Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Tantra

There's another way to facilitate non-attachment.

Through acceptance.

Through a conscious acceptance -- rather than the sanyassin's rejection -- one begins to demystify and thus weaken the influence of things once thought foreign, dangerous, and dark.

Like Harry Potter repeating the dreaded name of Lord Voldemort when nobody else will, the conscious acceptance and examination of those things that have influence over us is the first step towards gaining control.

To be sure, it's not a rigid control I'm thinking of. It's not control through confrontation, by directly pushing against those forces pushing against you. On the contrary, it's like judo -- using your opponent's momentum to your advantage. To be successful, you must bring your opponent close.

It's scary in the beginning.

For me, the process began with my reawakening. I had been out of the Center for about seven years, when out of the blue a psychic presence reappeared in my daily consciousness. It was the very same inner flame that had sustained me through much of my time as Guru's disciple.

By that time, though, things had changed.

I was no longer a celibate renunciate. I was a husband and father. I had spent four years in the Navy and, naturally, cursed and drank like a sailor. I was in graduate school and planning a career. It was all counter to what I had thought were the necessary prerequisites to the maintenance of a psychic awakening.

What was I to do?

I wasn't going to renounce my family and run back to the Center. I wasn't going to quit school ("I love college!"), shun alcohol, and suggest to my wife that we live "as brother and sister." And in any case, the fact that I had thoroughly embraced the world didn't seem to matter to the new psychic movement that had awakened within me.

Instead, I was faced with the task of trying to weave the two together -- my reborn spiritual life with my outer life.

As a practical matter, it seemed strange. During my time in the Center, I was in the practice of resisting inharmonious impulses by mentally pushing them into Guru. When a random or disagreeable thought caught my attention, I'd empty it into Guru with a sense of gratitude. I'd do this to his picture on my shrine, to him personally when I was in his presence, or into my psychic sense of him during the day.

I was always resisting such forces and emptying myself into Guru.

With my reawakening, however, I began to do the opposite. I began to accept. As I walked to school each morning doing my walking meditation, I mentally embraced or to be more precise, with an almost Pacific-like sense of broadness I embraced every movement within me (good and bad).

What I had once, in years past, emptied into Guru, I now absorbed myself (albeit into a much broader sense of my self).

It wasn't, of course, just during my walk to school that I employed this broad mode of acceptance (rather than resistance and rejection). I accepted all that I experienced. When I'd lose my temper at home and blow a gasket, I accepted the experience and somewhere I quietly registered the observation that "this is being mad."

After leaving a party, I'd note to myself: "this is being drunk." During sex, I'd notice -- in just a second of almost clinical remove -- "this is having sex." Through it all -- surprisingly to me at first -- the psychic flame that had rekindled within me continued to grow, undisturbed by any action I took.

Apparently, there was not necessarily a causal link between my physical, emotional, and mental actions and my further psychic development. This both shocked me at the time and opened up new vistas.

Old distinctions I had once held between "inner" and "outer" or "spiritual" and "worldly" began to disappear. For the first time, a non-dualistic sense of the Divine -- i.e., the concept that all is Brahman (not just the good stuff) -- began to feel like a living reality and not just some philosophical idea.

I had discovered the Tantra.

Arguably the most controversial subject in the modern practice of yoga, Tantra is the art of conscious acceptance.

In practice, it's the opposite of sanyassa or rejection, but its practitioners are at risk of suffering from the same mistake -- mistaking the means for the end. The difference, however, is that while the renunciate revels in his rejection of the world the tantrika indulges himself. As the much quoted Georg Feuerstein puts it, "Their main error is to confuse tantric bliss ... with ordinary orgasmic pleasure."

Like his sanyassin cousin, the tantrika is prone to buying into that system's self-reinforcing myth. For the sanyassin, the self-serving myth is that sex is inherently bad. That by having sex, one falls; one is stained forever. For the tantrika, the myth is that sex is inherently good, that it's "mystical." Thus, for the practitioner of what many derisively call "pop-tantra" or "California tantra" the sex drive must not just be accepted, but must be given free reign.

