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.