Sunday, May 22, 2011

A Fork in the Path

As was apparent from my last entry here, I’ve been going through some major changes in my spiritual life. It really started with the addition of meditation to my spiritual practice. Naturally, I would meditate on Baha’i words and themes, but I found that thoughts about the online conflicts and problems in the Baha’i community always intruded. Now, extraneous thoughts always intrude when one is beginning to meditate, but in my case, they were negative and anxiety-producing. I got to a place where I just felt very confused, so one night, I recited a tablet of Baha’u’llah’s that is supposed to give one answers in dreams -- and the answer I got, through some fairly obvious symbols, was that as long as I stayed within a Baha’i framework, I would be stuck in a place of hurt and grief and that there were other things waiting for me.

I find myself imagining legions of ex-Baha’is saying “Well, hell, I could have told you that!” No, you couldn’t. Baha’u’llah had to; I loved him, and didn’t want to leave him. Even now, under times of emotional stress I find myself returning to him in thought and prayer. This was not something that I took lightly, with a “La-di-da, I’ve outgrown all that” attitude. I was heartbroken over what happened in the Faith, and even ten years after leaving the community, was certain I would always be a Baha’i. Indeed, when I started going to Ananda last September, I introduced myself as a Baha’i and made it clear I had no intention of changing that commitment. During this period, what I was looking for was a mantra, or a non-Baha’i meditation technique that would keep me away from the negative thoughts and feelings associated with the Baha’i Faith.

But meditation techniques are not separate from the religions that spawned them. So, my experimentation in practice also led to experimentation in different religions. I mostly kept quiet about this -- I didn’t want to make any grand announcements about something that might prove to be just a temporary enthusiasm, as several things were.

I should make it clear that I have not been on a “search for Truth”. I think it’s an illusion that any human has “the Truth”; all we have is the small portion our eyes can see and our minds can know. To believe you have “the Truth” only props up in the ego in the long run. What I’ve been looking for is something that works. That is, something that is transformative in a positive way. So, instead of reasoning out a belief system, then following its practices; I experimented with practices, then pondered the belief system. What I have found in the two different religious communities that have had had contact with (Ananda and the Buddhist Dharma Center in Chico) is that nobody has inquired into my beliefs. They just worship and/or meditate,and give a little sermon that illuminates one aspect or another of their beliefs and practices. While both groups wish to spread and advance their teachings, formal membership is not a big issue and is seldom mentioned.

I’ve fallen in love with the Sky Creek Dharma Center, although it is not as available to me as Ananda. We’ve had an exceptionally beautiful spring here in northern California, and the Dharma center is in a lovely spot outside of town. There are four different sanghas (Buddhist communities) there, that have outside connections to different Buddhist organizations. They each have meditation on different evenings, but I have been limited to a once a month “sit” on Saturdays, and daylong retreats, that so far, have been offered by two of the sanghas. Since “noble silence” is maintained on these occasions, I haven’t gotten to know anybody very well -- except for Bob the bell-ringer for the Saturday sits. I’ve sometimes thought that part of the Baha’i Faith’s problem is that it spends so much time talking, which is bound to bring conflict, then if you disagree, you’re just supposed to swallow it and go along with the most powerful and authoritative-sounding voice. It’s practically a recipe for discontent. If there is any competition or friction between the different sanghas at Sky Creek, I’m not aware of it. I plan to start going to one of the evening programs once school ends, but I’ll have to abandon it again in mid-August, when I have to be up and ready to for phone calls. (It's a 40 minute drive for me to Chico, and I get up at 5:00 a.m. during the school year.)

Ananda is far more accessible, with its regular Sunday services, and the people I’ve gotten to know over tea and vegetarian goodies are very sweet -- I have a stronger sense of community there. However, in my private practice, I’ve pretty much become a Buddhist. The problem of Buddhism being non-theistic hasn’t been the issue that I thought it would be. After all, nobody has made me swear not to believe in God. In fact, Thich Nhat Hanh freely mentions God in his books for Westerners. I even still say some Baha’i prayers that I’m fond of. But, Buddhist practice is just practical and peaceful and takes me for who and what I am. Progress without pressure. I like that. I like that a lot.

