Archive for November, 2010

As a child, my favorite books were the wonderful Narnia Chronicles, by C.S. Lewis, so I had always intended to read Mere Christianity, his famous work for adults. Originally delivered as a series of radio addresses during London’s blitz and published as a series of 3 booklets from 1942 to 1944, Mere Christianity must have functioned as a sort of British religious counterpart to Roosevelt’s fireside chats. The world was at war and evil appeared to the Allied Powers as a massive, monolithic wall of intransigent force. Against this wall, it seemed to Christians generally and to Lewis in particular, were arrayed the powers of Good in the Person of Jesus Christ. In remarkably lucid and economical prose, Lewis lays out the case for Christianity, or more accurately the platform of Christianity. One key plank of that platform is the role of Christianity as an activist religion, arrayed against evil. In Chapter 2 of Book 2, “What Christians Believe,” Lewis outlines a Christian metaphysics:

“There are only two views that face all the facts. One is the Christian view that this is a good world that has gone wrong, but still retains the memory of what it ought to have been. The other is the view called Dualism. Dualism means the belief that there are two equal and independent powers at the back of everything, one of them good and the other bad, and that this universe is the battlefield in which they fight out an endless war. I personally think that next to Christianity Dualism is the manliest and most sensible creed on the market. But it has a catch in it.”

Lewis goes on to explain,

“If ‘being good’ meant simply joining the side you happened to fancy, for no real reason, then good would not deserve to be called good. So we must mean that one of the two powers is actually wrong and the other actually right. But the moment you say that, you are putting into the universe a third thing in addition to the other two Powers: some law or standard or rule of good which one of the powers conforms to and the other fails to conform to. But since the two powers are judged by this standard, then this standard, or the Being who made this standard, is farther back and higher up than either of them, and He will be the real God.”

Carefully building his argument, Lewis says that the Bad Power (Satan) had to have derived his “intelligence and will” from the Good Power (God), concluding:

 “And do you now begin to see why Christianity has always said that the devil is a fallen angel? That is not a mere story for the children. It is a real recognition of the fact that evil is a parasite, not an original thing. The powers which enable evil to carry on are powers given it by goodness. All the things which enable a bad man to be effectively bad are in themselves good things – resolution, cleverness, good looks, existence itself. That is why Dualism, in a strict sense, will not work.”

This construction effectively articulates the reasoning behind the dynamic of an activist Christianity, of Christians as a sort of salvation army writ large; of the need for Christians to battle Satan in society (for example by going to war against Hitler) as well as in the privacy of each individual’s soul.

There appears to be only one story in our twenty-first century pop culture, the story of a vulnerable but ultimately triumphant good soldier confronting a wall of absolute evil, whether we are talking about Frodo battling Sauron in The Lord of the Rings, Luke Skywalker engaging the Emperor in Star Wars or Harry Potter taking on Voldemort in the Harry Potter series, not to mention the Narnia stories themselves. Each of these pop epics introduces us to an evil messenger who was corrupted from Good, a sort of Anti-Christ: Golum, Darth Vader, and a series of duplicitous professors at Hogwarts Academy.

The inclusion of these messengers reveals an important “theological” difference between Lewis’ activist Christianity and the pop epics: Lewis speaks of the Devil as a “fallen angel;” he does not posit an ultimate, original or absolute evil behind that angel. In other words, in Lewis’ theology, Gollum or Darth Vader is more like Satan than Sauron or the Emperor is. In Christianity we have God the Father and God the Son, but we don’t have the symmetrical pair of a Sauron as Anti-Father and a Gollum as Anti-Son. Such a universe would in fact present us with the perfectly balanced Dualism that Lewis so eloquently rejects in favor of the Christian world view, where Good is the only original power and bad is achieved only because Satan “must borrow or steal from his opponent.”

Whatever the theology, pop or traditionally Christian, is there a problem with activist Christianity, a Christianity that promotes social mobilization against evil? I would argue, yes there is. While Lewis’ pep talks undoubtedly helped Christian soldiers and their patriot allies defeat Hitler, activist Christianity also brought us the Crusades and, most recently, the war in Iraq. There are two problems with a socially mobilized Christian force. The first is the obvious one: the force can just as easily be mobilized against a perceived evil that is actually innocent or is at the very least merely a political rival. That is, the force can be corrupted by the influence of political-religious leaders.

Of possibly even greater importance to our current world scene, though, is the second problem: Christian social activism’s tendency to regard evil the way the pop epics do, as a massive monolith, an absolute. This conceptualization served us well in World War II and in confronting totalitarianism during the Cold War, but it is helpless against what President George H.W. Bush might have been wise to have called ‘a thousand points of darkness,’ namely, decentralized bands of individual suicide bombers. For confronting individual terrorists, it is unlikely that a massed army, Christian or otherwise, can be effective. Instead, an inner conversion of individual souls from the Dark to the Light is what is urgently required. What the world so clearly needs right now is what it has always needed – peace. The question is, can peace best be achieved through socially mobilized activist religion or through an army of individuals looking inward through meditation and prayer?


