflicting views, we might be far from inclined to give thanks.
A recent message from Ananda’s worldwide spiritual directors, Jyotish and Devi Novak, contained the counsel to work consciously on responding to all challenges in life with the attitude that “Everything that happens to you is a blessing from the Divine meant for your spiritual evolution.”
This message struck a chord with members around the world and was well received. It was weeks later that the comfortable world of Paris erupted into chaos. To integrate their message into our response to these hate-filled actions is, well, not easy, to say the least. I don’t expect that most people who lost loved ones are ready to hear that particular message, but each of us would do well to practice this more in our daily lives in preparation for the larger “blessings” that surely will come into our own lives. Our challenges won’t make international news but they will be on the front page of your life, and mine, to be sure.
Let us “Occupy Thanksgiving” by coming together consciously to stand up to the divisiveness, hate, and prejudice that exists in all countries, and not just “other” countries!
Material benefits, health and security are blessings that humans celebrate and appreciate. This is natural, of course. But there is more to life than comfort, for life itself, even under difficult circumstances, is a blessing. Life has been given to us that we might have it, as Jesus put it, “more abundantly.” By this he means that we might know the joy of the universal Christ presence in ourselves, in others, and in the world around.
Padma and I watched a documentary on the lives of Richard and Sabina Wurmbrand of Romania. During the Communist era behind the “Iron Curtain,” they experienced imprisonment, hard labor, torture, starvation, and isolation for many years just for being a Christian, for conducting an open (but illegal) ministry (even preaching to occupying Russian soldiers), and for speaking out against the godlessness and heartlessness of communism.
The years of torture that Richard Wurmbrand endured is beyond what most of us can even imagine. Yet, there came a point where, with his fellow prisoners tapping their chains for rhythm while singing hymns in their crowded cell, he experienced intense divine light and bliss. In later years, as he travelled around the world sharing his message, he said nowhere had he found the joy and the beauty that he experienced in that cell. (Read more in their book, “Tortured for Christ.”)
Though such experiences of grace “under pressure” are rare, they do exist. Consider how Jesus, from the cross, forgave his self-appointed enemies. Our troubles by comparison are not so great, though to us they seem at times more than we can endure.
Let us therefore celebrate life, love, and friendship as evidence of God’s presence in the world and in our lives. Let us not celebrate Thanksgiving only to enjoy a tasty banquet. To eat only for pleasure and satiety is a mockery of the spirit of Thanksgiving. (I know the turkeys of the nation thank us vegetarians; we are happy to free them from their jailor’s sentence!)
Let us this Thanksgiving affirm life over death; light over darkness; love over hate; unity over divisiveness — by coming together in gratitude and friendship. Let us give thanks to the Giver of Life; let us express friendship and love to one another; and let us express the joy of the One who is in All.
Joy to you and peace to all,
Swami Hrimananda