Here's the practice, I've been using as a basic framework: Beginning Zen Practice. I also add a few other things I've learned along the way, but it's a good place to start for anyone interested.

May all beings be happy!

Friday, January 7, 2011

Om Sweet Om

I’ve noticed that a lot of unenrolled Baha’is end up drifting towards more liberal religious communities for fellowship -- they start attending worship services with the Unitarians, or liberal Quakers, or Buddhists, or one of the more tolerant Christian churches. I’m not really much of a social person, so I wasn’t looking real hard -- for one thing, I had just come out of a bad experience with religious membership and wasn’t anxious to repeat it. In fact, unless God strikes me with a lightening bolt or something, I don’t plan on ever signing up, or swearing fealty, or undergoing an initiatory ritual with any organized faith.

I have, however, expanded my study of yoga. I was into yoga before I became a Baha’i; I first read the Bhagavad Gita when I was fourteen. For various reasons, with immaturity topping the list, I never really developed a spiritual practice -- it was all in my head, the way I thought the cosmos worked. It was a kind of homecoming, my conversion to the Baha’i Faith -- a return to Abrahamic religion. One debt I owe it is the habit of regular spiritual practice (what yogis call sadhana). Three times a day, I go back into my room for prayers and scripture reading. I had abandoned all things yogic when I became a Baha’i, but it seemed natural to go back to them once I got through the grieving process of leaving. And since I’m in my room praying three times a day anyway, adding a bit of mantra chanting and meditation is pretty easy to do.

Eventually, I went looking for meditation classes. I know how to meditate, but there are things of value to be learned from a teacher. What I found was the Ananda center in Chico, which to my delight and surprise, has worship services every Sunday.

Of course, I checked into the history of what is properly known as “ Ananda Sangha Worldwide” It was established in 1968 by Swami Kriyananda (aka J. Donald Walters), who was tossed out of the Self-Realization Fellowship, and founded his own group. Both of them claim to be true heirs of Yogananda’s teachings, and I was treated to the drearily familiar spectacle of mutual recriminations, lawsuits, scandals, and just plain pettiness that seems to go along with religious infighting. *sigh* People are the same everywhere. There are several other SRF offshoots, but I have the impression that Ananda is the largest -- or maybe it’s just the one that’s in northern California, or the one that irritates SRF the most.

Deciding who is right in these controversies doesn’t matter to me, because I have no intention of becoming a member. Membership appears to be a fairly complex matter anyway, requiring a series of meditation classes, and a final initiation that not everyone passes. I go to Ananda because it‘s available to me, within easy driving distance and has regular Sunday Services with nice and welcoming people. The beginner’s meditation class falls on an evening inconvenient for me, so the question of membership hasn’t even arisen.

There are some similarities to the Baha’i community -- one being that it’s small, which is o.k. because I’m used to that and would feel totally out of place in a large congregation. Maybe a dozen people show up on Sunday, although there are people I’ve never met who show up to the meditation classes and other workshops. The other is the quiet, meditative atmosphere. But otherwise, the differences are huge -- and to be fair, not all the drawbacks are on the Baha’i side of the equation.

The first thing I was exposed to when I encountered the Baha’is was the basic teachings and history of the Faith. For Ananda, virtually everything I know has come from my own research. Without it, I’d still be unclear about whose pictures are up on the altar. The service consists of prayers, repeated after the leader (I’m still unsure what her proper title is), chanting hymns with a repetitive line in English (you only get Sanskrit on special occasions), silent meditation, short readings out of Kriyananda’s books -- one an affirmation and prayer, the other a short exposition which includes a quote from a gospel and one from the Gita, and a little sermon. Unlike the Baha’is, who say they don’t proselytize even while they are doing it, the Anandans really don’t. I’ve read that those in the Yogananda tradition feel that if you are meant to follow the Master, then you will -- otherwise you’re free to hang around while still following your own spiritual path. Nobody has tried to convert or convince me of anything.

