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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.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Fall 2014 Equinox : A Message of Faith

This evening, Saturday, September 20, 2014, I will share some words on the theme of the Fall Equinox. I write these notes as part of my preparation. My theme is faith.

I have long been struck by the subtle but tangible feeling of upliftment and general energy that surrounds the four points of the solar year which are the two equinoxes and two solstices. I had never noticed them before until 2001 when my wife Padma, inspired by the description in "Autobiography of a Yogi" (by Paramhansa Yogananda) of how his guru, Swami Sri Yukteswar, celebrated the equinox and solstices, proposed we start the tradition of holding these celebrations here as well (at Ananda in the greater Seattle, WA area).

At that first celebration, September 22, 2001, which took place at the Ananda Community in Lynnwood (a place very much off the beaten path and towards which many first-time visitors seem to get lost enroute), we were standing outside the meditation hall minutes before the celebration service was to begin and no one had arrived! So, a little deflated, we went inside to wait. By 6:10 p.m., the room was full! Ever since then we have found that these celebrations attract many people, often for the first time, or whom we never see throughout the year, otherwise.

In case you are unaware of it, these four points of the solar year represent the passing hours when the sun and earth hover in very specific relationships. Speaking of the northern hemisphere, the two solstices are the points when the sun is "highest" (June 21, summer) in the sky and the hours of daylight are at their height and the point (December 21, winter) when the sun is at its lowest point and daylight hours are the fewest. The Spring (March 21) and Fall (September 21) equinoxes are when the hours of day and night are equal.

On an energetic level and in respect to human consciousness, the summer solstice represents the height of our vitality and creative energies. We are filled with both energy and en-joy-ment as we work in hopeful expectation of "profitable" and "productive" results (come Fall). The Fall equinox, we are filled with gratitude for the harvest as we also introspect upon the fruits of our labor as to how to improve our efforts in the period to come. In the Fall, we know that the winter is coming and we must gather, store, and protect our harvest to sustain us through the dark months ahead. We draw upon our faith that by our efforts and by divine grace, we will be sustained as we endure challenges and difficulties.

The Winter solstice celebrates the fact that soon the sun will now begin its journey of return. In the darkness is born new life, in the darkness of the womb where the seed fertilizes the embryo, in the ground where seeds lie, seemingly infertile but awaiting the Spring, and in our hearts where, at the center of our trials and difficulties, there resides the light of truth and of love. It is in our hearts and in the midst of the darkness, that the Christ child of love and wisdom is reborn. In this universal love which is the essence of life, unseen and in the apparent darkness of non-material realities (consciousness, itself), we celebrate our fellowship, our families, and our kinship in God.

The Spring equinox is a celebration of hope in the most obvious way. The new buds of growth, the beautiful and fresh flowers, and the birth of new life offers to us the promise of redemption, rebirth, and hope for lasting happiness. Life is reborn for those who have planted seeds of hope, faith and goodness and who have nourished those seeds with the sunlight of wisdom and the water of love.

Each of these four celebrations affirms our kinship as children of God. Whether recumbent or active, whether hopeful or retiring, sensitive souls rejoice in the fellowship of all life which has sprung from the unseen but intuited divine presence which resides in all.

I intend to share a little of a remarkable life, that of Louis Zamperini. The book and soon-to-be released movie of the same name, "Unbroken," chronicles a life of great struggle which, endured with faith, hope and vitality, proved victorious. Louis, born in 1917, and against great odds, became an Olympic runner and met Adolph Hitler in 1936 at the Berlin Olympics. In World War II, his bomber crashed in the Pacific and he endured 47 days at sea, harassed constantly by sharks and strafed by Japanese warplanes, floating without food or water. Picked up near the Marshall Islands by the Japanese, he endured torture, beatings, starvation and indignities beyond imagination until the conclusion of that war. Hailed a hero upon his return to California, the toll of indignity and torture held him captive until, hearing Billy Graham one day in Los Angeles, the dark night of his prayers in captivity blossomed into flowers of forgiveness.