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The loss of a loved one is one of the most painful experiences any of us go through.  At the height of grief, we feel like following our beloved one to the Other Side so we can be with him or her again.  We actually find ourselves fantasizing about suicide because all we want is to follow him or her on his or her journey.  Attachment is the cause of all human suffering, so the Eastern religions teach us, and loss is the revenge our attachment plays on us.

Does this mean that we should stop loving others?  That we should abandon our loved ones, as Prince Siddhartha abandoned his young wife and children to become the Buddha?  That we should refuse the invitation of all new attachments?  My short answer is no, of course not.  Prince Siddhartha had to become Gautama the monk long before he became the Buddha.  In Deepak Chopra’s telling, Gautama suffered long and hard missing his wife’s caresses.  He was overwhelmed with a feeling that was, if not guilt, then at least a sense of futility in his willful decision to abandon her and his children before the fire of enlightenment burned Gautama away so that at last, the Phoenix-like Buddha could arise in his soul.

At least to a Westerner in the twenty-first century, the moral of the story would appear to be that enlightenment is a worthy goal – in effect, the only worthy goal for a human being – but that causing the suffering of others and increasing one’s own suffering by abandoning them is a useless and selfish act.  The great Indian masters did not fail to love their adherents and devotees, nor did Jesus fail to love his disciples.  For example, the portrait Yogananda paints of his guru, Sri Yukteswar, is that of a man who has invested his whole being in the care and nurturing of his charges, albeit that it comes in the form of a truly tough love.

An amazing thing happens during the grieving process.  The love one has for the recently departed beloved burns brighter than ever in one’s heart until at long last the flame dies down to glowing embers for lack of a fresh breeze of oxygen from the (missing) physical presence of the departed.  This immolation in the heart is in fact a purification process.  Perhaps the symbolic nature of the fire explains why the Hindus ritualize death on the funeral pyre.  In the end, the burning away of a human love in the purification of grief can allow love for God to enter the void left in one’s heart.  We love the departed one, who is gone forever, and we know that the only Being who truly shares the nuances of our love is God Himself.  Then it occurs to us that it is God who created and destroyed our beloved and a glimmer of understanding begins to dawn:  an understanding that love for all of our fellow beings resides in the larger bosom of a love for God.  I remember vividly my bitter tears, with at times their growing solace that God loved me for loving another being of His Creation.  In this way, our love and attachment toward others can be distilled into a love for God.

What God must want of us most is always to elevate our love and our natural spirituality to a higher form.  With his higher spiritual understanding, Sri Yukteswar somehow knew how to love Yogananda and his other charges without forming an attachment to them that would compromise his greater love for God.  This difficult attainment must also be another explanation for why so many forms of religion teach sexual abstinence:  sex arguably represents an expression of one body loving another more often than it elevates itself into the expression of one soul loving another soul, not to mention the Creator.  To live is to grieve for others we have lost, but to be wise is to know that no beings live forever on planet Earth.  Loss is not only a test for the soul but a purification of our Spirit.

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The Eastern traditions teach us that the key to nirvana is to overcome all of our desires.  Our desires attach us to the physical plane and prevent us from elevating ourselves to the realm of spirit.  In fact, desire is the attachment.  Whether the desire is sexual attraction or acquisitiveness, either way it underscores the animal part of our nature. Still, why the blanket injunction against what seems to us Westerners to be natural and life-affirming?

What could possibly be wrong with taking delight in life and its sensory pleasures, or in “wine, woman and song?”  What is wrong with being an Epicurean, if at least one is not a hedonist?  For Westerners, this is perhaps the most difficult spiritual lesson from the canon of Eastern wisdom. 

As in thrall as I am to my own desires, whether sexual, sensory, gustatory, and on and on, it may take me many lifetimes fully to understand the answers to these questions.  What I do know in my current lifetime is this:  desire represents a transfer of our loyalty, our love and our devotion from God to objects on the planet Earth:  from Creator to Creation.  What we do not understand is that our love for the jewels, the sweets, the colors, the sounds and scents of Earth are merely reflections of what could be our love for our Creator, if we were to allow it to shine through.  Hinduism emphasizes that all physical objects and corporeal beings are merely manifestations of God.  Our preoccupation or fascination with these manifestations can, through prayer and the practice of meditation, lead us toward devotion to the Divine, which is clearly a higher state than mere fascination with earthly treasures.  All it takes is to remind oneself that attraction to an object or another human being is in the highest sense a love of God which has been deflected from the Creator to its mere reflection in the created.

