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Archive for August, 2010

Throughout Yogananda’s “Autobiography of a Yogi,” it is clear that the goal of yoga can be summed up in its very definition in Yogananda’s index, “‘union,’ science of uniting the individual soul with the Cosmic Spirit.” Yogananda lays out a convincing case that man’s essential condition is to be trapped in “samsara,” which is the state of being convinced through all of one’s sensory experience that the whole of reality is contained in the illusory or delusional dualistic temporal world, known as “maya.” The purpose of yoga, on the other hand, is to attain a state of transcendence over samsara by experiencing the at-first temporary bliss of union with God, known as “samadhi.” The simple phrase, “from samsara to samadhi” (my words,) could encapsulate the gist of Yogananda’s teaching, which is in turn is a modern, Western-oriented presentation of sacred Hindu scripture. It is no accident that Yogananda quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson, America’s great Transcendentalist, frequently throughout the book.

An untrained Westerner might assume that the transformation from samsara to samadhi would occur through mysticism alone; that science would have no part of it. Thus it comes as somewhat of a surprise that Yogananda insists on the scientific basis of yogic technique, which he calls “Kriya Yoga,” or the (scientific) technique for attaining union with God. Yogananda expresses the utmost respect for both Indian and Western scientists and their achievements throughout the book, devoting a chapter to “India’s Great Scientist, J.C. Bose,” and another to his American friend, Luther Burbank, to whom he dedicates the book, calling him “an American saint.” He believes fervently that scientific method will in time demonstrate the reality and effectiveness of Kriya yoga’s meditation techniques, even if Western science never actually proves the existence of God or describes fully the nature of His role in the universe.

In the last chapter of the “Autobiography,” Yogananda summarizes the limits of scientific investigation by reporting: “ ‘Leave a few mysteries to explore in Eternity,’ Sri Yukteswar (Yogananda’s own master) used to say with a smile. ‘How could man’s limited reasoning powers comprehend the inconceivable motives of the Uncreated Absolute?’” Nonetheless, this simple admonition is the only statement I found in the “Autobiography” describing the limits of science. Elsewhere, Yogananda goes to some pains to portray his admiration for science and reasoning, mentioning for example that later in his life he came to accept or at least admire the teachings of his university philosophy professor, who was much put out by the student Yogananda’s inattentiveness in class. In Chapter 26, “The Science of Kriya Yoga,” he says that “Kriya is an ancient science…(that) had been lost in the Dark Ages.”

This emphasis on science is for me one of the most surprising and actually comforting aspects of Yogananda’s teaching because it implies emphatically that we do not have to choose between mysticism and science or between religion and philosophy. All three disciplines can be useful and valid. If anything, Yogananda de-emphasizes the mystical aspects of yoga, even as he tell stories of Indian saints such as the ancient, near bodily-immortal Babaji, which are as fantastic or incredible to a Western ear as anything in “The 1001 Arabian Nights.”

What are we to make of this? Obviously, there is no way at present to demonstrate or refute the scientific accuracy of Yogananda’s views or revelations on God. On the other hand, a growing body of research on such matters as changes to the oxygenation of blood cells during and after meditation may point in the direction of the scientific validity of yogic technique. Research in physics may be leading us closer to finding the elusive “God particle,” which is most likely inseparable from energy. Finally, a recent book, “The Akashic Experience: Science and the Cosmic Memory Field,” by Ervin Laszlo, points to scientific evidence for the “Akashic Records,” the mystical records described in Hinduism that purportedly catalogue the existence of every soul on Earth, throughout human history. It was these records that Edgar Cayce, the famous American psychic medium, was apparently able to tap into during his trance readings.

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Nothing is easier to forget than that we are immortal souls. I am an immortal soul; you are an immortal soul. As Yogananda puts it, “Man is a soul and has a body.” When we think of immortality, we tend to picture ourselves living forever in our current body. But would it age to the appearance of a 100 year-old body and remain looking that way through eternity, or would a ‘fountain of youth’ effect pertain, allowing us to appear forever as we looked in our twenties? The absurdity of either formulation is palpable, yet it does not prevent medical researchers from trying to extend the life of a human body for as many years or decades as possible, whether through cryogenics or genetic engineering or some such biological intervention.