In October, 1950, he went to Japan to meet, once again, his (now imprisoned) tormentors and to offer forgiveness. He spent the rest of his life in service to others. In 1981, he carried the Olympic torch in Japan (quite near his former POW camp). He died last July 2, 2014. A movie, directed by Angelina Jolie, will be released this December.

Our lives are lives of privilege, compared to what Louie endured and that of many millions throughout world today. Our privilege grants us the opportunity to transcend comfort and to seek the "truth that shall make you free." I've often wondered how and why some people, "," Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita, "out of a thousand," turn within, look up and seek God in truth and in right action. I think it is because the seed of faith has been planted in our hearts, nourished in our bosom, often silently, most likely in past lives, and then begins to sprout when conditions are right.

Jesus told the story that "in a field two are working, one is taken and the other left behind." By this he means, that among people, otherwise identical outwardly in appearance or activity, perhaps one will find his faith awakened and will "leave" the field (meaning leave his mundane existence, if not in actuality, then in spirit). We never know the time or the place when God, "like a thief in the night," will call us from within.

Fall is an excellent time to go on retreat; to take personal and private seclusion: even, if, just for day when no one else is around. Take the time to reflect upon the harvest of your life, the seeds you have planted in this life: what blossoms and fruits will they bear? Is this fruit what you seek? Pray for the inspiration to be guided and the strength to be lead by faith from within.

Perhaps I see you this evening!



Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Why Celebrate the Fall Equinox?

Every year on or around the Fall Equinox (September 21, more or less) are celebrations or activities related to the "fall of the leaves" and the moment when the waning hours of summer sunlight equal the increasing hours of darkness. This time of year (ok, for the northern hemisphere) the daytime summer high temperatures have subsided; the nights are cooling down, the leaves (of deciduous trees) begin to turn browns, yellows, reds and golds; crops come into their final stages of harvest (grapes, apples, and the like) and even the sunlight has a sparkle, a twinkle, a reflective glow as the sun lowers in the sky on its journey to the south.

In former times the need to harvest and store in preparation for the cold winds, snows and earth's coming sterility would certainly weigh upon the minds of the citizenry. But in all times, sensitive souls are reminded that "life is short and uncertain." You never know when the winter time of lack, of ill health, of death or Fate's disfavor will be-fall you.

It is time not only to harvest but to assess, account for, weigh, sell, trade, or share the harvest. As Krishna says in the first stanza or so of the Bhagavad Gita, "How did we this day upon the field....of battle..." Reflective souls are invited to assess the fruits of our labors, our actions, our good, or not so good, karma and ask how we might improve. A farmer, too, takes note of how his decisions of what to plant, where to plant, to irrigate, fertilize and when to harvest did on the field of his labor. If our "harvest" (whether material fruits or spiritual fruits) is bountiful, we give thanks to the great Provider of Life, to "Providence."

We gather, therefore, on this occasion to celebrate the harvest of the "summer" of our self-efforts to live by truth, by compassion, creativity, service, and devotion. We give thanks for the gift of life, health, vitality, love and friendship.

For thousands of years humanity has been drawn to the pairs of equinoctial and solstice points of each solar year: where light and dark are equal (March and September), and, where light reigns (summer) and dark prevails (winter). Objectively one can only say these are simply astronomical facts. Subjectively (in terms of human response), some would say that our notice of these events are related to humanity's dependence upon agriculture. But spiritually, we say that these four points, while natural moments of pause in the astronomical relationships of earth to sun, give our souls' pause for reflection. Autumn being literally a reflective time, while Winter solstice we celebrate the sun's intention to return (north) (and the light that shines within us eternally), Spring, the joy and promise of rebirth, and Summer, the vitality and abundance of life itself.

Many feel, though fewer express, in outer, communal celebration the change of seasons and their significance. When we gather, this Saturday, September 20, at the Ananda Meditation Temple in Bothell, we do so with millions around the globe. This momentary still-point in nature brings to us an expanded sympathy and greater, sensitive awareness of our life and our connections with all life.

