Archive for November, 2011



Shankara, the Great Yogi

Shankaracharya, or Shankara the teacher, is one of the greatest spiritual masters in the history of India. Shankara has often been called the greatest philosopher of India, if not of all time and of the entire world. His teaching is highly rational, clear and concise, as well deeply mystical, unfolding all the mysteries of Self, God, the universe, the Absolute and immortality. Most of what today is called Advaita (non-dualistic) Vedanta reflects the mark of his insights. He is the main classical teacher of the Advaita Vedanta tradition.

Shankara’s greatness has been hailed by such monumental modern gurus of India as Swami Vivekananda, Swami Sivananda of Rishikesh, Ramana Maharshi, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and Paramahansa Yogananda, to name a few. In fact, most of what Ramana Maharshi and Nisargadatta taught as Advaita is pure Shankara Advaita. Perhaps more notably, most of the original Yoga that came to the West starting with Vivekananda was styled “Yoga-Vedanta,” reflecting Shankara’s influence, and aimed at Self-realization through meditation, not simply at skill in asana practice. Indeed Shankara has been a much more dominant figure than Patanjali in for these great Yoga-Vedanta masters and for India as a whole historically. He has been regarded as a veritable manifestation of Lord Shiva, the king of the Yogis himself, evidenced by his name Shankara, which is one of the main names for Shiva as well.

Shankara is the main traditional teacher of Jnana Yoga or the “Yoga of Knowledge,” which is usually regarded as the highest yogic path. Even Patanjali states that liberation or Self-realization is gained by knowledge, not by any other means and makes Yoga a means of achieving that higher knowledge. Shankara’s many written works, including extensive commentaries on the Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, and Brahma Sutras, and his shorter philosophical works like Vivekachudamani or the Crest Jewel of Discrimination remain the core teachings behind Jnana Yoga even today.

However, people tend to forget that Shankara was a great Raja Yogi as well, one of the greatest of all time. Shankara discusses all the main aspects of Raja Yoga in his different books and shows he knew the secrets of the chakras, mantra, pranayama, concentration and meditation, as well as the intricacies of Nirvikalpa Samadhi, the highest yogic state. Shankara’s great poem Saundarya Lahiri or the Wave of Bliss remains the most famous work of Tantric Yoga and Shakti Sadhana reflecting all the secrets of Sri Vidya, mantra, yantra and Tantra.

In addition, Shankara composed more beautiful chants to the Hindu Gods and Goddesses that remain repeated and sung today probably more than any other poet. These include chants to Shiva, Sundari, Vishnu, Lakshmi, Sarasvati, Rama, Krishna and Ganesha. In these hymns he shows that he also mastered all the intricacies of Bhakti Yoga or the Yoga of Devotion and was not a mere dry philosopher. The musical cadence of some of his chants like Shivo’ham, or “I am Shiva,” has entered into the western kirtan movement as well.

Shankara is usually dated to the eighth century by western scholars but is placed much earlier by most Indian scholars. Though he lived only to the short age of 32, he left a legacy of teachings, temples and lineages that affected the whole of India and marked an entire era.

Shankara’s Non-dualistic Raja Yoga

It has often been highlighted, particularly by academics, that Shankara does refute Samkhya-Yoga philosophy, particularly in his commentaries on Vedic texts, and so appears to be against Yoga. This is a misunderstanding. It is not the practice of Yoga overall that Shankara criticizes but the ideas of Purusha and Prakriti as separate realities and that the Purushas are many, which do occur in Samkhya and Yoga Sutra philosophy. Counter to these ideas, Shankara proclaims Kevala Advaita or pure unity as the highest reality instead.

Shankara has a broader view of Raja Yoga as something more than the philosophy of Samkhya or Patanjali, and teaches his own system of Raja Yoga based upon Advaita or the non-dualistic view. It is not Yoga per se that Shankara refutes, but simply the dualistic aspects of Samkhya and Yoga philosophy, which are arguably not their real implication, or necessary for the practice of Yoga overall, which after all aims at unity consciousness.

Specifically, Shankara taught a fifteenfold Raja Yoga in his important short work Aparokshanubhuti. Aparoksha refers to the knowledge gained by direct perception in consciousness itself, which is beyond both reason and sensory perception. Anubhuti is the experience of that from moment to moment as the ground of one’s own being.

Shankara’s fifteenfold Yoga combines Raja Yoga and Jnana Yoga rather than the physical practices of Hatha Yoga. This fifteenfold Raja Yoga of Shankara is quite advanced, even for advanced Yogis. There may be not a single person in the world, much less in the West, who can follow it directly without already having undergone considerable training and preliminary support practices. We are not necessarily recommending that the ordinary Yoga student take up Shankara’s Raja Yoga as their primary practice, but rather to use it to see greater depths of Yoga that remain far beyond what modern Yoga has become, particularly in its commercial and exercise approaches. In it Shankara takes the main outer practices and techniques of Yoga and replaces them with inner meditational ways or ways of Self knowledge or the realization of non-duality.

Many religious traditions entail the importance of being quiet and still in mind and spirit for transformative and fundamental sacred growth to occur.

Silence is core to all spiritual practices.


Silence means being tranquil so that we can pay attention to the Voice that seeks out our hearts and minds.

“Let us be silent, that we may hear the whispers of the gods.”
~ Ralph Waldo Emmerson

Credits:
Music: Enya, “Isabella”
Visual media: “Deep Silence” By Joseph Eagle http://www.eaglezen.com

FAIR USE NOTICE
This video contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of environmental, political, human rights, economic, democracy, scientific, and social justice issues, etc. We believe this constitutes a ‘fair use’ of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.

“The universe as we know it is a joint product of the observer and the observed”
~ Teilhard de Chardin

The Internal Observer is a powerful tool for self-improvement and personal development. The Internal Observer is an aspect of the Self, the part of the psyche capable of self-observation, evaluation and reasoning. During our journey through life, we face different situations that are both challenges and learning experiences. Many times our paths seem to reach a crossroads. At these moments, the only resource to be accessed comes straight from the Light and the knowledge of ones own soul.

Through developing and installing an Internal Observer we widen our personal ability to be self-reflective and therefore enabling ourselves to be more aware of our environment, interactions and relationships.

“The physical world, including our bodies, is a response of the observer. We create our bodies as we create the experience of our world.”
~ Deepak Chopra

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This video may contain copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of environmental, political, human rights, economic, democracy, scientific, and social justice issues, etc. We believe this constitutes a ‘fair use’ of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.

Marianne Williamson interview on Spiritual Death and Rebirth in relation to spiritual awakening. “We are trained to live such smaller lives than we are capable of. It’s like little pieces of us die.” “If you were told you were not smart; you didn’t become less smart, but you fell asleep to the knowledge that you are smart.”

Your only obligation in any lifetime is to be true to yourself.
~Richard Bach

Try experiencing life through eyes of another who hold different points of view.
The key to making changes is to accept the necessity of change;
Change is part of a creative life and of creating a LIFE

A dog in China has gone a week without food in the chilly city of Qingdao, refusing to leave its owner’s grave. The loyal Chinese dog has touched the hearts of local villagers who, upset and concerned about its health, have brought the dog food and are building the loyal dog a kennel.

The loving yellow dog with a sweet face and soulful eyes belonged to a man named Lao Pan, who recently died at the age of 68.

Villagers were concerned after the loving pooch refused to eat or leave its master’s gravesite, and took the dog back to the village to feed it. He took the food, but still returned to take up guard at Pan’s final resting place

Now they are building a kennel to protect the dog from the cold local weather, and plan to continue feeding him for as long as he chooses to stay at the graveside of his owner.

