On Stories

Stories. This one word can mean so many things. Stories are the way we assign meaning to the experience of our life. They can be helpful or destructive. All stories are absorbed and retold by the ego, therefore, in Vedantic terms, they belong to the realm of Maya/delusion. We can sort stories into the categories of Vidyamaya, stories that help us in our spiritual life , and Avidyamaya, stories that hinder us and create suffering. Ultimately, everything we think is a story. We need to have a way of distancing ourselves from those stories and analyzing them. We believe so many stories, in fact, almost everything that pops into our mind, but are all these thoughts true? That is why , in Vedanta, viveka-awareness of thoughts, and vichara-the ability to analyze them, are the main practices. We have to find a method of questioning everything we think and feel. We must learn to question every thought:is this true, is this helpful, is this causing me misery? I know that I am always writing about this; it’s so important! You might say, “I’m a bhakta, a devotee, and I don’t care about this jnani stuff!” I would remind you of the assertion made by Sri Ramakrishna. Paraphrased, it says bhaktas have no use for anything that comes between themselves and God. That implies that there is enough detachment and awareness to actually know what comes between yourself and God! If we don’t practice the questioning of our thoughts, we will surely be in the grip of old destructive patterns at some point, or swept away by someone else’s stories.

Stories can also aid us in our spiritual life. Stories about the lives of the wise can serve as inspiration. I’ve been inspired by the teachings in the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna for almost my entire life. Stories told in the scriptures can become the basis for deep reflection. I often return to several of the stories told in the Upanishads.I love Satyakama who learns about Brahman from the natural world, Nachiketa who learns from Death himself and, of course, Yajnavalkya who dares to take away the prize offered by King Janaka to the wisest. Stories are not all destructive. But, friends, please choose carefully!

On Meditation

Meditation. Is your reaction to that word, “Oh! I can’t meditate!”? Does your mind autoload all the reasons why you feel meditation is difficult? None of them are true! If we feel meditation is hard we might have the wrong idea about what meditation is. Here are some concepts we need to forget before we meditate: 1.If we live in the USA we are probably captured by the huge emphasis on achievement and productivity. Forget it! As my upaguru, Swami Swananda, told me, you don’t achieve anything by meditating. You are already That. Brahman is never the product of any cause. 2.Drop the notion of success/failure. You can’t fail, or, for that matter, succeed. 3.Drop any notions of right/wrong. Don’t ask yourself, “Am I doing it right?” 4. Drop any idea of past/future, i.e. thinking, “Some future date I will be enlightened.” Time is illusory. All there is when you sit is now. If you sit for 1 hour or 5 minutes, there’s only now. 5. Drop comparing and competing. If you compare yourself to Sri Ramakrishna, for instance, you might become mightily discouraged. You aren’t trying to win a meditation competition with anyone else…or yourself! Some days we may be able to easily focus the mind. We might have what we call a ‘good meditation’. Go forward! The next day might be a bust because we are trying to get back the focus of the day before. There are many more tips and hints. You might have your own. The Zen Buddhist tradition famously uses the phrase, “Just sit.” That’s it.

A Thought for the New Year

I am wishing everyone a wonderful new year! I decided not to write about new years or Kalpataru Day and instead, think about the word ‘vairagyam’, translated into English as ‘renunciation’. Sri Sarada Devi named renunciation as one of the main messages of Sri Ramakrishna. This concept, vairagyam, is going to mean something a little different for every person in the midst of their own life. The word vairagyam is derived from the Sanskrit root ranj. It has many meanings coming from the original meaning, to color and particularly, to color red. We begin to see the picture it paints by recalling the English saying ‘to see red’. The word ‘passion’ describes this saying, but there are several meanings to this word as well. And that is the source of misunderstanding. Passion can describe an emotion that is almost or completely out of our control. It can also mean a feeling of motivation or enthusiasm. To understand the meaning of vairagyam we need the first definition of passion, NOT the second. The prefix ‘vi’ designates the opposite, so ‘viraga’ means w/o passion. Vairagyam is a noun derived from that verbal root. To renounce, to practice vairagyam, means to be completely without that kind of strong emotion that is out of our control. It does not mean to be disinterested, indifferent or downright aversive! So many people believe that to practice renunciation we need to be indifferent, unconcerned and uninvolved, throwing off everything. I believe what we really need is to install a mental app of discernment (aka viveka), which examines all our experience and asks “ Is this true? Is this important? Is this necessary? Am I acting selfishly?” We may think that vairagyam is for monastics only. Certainly monastics, theoretically, practice a more external kind of renunciation, but the truth is, the same discernment applies to all people in all walks of life. Friends, we can renounce and still care. We can renounce and still help. We can renounce and still be interested in the welfare of every being. In fact, if we ‘take the red out of the mind’ we will be in a much better position to do so!