Ananda is also far more accessible, at least locally, than the Baha’i Faith is. There are, or there were when I was a member, thirty Baha’is in Chico. If they’ve gone with the current Plan and established open devotional meetings, the only way to find that out would be to call -- either a stranger, or someone I might have met briefly years ago. Even setting aside my online reputation among Baha’is, that would be intimidating. They have no website; they have no center -- even in a place as large as Sacramento, if you want to worship with Baha’is, you’re going to someone’s house and you’ll have to call to get the schedule and directions. All I did to get to Ananda was find their website, follow Google maps’ driving directions, and simply show up one Sunday morning in late September.

Now, the downside: Like most Hindu-inspired Meditation Movements (HIMMs), Ananda is basically run by renunciates -- a kind of monasticism that is forbidden to Baha’is. They essentially make up a clerical class. Now, mostly this wouldn’t bother me -- I only see these folks when they come up from Ananda Village for the weekend. (The local community has a lay minister.) But it led to a very uncomfortable moment during the Purification Ceremony, which occurs before the Sunday service proper. On a normal Sunday, you write out a problem or issue on a slip of paper, then when it’s your turn, you come up at burn it in a candle flame, essentially handing it over to God. I really liked that little ritual, and I sometimes whisper a Baha’i prayer while I’m up there -- “Remover of Difficulties” or the healing prayer or some such. But when a swami is there, things get much more formalized, and I was shocked to see people coming up to this guy in blue robes, kneeling and asking for purification. It sort of freaked me out. In my mind, I was rushing back to Baha’u’llah asking “What do I do? What do I do?” In retrospect, I could have just quietly sat the whole thing out, and nobody would have said anything -- but I was unprepared for this, and that made me very anxious. What I ended up doing was sitting on a chair that was set aside for older people who have trouble kneeling, but I was dreadfully nervous and it all felt wrong. I didn’t realize I had such a anti-clerical bias -- never really thought about it until then. Now, this gentleman, when he took off the robes and was just wearing his civvies, was an affable fellow and nice to talk to -- it was nothing personal; it’s just that priestly role I found intimidating.

Another tiny issue is that the services, so deliberately patterned after Protestant worship, seem oddly old-fashioned in an era where mantra CDs are selling like hot cakes. In following Yogananda’s tradition, they are also adhering to a presentation that was quite understandable in the middle of the 20th century, but seems unnecessarily cautious now. But, obviously, it can’t be too off-putting, because, I do keep going. Here's one of their favorite chants, just to give a feel for the kind of thing they sing at these services:

The final downside is that, at least so far, I’m not hugely impressed by their books. It’s not like when I read Baha’u’llah, who just grabbed ahold of my heart and tossed it into heaven. Of course, I can’t claim that I have studied it any detail, but if I’m going to study Hinduism, I’d rather go to old sources like the Bhagavad-Gita or Upanishads. For such a famous book, I found “Autobiography of a Yogi” to be a disappointment, chock-full of improbable miracle stories -- which is too bad, I guess. To be fair, I might get a clearer picture of the teachings from other books, which I’ll probably read as I go along. These are nice people; I like the community, but I don’t think I share their beliefs -- at least not their distinctive ones. But then, nobody has really asked me to. And I can overlook a lot when people are kind enough to “Om” over me before I had surgery, and call to check on my recovery after.

Anyway, who am I to be too critical? As early as 1937, Yogananda had initiated 150,000 people in this country -- a membership number the American Baha’i community has yet to achieve; and these groups are still growing, with full initiates being a minority among those who being served. Even though his movement broke apart, it has had a lot more influence on a lot more people’s lives than the Baha’i Faith could even dream of, and it certainly has rendered a service to me.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Deeds, Not Words?

I happened to be reading Persian Hidden Words #5 today, which contains the much-quoted admonition "Let deeds, not words, be your adorning." It's clear why everyone, not matter what their take on the Baha'i Writings, has this one as a favorite. Of course, one should "walk the walk", rather than just "talk the talk".
There's really nothing to contextualize, puzzle out, discuss, or argue about.

But what never seems to come up is just how difficult putting that simple practice is. The whole of one's spiritual life, at least the part of it that is involved in dealing with the world outside yourself, is contained in it. If we start asking ourselves, do we really act according to our ideals, do we put into practice the things we say we believe? -- if we are honest with ourselves, we will come up woefully short. Even more likely, we'll come up with reasons why, in that particular situation, we must act otherwise.