The grave itself is a crude pile of dirt topped with bricks to mark its location. The accompanying video shows the loving pup being lured with food and attention. It’s heartbreaking.

Human suffering is one of religion’s most compelling mysteries: Why do the innocent suffer? Why does God permit evil? Is God helpless to act or does he choose not to? And if He chooses not to act, does that mean he is cruel? Or merely indifferent?

Vedanta takes the problem out of God’s court and places it firmly in our own. We can blame neither God nor a devil. Nothing happens to us by the whim of some outside agency: we ourselves are responsible for what life brings us; all of us are reaping the results of our own previous actions in this life or in previous lives. To understand this better we first need to understand the law of karma.

The word “karma” comes from the Sanskrit verb kri, to do. Although karma means action, it also means the result of action. Whatever acts we have performed and whatever thoughts we have thought have created an impression, both in our minds and in the universe around us. The universe gives back to us what we have given to it: “As ye sow, so shall ye reap” as Christ said. Good actions and thoughts create good effects, bad ones create bad effects.

Mental Imprints
Whenever we perform any action and whenever we think any thought, an imprint—a kind of subtle groove—is made upon the mind. These imprints or grooves are known as samskaras. Sometimes we are conscious of the imprinting process; just as often we are not. When actions and thoughts are repeated, the grooves become deeper. The combination of “grooves”— samskaras—creates our individual characters and also strongly influences our subsequent thoughts and actions. If we anger easily, for example, we create an angry mind that is predisposed to react with anger rather than with patience or understanding. As water when directed into a narrow canal gains force, so the grooves in the mind create canals of behavior patterns which become extraordinarily difficult to resist or reverse. Changing an ingrained mental habit literally becomes an uphill battle.

If our thoughts are predominantly those of kindness, love, and compassion, our character reflects it, and these very thoughts will be returned to us sooner or later. If we send out thoughts of hatred, anger, or pettiness, those thoughts will also be returned to us.

Our thoughts and actions aren’t so much arrows as boomerangs—eventually they find their way back home. The effects of karma may come instantly, later in life, or in another life altogether; what is absolutely certain, however, is that they will appear at some time or other. Until liberation is achieved, we live and we die within the confines of the law of karma, the chain of cause and effect.

Reincarnation
What happens at death if we haven’t attained liberation?

When a person dies, the only “death” is that of the physical body. The mind, which contains a person’s mental impressions, continues after the body’s death. When the person is reborn, the “birth” is of a new physical body accompanied by the old mind with the impressions or “grooves” from previous lives. When the environment becomes conducive, these samskaras again reassert themselves in the new life.

Thankfully, this process doesn’t go on eternally. When we attain God-realization or Self-realization, the law of karma is transcended, the Self gives up its identification with the body and mind, and regains its native freedom, perfection and bliss.

An Absurd Universe?
When we take a hard look around us, the world doesn’t seem to make much sense. If we go by appearances, it would seem that countless people have escaped the noose of fate: many an evil person has died peacefully in bed. Worse, good and noble people have suffered without apparent cause, their goodness being repaid by hatred and torture. Witness the Holocaust; witness child abuse.

If we look only on the surface, the universe appears absurd at best, malevolent at worst. But that’s because we’re not looking deeply; we’re only viewing this lifetime, seeing neither the lives that precede this one nor the lives that may follow. When we see a calamity or a triumph, we’re seeing only one freeze frame of a very, very long movie. We can see neither the beginning nor the end of the movie. What we do know, however, is that everyone, no matter how depraved, will eventually, through the course of many lifetimes and undoubtedly through much suffering, come to realize his or her own divine nature. That is the inevitable happy ending of the movie.

Karma=Fatalism?
Doesn’t the law of karma make Vedanta a cold and fatalistic philosophy?

Not in the slightest.

Vedanta is both personally empowering and deeply compassionate. First, if we have created—through our own thoughts and actions—the life that we are leading today, we also have the power to create the life that we will live tomorrow. Whether we like it or not, whether we want to take responsibility or not, that’s what we are doing every step of the way. Vedanta doesn’t allow us to assign blame elsewhere: every thought and action builds our future experience.

Doesn’t the law of karma then imply that we can be indifferent to our fellow beings because, after all, they’re only getting what they deserve?

Absolutely not. If a person’s karma is such that he or she is suffering, we have an opportunity to alleviate that suffering in whatever way we can: doing so would be good karma. We need not be unduly heroic, but we can always offer a helping hand or at least a kind word. If we choose not to do whatever is in our limited power to alleviate the pain of those around us, we’re chalking up bad karma for ourselves. In fact, we’re really hurting ourselves.

Oneness is the law of the universe, and that truth is the real root of all acts of love and compassion. The Atman, my true Self, is the same Spirit that dwells in all; there cannot be two Atmans. Consciousness cannot be divided; it’s all-pervasive. My Atman and your Atman cannot be different. For that reason Vedanta says: Love your neighbor as yourself because your neighbor IS yourself.

How many movies have you seen in life?
How many more would you see?

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This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of environmental, political, human rights, economic, democracy, scientific, and social justice issues, etc. We believe this constitutes a ‘fair use’ of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.

Filmed by Robert Leon: Jeffrey adds his voice to the anti-nuclear campaign. If you share his views please share this video. Write your political leaders and speak up to stop this destructive path of nuclear poisons that threaten to destroy our beautiful planet and all life upon it. Fukashima is the final warning that we have gone down the wrong path. It is time to implement sustainable ways to live cooperatively. Every voice counts, end nuclear power NOW.

React NOW : End Nuclear Power ~ Jeffrey Armstrong

A crippled economy and a polluted environment plague our social body. Both largely stem from the same core disease — pollution of hearts. Blinded by distractions one can forget how to invest in what awards a meaningful, fulfilling life.

Parallel to our vast strides in technology, there is a dangerous rise in unemployment, foreclosures and degrading education. Millions of people are stricken with hopelessness and strife. Sadly, in the name of progress we have polluted the air, water, soil and the food we eat. What can we do? The following is a story about an encounter I had with someone who cared.
It was winter in New Delhi when the days are mild and the nights are biting cold. New Delhi’s wide roads are lined with massive government buildings, the older ones built by the British perhaps a century back with stone pillars, ornate statues and vast lawns. Others built after independence in 1947 are adorned with Indian style arches and domes. I rode toward the airport. Monkeys appeared everywhere, scampering along the boundary walls.

At the crossroads on the way to the airport we passed circular islands of grass and trees surrounding memorials for the country’s freedom fighters. The streets were congested with cars, trucks and motorcycle rickshaws spewing out trails of exhaust fumes. Overhead a murky cloud of smog hung in the sky and reduced the sun to a gray lifeless ball. The fumes were thick, the smells toxic, and they sat on our tongues like sour lozenges. On the roadside an elderly man squatted cross-legged with back erect performing pranayama, a yogic breathing exercise. He vigorously inhaled and exhaled. I wondered if it did him more harm than good.

We crossed a bridge over the Yamuna River. I looked down and remembered 30 years before, when I had first come to India, that under the same bridge the Yamuna flowed in her full glory. Now, she looked plundered and crippled. What was once a pristine river had now become a thick blackish liquid, foaming bubbles, and a current so lame she barely flowed.

When I reached the airport and was waiting at the gate for my flight, a lady informed me that sitting close by was the Union Minister for Environment and Forests. She wanted to talk to me. I obliged.

The minister stood up and greeted me, “Namaste Swamiji.” After a pleasant exchange she suddenly challenged me with a passion.