At some point, one has to ask oneself, is this really what I want – to live in my current body, in my current life situation forever? With all of my eccentricities, shortcomings, quirks, and prejudices? As hard, frightening or brutal a reality as death is for us to confront, the idea of dying and being re-born in a new body is actually a relief to me in comparison with this misguided scientific attempt to tinker with the natural limits of the human body. To be mortal is to live as a bodily form, yet to be immortal is to live without a body. To put it another way, the word “immortal” does not merely mean “undying” or “living forever.” Since it is the opposite of “mortal” (“having a body, subject to dying”), it means “without a body, not susceptible to dying.”

Obviously, we are talking about the soul here. It is the soul that is immortal, not the body. The ignoranct condition that we generally live in is a state in which we associate the totality of who we are with our current body. We forget that the Higher Self, to which the Hindu and Buddhist teachings ask us to awaken, is who we really are: the Self that subsumes all the many bodily incarnations of the past and future of our soul. It is this Self that eventually can attain union with God through enlightenment.

Our baseline state of ignorance, beginning and ending with our ignorance of our true nature as an immortal soul, is the root cause of all suffering and all evil. Ignorance leads to temptation. Some temptations, like the desire to eat an ice cream cone, are obviously benign, although at a karmic level these benign sensual temptations keep us rooted in attachment or “samsara,” leading us to back away from the possibility of Awakening and Enlightenment. Other temptations, less benign, lead us toward sin and the commission of evil acts. These amount to a backward U-turn on the forward evolutionary march of our karmic journeys.

Ignorance is the state of being trapped in the dualistic world of maya, subject to the laws of karma. Temptation is the emotion that leads us to bury ourselves further in the delusions and illusions of samsara. Ignorance and temptation breed sin and evil, which are at root a form of mental disturbance. To paraphrase Eckhart Tolle in “The Power of Now,” don’t forget the undeniable, that man is essentially crazy.

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Samsara (literally, ‘a flowing with’ the phenomenal flux) induces man to take the line of least resistance.  ‘Whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God.’  To become the friend of God, man must overcome the devils or evils of his own karma or actions that ever urge him to spineless acquiescence in the mayic delusions of the world.”   -Yogananda, from Chapter 49 of the “Autobiography,” in turn quoting James 4:4.

 “In men under maya or natural law, the flow of life energy is toward the outward world; the currents are wasted and abused in the senses.”  – Yogananda, from Chapter 26 of the “Autobiography”

“Spineless acquiescence in the mayic delusions of the world” – that is what the children of the 1960’s approvingly called “go with the flow,” which became the mantra of an entire era.  If you didn’t want to go with the flow, it meant you were a “square” or “all uptight.”  The hippie generation believed that the key to a happy or “mellow” life, was simply to flow “with the phenomenal flux,” as Yogananda puts it, taking “the line of least resistance” as they moved through the crowds at Woodstock, or at sit-ins, teach-ins or love-ins.  They saw themselves as good insofar as they saw themselves in opposition ot the uptight squares of the Establishment.

What the flower children did not perceive was that they were as asleep as the poker-faced National guardsmen in riot gear who faced them down.  The soldiers and “pig” policemen were going with the flow too.  Theirs was a different manifestation of “flow” or mayic delusion, but both opposing sides were equally deluded or asleep.  Why?   Because they were both blinded by the conformist norms of their own socio-cultural sub-groups.

When Hindu and Buddhist scriptures say that man is dreaming and asleep, what they mean is that man is so taken up by the powerful kaleidoscope of powerful sensory impressions that he cannot awaken to “the possibility of divine communion,” as Yogananda puts it.   Being awake means being aware of the reality of the one God who lights up the vast sky above the fog of maya’s karmic flow, its endless sensory presentations of dualistic light and shadow.  Yogananda says in Chapter 49 that spiritual teachers “reveal the passage by which bewildered humanity may cross over and beyond the stormy seas of samsara (the karmic wheel, the recurrence of lives and deaths.)”