Online is good but keeping holy company is better!

Ask yourself-what are the most meaningful memories that come to your mind again and again to serve as inspiration for your spiritual life? I am willing to guess that they aren’t memories of something you read, or watched online, or even heard in an abstract talk on Vedanta or any other spiritual tradition. Most likely your most meaningful memories involve some kind of personal contact with a teacher, a friend, or a group of people. Maybe you heard someone else tell a personal story or reminiscence that you find very inspiring.

That is certainly my experience. I have been on a spiritual path since I was 13 and now I am 60.
I have always loved reading, loved to learn. I have read literally hundreds of spiritual books, studied Sanskrit so I could read the scriptures and study them without relying on the translations. Like everyone else I am online reading and watching. All of that is important, but what I keep returning to for inspiration is memories and stories, particularly the ones that happened to me or someone I know. In fact, hearing the stories of others might be more inspiring than reflecting on my own.

You can’t get that online. The most important ingredient for spiritual growth is personal contact with great souls, teachers and spiritual friends. The current trend and fad to think that everything one needs can be found online is alarming. The thought seems to be that , if there is cyber-darshan, why set foot in a spiritual center? Ask “Google Maharaj” and all you need for your spiritual life will be given! Even more alarming is that personal contact is being sacrificed in some ashrams and centers to the unseen online millions of potential viewers.

Human contact is critical for spiritual growth. As Sri Ramakrishna said, one of the most important practices is to seek and keep holy company. I hope we are not forgetting that. Stories told, examples set, by those we respect and love-their power lies in personal contact. Let us always ready to keep holy company and to cherish the stories that are born there. All company is holy company.

Wishing all a joyful holiday season!

I want to wish everyone a joyful holiday season! There are, of course, many kinds of notions and beliefs regarding the ‘holiday season’. There’s one belief I feel is absolutely imperative to hold at all times: YOU MATTER. YOUR THOUGHTS MATTER. You matter because you are the Divine appearing in this conventional reality, uniquely as you. And, although we are subject to avidya, the unawareness of our true nature, the Divine is not subject to that unknowing and has ‘chosen’ to be none other than you. As Swami Vivekananda reminds us, each of us is the whole and not a part. Mind-blowing and inspiring! Life is a gift, not a prison sentence, no matter how much happiness or misery we feel.

We often feel discouraged, especially today when this happening we call ‘the world’ that we want to admire and love seems like it’s teetering on the brink. We assume there’s not much we ‘little people’ can do. We can do something right now! YOUR THOUGHTS MATTER. What you think makes a difference to the world and, of course, to yourself.

In his talk on non-attachment in KARMA YOGA Swami Vivekananda reminds us: “…when I am doing a certain action, my mind may be said to be in a certain state of vibration; all minds which are in similar circumstances will have the tendency to be affected by my mind….Every thought projected from every brain goes on pulsating, as it were, until it meets a fit object that will receive it.” He goes on to say that every destructive act/thought influences and is influenced by other similar thoughts, our own and those “projected from every brain”. Likewise,
every constructive thought we think influences and is influenced by similar thoughts. Thought leads to action. Every action we take, however small, has its effect.