Pause, then, at this time to reflect upon the summer of your life's energies, activities, and commitments. Are they yielding to you the fruits of inner peace, wisdom, calmness, vitality and true happiness? Prepare yourself for the winter of self-discipline. Renew your commitment to self-improvement (going back to "school"). Withdrawing from the exuberance of summer's intensity and play, settle into even-mindedness and calm cheerfulness for whatever life may bring you in contrast to summer's fun and creative engagement. Attempt to transcend your bundle of self-definitions: you are not a man or woman, young or old, vital or unwell, successful or sluggish. Time to ask, "Who am I?" If my "luck" turns south, will I be the same?

Be, then, grateful, too: whether sun has shined upon you or rain has drenched your hopes with sorrows. Life is a great Teacher and it is time to ask: "What have I learned?" "How can I find true happiness (which lives within you)?"

Life is short and happiness comes by the victorious affirmation of the truth that you are not merely an ego bottled up in a human form. Life is God. Life is Joy. Life simply IS. Be the Light of Joy that shines within your Life! Revel in the light of the Fall colors as rainbows of the many facets and stages of life through which we travel but from which we live untouched by the fleeting play of shadow and light. Don't "Fall" for the illusion of their permanence.

Take a retreat, a day of silence, of prayer and meditation. Before the snow comes, hike to the top of any mountain and see the panorama of many lives from the One Life above.

Reflecting your Self,

Swami Hrimananda

Thursday, September 11, 2014

"Bad Karma" - Another Word for "Sin"? What is "Karma?"

In the Book of Job (in the Old Testament of Jewish and Christian faiths), Satan comes to God and wants to make a bet! (Yes, really!) Satan says, "God, I see your faithful servant Job down there on earth. But I bet you that if you let me take away his wealth, his health, his reputation, and his loved ones, Job will lose faith in You. You wanna bet? Hmm, hmmm, hmmmm?"

So, as you can imagine, God couldn't turn down this one from the old buster, the devil his-self! So He, the Almighty, says, "Satan, you're ON!" So, sure enough, poor old Job, innocent as a lamb, loses his health, his wealth, and his loved ones. Then his so-called friends come to him and say: "Job, old boy, what great sins did YOU commit to deserve this obvious displeasure of Jehovah?"

Poor old Job protests his innocence. Despite all his suffering he holds on to his faith in God's wisdom and goodness. God, in the end, therefore wins the bet with Satan. Whew!

All of Chapter 9 of the gospel of St. John describes a curious incident in which Jesus comes upon a man "blind since birth." Jesus is asked by his usual taunters, "Who sinned, this man, or his parents?" Now, mind you, the poor fellow was blind SINCE BIRTH. So if it was he, he must have sinner in a past life! While Jesus here has a perfect opportunity to endorse reincarnation, Jesus ducks the issue and says, "Neither has sinned!" Jesus explains that this man was born blind for the glory of God! What!!!! You kidding? Lucky guy, eh? Jesus then heals the man of his blindness. The story that follows is very touching and poignant but not needed for this article.

So what do we have here? Let's pause for "station identification."

Old Age'ers (fundamentalists) might tend to think that misfortune heaped upon a good Christian is a sign of God's disfavor. Some Christians, to turn this around, think that material success, health, wealth, position, and a loving family are a sign of one's virtue and one's finding favor in the good Lord's eyes. New Age'ers might tend to view a fellow meta-physician's troubles as a sure sign of some past bad karma. Neither view is necessarily correct.

The law of karma, it is said, is exacting. Paramhansa Yogananda (author of the famous "Autobiography of a Yogi") said the metaphysical law of karma finds expression in Newton's third law of motion: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. In Vedanta and metaphysics, this is the law of duality as well as part of the law of karma. St. Paul wrote, famously, of the law of karma saying "Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap." (Galatians 6:7).

So look at what we have: by the law of karma one would naturally think that Job and the man born blind since birth must have done something to have earned their suffering. But by Jesus' explanation and by the story of Job, there appears to be a third option: a divine source. I call this the "Third Rail."