“What are you spiritual leaders doing about the ecology?” She was very serious.

“Every second the air is being saturated with cancerous smog,” she said. “Tons of raw sewage and toxic waste are dumped hourly into rivers where millions of people bathe and drink. The earth is being stripped of its forest and has become a dumping ground for deadly waste. The world is on the brink of ecological disaster while all of you spiritualists are praying, meditating or chanting. What is all your devotion doing to save the ecology?”

Her concern was real and impassioned. It was exciting to see that depth of concern from a powerful leader over an issue that affects us all.

“Yes, the environment is everyone’s responsibility,” I responded, “and I sincerely admire your tireless commitment. The spiritual leaders I know believe that along with passing laws and doing the cleaning work we need to address the root cause of the problem. If a person is covered with boils, the symptoms must be treated, but unless the cause of the problem is addressed, the boils will recur. In the case of boils, the cause may be a disease in the blood. The root of cause of pollution in the world is pollution in the heart.

“Toxic greed has contaminated the minds of human society. The environment is simply an external manifestation of the ecology of the mind. Greed is an obsession, an addiction. It can never be quenched. The more it gets, the more it needs. Greed hardens the heart and fools us into rationalizing cruelty and justifying crime. Greed induces envy, divides families, provokes wars and blinds us to our real self-interest. Greed for money, power, fame, sex — the world is ravaged by greed. It is practically an exercise in futility to attempt to clean the environment when politicians are corrupted by bribes, industrialists pollute rivers to maximize profits and scientists put aside their ethics for funding.

“The Bhagavad Gita states that greed is a symptom of avidya or ignorance that covers the natural virtues of the true self within us. I’m sure you would agree with me that most people are not bad spirited, but due to a lack of awareness they may be destroying the environment, not understanding that what may seem convenient, like dumping industrial waste into a river, is actually killing fish, animals and people. So along with the pollution of our rivers, we must give attention to the pollution in our hearts. If you successfully clean the air, the sky, every river and every ocean, it is for certain that people will pollute them again unless they reform the ecology of their hearts.

“Spiritual life is the science of cleansing the heart and tasting the joy of living in harmony with God, each other and nature. It begins with cultivating good character, the willingness to make personal sacrifices for a higher cause, to make the right choices even in the face of temptation and fear, and put concern for the well being of others as a priority.

“How to do that? All of these virtues can spring from Bhakti or spiritual love. The Bible teaches that ‘the first and great commandment is to love God with all one’s heart, mind and soul.’ And the natural result of that is, ‘to love your neighbor as yourself.’ Nature is also our neighbor, she is alive with rights like everyone else, but too many people don’t see nature that way. The Vedic scriptures tell that the most simple and powerful method of cleansing the ecology of the heart and awakening this dormant love within us is to chant God’s names. In my tradition we chant the names of Krishna.”

“God has empowered all of us in different ways and if we agree on what the real problem is, then we can all contribute our part of the solution. The well being of Mother Earth is everyone’s problem. It is crucial for leaders in all fields to serve cooperatively.”

At that point the minister was called to board her flight. She thought for a moment, then stood up and smiled saying, “Yes Swamiji, What you say is true. We all need to work together.”

She was right to take me to task. Religious and spiritual leaders should be held accountable for environmental activism, not only because they have access to large communities and can influence votes but because service is integral to religious and spiritual life. Reducing carbon emissions is important, but it is shortsighted if not coupled with reducing the toxic emissions from our heart; and that is something spiritual leaders are supposed to teach and something all thinking people, regardless of their beliefs, should practice.

We should honor Mother Earth with gratitude; otherwise our spirituality may become hypocritical. The earth nourishes us with every necessity for a prosperous life. When, on a massive worldwide scale we plunder her oil, destroy her forests, pollute her resources, torture and kill her animals, soak her with the blood of her children, exploit one another and trample her with immorality, there will naturally be devastating consequences.

We should honor our mother and respect all of her children as our brothers and sisters. Otherwise, we may force her to react. Humanity has reached a critical crossroads. We have made monumental progress in technology, medicine, science, academics and globalization but if we do not use them with compassion what will be our fate? The dire need is at hand to take responsibility as caretakers of the helpless and live as dedicated instruments of God’s love.

Coming to the United States in 1957, Swami Shraddhananda was head of the Vedanta Society in Sacramento from 1970 until his death in 1996. He was the author of Seeing God Everywhere and Story of an Epoch as well as many articles published in both English and Bengali journals. “Spiriltual Life: Its Conditions and Pitfalls” appears in Seeing God Everywhere (Vedanta Press, 1996).

The subtle, extensive, ancient way has touched me. I have realized it myself. Through that the sages—the knowers of Brahman—also go to the heavenly sphere after the fall of the body, being freed even while living (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 4.4.8).

The “ancient way”—a path extending from humanity to God—cannot be compared to an American nonstop freeway. This subtle, inner path has many stops and degrees of gradation. In some areas it is level and smooth, and in other regions it passes through difficult mud and gravel terrain. Its course may run through the glaring stretches of a desert or along the sharp curves and bends of precipitous mountains. In spite of all these obstructions, we have to journey determinedly along this ancient way leading to God.

Fortunately, there are rest stops all along the way, which are equipped with replenishing fuel, road maps, and guides. The guides are experienced travelers who will give correct directions and assist in safe arrivals.

This ancient way of spirituality is lit with bright hopes, but it also has dark pitfalls. It is a difficult but glorious road to climb. Those who have succeeded encourage us to proceed patiently and cautiously and warn us never to ignore the directions. They assert that we can reach the goal; we can know God in this very life. The highways and byways of ordinary life run in circles; they seem to lead nowhere. When a seeking mind discovers that worldly existence is only a treadmill and worldly pursuits are futile, the flame of spiritual inquiry is ignited. The fear of death, the promise of God, the intense desire to understand love’s deepest meaning, and a restless yearning for truth all urge us to aspire to spiritual awakening.

What is spiritual life? A life centered in God. It is not an unusual life. According to the attitudes we develop and the manner in which we live, our life on earth can be spiritual or nonspiritual. We are spiritual when the Divine enters our thoughts, actions, desires, emotions, and aspirations. Then He is not distant or theoretical, but a living God who guides our lives. The first pitfall, then, on the path to God is confusion about the meaning of spiritual life. Spiritual life is, in essence, to realize the divinity within us and to manifest it in our daily life.

A few basic requirements are necessary for effective and deep spiritual living. First we must have the faith that the goal we seek does, in fact, exist: There is a supreme, unchanging Truth—a Reality that is the foundation and the operative power of everything that exists. We have to believe that behind this world’s flux, there is a cosmic intelligence, love, and unity that is God.

Though difficult to see at an early stage of the journey, it is necessary to believe that God can be experienced here and now. He is the supreme object of our love; He is our everlasting friend and companion. Somehow we must develop and strengthen this faith.

Let us take an example: Jesus Christ walked in the city of Jerusalem, teaching and consoling people and thereby changing their lives; it was in Jerusalem that the final scenes of his life were enacted. Faithful Christians everywhere hope to visit the Holy Land, but even though they may not have seen it, they never deny its existence. They know that many people have been to Jerusalem. In the same way, as we walk the spiritual path, let us be confident that although God is not yet visible, He is only a short distance away. He can be experienced—as many fortunate men and women have found throughout the ages.