Most of us choose to be asleep without even realizing it.  In fact, we revel in the dualism of maya so much that we deliberately create “virtual worlds,” man-made mayic worlds within the shared mayic earthly environment.  In Chapter 30, Yogananda brilliantly compares our phenomenal world to the projection of a powerful movie whose “reality” is dependent upon flickering, contrasting images of light and shadow, which are in turn dependent upon our perception of linear time.  If the movie projected light only, with no shadow, there would be nothing to see, but if we were truly to perceive the light alone, we would arise from our sleepy perception of our own ego’s separateness to a fully awake state of union with God.

In recent years, our love affair with ‘going with the flow’ has led us to create an even more intense form of virtual world than what is presented to us through the illusion of cinema:  computer video games, in which we act as well as simply observing the screen.  Video game players become so lost in their addictive mayic world of the game that they become almost unaware of the larger, shared phenomenal world around them.  It is maya within maya, a going with the flow that leaves them more deeply asleep even as by contrast they keenly feel a heightened sense of waking alertness.  This same fascinating and deliberate construction of a sleeping world within a sleeping world has been even more consciously created in Christopher Nolan’s current movie, “Inception,” starring Leonardo di Caprio.  Nonetheless, what these games and movies can really teach us is that in our paradoxical and bewildering phenomenal world, to be asleep is to perceive that one is awake, whereas to be truly awakened is to be fully aware that one has “(crossed) over and beyond the stormy seas of samsara.”

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How did we come to be? The mystery of human creation, addressed dramatically in Chapter 16 of Yogananda’s “Autobiography,” is quite simply the paradox that we evolved from the animal kingdom and at the same time we were granted a divine spark of life from God. The two aspects of our creation, natural selection through evolution and direct divine intervention, are not mutually exclusive or opposing theories. Instead, they are equal and mutually dependent causes of our mysterious origin. We are both animal and divine. Ours is a divine spark that burns brighter than the divinely created spirits that enliven the animals.

“Man is a soul and has a body,” says Sri Yukteswar to his disciple, Yogananda. This is the formula that best explains the relationship between our divine and animal natures. “So long as (man) remains confused in his ordinary state of spiritual amnesia,” Yukteswar continues, “he will know the subtle fetters of environmental law” (that is, the dualities of maya)

But how did man come to his “ordinary state of spiritual amnesia?” Ah. The key to this puzzle lies in the even more puzzling story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. No seeker can travel far along the spiritual path without at some point pausing to confront the mind-bending conundrum of our Fall from Grace. “Why did God punish not only the guilty pair, but also the innocent unborn generations?” asks Yogananda of his master, Sri Yukteswar. Yukteswar’s explanation of the story of Adam and Eve displays his great insight, led by his assertion that “Genesis is deeply symbolic and cannot be grasped by a literal interpretation.”

The gist of his response to Yogananda’s question is that our genesis was divine and that Adam and Eve were created as immortals inseparable from God, their Creator. God “endowed this new species with the power to create children in a similar ‘immaculate’ or divine manner.” This last assertion explains the power of the story of the Virgin Birth of Jesus, not to mention the Catholic injunction of celibacy for priests.

Needless to say, the one type of knowledge that God forbade Adam and Eve was sex, “lest humanity enmesh itself in the inferior animal method of propagation.” Thus, when they ate the apple, “Adam and Eve fell from the state of heavenly joy natural to the original perfect man…they had placed themselves under the physical law by which bodily birth must be followed by bodily death.” Yukteswar then concludes, “The knowledge of ‘good and evil,’ promised Eve by the ‘serpent,’ refers to the dualistic and oppositional experiences that mortals under maya must undergo.”