Think of karma as a pendulum: good and bad karma. (Never mind, for now, which is which. For the moment just think that "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder." Or, to quote from Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita, "What is day to the yogi is night to the worldly man; what is night to the yogi, is day to the worldly man.") In the centerpoint of the pendulum lies, however momentarily, a rest point: a point from which the pendulum begins, and ends, its motion. This point we call God.

According to the dogma of man's free will, we understand that God has given us the power to choose good or evil. ("To eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.") This is like pushing the pendulum for the first time. It begins with the appearance of material and ego-active desires, likes, and dislikes. In this we abandon the God's eye view of Oneness: seeing God in all and, as a result, seeing "through" the illusion that the senses, matter, and ego have any intrinsic reality and attraction (or repulsion). 

Once the pendulum swings into motion, the interplay of good and bad karma, action and reaction, will keep the pendulum moving essentially forever until, suspicious and wary, worn and torn, we decide not "to play" the "Great Game" of ego.

When the prodigal son of Jesus' story in the new testament decided to return to his father's home, he had a long way to go on his journey. But his decision to return is the starting point. It says (and not just once) in Revelations (3:12), "Him that overcometh will I make a pillar in the temple of my God, and he shall go no more out." This "pillar" is like the shaft and center point of our pendulum.

It is then by our choice that we begin to slow the pendulum and with sustained effort and divine grace that pendulum will come to rest in God, in our own center. God will not step into our lives as He has in Job's or that of the man born blind since birth until we invite Him into our lives.

This "third rail" of divine neutrality is God's invisible hand giving to the devotee what seems like troubles and suffering but which, if the soul will "overcome" the test with faith in God, with wisdom and equanimity, it will be the means by which the soul will not have to "go no more out" in repeated reincarnations to continue to work out its karma (whether good or bad). 

The threads of past action (karma) are subtle. The question of karma vs. grace may be somewhat a false dichotomy. Think about Job, or that blind man. Nothing in their respective stories suggests that they are souls already freed from karma ("saints," you might say). That means that they certainly have karma to overcome. Thus the fact that they each encounter troubles can logically, at least, be attributed to such karma. 

Where God's grace (the "Third Rail") enters is the timing and nature of those troubles: testing their faith and equanimity at time and in a proportion they can digest. By passing their tests with the flying colors of faith and equanimity, they have become free of some of their past karma. You see: BOTH-AND. Both-And is the nature of Infinity (while EITHER-OR is the product of the play of duality and the limited view of the intellect using logic and reason). Nonetheless, there is an element of divine intervention. It is the "good" karma of reaching upward to God: we make one step in His direction and He takes two in ours. "Faith is the most practical thing of all." I once heard my teacher, Swami Kriyananda say that when I was still quite new and it puzzled me to no end. I think, now, I understand it much better.

The worldly person will usually attribute blame to God, or to life, or to others for his troubles. He is miserable or angry when trials come and seeks however he can to get away from trouble and find pleasure and happiness. So, for this soul, the pendulum continues on and on and on until it seems like an eternity of hell.

When troubles come to you, as in every life they must, "what comes of itself, let it come" and stand tall "amidst the crash of breaking worlds" with faith, hope, and charity (even-mindedness). When success, pleasure and human happiness arrive on our doorstep, accept them gratefully but also with equanimity, for all "things must pass." This is the way we must face our tests and our successes if we are to neutralize our karma. In this way we convert what might seem to be our "bad" karma into the "good" karma of soul wisdom and eventually freedom in God. 

Krysta Gibson, editor and publisher of the New Spirit Journal, wrote an article (that inspired this one) and I thought you might enjoy reading it too:

Meditate on a great pillar, a shaft of light, as the symbol of the inner spine. This is, in part, the meaning of the Hindu "lingam" (a stone pillar....too often, but incorrectly, likened to a phallic symbol). This "pillar" is our own center, our subtle spine, to which if we withdraw mentally and with good posture gives us psychic protection, spiritual fortitude and insights.

Om namoh Shivaya!

Swami Hrimananda