The nature of God is infinite. He manifests Himself in endless ways, therefore the manifestations of God are various. He is impersonal—without name or form—or personal—with name and form. He can become an avatar, a divine incarnation, like Rama, Krishna, Jesus Christ, and Buddha. One should not be dogmatic about God’s nature. Let everyone have his or her own conception of God. The Upanishads tell us that Brahman is both saguna, with attributes; and nirguna, without attributes; we can experience God on both these levels.

The second pitfall is lack of faith. How do we acquire faith? Spiritual teachers reply, “Through holy company.” We need to seek those who are living in direct communion with God. We can witness in their lives the proof of God’s limitless knowledge and love. Our weak notions about God become enlivened by holy company. Holy company also includes reading the scriptures from all religions; they are records of the direct spiritual experiences of holy men and women. When we read the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, the Bible, the Koran, and the sacred books of all religions, we catch a glimpse of spiritual truths. They speak of the joy, peace, and strength of spiritual life. When we read these accounts in the scriptures, our faith grows.

Another kind of faith is also necessary: faith in ourselves. Swami Vivekananda said, “First develop faith in yourself, then faith in God will come.” Doubt is a serious pitfall along the way, a great obstruction in spiritual life. It limits our capabilities; we have to do away with it.

An individual’s mind, body, and energy have limitations, but power and knowledge can be developed. There are great potentialities deep within the recesses of the mind. We all possess a hidden insight, an intuition, by which we can rise to the spiritual level and eventually reach the ultimate destination of life, the realization of God. We should therefore always be careful that our faith, both objective and subjective, is being nurtured.

A living and loving interest in spiritual life is an essential requirement. A joyful, enthusiastic attitude while actively following the directions given by one’s spiritual teacher is necessary to avoid the pitfalls along the way. A joyful, enthusiastic attitude also develops purity of character. Actually, the Self, the essential truth of our nature, is ever pure. It is a spark of the Divine. Until we realize that inner divinity, of course we make mistakes, but these mistakes indirectly help us in our search for God. We should never brood over them. A healthy attitude is to be cautious and to decide not to commit those errors again. As we grow purer, we are less likely to make mistakes and lose our way, and less likely to fall into pitfalls. We develop an attitude of renunciation, and we increasingly feel the Lord’s presence in our hearts and minds.

Renunciation is a spiritual attitude. It is not the abandonment of home, family, children, education, or job. Rather, renunciation is a joyful disregard for undesirable attachments for the sake of God. The heart will be made pure with the development of this attitude. As Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”

People are normally very attached to their egos, and think, “I am such an important person.” There is some pleasure in this egotistic feeling, but when we come to spiritual life, we have to give up this false pleasure. If there is too much egotism, it will obstruct our spiritual journey. Since we cannot give up the ego altogether, it has to be spiritualized.

To achieve this we must undertake various spiritual practices. The regular practice of meditation, prayer, japam (repetition of a name of God, or mantra), contemplation, and spiritual studies is extremely necessary. Only earnest seekers will succeed: there is no room for triviality here. Not following a regular routine of spiritual practice is a serious pitfall. The quality of our effort in these practices determines the nature and course of our progress. No one can succeed without practice and perseverance.

We should avoid the pitfall of despair and confusion by seeking guidance from experienced people. Their counsel, in addition to the holy scriptures, is our “road map.” Every phase of life, practical and spiritual, requires guidance. So in order to proceed along the “highway” safely, it is wise to stop now and then and seek instructions from an experienced guide, rather than pushing on blindly. Too much pride in ourselves with an unwillingness to learn from others is a stumbling block.

Another pitfall is our impatience. After hearing or reading about the blessings of spiritual life we become eager to have those experiences immediately! We begin to practice a little meditation for a week or two; nothing remarkable happens, and we feel frustrated. Then doubt comes and we impatiently say, “Oh, let us try another method.” This impatience is the wrong attitudethe D and a treacherous pitfall. Sri Ramakrishna used to say that if you want to dig a well, you have to dig in one place, and you have to dig deeper and deeper in that one place. Upon receiving proper instructions from an experienced spiritual teacher, we should continue our spiritual practice with great care and persistence. Our interest in spiritual life should be genuine and deep, not superficial or shallow. A superficial mind cannot consistently adhere to anything. A person may have a little spiritual experience and then think, “Well, that is enough.” But such people only fool themselves.

Our spiritual pursuit cannot have sincerity and depth if we remain attached to sense pleasures. The mind will remain on the levels of tamas and rajas, leading it restlessly outward. Lack of self-control is another pitfall, and we should make a regular practice of watchfulness over the senses. With the calmness of sattva, the senses can be tamed and quieted by developing self-control. Watchfulness can be achieved by stepping back from the senses and trying to separate ourselves from them. We can observe the senses reaching outward like tentacles extending in all directions, fastening themselves on this object or that, impelled by desire after desire, and then returning to the repository of the mind. Through an awareness of the movements of the mind, we can filter out nonspiritual thoughts and ideas before they strike and contaminate the mind. We can avoid pitfalls by observing what is approaching the mind through the senses.

Another spiritual pitfall is vain argumentation; that is, too much intellectualism. Spiritual life is not words; it is one’s own personal experience. When we take a college course in religious philosophy, we seek information and reason out ideas necessary for writing an article or a book. But for our own personal spiritual experience, we do not need very much information or argumentation.

When these spiritual practices become an integral part of our lives, and when we have made noticeable progress, a particular pitfall must be avoided: the reappearance of that villain—the vain ego! The vain ego will enter, take the platform, demand applause, and claim: “I am such a remarkable person! Everyone notices how special I am.” We should be on the lookout for this kind of egotism. These are some of the roadblocks that can be expected along the spiritual way. Let us be conscious that these pitfalls are there, but we need not be fearful. We have only to be cautious and prepared. If we have intense faith and are humble, sincere, and patient, we need not be afraid of any pitfall. The spiritual path is a sure path. It will lead us to our destination, God—even in this life.

Your own wisdom and consciousness cannot awaken unless you keep aside – you meaning “ego.” Ego does not get enlightened; it is a block that has to keep aside in order to, as if, let God reveal. This is an awakening, not a rational or intellectual understanding. We need rationality to live in the world, but not to realize God. Take any path of philosophy or doctrine and if you are honest you will arrive at this end: I don’t know. Then we say, “Go within, meditate, and you will see that your block is you.” Therefore your ego has to give up its separate identity.

When you meditate, be conscious: It’s not me who is meditating. I am meditating upon the Truth, upon God. That is the Reality from which I have come. I am meditating upon my sweet home, my Source, my Ultimate. Ego has to merge unto that Source. The existence is of That, not me. Letting go of ego is the main purpose of meditation. Meditation is not achieving something; we meditate to merge with what we are meditating upon. This will give you divine vision, not by sitting and thinking or planning or worrying. The human being has to merge unto God, unto our true Existence. We are not lost – we become That. When a drop of water falls into the ocean, it is not lost; it becomes one with the whole ocean. Your soul in meditation becomes one with your Creator. As you will, so you become.

Meditate upon that which you want to be, which you want to realize. Anything else will be an exercise, to just keep your mind controlled and focused. When you honestly want to concentrate, the mind has a hundred things it wants to solve before it relaxes. And by the time the mind relaxes, you feel sleepy. Your meditation time is over. And so it goes, year after year, decade after decade, birth after birth. If you are aware while meditating, it is easy. Then you won’t have to control or fight with your mind.

Make it simple. Focusing and concentrating are not as difficult as we might think. Follow His word. Try to do His will. Then you are making the best use of your fortune. Whatever deficiencies you have, He will fill in. We may hypnotize ourselves into believing that we are doing His will, but critical analysis is necessary. The way of wisdom goes through self-inquiry, and self-inquiry has to be based upon truthfulness. Focusing on the Lord has to be conjoined with conscious living.

