Posts Tagged ‘by Brooks Kolb’

Questioning Maya – September 2, 2010

If you are questioning the truth of the Hindu doctrine of “maya,” that the physical world is essentially illusory, then consider this. Do you ever think about a place you’ve left behind? What is left of it besides your memory? Only the place you occupy at the present moment feels real – other places appear to be mere projections of the mind.
Of course, you can go back and visit those locales from whence you came and when you are there, the reality of your former surroundings becomes primary again. Still, by the same token, the place you are in right now will recede from your consciousness. Add to this the fact that your past home has now changed, perhaps radically, in the intervening years, and the illusory properties of the physical world seem even more pronounced. We cannot recapture the past, we can only confront the hallucination of the present. In a funny way, our shared physical world is both real and not real at the same time. This is the paradox known as maya.


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 “Don’t be so clever.  I’ve never seen anyone think their way to heaven.”

–Deepak Chopra, from Chapter 14 of Buddha:  A Story of Enlightenment.

This bit of dialogue, spoken to Gautama (the future Buddha) by one of his masters in Deepak Chopra’s imagined biography of the Buddha, slices right through the illusory web of human reasoning like a Zen master’s hand chop or kick, apparently unmasking philosophy as an empty human preoccupation.  Yogananda similarly speaks of the limits of philosophy in Autobiography of a Yogi, and Eckhart Tolle devotes an entire chapter of The Power of Now to the assertion that “You are Not Your Mind,” with a sub-chapter called “Enlightenment:  Rising Above Thought.”  He goes further, saying that writing a book about spirituality is no substitute for becoming enlightened – it is the mind fooling itself.  Rounding out the personality of Gautama’s early master, Chopra says, “The scriptures were his illusion.  They led him to imagine that he was free just because he could describe freedom out of a book and think about it with his subtle mind.”

The message is that real Truth is above human thought.  Thought is grounded in the “either-ors” and the “ands-or-buts” of our dualistic, illusory physical world.  By contrast, Truth resides in the One-ness of God.  Not surprisingly, Yogananda puts it best, saying in Chapter 49, “Truth is no theory, no speculative system of philosophy, no intellectual insight.  Truth is exact correspondence with reality.  For man, truth is unshakable knowledge of his real nature, his Self as soul.  Jesus, by every act and word of his life proved that he knew the truth of his being—his source in God.”

So why am I bothering to write this blog?  If the thoughts of these great masters, Chopra, Yogananda and Tolle, not to mention Jesus, can’t get to the Truth, then how can I?  I don’t know.  I do know that I am drawn to writing about spirituality like a moth to a flame.  I am an unenlightened human being, but I am a spiritual seeker and writing helps me on my quest.  Thought, reasoning and writing cannot arrive at the Truth but I believe they can help along the way.  The great seventeenth-century French philosopher-scientist, Blaise Pascal, suddenly received a radical revelation of God and in today’s parlance, we would say that he was born again.  But who read him after his conversion?  His “Pensees,” the thoughts he wrote before his great encounter with God, are what we remember.  Thoughts and great quotations can trigger a catharsis that elevates our minds to a higher place. 

Even in the Hindu tradition, there are several paths to God:  one is through devotion (Yogananda’s path) and another is through intellect.  Devotion is most likely a direct reflection of Truth, whereas intellect is merely a means of perceiving it obliquely, as through a lens.  Both are divine gifts of a very different nature.  The paradox of writing about spirituality is that while it may never reveal Spirit directly, it may help prepare us to recognize it and receive it when we are ready.

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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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“The mystery of life and death, whose solution is the only purpose of man’s sojourn on earth, is intimately interwoven with breath.” — Paramahansa Yogananda, from Chapter 49 of “Autobiography of a Yogi.”

The solution to the mystery of life and death is the only purpose of man’s sojourn on Earth. I have always felt this to be true in my gut, without ever actually articulating it to myself so succinctly. Yogananda’s words release the truth of something I feel I have always known. Beyond resolving the mystery of life and death, everything else in life is distraction and attachment. Yet most of us never confront this deeper purpose of life except on our death beds, or attending at the death beds of our loved ones. There is nothing like the departure of a loved one to remind us why we are really here: it is not to play soccer, to pick up the kids at school, or even to produce our latest play or write our latest novel. Those are merely roles we take on in our current incarnation; they do not represent more than one aspect of our true Selves. Instead, our true purpose is to confront, accept and finally transcend the gulf between life and death; the gulf that is crossed by our departed loved ones.

How is the great mystery solved? Yogananda and other great spiritual leaders teach us, paradoxically, that there is no real difference between life and death. According to the Hindu theory of reincarnation, the purpose of each of our earthly lives is to work out the karmic debt we amassed in our previous lives. When we die, some but not all of our karmic debt has been repaid, so we must continue to be reborn until we have overcome all earthly desires and we are prepared to join in the One-ness of God. In the intervals between our earth lives, the theory goes, we are reborn as astral bodies in a subtler astral plane where (guess what?) we must work out our previously amassed “astral karma.”

