I took part in an international Full Moon Meditation on New Years Eve. The following letter was an email I sent to my former yoga instructor, Jean. I wanted to share these thoughts with my BeliefNet friends.
Tuesday, January 5, 2010, 3:32 AM [General]
I took part in an international Full Moon Meditation on New Years Eve. The following letter was an email I sent to my former yoga instructor, Jean. I wanted to share these thoughts with my BeliefNet friends.
Tuesday, October 13, 2009, 4:19 AM [General]
I was in this discussion group about spiritual books, led by Rose, a yoga teacher, whom I believe was once a student of the famous and venerable Swami Rama. Most of the eight or so people attending (in an actual room, not on-line) are yoga teachers or students. Rose does a guided meditation for the first fifteen minutes or so before we start talking about topics in the book we're on. This group meets every other Monday evening. This was my second time attending. The book was Light on the Path/Through the Gates of Gold, written (down) by Mabel Collins, around 1885. The Victorian prose was pretty dense, and in some places hard to grasp. I resisted its meager charms at first, but have found many nuggets of very clearly-stated truths within its pages.
Once again, I thoroughly enjoyed the guided meditation. The discussion started out covering a chapter on the topic of Karma. We talked a little bit about how those of us who are "on the path," so to speak, become conscious of the karmic nature of our actions. We become aware that there are consequences to our actions that can come back on us. The further along in spiritual development we are, the quicker it may hit us ("instant karma"). But as we progess and learn, we gradually lose our focus on consequences (rewards or punishments) to ourselves, and begin to act out of kindness or compassion toward others in a natural way, and without attachment to the fruits of our actions. I called it the consciousness of virtue, behaving in a virtuous way, not because we are afraid not to, but because we have learned to see what is needed for a good outcome, not for ourselves, but for the life-forms around us, whether people, animals, plants, or the Earth itself.
The next section was about the Pursuit of Pleasure, how it is in our nature to seek sensation. The book was saying that if not for pleasure-seeking or the need for sensation, we might not even bother to breathe. It's fairly standard stuff to say that the pursuit of pleasure motivates us, and that pleasure and pain are two sides of the same coin; as much pleasure as we seek and experience, we will receive an equal measure of pain or suffering. As we try to repeat or duplicate some pleasure, we don't enjoy it as much as we did the first time, and we become disappointed. It may drive us to pursue other, more exotic or extreme forms of pleasure.
On the other hand, as a spiritual aspirant, a yogi must learn to relinquish pleasure-seeking behaviors, to become detached, to attain a desireless state. That's a difficult lesson for most of us, and a hard road. It is not an all-or-nothing, once-and-for-all type of endeavor. It cannot be accomplished in some final way, by a decision or an act of sheer will. Fighting with ourselves about our desires, trying to suppress our wants and needs, doesn't really work. The swamis teach that we simply have to understand that our myriad desires are illusions, holding our attention in the illusory world. Desires we cannot obtain give us unhappiness and frustration; desires we do obtain will ultimately disappoint us, and have karmic after-effects, as well.
I talked a little bit about how I have been dealing with some things I wanted in my life that I had to let go of. It's been challenging and painful. Did I need those things to be there to sustain my life? No. Did I have to have them (love, money, recognition) in order to be happy? I used to think so. But what is happiness of that kind based on? I've been going through a process of surrendering those desires, and part of that is to swallow the bitter fruit of my disappointment with myself and my life. I bought that bitter fruit with desire and ego-needs. So I cry my bucket of self-pity tears for what I couldn't have and never acquired or accomplished. Then I saw that my self-pity was an old, unwanted, family heirloom; it was fifty-year-old pain I didn't want any more.
Letting go of deeply-felt desires and emotional needs is a long-term project. Some days will be better than others; some days, the desires and needs will gnaw at my guts, and some days, I will feel free of them. It is not a wholesale change, now-and-forever. But it is a shift in consciousness. Every day, I have the chance to find myself liberated by the only mechanism that works: meditation-awareness, my self-sustaining ajapa-japa, the breath mantra, and the awareness of pranayama in my body. It's so abundantly clear, it's so easily available to me. And it is that mindfulness, staying in the living moment, in my heart chakra, riding the waves of breath, that carries me, that can give me peace, that can make me feel loved, that brings me into a deep serenity where I can feel supremely satisfied.
In the group, there was some discussion about how it's a struggle to maintain focus during meditation, that everyone finds it hard. And spoiler that I often seem to be, I said that I didn't find meditation difficult at all. It only takes me a few breaths and I can get really deep, because I have a very effective technique (the Soaham Sadhana), and because I love the way it feels. That serenity has a sweetness to it that is so pleasurable to me.