The greatest need for every human being is to be consciously human. Man does many inhuman things on the world scale. If we say, “You are a human being – why are you doing inhuman things?” it is to make you aware, because you are unconscious of your humanity. If you are conscious, you will not do anything instinctive, primitive or uncivilized. If you are conscious, you will not be confused, feel insecure, or lose your peace. If you are unconscious, you will fall into animal instincts often and do many things in ignorance that you should not do. That is exactly what the newspapers are full of each day. Why do we deviate from our humanity? We want to do our own will, so we avoid listening to God.

When we understand this and the simple meaning of being human, we will understand why the mind was given to us: it is a great laboratory, a universe within to explore. Therefore I have said, “The greatest journey is through your own mind.” Whatever is in the universe is in your mind, and whatever is in your mind is in the universe. If you explore your mind thoroughly, you will find innumerable treasures. You will be able to see that God has given you such capacity, that you are potentially Divine.

All our thinking, feeling and actions have to travel in the same direction. In traditional language this is termed, “with heart and soul, mind and might.” This makes you whole. Give up selfishness and you will come back to your basic peace. Enlightenment, therefore, is very simple: just be and meditate on Light. Do not fight with your mind. Just meditate on Light. You will be Enlightened. If Light is what you want, everything else should be non-existent for you. If God is what you want, He will take care of everything else.

There are many movements going on today that aim to change or improve the world in this time of global crisis. Almost everyone is encouraging us to become an activist in one form or another, for one cause or another. While I don’t doubt the necessity of this position, and have been an active for several causes myself, I wonder whether it is enough. Can anything we do as mere human beings take us out of the rut caused by the unsacred way in which we live, by our human centered way of life that tramples the world of nature around us and blinds us to the spirit beyond?

We mainly look to human agencies to help us or to improve the world. We look to politics to elect a better party or better leader to show us the way beyond the problems that politicians have caused. Or we look to economics for a better plan to use our resources or a way to more equitably distribute the wealth, though our business and economic leaders have shown themselves to be woefully shorted sighted in their actions. We want governmental help, charitable grants or media coverage for our cause in order to better promote it in society, though the government and media often seem to be making our problems worse. We think by changing human institutions and those who runs them that the world will also change.

If we do look to the spiritual realm, it is also usually to human agencies, human teachers and manmade, historical beliefs and human-centered dogmas. We try to save other people through our personal belief or conviction, as if making the majority of people follow a certain religious or spiritual formula that appeals to us will magically solve all other problems. If we call upon God, it is usually a rather human God, sometimes with notable political biases, and it is to favor our particular group and its interests that our prayers usually go forth, not to transcend our differences or to dissolve them in the Divine presence that is beyond all names and forms.

The fundamental problem – which is at the root of all our outer social and personal problems – is that we as human beings are asleep and insensitive to the sacred world in which we live. We do not honor Nature and the Divine powers at work within her ever changing currents. The result is that we do not honor each other or even honor ourselves, much less the greater non-human world. We don’t see the beauty of life as a whole; much less sense its deeper consciousness. We plunder and pillage nature in our search for our human happiness, pleasure, wealth and power, or at best make nature into an adornment for our self-aggrandizement.

In the commercial realm, everything is a commodity to buy or sell whose value will go up or down in an unpredictable manner. We are judged by what we own, earn or – worse yet in the age of credit cards – by what we owe, as if these numbers had some positive value and lasting significance for the real meaning of our lives. In the religious realm, the individual is commonly regarded as a soul to be harvested or a potential donor for a belief or an institution. We are judged by a religious label or name that puts us in a limited camp, not by a greater sense of unity with the universe that transcends all human definitions. We seem trapped in an outer show of superficial quantities in which our higher Self, which is more akin to the stars, is forgotten along with the living world around us.

The Volcano’s Voice

Recently I had the honor of being part of an ancient Hawaiian ritual to Pele, the Goddess of fire, the volcano Goddess, at cliff at the rim of the crater of Kilauea in Hawaii, the world’s most active volcano, which was steaming with sulfur. We were accompanied by representatives of the island’s spiritual elders who had a living lineage and connection to that Goddess power no human agency can ever control. One could feel oneself drawn into the crater almost palpable manner, as if one would gladly become a human offering to the Goddess.

The great Gods and Goddesses of geology, of the primal earth energies, were alive and one could sense them, smell them and almost touch them, their energies pervading the physical and the psychic air. These powers were sensitive and aware and could guide us to a deeper consciousness, peace and transcendence, if we could but leave our human identities and compulsions behind.

At that moment, one’s individual life, and the entire human world, seemed rather small and trifling, a brief lull in the midst of greater geological transformations that marked the land. One could sense yet more primeval powers at the origins of creation when the entire universe was a vast erupting ball of fire and great Deities looked over the beautiful inferno of light with timeless eyes, gliding through the currents with a bodiless joy and an unbounded energy that had no end.

Native peoples – to the extent that we still leave them to their original cultures – and the ancient world in general, reflect a sense of the sacred that allows them to honor every plant, animal, land formation, cloud or star. For them life is measured by the sacred time of nature’s rhythms. Every human action requires a prayer and a ritual to make it part of the greater sacred world. Such native cultures have largely been dehumanized and devitalized and are but a shadow of their former selves. But we can still sense the sacred moving in them and their traces on the land.

We continued along the crater’s rim and soon encountered the usual groups of tourists, who went in and out of their cars for a quick view of nature’s wonders. It was an odd sensation. One could still feel the ancient deities and the sacred mystery of the land, but the people one saw missed this altogether, floating in their personal thoughts oblivious that they were at the womb of the great Goddess herself. Of course, they saw the crater with their physical eyes but it was mainly a geological phenomenon or a photo opportunity, a memento of having been to the vacation paradise of the Hawaian islands.

Such modern people, largely divested of the sacred, seemed like shadows, though no doubt all were looking for something sacred to give meaning to their lives. One could sense the anguish of those who worshipped the volcano Goddess to see the sacred body of their mother trampled upon as a tourist curiosity. We did not see anyone else bow down to the Goddess, much less make her an offering, call out to her or hear her voice, though probably it echoed in the minds of many passerbys as a strange and unrecognizable background sound.

Sacred Activism

I don’t think we can really heal our planet or bring peace to society unless we reestablish our link to the sacred universe. This requires not just an ecological or artistic appreciation of nature but a recognition of the awesome consciousness and cataclysmic power that pervades the entire universe, making it into a single dynamic organism that we human beings are but a small part of. Connecting to the sacred is not a matter of a religious belief, joining the right church or having the right religious or spiritual identity. It is not just a matter of taking a few yoga classes, learning a meditation technique or chanting a mantra once in a while. It requires surrendering our human mind to the greater cosmic consciousness and energy, in which we lose our human selves and human identity altogether.

Perhaps the best way to begin this deeper healing is to honor the Divine powers in the world of nature around us. If we live in a land that has had a recent native tradition, we will find that most of the nearby sacred sites in nature are known to them and have been honored by them. We can follow their link. Otherwise we can follow our inner inspiration and look to the deeper consciousness behind the wonders of nature around us, which requires spending contemplative time around them away from the noise of the human world. Nature is our mother, not a commercial commodity to be exploited. She will speak to us if we call out to her, just as no real mother ever abandons her children.