For a concrete example: All of the world's great religions insist on generosity towards and compassion for the poor. Yet, most of us don't do much about that -- write a check once in a while, maybe. And, when actually confronted with a poor person, we don't feel compassion so much as a sense of unease, maybe even fear. I've always figured that the emphasis placed on this in scriptures is because the poor just aren't very attractive on their own -- to the eyes of the non-poor they often seem ignorant, unhygenic, and possibly even dangerous.

So, what of our lofty ideals then? "Deeds, not words" just crumbles sometimes, without our even thinking about it.

Nobody lives up to their ideals -- nobody. That's why, in email discussions, I was always would feel a bit uncomfortable if the word "hypocrite" got thrown around. On some level, all of us fit that description, because none of us act entirely according to what we believe. So, I never thought it made much sense to point fingers. Just about the only way not to be a hypocrite would be not to have ideals in the first place -- which would not be a good way to go.

When I look at myself, I find that for me to act in a spiritual way in all my interactions with others, it leaves me feeling very vulnerable. When I do otherwise, a lot of times, it's because the situation or person makes me feel defensive. In order, to treat others with compassion, we have to drop our protective walls. But, I struggle with that, because in some cases those walls are necessary -- and it becomes a matter of whether or not the harm I fear is realistic or not., or whether the risk outweighs the spiritual imperative.

When you think about it, a great deal of human evil boils down to unwarranted fear.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Ask: Does it help?

It's been a long time since I've written anything in detail about my spiritual life, because I've been going through some changes. One of the obstacles that I'm confronting in trying to hang on to what is good in the Writings of Baha'u'llah and let go of the rest is that so much in the Faith is over-laden with emotional baggage for me. With the light comes the shadow, and the shadow is a damned distraction. Right now, all my friends are in a tizzy about Peter Khan's latest pronouncement -- something that at one time would have had me blogging in outrage and disgust.

With all respect and affection to my online Baha'i friends, I've come to regard that stuff a waste of time. The administration of any religion is a worldly activity, and enmeshed in wordly considerations, and we were foolish to expect it to be any different. Either promoting or criticizing the latest plan from Haifa is irrelevant to anyone's spiritual growth -- which is the whole point of being religious in the first place.

I was reading the first page of the Kitab-i-Iqan the other day -- that's the passage that sort of hit me square between the eyes when I was first investigating the Faith. Baha'u'llah there insists that all that is worldly, and the sayings of religious authorities need to be cast aside by the seeker -- and that seems to me as true now as the day I first read it.

For me, the question "Do you believe that Baha'u'llah is the Manifestation of God for this Day?" had become rather like the question "Do you believe that Jesus is the Son of God?" A denial would be completely false, but an affirmation isn't right either, because these are, very simply, the wrong questions. In fact, don't ask me anything about belief, because I don't think belief is all that important. It's just an egoistic construct that, because of human weakness, we seem to need. "I belong to this; I am called by this name; we are really important." And notice, I said "we" -- I'm not immune; I understand it. But I also understand that this need caused me a great deal of heartache. And, in the end, that kind of identification just bolsters up the self.

A better question would be "Do you love Baha'u'llah?", and there, I could give you an unqualified "Yes". Not a day goes by that I don't read his Writings; it's a part of my spiritual practice that I couldn't do without.

But the question I ask myself most often is "Does it help me on the Path, or doesn't it?" And, if it doesn't help, I should be trying to detach myself from it.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Ten Years of Being An Unenrolled Baha'i

This Naw-Ruz marked the tenth anniversary of my resignation from the Baha'i Faith, and although I've not been saying much online, I thought I shouldn't let such a significant anniversary pass without comment. As many people know, I left in a blaze of anger after discovering how the American NSA cracked down on the Baha'i magazine *dialogue* back in the mid-80s, but this was a last straw after many years of frustration in trying to make a Baha'i community work. I could maintain a sacrificial attitide as long as I believed the problems were essentially local, but when I found they ran top to bottom -- well, what more is there to sacrifice for?

But I could not abandon Baha'u'llah. To this day, I recite His Writings, meditate on His name, perform His prayers, and count myself His follower.