It is in this sense that Yogananda teaches that there is no real difference between life and death: in both realms, each of us is a consciousness and each of us is working successively to repay our karmic debts and ultimately to transcend the karmic burden entirely. The soul is immortal; it merely takes on a series of ephemeral transient identities, now on the physical plane and then on the astral one. Consciousness and the necessity to confront one’s karma, karma that is born with each of us in the dualistic world of maya-creation, are the universal constants bridging the gap between the realms of death and life. As we bow our heads before the Unity of God that stands above the duality of Creation, there is no difference between the life we lead in life and the life we lead after death.

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The central lesson of reincarnation is not to celebrate the soul’s rebirth in a new human form, but rather to stop the soul’s obsessive need to be reborn entirely, by working out all the karma of our past lives. But why should the goal of all human life be to stop the wheel of reincarnation and get off it forever? Never more to need to be reborn? It would seem that no concept could be more rejecting of life; that this Hindu/Buddhist doctrine, if taken to its logical conclusion, would advocate the obliteration of the human race through its dissolution. Can the Eastern wisdom really be so much the opposite of life-affirming? At least at first to the average Westerner, this appears to be a big puzzle.

Nevertheless, one important clue is that the Eastern teachings stress the importance of the evolution of the individual soul. Each soul is slowly evolving forward, however fitfully, toward a state in which it finds maya-delusion no longer to appeal. Of all the peoples in the world, no two souls are at the exact same state of evolution at any one time. Thus, because one individual soul is ready to step off the wheel of reincarnation and out of the world of material things, that does not mean that all of his brothers and sisters are equally prepared or evolved. One could visualize the process as a giant escalator–a “stairway to heaven”–on which the entire human race is slowly climbing. One by one, an individual arrives at the top step and willingly steps off entirely, forever into the One-ness of Spirit. His brothers and sisters are all arrayed behind him in a ranking of relative preparedness to climb off. Some souls, moving more quickly up through their repeating lives, pass others to the left as they climb. Others are just entering at the bottom, one by one. It is perhaps in this way that life perpetuates itself even as a few human souls eventually evolve toward the One-ness of God.

There is a life-affirming aspect to this conceptualization after all. It is that until one is really, truly ready to transfer his love from his fellow humans directly to their source in God (a love which extends its embrace to enfold all of those humans within it,) those lesser forms of human love are richly deserving of the greatest possible honor and celebration on Earth. The Hindu masters so vividly described in Yogananda’s “Autobiography” continue to love their disciples dearly even as they devote themselves to God. It is as if they subtly transform their love of individual human beings from a direct love of the person into a love of that person as representing an emanation or specific manifestation of God.

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One of the biggest contributions of Hinduism and Buddhism is the teaching that all human suffering is due to the bonds of attachment we all experience—attachment to others and to material things. The goal of life appears to be to overcome our attachments so that we are no longer drawn, lifetime after lifetime, into the mesmerizing dualistic physical world of desires and suffering, the world of “maya” or delusion/illusion.
When the objects of our attachment (our love or passion) die, we feel wrenching pain and grief. The stronger our attachment to someone, the stronger the suffering we experience. It is at least in part to address and overcome this chronic, inevitable human suffering of loss, that the teachings ask us to put aside our attachments; to become “detached” from the objects of our desire.

To a Westerner, this teaching seems especially strange because what could possibly be wrong with forming strong attachments to a loved one or by extension to one’s beloved family and friends? The greatest values we profess, namely love for our fellow human beings and especially of family, would seem to be undermined by this strange and seemingly fatalistic Hindu outlook. If we look more closely at the teaching, however, it is easily reconciled with our Western values. What Hinduism and Buddhism actually would have us do is not so much to renounce our attachment to our loved ones. Instead, they would have us go deeper and see that our love for our fellow humans is in fact a reflection of our love for God. We were created by God and our loved ones were equally created by God, so by loving them, we are actually expressing our love of God. What the Eastern wisdom really asks us to do is to transfer our love from the reflection of its object–our loved ones—to the source of all reflections, God.

All creatures are subject to the dualistic laws of maya; their Creator alone is One and stands beyond maya. In the ancient Indian tradition, the older “householder” or family man departs from his family after he has completed the duties of raising his children, by wandering off as an itinerant hermit and mendicant carrying his begging bowl, seeking to break all his attachments. This extreme act of renunciation does not express rejection of his love for his family; instead, it energizes the transference of his love from his fellow human beings to their Creator and to the source of love itself in God. Perhaps for us modern Westerners, however, it is enough to love one’s spouse, family and friends wholeheartedly while simply reflecting from time to time that our love for them is merely an aspect of our encompassing love for God. When they depart this world, our love continues and eventually, after an intense grieving season that is inevitable for all but the greatest “saints” and mystics, it mingles with our more general love of God.

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