If we feel we cannot contribute in action, we can contribute by examining our thoughts, making sure we contribute to the bandwidth of love, peace, expansion, harmony rather than the bandwidth of anger, hatred, and violence that appears to be in the limelight currently. We cannot choose our experience but we can choose how we perceive and respond to it.

So, for the upcoming year my wish for you (and myself) is CHOOSE LOVE, CHOOSE JOY!

From Gitaprana: About finding inspiration

We hear a lot of teachings and instructions but sometimes the most important ones are simply one sentence.

Some people felt that Swami Swahananda was not specific enough with the instructions he gave to his disciples. He often answered questions about practice by offering a variety of answers and told us to choose. Or, in my case, his main instruction was to exclaim, “Figure it out yourself!” But, he was also a master of the one-liner: a really quick, powerful sentence that had implications for every action, everywhere.

Here is an example that will stay with me until the end of my days:
When I lived in Hollywood I served on a couple of committees. We all know that committees can be exasperating, especially to one without patience like me. One day I made the total mistake of saying (without thinking) to Swami Swahananda, “I think X committee is wrecking my life”. Instantly, within a nano-second, he turned and shouted, “YOU HAVE NO LIFE!!!”

I understood. As a sannyasini, when I performed my own funeral, and took the gerua cloth, I, in effect, gave up my life. The challenge is to identify with the Self, the Divine, the Mother, and to work to eliminate all the mental obstacles that keep me identified with the ego-constructed self. Really, I don’t have “a life”. That is a notion born of believing we are separate beings. And, the individual life that I experience has been given to serve, in the Mother, in Sri Ramakrishna, all sentient beings. That means embracing every experience that arises as coming from the Divine. To me, that’s the essence of renunciation and you don’t have to be a monastic to do it!

Here at Ridgely I have many responsibilities that sometimes seem overwhelming, like a job for some kind of superhuman. To ensure that others find peace and inspiration here, I don’t have a lot of peace. But all I have to do is remember Swami Swahananda shouting, “You have no life!” and I feel inspired again. It reminds me to look at daily events through the Divine lens.

So, one fantastic spiritual practice is to find a memory of a meaningful personal teaching, or even one from a scripture or other book, and use it to reorient yourself whenever you feel life is running crazy without your participation , when your job/family situation is a little complicated or stressful.

From Gitaprana: About Murtis/Images

I want to say something about murtis, or forms of the Divine.Every religious tradition has them. Every person has their own notions, mental forms of the Divine. Hinduism and Eastern Orthodox Christianity share the belief that the form/murti/icon is a window to the Divine, a threshold and a meeting place. The idea is that, somehow, in some unspeakable way, the consciousness of the Divine overshadows the individual image. We are not talking a a general, God -in- everything way. The mystery here is that the One, Infinite Satchidananda, present everywhere, is specifically aware in the murti.

In Eastern Orthodox Christianity, icons are blessed to give them a living presence. In the Hindu tradition, that process is called prana pratishtha: invoking life in the image. The life has been invoked in virtually all the images you meet in Indian temples. The image becomes a dwelling place for the Divine and is treated as a living being.

Sometimes a temporary image will have the life invoked during the puja and then “returned” to the infinite after the puja is over. At Kali Puja the prana pratishtha ritual is part of the puja. Once the life of the murti is invoked, the Mother Herself is specifically present, aware. It does not matter if the image is large or small, like ours here at Ridgely. Between the Mother and the devotee attending the puja there is darshan/seeing. You see the Mother and, more importantly, the Mother sees you. That is what makes Kali Puja so powerful. The Mother is there and she is Kali, that terrific power of creation and destruction, looking right at you, listening to the music, accepting your offerings. On a more subtle level she touches your inner awareness, that place of silence that has nothing to do with what is going on around you.

And yes, it is also true that all is Brahman, infinite, undivided, formless. The world of the vyavahara, the world of namarupa is filled with paradoxes! For several years I was the one who created the murti for the Hollywood Center’s Kali Puja. I was present when the image was immersed at the very end and I can tell you, the Mother LOVES to return to the formless as much as She loves to take forms.