The question was, is finding more and more pleasure in meditation a good thing? Didn't the swamis say to trade the thousand desires for the one? I've experienced so many great pleasures in my life, had what can be called "peak experiences," both sensual and spiritual. I've also suffered greatly at times, terrible pain, terrible fear, terrible regret and disappointment and loss. I know that my soul had to have those experiences, and that I was changed by them, guided by them, instructed by them. At this stage in my life, I can seriously say I've had enough of them. It's so liberating to stop asking the world for the satisfaction I now understand it can never really give me.
Is desiring the elixir of serenity, the joy and the feeling of love that arises in meditation, somehow counter-productive to the commandments of asceticism? Honestly, I never took the vow to become an ascetic. I am not a sadhu, nor a nihilist. All that self-denial is unnecessary, in my view. I'm doing what I want to do. I gain satisfaction from that which gives me pleasure. More and more, it is the Yoga-Consciousness, the flow of Prana, the sat-chit-ananda, that I seek to be immersed in. And it makes me happy, when nothing else does.
There is a dynamic of being engaged with the world. As we interact with people, situations and events, the mind deals with the discrepancy between our perceptions of how things are versus how they should be. That creates "work." The food is not cooked, but we need to eat, so we cook the food. The food was good, but now the dishes are dirty, and we have to wash them and put them away. I have to go here, I have to go there, I have to do this and that and the other thing. Why? Because there is a discrepancy between the way things are and the way they should be.
For those aspiring yogis or meditators who struggle, who talk about how hard it is to maintain focus, I want to ask, why do you bring the consciousness of discrepancy with you into meditation? The point of meditating (or one of them, at least) is to go into that room inside oneself and leave the outside world outside. You are not engaging people, events or situations with discrepancies that require your action to resolve them. You are meditating to find your center, to become one with the One. All you have to do is do nothing! When your mind wanders, let it wander off. You don't have to follow it! Your breathing and your mantra, stillness and silence are all present with you, they are where you are. There are spaces between thoughts when you can hear silence. You can keep dipping your awareness into them by the power of breath, and the whisper of mantra.
Self-realization/spiritual-realization/God-realization are not attained by struggle, by fighting a battle with yourself or anyone else. You are an aspirant, or a yogi, or an enlightened one, because the Universe desired it for you, and you desired it for yourself. It is the same desire, by the same being, the ultimate, true Self. That is not the kind of desire we know of in the world. It has no karma, it has no bitter fruit or consequence of suffering.
I don't mean to belittle anyone who struggles with meditation, when the mind wants to pull you out of meditation so it can go resolve some discrepancies in your engagement with the world. (How can I sit here doing nothing but breathing, trying to stop thinking, when there are so many issues, so much work to be done, so many problems? So much to think about!) It takes time and patience and perseverance and lots of practice, but with a good teacher, and the use of a good method, over time, meditation becomes smoother, easier, and quieter. Soon you learn to enjoy it; then you find that you crave it. It refreshes more than sleep, yet it awakens you in ways not yet imaginable.
PEACE and BLESSINGS,
Tuesday, September 15, 2009, 1:39 AM [General]
In discussing acts of generosity to the less fortunate, charitable giving, helping the homeless or giving a quarter to a panhandler, it has been said that we do not do it without thought of personal reward, because it makes us feel good to do it, ergo, that's why we do it. In philosophical repartee, the question of altruism is often colored by the stigma of hidden personal motive: are any acts truly altruistic? The implication is that there is always some reward, some self-interest, behind acts generally perceived as selfless.
In the context of behaviors congruent with religious or spiritual dicta, those of us who feel personally charged with living up to ideals may indeed be doing so under the influence of the notion of spiritual advancement. At some point, skeptical minds may accuse us of false piety, simply on the basis of that supposition: there is always a personal motive, some reward we seek to obtain, hence, we are hypocrites, pretending to act selflessly, well aware that we have hidden motives, some thought of what we gain.
If altruism is impossible, then we all fail equally to live up to a misperceived ideal, in that the ideal itself is flawed, by nature. If, on the other hand, it is not impossible, then we can assume that some good-hearted folk manage to act selflessly, without the hidden personal gain, and good for them. Mother Teresa, for example, served others, gave care where it was needed. To question whether her motive was that it made her feel good, and implying that there's something wrong with that, is beside the point, and rude.
Does the panhandler care why the quarter was tossed in the cup, or whether the giver's motives were pure? Of course not. And so what if it makes us feel good? What's so bad about feeling good? Who's to say that doing good in the world must be untainted by any scintilla of reward-motivated purpose? Doing good is still good, regardless.