The word "tantra," however, simply means "to weave" and it's this core principle that's important. To accept and to weave into the fabric of one's day-to-day consciousness all aspects of existence -- the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly, the divine and the undivine.

In doing so -- in accepting rather than rejecting -- such distinctions begin to lose their meaning.

(Wikipedia provides a good overview of tantra here. See also its entry for "Neotantra." For a list of books on the subject of Tantra, see the Vedanta Society's site here.)


What a photo of a young Anandamayi Ma above. Do take the time to visit the wonderful collection of photos at this site.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Sanyassa & Tyaga


I used to confuse the means for the end.

For those of us who spent any appreciable time on a path that required some measure of serious renunciation, this confusion is woven into the very fabric of the path of yoga itself. Here I speak of the confusion between renunciation (the means to an end) and the state of non-attachment (the end itself).

To be precise, it's not really confusion. It's conflation.

When you're on a path -- like that of the Sri Chinmoy Center -- which requires most of its followers to embrace a severe renunciation of the world and its pleasures (and pains), the tendency amongst the disciples is to conflate the physical, emotional, and mental act of the renunciation itself with the goal of achieving a state of non-attachment to the things of the world.

That's what I did anyway.

I would take one look at the photo of Swami Vivekananda above -- the very image of renunciation -- and say: "That's my goal." It's funny to think about now, but I remember that shortly after becoming a disciple -- while I was still in high school -- I would day dream about what it would be like to show up to my 25-year high school reunion "god realized." I imagined myself walking into some gathering of my former classmates -- all older and ravaged by time and the world -- with my flowing ochre robes and glowing face.

Renunciation and non-attachment, however, are not the same thing.

As should be apparent to you by now, when I think of these concepts, my mind floats back to the stories and heroes of my spiritual childhood, in particular to those of Sri Ramakrishna and his disciples.

For those of you who don't know, Sri Ramakrishna was a peasant.

Born and raised in the country to parents of modest means, he remained illiterate his entire life. He was barely able to sign his own name.

As Sri Aurobindo would note much later, Ramakrishna's intelligence was intuitive. He seized knowledge by identification and insight, by those processes once thought mysterious but now being explained, at least in part, by psychologists and other researchers as reported in books like Malcolm Gladwell's Blink.

I'm sure this was part of Thakur's charm. He could seize the truth of things quickly and then communicate that truth simply.

From time to time, for example, visitors to Ramakrishna's small room at the Dakshineswar temple grounds would ask him the meaning of one of India's most sacred texts: the Bhagavad Gita.

"The meaning of the Gita," he would say, "can be found by repeating the word itself."

"... gita-gita-gi-ta-gi-ta-gi-ta-gi-ta-gi-ta-gi-tagi-tagi ..."

"Tagi!"

"Tagi" is suggestive of the Bengali word for non-attachment: tyaga. That's the heart of the Gita's message: embracing action and doing one's duty in the world without being attached to the result of that action.

A linguist might argue that an equally correct translation of the word "tyaga" is renunciation. The linguist might say that, in essence, the Bengali words for renunciation (i.e., "sanyassa" and "tyaga") are one and the same.

Perhaps, but my point -- really a point I lifted from Sri Aurobindo's classic Essays on the Gita -- is a practical one, not a linguistic one. If the message of the Gita -- the philosophical backbone of most modern yoga practice -- were truly renunciation (sanyassa), then the story would never have gotten off the ground.

In essence, the story of the Gita is of the warrior Arjuna's conundrum: should he renounce fighting in an impending battle against his extended family or should he do his duty as a warrior? Arjuna looks to Krishna for advice. If physical renunciation (sanyas) had been Krishna's message in the Gita, then there'd be no story. When Arjuna laments that he'd rather run away and wonder the Himalayas than fight, Krishna would have said: "go for it." End of story.