We can awaken the sacred powers in our own environment. This can be done through flowers, aromas, incense, special waters, rocks and plants that abound around us. It will follow the movements of the seasons, the Moon, eclipses or special astrological combinations that connect us to the realm of cosmic and sacred time beyond all mundane chronologies. By making our lives sacred, we can change the world at a root level, and change our society in a way that no mere human institution can ever likely bring about of its own accord.

Above all, we need to honor the Goddess or Divine Mother, whose body is the world of nature. The Goddess is always awake. We are born through her power and at death her force will lead us to her greater reality. It is not a matter of awakening her but of awakening our connection to her, which makes us spiritually awake, which means beyond all manmade and limiting identities and propaganda.

To awaken the Goddess in one’s life, one needs a form. It can be an image or statue of the Goddess, or some natural object like a flower or plant, a special rock, the Moon. There is no formless worship of the Goddess unless it is first rooted in form. And she cannot truly be honored unless she is recognized as the mother of the entire universe.

For a yogic and world transforming spiritual activism, we need to reawaken the divine powers in nature that our spiritual slumber has removed us from. We need to restore the sacred sites of traditional peoples, even if this might involve removing modern buildings that have been erected over them. Our museums are filled with the desecrated and stolen sacred objects of many peoples and many lands. We should at least allow them to be honored, adorned and worshipped.

If we study the existing interpretations of traditional and non-western religions in our educational systems, we find a crude insensitivity that denigrates their sacred forms and practices according to our modern obsessions of sex, economics or politics, turning these doorways to the sacred into forms of ridicule, marks of the primitive, while it is our modern culture that is more truly lacking in sensitivity or higher intelligence to the cosmic forces. We need to reexamine these sacred traditions with respect to their elders, not to our erudition or technology.

Restoring Our Sacred Connection

Let us bring back all the Gods and Goddesses of all lands and countries, all times and all places, and their connection with the land, the waters and the sky as part of our daily life experience. Let us set aside scientific, psychological, and theological interpretations of what words cannot describe in the first place. Let us awaken to the Divine presence at the ground of existence, humble ourselves before it and live according to its grace. Let us be respectful of the Divine nature and beauty of every person, culture and tradition, even more so to those that are close to the land and without a voice in the world media or academia.

Make sure to awaken the Gods and Goddesses in yourself and in your own life, home, garden, family and community. It may be more important to awaken the Divine presence around us than to get out the vote for one cause or another or to make the best possible donation to a worthy cause. While it is good to marshal human resources in a caring direction, without bringing the Divine power of nature into the process, we may just be alienating ourselves further from the true wellsprings of life, creation and happiness. We may be just making another offering to the demon of the human mind and its endless conflicts and assertions.

For this natural awakening no preaching or moralizing, which is a sin against the Divine presence in each person, is necessary or even possible. The only thing that we really need to become cognizant of is the power of transformation inherent in life itself. The entire universe is a temple, starting with our own bodies. All our actions should be rituals or sacred actions. All our thoughts should be prayers and mantras. All our buildings should be temples, including our own homes, where the fire of the sacred should be kept burning bright in one way or another.

So awaken a deity in your life today. You can do it, and if you do it will give your life a meaning that will extend into the entire universe, not just Wall Street, Hollywood or Washington DC. Find what is most sacred in your environment, honor it and call out to it, infuse it with the life of your aspiration. Not only will it come to life – be it a statue, a rock or a plant – but you will come to life as well. You will find that you can truly see, hear, and touch things again as if for the first time. You won’t need the mass media to distract you any more or to entertain your boredom. You won’t need the false temples of shopping malls, sports arenas, or drive in churches. The world of nature will gain a palpable presence that will nourish your inner being with every breath. You will enter into the cosmic waters and begin to swim in its currents, your mind and heart, becoming pure and clear.

The Divine reality is One but this unity has its unique presence in every aspect of nature, in every nuance of every object that we can see or touch. The different Gods and Goddesses of various nature-honoring traditions are not a primitive polytheism but an abundant living experience of the One that is infinite. Unless one experiences the Divine in nature, one cannot experience the Creator or the Absolute beyond time and space. One cannot be saved from the alienation from Divine unity that is the root of all suffering unless one leaves ego and body consciousness to embrace the greater universe. We are lacking in that direct perception of life and existence, which brings the sacred into every moment. If our human self and identity remains at the forefront, the Divine is not there.

Unless we bring back the Gods and Goddesses, a lasting experience of unity at a spiritual level will not be possible. We will be trapped in human ideas, caught in dogmas, institutions, slogans and sentiments, barred from entering into the cosmic reality, not by any act of God but by our own ignorance. So let us become sacred activists, yogic activists, if you will, those whose action is to bring the deities back into the human world and to the world of nature that we have banished them from, so that the human world can go beyond its egoistic boundaries. We need to reawaken the deities not only in our temples but also in our land, air and space, regarding our entire environment as sacred.

If you can help bring one sacred site or sacred form back to life, you will likely to have done more for the world than any amount of outer actions. Of course, we need to continue to act responsibly in the outer world, including voting wisely and using our money with care, but these should be part of a greater sacred endeavor, not its primary factor but its natural consequence. Let the voice of all beings in the universe, its wonderful powers of consciousness, and the voice of the cosmic silence beyond be heard as well as our own human voices, which themselves should be attuned to the cosmic rhythms, not the daily gossip.

The great spiritual traditions of India commonly teach us that the world is Maya, usually translated as ‘illusion’ or ‘unreality’. That the world is Maya is the basis of the emphasis on yoga and meditation in Indian thought, which is regarded as the means of moving beyond Maya.

The idea that the external world is an illusion was greeted by nineteenth century European thinkers as proof of India’s inability to cope with the practical world, but as we move into the high tech era, its media images and virtual realities the twenty-first century, our world is becoming more and more like Maya every day. There is a deep meaning to Maya that must be understood for any true cosmic or self knowledge to develop, including spirituality and science.

Of course, few of us like to have the validity of what we are doing in life challenged or the reality of the world as we see it called into question. But how real is the world that we experience through our senses? Do we see reality through our senses, or are we merely receiving a surface glimpse of something far greater or even different than what it seems? Even if we add the tools of science and the media – with their instruments of greater communication and perception – to the data gained from the senses we may still be getting an incomplete or distorted view of the world, not the world as it is but rather only one side of it, like the proverbial blind men and the elephant.

Science reduces the world to subatomic particles and our body to chemical reactions that deconstructs the reality that appears through our senses and leaves us only with energy moving in space. Media biases are well known to all of us, both in the realms of business and politics, and new forms of communication are coming up regularly that are altering how we see the world. Clearly Maya or illusion is there everywhere around us. It is an obvious fact for all of us – if we but look deeply – that things often end up not really being what they initially appear to be. The world is a shifting seeming, a changing appearance, which hides something different, deeper, invisible or unknown.

This experience of illusion begins at the level of our daily lives. If we go to the store to buy groceries, for example, we commonly note that the actual nutritional value of a food item is usually different than the appearance or even size of the package. In our social interactions, for another example, we often discover once we get to know a person that we find them to be quite different than how they first appeared. We frequently get such ‘reality checks’ in life when we find out that things are not what we thought they were, and we were instead being misled by appearances or by our own expectations. All of this is Maya.

The seeming or illusory nature of the phenomena, events or circumstances in the world is a common fact of our daily lives. Those individuals who are wise do not allow themselves to be taken in by appearances, promises, or marketing. They hold back, wait and observe before making any important judgments or decisions, looking to what may be behind the actions and motivations of others or the circumstances involved.

In the modern world, we live in a turbulent ocean of appearances, impressions and influences. Unless we learn to probe beyond these surface waves, we will unlikely find the truth of life and will often be deceived, not only by others but also by ourselves, as each one of us has his or her illusions about self and world as well.