My point is that to be personally motivated to act with compassion and generosity to our fellow human beings (or animals, or the planet at large, for that matter) does not detract from the goodness of the act. Business companies raise millions for the United Way, at least partly because of the P/R value. Charities that benefit from it do not object.
So in the case of religiously-motivated, selfless service and generosity, does it matter whether the doer benefits? If I believe that attaining the next level of spiritual realization requires me to give to the poor, show compassion, act more selflessly than I had before, does the spiritual "reward" I seek counteract or contaminate the goodness of the work? Does it turn my hope that my actions might be useful to God and humanity, more than to myself, into a cynical charade? Those who might accuse by that sort of rationale may be distrustful of the idea of selflessness because they deem themselves incapable of it, and refuse to imagine that others may be more attuned to a genuine, transformative Spirit.
We are all imperfect, and, to quote a friend, every idealist is a hypocrite. But we try to live up to a higher standard of good behavior and good works, motivated by the sense that it behooves us to counteract, within ourselves, the mean, the petty, the stingy sort of dealings with others that we know are all too easy, because of ego-attachments. If we aspire to transcendence, to spiritual consonance, or simply to serve God by doing good, there are no valid cynical arguments that could disparage our intentions.
Yogi da (14 Sept. 2009)
Saturday, July 18, 2009, 9:49 PM [General]
In the beginning of my previous essay, I mentioned that there were two sources of inspiration on my mind. Besides Robert Wright on Bill Moyers' program, the other inspiration was, believe it or not, Rev. Billy Graham's "My Answer" syndicated column in my hometown newspaper. It didn't inspire me because I agree with him, but because he articulated the exact doctrine that I fundamentally refute. He wrote:
"The Bible isn't just the words of men--it's the Word of God, because God directed its writing...When you read the Bible, therefore, you are reading God's message to us."
I've read enough of its history to know how the Bible was compiled, edited, had sections removed and other sections added, and was translated from one language to another over centuries, leaving me with no faith at all that God had a hand in its composition. Such a belief is based on a superstition: whatever the result of something is, it must have been God's will--particularly in regard to winning and losing sides in battles over who is to be king or rule an empire. The winner must have been God's choice. With all the rancorous disagreements and the machinations of competing factions, with all the re-writes and deletions and insertions and mistranslations, still, at the end of a centuries-long process, are we left with an extant text that was exactly the way God wanted it to be?
It's a ridiculous idea. In everything I've learned about God over the last fifty years, there has never been a single indication that this "God's Word" myth regarding that over-touted book might possibly be true. It has always been the decision of flawed human beings to include or exclude various written texts in collections to be regarded as "scriptures," and that inherent fallacy applies to every scripture-based religion in the world. Certainly there are wise and inspirational things written in all of them, but the idea that anything that ended up in a particular text speaks directly and absolutely for God is a huge mistake. It substitutes reading, reciting, and theologizing for the experiential essence of the living Spirit, which is made more mythical than real because of it.
At best, believers accept on faith, then find ways to sense God's presence and plan in their lives through religious practice or observance. But that sensitivity is tenuous and easily lost, because it's a relationship with (supposed) sacred writings, with theological concepts, with the rituals and trappings of the religion itself. Participation in a service can evoke a strong emotional response often mistaken for a spiritual experience. But is that really a relationship with God?
In something I read recently, I found I was not the only one with an opinion that religion can actually be a way to hide from God, using scripture, beliefs, rituals and rules to create a structure in which participants can pretend to be engaging God in an obedient way, when it's really a neurotic effort to stave off deep-seated fear. It's a continuation of the superstitions of prehistoric peoples who tried various rituals and sacrifices to appease and calm the gods of thunder, lightning, the wind and rain. If it appeared to work (by coincidence), it was retained in the culture and evolved into a religious rite.
It's easier to engage an institutional fantasy of God through the imagination than it is to confront the mystery and the power of the real God, whose Spirit lives within us. To know God where He can really be found requires a different approach. It is an individual, personal quest to become spiritually conscious. It requires the suspension of both belief and disbelief, a quieting of the mind, turning the senses inward, and releasing our grip on the web of illusions we think of as reality in this world. Finding "The God Experience" in deep meditation is glorious and real far beyond the imaginings of religious thought, and shows us for ourselves that which atheists deny and religions only talk about.
At risk of repeating myself (as I often do, sorry), I can understand the indignation of scriptural believers who may be outraged by my refutation of their beliefs. It is inevitable that we humans will find ways to disagree with the beliefs of others; that's why there are so many different religions, and different denominations or sects within them. My purpose is not to disparage or ridicule, but to advance the cause of truth. I am merely one small voice of dissent saying, "That book is not all it's cracked up to be," against a stupendous torrent of Bibliolatrous preaching in America every day of the year. How often do Christian Bible-believers or Muslim fundamentalists rage at others for not believing in their book as they do? Those who proselytize their absolutism in a way that is contemptuous of the beliefs of others have no fair basis for complaint if their message meets resistance and rebuttal. If they feel insulted by that, then, oh, the irony.