Krishna, however, does not endorse this physical renunciation or rejection of the world. His message to Arjuna is to act with vigor -- to fight and kill -- but not to become attached to the results of his actions, whether bad or good. Call it what you will, but that's the message of the Gita.

That's the message of this post, too.

There's a huge difference between mastery of the physical, emotional and mental act of rejection -- which made up such a huge part of our lives as disciples -- and mastery of the state of non-attachment. In fact, the discipline of renunciation -- as necessary as I think it is -- almost by definition is the practice of negative attachment (as opposed to non-attachment).

The approach of Alcoholics Anonymous is a good example of this dynamic. Once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic. They have people who have been off the sauce for two or three decades who still stand up and introduce themselves by saying, "Hello, my name is Joe, and I'm an alcoholic."

As complete a physical renunciation it is for an alcoholic to be sober for 30 years, one would never confuse that renunciation with mastery or with non-attachment to drink. On the contrary, he is as attached to the bottle as he was 30 years ago when he had his last drink. It's just a negative attachment (rather than an affirmative one).

Think of it this way: does perfect renunciation of the act of driving a car make you a competent driver? The question answers itself.

To master driving, you must drive.

Swami Vivekananda knew this distinction. He knew that to truly master the world, one must embrace it. How could you learn to be a potter if you refused to touch the clay?

Ultimately, however, we're not really talking about driving a car or touching clay, are we? No. We're talking about something else: grappling with our human nature.

Inevitably, we're talking about sex.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Metaphysical Assumptions

Ethics aren't everything.

Although Guru's misconduct towards Sevika, Rupavati, Phulela and Suchatula was just that -- misconduct -- I'm not convinced that unethical behavior as a rule proves that an individual has no spiritual development. Before I can take up that subject, however, I think I should slow down and lay some groundwork.

I believe that consciousness precedes matter.

In other words, I'm not an atheist.

As a result of their experiences in the Center, I realize that some of my friends have become atheists. Some have embraced a purely scientific cosmology. In their view -- whether they've stopped to articulate it this way or not -- matter comes before consciousness. Without the brain, there is no mind. Without life, there is no existence.

That's a perfectly acceptable assumption about the nature of existence. It's just not mine. Which, by the way, is not to say that I buy into the somewhat simplistic notion that I must -- as a believer -- reject the workings of the rational mind. I certainly do not believe that, as I hope is apparent to those who have followed this memoir so far.

On the contrary, as Sri Aurobindo explains so well in The Life Divine, now more than ever the path of yoga requires a rational mind.

For that vast field of evidence and experience which now begins to reopen its gates to us, can only be safely entered when the intellect has been severely trained to a clear austerity; seized on by unripe minds, it lends itself to the most perilous distortions and misleading imaginations and actually in the past encrusted a real nucleus of truth with such an accretion of perverting superstitions and irrationalising dogmas that all advance in true knowledge was rendered impossible.

(The Life Divine (1st Ed. 1949) The Greystone Press, Ch. II, "The Two Negations: The Materialist Denial," p. 12.)

The point is, simply, that if you believe that nothing exists outside the material -- that there is no higher force or divine purpose to our life here on Earth -- then for you, ethics may very well be the end all and be all of human behavior.

If this is your view, then there may be little more for us to discuss.

My further musings about the interplay between the rigid requirements of ethical or moral standards and the much broader, elastic, and sometimes conflicting demands of yoga will mean nothing to you if you're a strict materialist. You're more than welcome to come along for the ride -- don't get me wrong -- I'm just trying to head off any quite justifiable arguments that my analyses are based upon a belief in the mystical (because, of course, they are).

Writing about metaphysical assumptions -- necessary though it may be -- presents two difficulties for me.

First of all, I don't want to come off as a blowhard. I don't have access to any secret knowledge or know any better than anyone else. These are just some of the ideas -- hypotheses really -- that inform my thinking about Guru and the Center experience in general. Like any hypotheses, mine may be wrong.