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

A World at War : A Message of Hope

There is a psychic storm throughout America and Europe of fear, confusion, and chaos triggered by the killings in Paris. It's true that acts of terrorism take place throughout the world but it's also not surprising that the attacks in Paris hit "home" in a closer and more personal way for many.
Where are we headed and how should we respond? Though our teacher, Paramhansa Yogananda, left this world in 1952, he nonetheless predicted that a time was coming when "international criminals" would cause much suffering and chaos. What he knew and "saw" we cannot say but his prediction is eerily prescient. He predicted other catastrophic events and wars as well. All this, he said, would be necessary before the world would enter a prolonged period of peace.
He advised that allied nations who shared basic human values form a kind of international police force to aid oppressed people suffering under lawless regimes. Despite the obvious risks, it seems right, also, that countries who can afford to do so, take in eligible refugees from troubled parts of the world. Who can, any longer in this increasingly small world, pretend to hide from or attempt to ignore, the woes of the innocent?
Yogananda's guru, Swami Sri Yukteswar, was the first to proclaim, in 1894, that a new age (of increased material, mental and spiritual energy) was about to dawn. And, looking back, so it has. But as humanity's consciousness awakens to a new level of awareness, it is also burdened by old ways of thinking. Thus, in the early stages of this planetary awakening, entrenched interests and prejudices of all kinds (e.g., political, cultural, and religious) are energized rather than transformed.
Those, like ourselves, who affirm individual freedoms, the rule of law, and the acceptance of all people as children of God regardless of race, gender, religion or culture, are a minority, but a rapidly growing minority.
There is no question, then, of the outcome of the planetary conflict between a new paradigm of consciousness and the old forms, narrow and prejudiced. Nor are the new and old thought forms restricted to any nation, religion or group of people. We live side-by-side with one another, even if certain groups of people epitomize or specialize in one form or the other.
The new consciousness will prevail but it is obvious that humanity will continue to go through many trials, challenges and cataclysms. Though somewhat and appropriately silent, the spread of meditation and yoga throughout the world holds the greatest promise of fostering a new consciousness. Change from within is an individual transformation, not a legislative, military, political or cultural one. Sometimes changes in consciousness are reflected in political action, but lasting and peaceful change is inevitably personal and one-by-one.
Let each and every one of us reaffirm faith in ourselves, faith in the divine in one another, and faith in the power of like-minded and high-minded souls to affect planetary consciousness for the better. Great changes in history are always initiated by a small minority! Let us be, as Mahatma Gandhi counseled us, "the change we seek."
Though Yogananda predicted that "no corner of the planet would be safe," true security lies in the fortress of God's inner presence, whether in times of war or peace.
At home, at work, let us show respect for one another; let us learn to cooperate with "what is trying to happen" for the good of others as well as ourselves; to listen to the other person and the other side to see what truth or circumstantial realities he/they perceive; let us fulfill our personal duties with care, with excellence, and with creativity guided by the spiritual power of intuition and divine attunement. Let us also pray for those who suffer and render aid how and where we can.
May the light of universal Christ-Krishna peace fill the skies of our hearts and minds, guiding our hands to serve the divine in one another.

Nayaswamis Hriman and Padma

Sunday, November 15, 2015

The Story of the Prodigal Son : The Journey Home

Jesus' story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15) is among the most beloved of the New Testament. It is a promise of God's eternal love and forgiveness. In it there is no mention of hell or punishment. Instead it a story of atonement, forgiveness and redemption. This is the archetypal drama of human life. It is this that lifts this story above so many others. 

But let's review the basics of the story:

A father has two sons. His younger son requests early receipt of his inheritance. He takes it and leaves his father's home, traveling to "foreign" lands. There he squanders his inheritance in "riotous" living.

When the land where he now dwells is hit with famine and he is impoverished, the younger son takes a job on a farm feeding husks to swine.

One day it dawns on him that even his father's servants are better fed and treated than he. "Why not go back to my father and beg forgiveness. I will ask to be but a hired hand." Brightened, then, with hope and calmly confident, he sets out on his journey home. 

The father sees his younger son coming up the road from along a long way off and, rejoicing, runs out to meet and welcome him. The father orders that a feast and celebration be held: for his once lost son has been found. 

Later during the feast, the elder son (who remained home all this time) approaches the father to ask why, he, the loyal, elder son, has never been so honored. The father doesn't "skip a beat." He simply explains to his elder son the joy he feels at the return of the prodigal, younger son.

Commentary: The context for this beautiful story takes place when Jesus incurs the criticism of religious elders who disdainfully note that Jesus is spending time in the company of lower caste sinners. 

In response to their critique, Jesus tells this prodigal son story, plus two other similar stories. Jesus explains to his audience (and therefore to his critics) that his work (ministry) is to bring home the "lost sheep." So, what does this story mean to us, metaphorically: 

The father symbolizes God the Father. His sons are, of course, ourselves: God's children! As per the story, then, we begin our existence and our life in our father's home. God's home isn't merely the beautiful astral heaven we hear about, but the true heaven of God-consciousness: bliss eternal. 

This beginning echoes the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis. They, too, began existence in a state of perfect harmony with God. This true home isn't a paradisaical place on earth (between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers!) but the the paradise of purity and inner peace. According to the story, then, either our first existence or our present life began in the company (consciousness) of God. 