The world must be deemed big enough for all of us, regardless of our beliefs or lack thereof. Differing ideas can be discussed and debated without stooping to name-calling, bigotry and hatred. If we can get along despite our religious differences, we will be closer to the "moral axis of the Universe," and fulfilling God's will regarding "Peace on Earth, good will toward men."
Saturday, July 18, 2009, 9:37 PM [General]
I have received inspiration from two disparate sources for my next "sermon" -which, though I am loathe to admit it, is probably an accurate term for what my writings are. I find myself in a slippery area, waffling between "sermon" and "discourse," as between "religious" and "spiritual." It's the nature of such distinctions that they are notoriously difficult to pin down, as we owe much of what passes for definitions of such things to history and culture, and yes, religions--yours, mine, and others'.
Thanks to author Robert Wright, some new synapses have begun to form in my brain after seeing him on Bill Moyers Journal on PBS, discussing his new book, The Evolution of God. He has gone to a good deal of trouble to research and analyze how the three "Abrahamic" religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) have competed and interacted with each other over the centuries, from hostility to mutual tolerance under varying conditions. His larger thesis is on the evolution of God, i.e., how the idea of God is a "construct" that has evolved over time in a multi-religious milieu.
This is a kind of social theology, very intellectual and well-reasoned, where any absolute statements about the nature of the divine hold no currency. Human societies on this planet have evolved within this setting, and conceptions about who/what God is and what He represents morally have also evolved. Wright spoke about "alignment with the moral axis of the Universe" as a measure of how successfully these religions become mutually tolerant while at the same time approaching a higher understanding of "the divine" or "the transcendent," even as he admits difficulty with the meaning of those terms.
Bill Moyers asked Wright a lot of very thoughtful questions, and I found Wright's answers remarkably cogent and eloquent. I've had the impression from past programs that Moyers is a man of faith in some fairly traditional, Southern Protestant way, but as his landmark programs with the late Joseph Campbell about the power of myths had shown, he is intellectually honest and open-minded. Robert Wright is a serious, "big-picture" thinker who is cautiously optimistic about humanity moving in the right direction, with religions having some chance of overcoming their destructive attributes and making the world better off with them than without them.
Since I am new to his ideas and have not read his book, I can't say whether I agree or disagree with his conclusions, but I always quibble with the kind of agnosticism he and even Moyers display, which assumes that ultimately, no definitive statements about the nature of God will ever be possible. He is whatever we think He is; even if there is some divine and/or transcendent essence or supernatural power that creates us and may also hold us accountable in terms of that "moral axis," we can only speculate, or "believe."
Though Wright objects to the kind of adamant, hard-core anti-religious ideology held by scientific atheists such as Richard Dawkins, both men have that one thing in common: neither believes that anyone can know for sure whether or not God actually exists, and both believe that whatever God's attributes are deemed to be, they are constructs of human imagination.
My contention is always this: knowing God by direct perception within one's own consciousness is actually possible, and there are many people, meditators in particular, who experience this. It is ultimately subjective, of course, but we mystics know what orthodox religious groups, agnostics and atheists all claim cannot be known. It is unfortunate that the word, "mystical" has a connotation that invites incredulity. In my view, throughout religious history, only the mystics have ever gotten it right.
Which brings me back to this idea that while I have a lot of anti-religious opinions and sentiments, my mystic inclinations tend to place me in the "religious" column, after all. Whether I know something about God with more certainty than other religious thinkers, or I only think or believe I do, I still end up a kind of theologian. I advocate for God, and for a certain way of understanding the most proper and beneficial relationship between God and ourselves. I may be in the smallest religious minority on the planet, with a total membership of one, but the deeper I go into yoga and mysticism, the more devout I want to be. I am becoming more serious about living up to what it means to be a devotee of the divine "Self" that is described in the Upanishads (my current reading material).
I know from history, however, that religions can make mistakes. The one mistake that they all seem to make is the sanctification of ancient texts, calling them "holy scriptures" or even "The Word of God." Most of what I have learned about God and religion have come from sources other than "scriptures." There are a lot of good books, and I find that God sends me clues toward higher realizations by way of lots of different books, films, television programs, and conversations with other people. I don't hold any of those as sacred, but for me, they are more meaningful because they are part of a dynamic, living interaction between me, God, and the mysterious workings of the Universe as a function of God's intentions to educate and enlighten me.
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