The Wonderful Maya of Nature and the Dangerous Maya of Society

There are two levels of this Maya of the world. The first is the Maya of the world of nature, which holds a wealth of beauty and grace behind the appearances of the various landscapes that we take for granted – the magic of the mountains, rivers, ocean, sky and stars. Nature is a Maya of beauty and wonder, intimating a yet deeper cosmic reality. This Maya of nature can help us develop spiritually once we learn to decode its symbols and subtle processes and learn how to mediate deeply upon it.

The second and more difficult level of Maya is the Maya of the human world which contains various hidden influences, control mechanisms and power games behind the social, economic, political, intellectual, religious and spiritual influences that make up our social order.

The Maya of nature is not hard to deal with, but we prefer to ignore it because it requires a greater effort to probe behind nature’s mysteries. It is the Maya of our human world that is our main preoccupation, challenge, fascination and problem. In our social interaction, as we all know, there is much posturing, role playing, pretending or even outright deception going on. Those who are gullible and naïve often find themselves taken advantage of.

We see this Maya easily in the sphere of human relationship. A woman tries to look beautiful going out for her first date, hiding her blemishes or emotional instability. A man not only tries to look good but likes to exaggerate his achievements in life or his income. In the work sphere, we also have much illusion to contend with. People want to make a good impression in order to get a job, exaggerating their resumes, but are happy to be lazy with a job that we have become accustomed to. Bosses also exaggerate their roles or their importance. We can all think of many such instances in our own lives.

In the marketing world, we are easily taken in by advertising and the endless pursuit of bargains and sales. Get rich quick schemes remain ever popular for both the young and the old, and casinos still litter the landscape in some regions. People regularly pay for lottery tickets though their actual chance of winning is minuscule. We are entertained by gambling away our money, particularly if we are made intoxicated along the way.

Not only can the appearances that we encounter in life be deceptive, we are ever ready to project our own desires and fantasies, our own illusory appearances on the world. Our expectations of what we are worth are often greater than our actual skills or capacities. We may want an ideal partner but do not feel compelled to become an ideal person ourselves. The list is endless. Yet sometimes we undervalue ourselves. We accept a job, salary or relationship that is far beneath our actual skills or potentials, held back by fear, insecurity or a lack of self worth that is not real.

Every person we encounter and every object we see hides a deeper story or mystery. We may know a person by name as our neighbor but there are other aspects of their lives that we do not know, both good and bad. Most importantly, we don’t even fully know ourselves. Apart from our familiar self, we have many other potentials and skills. We are capable of different jobs, living in different places or even assuming different identities in life. Moreover, there are depths of awareness inside us that are cosmic. We have an inner being beyond the time space and karma of our apparent self.

When we are talking about other people, particularly when we are gossiping, we are talking about their appearances, not their deeper reality. Most of us are caught in a superficial view of the world and of ourselves that accepts the familiar as real, and eventually confines us in monotony and boredom. Our sense of familiarity defeats us in life and confines us to self-imposed limitations and boundaries, confusing our habitual responses with the greater truth of things.

Metaphors of Maya: The Misperceptions of Our Lives

In yogic thought, several metaphors are used to show the illusion of our lives: There is the example of a person walking down a dark road at night who mistakes a coiled rope for a snake and becomes deathly afraid. Most of our fears in life are similarly misplaced. In our higher Self, we do not need anyone or anything and can be perfectly at peace as we are. Yet we are easily made afraid if there is uncertainty and insecurity in our outer lives, though these are inevitable in the changing and unpredictable world in which we live.

There is the complementary example of a personal walking along a beach who confuses a glittering piece of a sea shell for a silver coin. This reflects how we project our desires on to life. We often get what we want in life and then find out that it is actually something different that we don’t want because we didn’t examine it properly to begin with.

Another important example is dream. There is a certain dreaminess about life. In fact, once an experience is over for us, it seems little more than a dream. Think of your childhood, for example. It is little more than a dream for who you are today. Our waking state is but a longer dream that we are dreaming with others. Much of our lives consist of fantasies, particularly in the fantasy world of the media, movies and computer games. Most of us are happier in this fantasy realm than in our daily lives.

Yet even if our minds are not projecting any fears or desires, our senses reveal only a snapshot from a particular point in space and time. No matter how many snapshots we put together, we cannot get a view of the whole. All our sensory perception by its partial nature easily lends itself to misperception.

Another example of the Maya of our lives is a rainbow. A rainbow looks beautiful in the distance but when you go closer it, it disappears. It is only an optical illusion. There are many rainbows in our lives. Some are illusions based on how we look at the world, but others are indications of yet greater realities that we cannot see.

Yet another example of Maya is that of a pot made of clay. We see the pot and forget that it is nothing but clay. We can compare this view with seeing an ornament made of gold. In this case, we see the gold and forget the ornament. We are often caught up in the name, form and usage of things and forget what they are really made of.

And through all these seeming appearances there is the greater fact of impermanence. Everything in life is changing, some things slowly, other things quickly. We often find that things have unexpectedly changed for us in life, which shocks us or causes us suffering. Yet even we change and sometimes unexpectedly for others, fracturing their world view and sense of security.

Understanding Maya and Living in the Great Mystery

The result of this blind taking of appearances as real is that we stop seeing things in life. We don’t see our spouse, much less the tree by the side of our house, because we are used to them and expect them to always be there in a certain way for us. Yet our habitual view of the world is ever breaking down by accidents, diseases, unexpected social problems, weather changes, natural calamities and so on, leading to the ultimate fact of our own death.

The fact is that the world is unpredictable, not consistently what it appears to be. While forces may continue in a certain direction for a time, they can quickly change directions as well. Even in our daily lives we have the day and the night and their quick alternation from one to another. This unpredictability of life, though it causes us many problems, is not necessarily bad. The world is a magical place that we never need get bored with, if we are willing to look anew at every movement. What we see outwardly are only symbols, indications and connections with something greater, ultimately with the entire universe. All the things that we come in contact with are but doorways to a deeper reality, not the reality themselves. The question is whether we open these doors or take the door itself as final and never walk through it to the other side.

We should always try to probe more deeply in life starting with the everyday factors of our daily experience from our own thought, breath and action. When you see someone well known to you next time, for example, look a little deeper and you will find something new or different about them. When you go out into nature the next time, try to look beyond the veil of appearances to the inner light, law and intelligence through which nature works.

We live in a world of Maya, which means a universe of great mystery, magic, hidden dimensions, secret energies and occult forces. Most of these forces are beneficent, with a certain delight that can be found at the core of all that we come into association with. Yet there are dangerous forces, negative emotions, and manipulative energies as well that we should not underestimate. Spiritual sciences like Yoga or Vedic astrology help us understand and work with both these positive and negative energies, enhancing the positive and protecting us from the negative. The ignorant see only the surface of life and are content with a surface view of themselves. The wise take nothing for granted and always look more deeply, finding a vastness everywhere within and without.

So do not shut down your deeper vision. When you see something familiar; look deeper and let go of old judgments and expectations. When you see a person, think of the entire life of that person, not only what you know of them but what new potentials they might have. When you see a tree, think of the life of the tree and how it connects to the ground, the air, the Earth, the Sun and the rest of nature. Try to see the deeper energies behind things, including their auras and energy fields, the mystery of light and color that enshrouds everything.