Since most of us dimly know that our present lives did not begin in God's bliss, we must conclude that in its echo of Genesis, the correct interpretation would be that this story refers to our first appearance on the stage of existence. Like Adam and Eve, the story implies that we, too, must have made the obvious poorer choice long ago. Present, and likely intervening incarnations, must therefore reflect the consequences of that (and many other) choice(s). 

Inasmuch as our story is a metaphor, we would interpret the "wealth" demanded by the younger son as a symbol for the legacy of God's bliss and wisdom that is or was ours as a child of God. 

Similarly, then, the "foreign" land is that state of consciousness that chooses the lures of matter over the bliss of our home in God. That it is "foreign" to us affirms our true nature as a child of God.

We dissipate the wealth of divine bliss by investing our life energy and creativity in material and sensory experiences and possessions. Only belatedly do we discover that inert things and fleeting sensory impulses can never return to us even a fraction of what we give to them (by way of expectations and our commitment of energy). In short, our poor choice of investment, like gambling, ultimately depletes our treasury of life vitality and joy. Like Yudisthira in the Mahabharata, we gamble the kingdom of soul bliss on a course of "dead reckoning" that leads into the rocks of disillusionment and suffering.

The famine experienced by the younger son comes after he has exhausted his wealth. Deprived even of the pitiful pleasures of material existence, he begins to feel the deeper hunger that occurs when our divine vitality is exhausted, for it can only be replenished by virtue and God-contact.

Having to feed swine (swine, in Biblical and Jewish terms, being unclean) represents the disgust and disillusionment that accompanies addictive sense habits even when they no longer bring us any satisfaction. This gives rise to despair for the fact that we have lost all sense of self-respect, groveling in the mud of delusion with soul-numbing repetition.

Sometimes we have to hit bottom before God's grace reaches out to us in a flash of soul-memory (smriti). Then we suddenly recollect (intuitively) our former life in our Father's home. There we were perfectly happy in the peace and joy of the soul, basking in the light of the Father's presence. It is then that we cognize the truth of the errors we have made. It is then that we seek atonement for the "light of truth has dawned."

That flash memory silently whispers to us that, "Yes, but I CAN return." The sudden flood of light brings energy and hope to our heart. Fired up by this intuitive expectation of redemption, we begin taking our first steps back to our home in God. We can only return by taking steps in the right direction of virtue, cleanliness, and commitment to righteousness.

But in fact and in truth, we don't have to wait until we hit "bottom." Alternatively, we each have our own version of what constitutes "bottom." Either way, the choice of return always remains ours. We can, at any time, make that choice and begin that journey.

In this beautiful story, Jesus assures us that God will welcome us as his very own, his beloved son, like Jesus himself.

The elder son who complains of the welcome received by his younger brother represents those people who only conform to the outer rules of religion but who lack the love and acceptance of God and inwardly judge others. I suspect this part of the story was a poke at Jesus' critics.

In this story there is no mention of eternal damnation. But the teaching of God's eternal love, forever ours is clear. 

How many people in their hearts carry the regrets and guilt of past error? How many people have lost a child, a parent, a friend, or partner and suffer the emptiness of grief and loss? How many adopted children wonder and yearn for the love of the unknown parent?

Whatever our loss or guilt, we yearn for completion; for redemption; to be made whole, or clean, once again. Whatever our loss there remains deep within us not just the mere hope but the conviction that we can be, must be, made whole.

The greatest story ever told is of the redemption of the soul in the embrace of God's love. No other only human redemption can suffice. Mostly such wholeness is impossible in merely human terms. For who can bring a loved one back to life, erase suffering that has been inflicted, or resurrect health which has been destroyed?

Even when life provides a "happy ending," it is, ultimately, all too brief, and all too often, even, an illusion all together.

In God alone can we find true love, forgiveness, acceptance, and the rejoicing of true joy.

The prodigal son is the greatest story ever told because it is the story of each and every one of us. Let us learn its lesson sooner rather than later.

Joy to you,

Swami Hrimananda