What is clear from this Eastern interpretation of the ultimate Western myth (or truth) is that the Fall represents a descent into ignorance more fundamentally than a descent into sin. Of course, sin is caused by ignorance, so perhaps it means the same thing in the end. But ignorance is overcome by the ignorant one choosing actively to seek the Truth (enlightenment,) while sin is overcome by a direct intervention from God in the person of Christ (salvation.) Yukteswar concludes his analysis by stating that “The personal responsibility of every human being is to restore his ‘parents’ or dual nature to a unified harmony or Eden.” In other words, it is up to each person to strive actively for enlightenment—that is, to break reincarnation’s cycle of birth and rebirth in seeking to re-unite with God. To restore the human race to the Garden of Eden,
it is not enough for any of us to remain willfully and complacently ignorant, while merely hoping or praying for an act of divine Grace in Salvation.

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One of the most surprising revelations in Yogananda’s “Autobiography” is the assertion that each of us will continue to be reborn until every last one of our desires has been truly satisfied, such that we never experience that last desire again. Before reading the “Autobiography,” I had thought of the need to work out my karma more in terms of righting wrongs I had done to other persons in a past or this present life. I was also aware of the importance of releasing my attachments to others and to material things, which is an extremely difficult teaching for a Westerner, with the major emphasis we place on loving devotion to our families. Still, somehow I had never associated these karmic goals with a need to rise above all my desires. Fighting demons, yes. Overcoming sensuality, no.

That there is an extremely high bar for overcoming desire is abundantly clear from Chapter 34, “Materializing a Palace in the Himalayas.” This chapter tells the story of one of the two holiest figures in the “Autobiography,” the saintly Lahiri Mahasaya, who was the guru of Yogananda’s parents and whose photographic image cured the child Yogananda of cholera. Lahiri Mahasaya had overcome all of his desires and was ready to be elevated to a God-like plane by the very holiest figure of all, the mysterious and miraculous Babaji, who was reputed to be over 800 years old at the time of Yogananda’s writing: a modern Methuselah.

Babaji discovered that Lahiri Mahasaya still secretly harbored one latent and suppressed desire from a past life: the desire to witness and inhabit a marvelous palace – a bejeweled building so grand and noble as to outshine the Taj Mahal. Next thing you know, in a (mental) snap of his fingers, Babaji created such a palace on a crag in the Himalayas where Lahiri happened not-so-coincidentally to be visiting, and treated the amazed and awed Mahasaya to a tour. This led Mahasaya to exclaim, “Brother, the beauty of this structure surpasses the bounds of human imagination…” Shortly thereafter, Mahasaya encountered “the supreme Babaji” sitting in lotus posture on a jewel-encrusted throne and Babaji addressed him in Lahiri’s own account, saying, “’Lahiri, are you still feasting on your dream desires for a golden palace?’…’Wake! All your earthly thirsts are about to be quenched forever.’ He murmured some mystic words of blessing. ‘My son, arise. Receive your initiation into the kingdom of God through Kriya Yoga.’”

Following the initiation, Lahiri entered an ecstatic state and “felt no need for sleep.” Later, when he reopened his eyes after closing them on Babaji’s command, the enchanted palace had disappeared, but his state of ecstatic peace had not. Lahiri reported “remaining unbrokenly in its bliss for seven days. Crossing the successive strata of Self-knowledge, I penetrated the deathless realms of Reality. All delusive limitations dropped away; my soul was fully established on the altar of the Cosmic Spirit.”

What does this fantastic report or parable teach us? Obviously, that the real Kingdom of God lies within; it does not reside outside in a miraculous palace, no matter how sumptuous or heavenly its construction. It also tells me that the bar for overcoming human desires is set so high as to be nearly unreachable, even by the holiest of supplicants, who like Lahire Mahasaya still retained one last desire. With this new knowledge, I realize that I, with my many, many desires, must yet have many, many future incarnations to live out before I can approach the true threshold of a heaven that resides inside my Self.

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