Second, there's always a risk that writing distorts the reality of these ideas. These metaphysical ideas -- to the extent they are real -- strike me as organic. Writing, by necessity, is linear. Reducing these elusive and hard to understand principles to writing -- and to a lesser extent just reasoning about them -- tends to strip them of their natural complexity and turns them into mechanistic rules.

As Sri Aurobindo notes, above, the untrained mind tends to encrust "a real nucleus of truth with such an accretion of perverting superstitions and irrationalising dogmas that all advance in true knowledge" is rendered impossible.

Nevertheless, I still think that we should consider a few more ideas before moving on. In addition to assuming that consciousness is a prerequisite for matter --- that the idea precedes the creation -- I also assume a non-dual monism.

In other words, I assume that we are all individual and unique expressions of a single whole consciousness. I prefer to conceive of the Divine as a formless energy or force; I tend to avoid the practice of anthropomorphizing.

I think of that permanent individual within each of us as the psychic being or soul, if you prefer that term. (It might be worth clicking here for a short refresher course on my interpretation of the lexicon of the Center.)

As I conceive it, the general purpose of the psychic being over time -- over the course of incarnations -- is to slowly gain strength and influence over nature.

I was trying to come up with a lighthearted analogy to help explain this process and I thought about gaming. For a simple example, consider computer chess. On my MacBook Air, I can play chess against the computer and I'm given a sliding difficulty scale that I can adjust for my level of play. When I make the game easy -- very easy -- I can beat the computer. When I make the game hard, I lose almost immediately.

Somewhere in the middle and the game is a challenge -- sometimes I win, sometimes I don't.

I think of spiritual evolution in much the same way. As the psychic being takes on more and more experience, it's strength -- and thus its influence -- grows. At some point, its influence begins to creep into the organism's conscious mind. This is when the seeker is born. With time, the psychic being begins to establish beachheads in the body, emotional life, and mind of the seeker. Eventually, that annexation becomes complete.

Is it really complete, though, and at what level of difficulty?

I think, for example, of my own time in the Center. It's all well and good that as a young twenty-something -- physically fit, emotionally detached, uneducated, without a care in the world -- I could experience a trance-like state, even if just for a few moments. But what happens when the game is made a little more difficult?

What happens when the demands of age, experience, education, spouse, children, and career all up the ante?

In my case, in hindsight, it seems my psychic being's influence was strong enough to annex much of my young and undeveloped psyche. Whether it's strong enough to hold the ground it already won years ago under the pressures of a modern, domesticated life is still an open question and, perhaps more to the point, still an ongoing process.

It is in this way that the ongoing process of evolution strikes me as similar to computer chess. As the core of your being becomes stronger and more stable, the difficulty level is ramped up (whether in this life or the next). In this view, the life of renunciation (sanyassa) is not the goal; it's just a means to the more complete goal of non-attachment (tyaga).

I touched on this idea in my post about Anugata.

The fact that a particular spiritual master may have experienced something profound and all encompassing when living under certain limited circumstances -- say as an all renouncing sadhu -- doesn't necessarily mean that such "self mastery" carries over when the game is leveled up, when the sadhu begins to embrace the world and extend his psychic influence over forces he had hitherto renounced.

Ultimately, that's what I think yoga is all about. It's about embracing life in all its forms.

"All life is Yoga."

The photo above is of the holy Shiva lingam at the Amarnath temple.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Ethical Case

What Guru did was wrong.

If you believe the allegations made by Sevika, Rupavati, Phulela, and Suchatula -- as I do -- then the ethical case against Guru's behavior is straightforward. His conduct was clearly unethical (or immoral if you prefer that term).

(I wish I could footnote, because having re-read each of their testimonials, I feel compelled to note here that Phulela's testimonial strays a bit from what she experienced directly to things she either heard from others or assumed was happening. While I accept as true those experiences she recounts from first hand experience (i.e., having sex with Guru), I don't embrace some of her other accusations (i.e., "there were signs [Guru] was also having relations with men" or the implication that Guru's misconduct was widely known).