My experience, though, over the last decade has been a mixed bag -- as life usually is. I became very active on email forums, wrote articles, etc. partly as a much-needed emotional release, and partly as a means of making sense of what had happened to the Faith.

Postive things about my leaving, and being in Baha'i cyberspace:
- I was free to work out my issues in a way that I never could have done had I stayed. I'm really not that courageous, nor was I technically savvy enough, when I first came into cyberspace, to maintain anonymity. If I was still enrolled, I'd have been terrified of that phone call from the ABM with every email post. I simply couldn't have done it. I can be eloquent and passionate in writing, but I turn into a big stammering puddle of nerves in direct confrontation.
- I learned so much! I got to associate with Baha'is more intelligent, knowledgeable, and creative than I ever knew existed. A whole new world opened up for me.
-The online translations of the Writings. It was the Writings of Baha'u'llah that made me a Baha'i, and it was just wonderful to find these once-hidden treasures.
- I'm a lot less frustrated now that I don't have to do all that administrative stuff, which so dominates Baha'i community life. I neither know nor care what year Plan it is.
- I made some wonderful friends out there.
- I felt freer to experiment with other religious ideas and practices -- something I had abandoned when I became a Baha'i.
- I'm more firmly grounded in reality, with a more realistic sense of the Baha'i Faith's place in the world.
- I like myself better, without that oppressive sense of constant failure -- I don't teach enough, I don't give enough to the Fund. I'm more concerned with the development of my own spiritual qualities e.g. whether or not I am behaving in a compassionate way. My sense of spirituality is broader, and not limited to the Baha'i mold.
- I enjoyed expressing my own creativity; I like research, and writing, and never would have had the opportunity elsewhere.

Negative things:
- I came out into cyberspace, hurting and very naive. I got too swept into online politics, which at times warped my judgement. I tried very hard to be honest and fair, but I sometimes got carried away and did things I now regret.
- I wish I'd never known how ugly Baha'is can get at even the mildest criticisms of their sacred cows.
- I sometimes miss the people in my local community. For several years, I kept in contact, even going to Holy Day celebrations and other non-administrative events. But about five years after I left, one of the newer locals discovered my identity, named me a covenant-breaker and while my old friends don't shun me if I run into them around town, I'm not invited to any Baha'i events anymore. Baha'is, for the most part, are good people; it's the whole system that's really the problem.
- Although I made some great friends online, there are some people out there that I wish I'd never met.

Anyway, life goes on. I have less to say than I once did, but I'm still walking the Path like I always did -- and, God willing, always will.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Piercing Heaven

Several years ago, in my meanderings through spiritual literature, I ran across the saying "A short prayer pierceth heaven." It kind of caught my attention, because sometimes I had a attitude of "If a little prayer is good, then a whole lot is better" -- which isn't necessarily the case. Thinking about it, mini-prayers are probably the most natural way to pray, which we do without thinking about it. If we hear of a friend of relative in the hospital we'll say -- either out loud or to ourselves -- "Oh, God, let them be all right." I don't know about other mothers, but a short one-sentence prayer asking God to look after one or the other of my children bubbles up naturally when circumstances warrent.

I've never been a big user of the Baha'i prayer book. I always say the obligatory prayers, and I have a few short, memorized favorites. The written prayers are beautiful and inspiring -- and I preferred them to the kind of extemporaneous prayer I grew up with, when I was in a group. A single person praying for a group always felt wrong to me, but Baha'i prayers belong to all of us. On my own, however, it was often difficult for me to find a prayer that says what I really want to say. And what I want to say is usually pretty simple and direct. Almost always, before I go to work, I say "Oh, God! Make me a good teacher today. Let me give the children what they need." Then, I'll add a couple of names of God, just like you find at the end of Baha'i written prayers.

That's not entirely a selfless prayer, by the way -- obviously, if I do well in my job it benefits me as well as the children I teach.

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about ways to develop compassion within myself -- a virtue that all of us could pay a bit more attention to. And there isn't a written prayer that specifically addresses that, so I just say "Oh God! Let me show compassion to everyone who crosses my path." It's simple, to the point, and what more do I need to say?

Maybe that's why such prayers pierce heaven -- they focus on what really matters.