Paradoxically, though, the Hindu and Buddhist injunctions against attachment do not mean that we should turn our backs on the world or despise it.  Far from it.   What they really intend to teach us is that we should be aware that the objects of our desires are as transitory as snowflakes falling past a window.  When we chase a rainbow, it always recedes ahead of us, but when we see that a rainbow is a manifestation or a symbol of God, we can find the rainbow of God inside of us.  Human suffering is in large part amplified by a misplaced obsession with objects and even other humans.  The objects and people are actually not what causes our happiness.  On the contrary, the divine spark of life that animates our loved ones and the divine energy locked in the crystal structure of a diamond or a snowflake are the true causes of joy.  Many people, including quite recently the talk-show host Ricki Lake, have reported that when they lose their possessions, as Lake did from the fire that burnt her house down in Malibu, they experience a truer sense of value – the value of life itself.  They understand at those moments of crisis that possessions mean nothing.

Speaking as a Westerner who is nowhere near the verge of experiencing nirvana or enlightenment, I can report that I am as attached to my desires as the next person.  What makes me feel entitled to refer to myself as “a spiritual person,” though, is my growing conviction that the satisfaction of my appetites is ultimately as meaningless as the appetites themselves.  I do not seek to stand apart from this world, to become a monk or an ascetic who renounces the pleasures of the world.  What I hope to train myself to do, however, is to recognize the transitory nature both of my desires and of their satisfaction.  In this way, I hope to perceive them clearly as being mere reflections in the mirror of my desire for the Divine and mere shadows in the light of contentment in God’s grace.  Perhaps it is possible to transmute earthly desires into the soul’s desire for the fulfillment of Spirit.

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“We do not fundamentally want to have and to do; we only want to be, and we use the having and doing for that purpose.  Further, our will to be is not content with anything; it seeks its goal beyond the irksome limits of having and doing.  Man will not be really happy until he is consciously one with God, and shares the freedom of that one Reality.”- – Ernest Wood, from Yoga, first published in 1959

I have always wanted to meditate and I have attempted it or practiced it from time to time without ever consolidating my practice into something solid, a regular habit that I can build on.  Now, later in life, I’m becoming more serious about doing so.  Thus, it was serendipitous that I happened upon a long-forgotten book squeezed onto my bookshelf:   “Yoga,” by Ernest Wood.  I must have bought it in college, 35 or more years ago. 

Ernest Wood was a British Victorian who moved to India in 1910, where he began a career as a headmaster and rose to be the president of two colleges within the Universities of Bombay and Madras.  Along the way, he developed a deep interest in yoga, becoming a scholar of the Vedas, the sacred scriptures of India, in their original Sanskrit.  Wood’s last days were spent in San Francisco, where he died in 1965, thirteen years after Yogananda’s death, also in California.

The deep scholarship Wood brought to his book, “Yoga,” makes for rigorous reading but it is worth it, because many jewels of wisdom beam from its pages.  For example, for all of my life I have been confused about the terms ‘concentration,’ ‘meditation’ and ‘contemplation.’  All three words seemed to describe desirable states of a healthy mind, but I until reading Wood’s book, I had no idea how they related to each other.  Wood’s chapter, “Yoga and the Intellect,” makes their distinction abundantly clear.  “It will help,” he says, “if the student remembers that meditation is not a condition in which one is, but is a function one is performing.  Compare it with walking; walking is not a condition which you are in, but is a function you are performing.” 

Wood illustrates this principle in the following way.  “One day a teacher of meditation (guru)  told one of his pupils to walk to the far end of the room and back and sit down.  Then he asked: ‘What were you doing just now?  Were you walking?’  The pupil went over his action mentally, and observed everything that he had done, and then replied: ‘I was not walking.  I was watching the body walk.’”

In similar fashion, when I was about seven years old, I remember vividly walking home from school at lunch time, talking to myself in the third person.  “He arrived at the corner,” I remember saying or thinking, “and began to walk down the hill.”  This third- person narrator in my head was the nascent writer I am becoming today, but also quite possibly he was my true Self observing my body and my mind as they went about their business in my current life form or incarnation.

Wood explains that “concentration, meditation and contemplation form a sequence, always together.  The act or practice begins with concentration, which then continues inside or behind the meditation.  It goes on with meditation and then continues in or behind the contemplation, which remains within its scope.”  Thus, Wood lays out the progression of the subject’s goal – to begin with concentration (mental focus) and proceed through meditation (concentrated thought upon an object such as a flower) and finally to arrive at contemplation (complete knowledge or knowing of the wholeness and unity of the object, with a consequent perceived union of the subject – yourself – with the object.  In this way, the human mind is trained gradually to see beyond itself, so that we know that we are not merely our body and our brain.  Instead, we are the higher Self who observes our body and brain. 

The ultimate goal here is to achieve “an act of being,” not merely doing.  This teaching is echoed by Eckhart Tolle’s injunction that the act of being present (in the “Now”) means everything.  It is simply Being, the highest value of living.

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