In the most general way, Guru misrepresented himself to seekers like me who joined the path thinking him to be a lifelong celibate yogi. While my thinking about the subject of sex has evolved over the last three decades (something I intend to post about in the near future), at the time I was actively searching for a guru (1980-81), celibacy in a master was a selling point.

The Bhagwan Sri Rajneesh or "Osho" -- and his more permissive attitude toward sex -- was much in the news back then, and not in a good way. I was looking for the opposite. Sri Chinmoy presented himself as the anti-Osho. Guru's path was strict; celibacy was required.

I suspect that had I known back then that Guru was having sex -- with his disciples no less -- I would not have joined the path.

As things turned out, however, I'm not sure I was harmed by this deception. My life was better for having met Guru, for being his disciple. Nevertheless, Guru hid his sexual activity from me (and most others) and this deception was wrong. No question about it.

I'm pained more by Guru's treatment of Sevika, Rupavati, Phulela, and Suchatula (and the other unnamed disciples like them). There's no question that Guru's conduct, as alleged by these former disciples, was unethical.

It constituted not only the implicit misrepresentation Guru made to all disciples about the status of his sex life, but compounded that deceit by breaching the sacred trust those women gave to him. Guru abused his authority.

Over the years, I've heard both disciples and former disciples downplay these allegations by saying that, even if the allegations are true, the acts described were consensual. In other words, these women shouldn't be complaining -- they all could have said "no" to Guru's request.

While I agree that this is literally true -- each of these women could have, and in hindsight probably wish they had, said "no" from the beginning -- as a practical matter, assuming these women were capable of consent ignores reality. Guru held all the power. Their lives were consecrated to the concept of unconditional surrender to the divine in Guru. By definition, their ideal was to say "yes" to anything asked of them.

This concept was litigated not so long ago in a lawsuit brought by a former disciple of Swami Kriyananda. In that case, the young woman disciple alleged, among other things, that the swami and the spiritual community he founded -- Ananda -- had perpetrated a fraud against her. In the course of discovery in that case, the swami admitted to having sex with a number of female devotees.

In court, the swami claimed the acts were consensual. The jury believed otherwise. In his successful closing argument, plaintiff's attorney Michael J. Flynn put it to the jury this way:

Why isn't it consensual?

He's the Swami, she's a young female nun adoring him. Believing that he's all these things. The power in that, in his position as a swami and her position as a nun, when he asks for this kind of conduct, is something that you the jury are going to have to address and comes to grips with. How can that be?

Reverend Cooper-White said, "It can't be consensual. The mind of the person here, and the mind and the power of the person here, prohibits consent."

Why?

Because of not only the undue influence, but the mind of the person who's getting sucked into this situation. The mind of the person believing that this man can take her to God. But the fact that he has all of the accouterments, he's got all the tools of power, he's the Spiritual Director, he's supposedly a man of God, he's got power of employment over everyone in the community. He's got power over their housing, power over their spiritual lives. So a young woman coming in, idolizing and adoring someone like Swami Kriyananda is going to submit. She's going to submit against her better judgment, and against what's good for her.

If you believe that the principal allegations made by Sevika, Rupavati, Phulela and Suchatula are true -- as I do -- then the ethical case against Guru's misconduct is straightforward.

Guru was wrong to portray himself as a lifelong celibate yogi.

He abused his power over Sevika, Rupavati, Phulela and Suchatula (and apparently others) by coercing them to do things they didn't want to do.

He breached the sacred trust these women gave to him.

For this I am truly sad.

The photo above is of another great sculpture -- The Head of Justice -- by Audrey Flack. Check out her other amazing work here.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Paradox

Is it possible that both were true?

Is it possible that Guru both realized something profound in his silent meditation and was emotionally dysfunctional in his active life?

I think it is.

Over the remaining posts of this blog, I'll do my best to articulate how I've reached this conclusion. It will take a fair bit of deconstruction, not just of the myth of Guru himself but perhaps more importantly much of the language that permeated the Center-life.

We'll also have to think about ethics and yoga. Are the demands of ethics and yoga always, necessarily, the same?

We'll have to think about sex, too.

Let me first emphasize, however, that this conclusion of mine -- that Guru was both extremely advanced in some ways, and flawed in others -- is not for everyone. It's just the conclusion that works the best for me. I'm not putting forth this theory as the be all and end all assessment of Sri Chinmoy. How could it be? I only experienced a very thin slice of the human dynamo that was Guru.

It's just that neither of the other dominant takes on Guru -- that he was either a fraud (or a fraud "with powers," whatever that means) or that he was a celibate, virgin, God-realized avatar -- jibed with my own developing understanding. I needed some other explanation to make sense of what seemed to me to be the conflicting evidence.

Guru facilitated within me some inner development that, as I'll discuss in further posts, I couldn't have achieved without him. From my first meditation on his photo to my peak experience at Rutgers, Guru tended my growing psychic being until it could walk on its own -- and then he prodded me to leave the Center.

Does the fact that he was having sex with Sevika during that time period change that?

In essence, that's what initially led me to look for a theory that would explain both of these phenomena. It is simply my assessment as it stands today. It's the solution that has allowed me to square the evidence as I've experienced it.

Like with any other deconstruction, however, there's the risk that by breaking up the Sri Chinmoy experience -- my Sri Chinmoy experience -- into its component parts and analyzing them piece by piece, we may lose a more holistic, more complete mosaic of who Guru actually was. I'll try to avoid that.

There's also the risk that some of my readers -- whose experience in the Center was quite different from mine -- might misinterpret any discussion of Guru's good qualities (of which he had many) as an effort to downplay or justify his bad actions towards some. On this score, I can only urge my burgeoning critics to read. Though it sounds redundant to my ear -- read closely.

An explanation is not necessarily the same thing as a justification.

Finally, a word of explanation to some of my friendly critics who, while not necessarily disputing the factual bases for the negative allegations made against Guru, nevertheless think writing about the subject is unwise. On this score, I can only say that I write for myself.

As I've written this memoir, from time to time I've had to wrestle with how to -- or whether to -- write about certain subjects. In those circumstances, I've tried to imagine what I'd like to read in the much later future. If I were a young seeker in some future life, what would I like to read?

Honestly, I prefer the truth, unshaded by the well-intentioned ignorance of others.

Long ago, succeeding generations of Sri Ramakrishna's disciples decided it would be better for us later seekers if we didn't know that Thakur was a little odd. That he asked some young men -- boys really -- to stand before him undressed. The master, it was said, could divine the bent of a young man's mind by which side of his balls his johnson hung.

Or that despite the impression a reader might get from reading the translated and much edited Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna that Thakur never touched a woman and barely ever saw his wife Sarada Devi, he actually slept in the same bed with his wife for some period of time.

Then there are the geniuses running Paramahansa Yogananda's organization, SRF. They, too, think they know better. They edited photographs of the master to remove the crucifix he often wore in public.

I suppose it's easy enough to understand the impulse of some to want to hide the dirty laundry. And, perhaps, doing so helps the after surviving organization -- whether its the Ramakrishna Order, SRF, or the Center in this case -- build up the myth, which in turn brings in new seekers. I don't know. Ultimately, however, it's a disservice to those of us "grownups" who would just as soon know the truth.

So, on the off chance that in some future life I'm looking for a nuanced view of what it was like to be a direct disciple of Sri Chinmoy, I'll leave the hagiography to others.

In the end, reaching an objective truth about who Guru was and what his true motivations were in a way satisfying to all will be impossible. Ultimately, the path of yoga is a solitary, individual affair, and each of us -- as individuals -- must reach a conclusion that is satisfactory to each of us.

Perhaps all we'll ever truly be able to do is to look back in perplexity and wonder, as my friend Sudhir often did, and ask: "Who was that guy?"

The photo above is my favorite shot of Paramahansa Yogananda. It really has nothing to do with the subject at hand, but I had to find some way to use it.