The world is a magic show filled with wonder, including depths of wisdom and delight to share with us, if we but part the veil of appearances and look behind not only the forms of the outer world but the movements of our own minds. Even the great discoveries of science are based upon probing behind appearances to see how things tick. The artist similarly possesses a deeper vision of the beauty behind the appearances of the world. Yogic spirituality allows us to sense the light of consciousness that permeates everything.

So give up your sense of familiarity, your conclusions and opinions, likes and dislikes, the idea that you really know who you are or what the world really is. The deeper reality is unknowable to the mind and cannot be put into words. It can only be experienced in the heart as the mystery that it always will be.

If we see the world as Maya or illusion at its surface, we can discover the depths of Brahman or the cosmic reality wherever we look. We can find the whole in each part, the eternal in a moment, the infinite in a point, the entire universe in every object. All that we see is sacred and divine, a display of vibrations, in which creatures and objects arise like patterns in a kaleidoscope only to dissolve back again into the light. We are the light behind appearances that is also the light through which we see. That light alone remains and yet in it nothing is ever lost.

To see the world as Maya means to look through that Maya to the Divine presence behind it, through which its wonder, delight and transformational power can unfold. The reality is known for those who do not think they know, and it is unknown to those who think that they know. True knowledge is not information about appearances; it is knowledge by identity, in which we become one with all that we see. It requires that we see with the light of the heart, not with the memories of the mind. We must learn to look beyond the illusion of multiplicity to the One Being, the inner Self that shines radiant through all.

Understand the Maya of your life, not only to take you beyond all illusions, but to enter into the supreme magic of Being-Consciousness-Bliss, the cosmic reality, which is present everywhere and at all times.

Many people have been asking me of late if Steve Jobs really was a Buddhist. The answer is yes, and for many years.

He was a Zen Buddhist, which inspired his simple, informal, monkish black dress code and the meticulously minimalist yet elegant consumer products he so ingeniously designed. If you look at Vincent van Gogh’s self-portrait as a Zen monk you’ll find many similarities with that other famously difficult creative genius.

Perhaps Steve was van Gogh’s tulku (reincarnation).

Like Jobs, van Gogh was also a religiously inclined lay preacher of sorts, full of mystic zeal, creative energy and egalitarian ideals — and an equally volatile spirit who didn’t play well with others. In 1888, van Gogh painted himself as a monk in “Self-Portrait Dedicated to Gauguin.” He describes how he painted it “as the portrait of a Bonze, humbly worshipping the eternal Buddha and made the eyes slant slightly, after the manner of the Japanese.” Some scholars think the painting was meant as an intense affirmation of an ideal: to be the “calm monk” who can discipline and control the “mad painter.” (At the time, van Gogh was imagining founding a community of artists. In representing himself as a bonze [Buddhist monk], he painted himself as an inhabitant of his ideal community.) All these components also informed Jobs’ spiritual search, career path, proselytizing and the new silicon community he helped initiate. In his letters, Theo van Gogh said of his brother Vincent: “It is as if he had two persons in him — one marvelously gifted, delicate and tender, the other egotistical and hard hearted. … It is a pity that he is his own enemy.”

Sound familiar?

Jobs was a late product of the 1960s, who openly admitted that his psychedelic experiences had greatly informed his creative thinking. He’d actually dropped out of hip Reed College in Oregon after one semester, hung out at the Berkeley and Stanford campuses, and tripped around chaotic, cacophonous India for half a year or so as a truth-seeker, meditating and inquiring intently into mystical matters. After returning to the South Bay area in 1975, over the years he sat in Zen meditation retreats at sylvan Tassajara Zen Center near Big Sur and was good friends with some of my hippie vagabond friends, who had also spent time in India.

Some wonder exactly what kind of Buddhist could be so famously impatient, rude and demanding. How could he be so emotional, even throwing tantrums? Relentlessly stubborn, he could be brutal to close friends, family and colleagues, act ruthlessly in both business and personal affairs and claim credit for others’ ideas. Speaking as a fellow Buddhist, albeit of a different lineage, I have no easy answer or apology to offer for him in this respect. I think his having been adopted played into it — the master of design simplicity had some very messy elements of his personal life. We teach what we need to learn, as the saying goes.

Maybe that’s why this very complex and even contradictory personality so assiduously sought and loved simplicity.

As it happened, he became a Zen Buddhist and followed for two decades a Japanese master living in Santa Cruz, Kobun Chino Roshi, and a married Zen monk. Roshi seems to have had an influence on Jobs in one notable respect — as a spiritual leader more interested in the great Zero (of sunyata, the void), than in oneness and other larger, more collective numbers. Kobun seemed focusessed too much on cold and clear emptiness, not enough on warm and empathic compassion, attitude-transforming loving-kindness practice. Too much head and not enough heart, a common critique of some Zen Buddhist lineages.

It was no accident that Kobun Sensei, as his students call him, attracted Steve Jobs. Kobun was buddies with the provocative and controversial master Tibetan lama Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the pioneering founder of the Naropa Institute in Boulder, a valuable teacher to many of us in the 1970s. Jobs could be more of a ronin — masterless samurai — than a saintly sattvic spiritual seeker. In fact, he was the personification of, as one oft-misunderstood Zen saying puts it: “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” (Which cautions against believing in any such thing as Buddha, or anything substantial, outside. It has nothing to do with life taking.) Consider the grandiose tone of Jobs’ in-your-face challenge to then Pepsi-Cola chief John Sculley: “Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water, or do you want a chance to save the world?”

There was method in Jobs’ madness, as Sculley became the head of Apple and the highest paid executive in Silicon Valley.

I don’t use Apple products (for no real reason, other than I got started with DOS) and hadn’t seen Jobs in years when he died, but I did get to know him a bit while staying in his home for a couple of days in 1978. He had just opened his original one-story Cupertino factory, living alone in an empty suburban house with little or no furniture. His bedroom had a double mattress on the floor and two huge stereo speakers, one on either side, and little else. (Steve thought couches were superfluous.) My friend and I slept and sat to meditate on the carpeted floor in another bedroom even barer than Steve’s. I think we ate cold cereal for breakfast and broccoli for dinner, more than once. There was a phone with a cord attached to the kitchen wall. (I could see he was obviously handy, knew carpentry and learned a little Japanese calligraphy — all early influences on his engineering style.)

At the time, Steve was working intensely, as usual, on some kind of new electronics, which was news, as well as Greek, to me. (It was both new and geek to everyone, we’d eventually discover.) Steve said that sitting in meditation helped him focus as well as gain an uber-view of his own inner mind, effects I could certainly relate to. And he wondered how to use this in his work, electronically. It was obvious that he was working very hard, obsessing about his new project day and night.

He also paid a psychedelic relic friend, clad in flowing handmade Indian cotton garb, to walk around the half-empty factory floor and strum his Indian instruments, singing mellifluous kirtan, hymns of divine praise we’d all learned at ashrams in India. He told us Jobs had hired him “to upgrade the group consciousness.” I remember wondering at the time how serious and high-minded Steve actually was, given the electrical engineering shop environment and his alpha-male tendencies and ambitions. To his credit, Steve did help the following year with some much-needed seed-money — a $5,000 donation with no strings attached — for some of us to create in 1979 the SEVA Foundation, (a charity working in developing nations), which is still going strong. I’m grateful to him for that.

So he wasn’t especially generous, humble or kind. Then perhaps the virtuous aspect of the Noble Eight-fold Path taught by Buddha that Steve Jobs did exemplify was Step Five, Right Livelihood and True Vocation, one of the most interesting, challenging and relevant aspects of our life’s journey. How to align our work and our life, our personal and professional lives with (and inseparable from) our home, love and inner spiritual lives? Is this not one of our greatest challenges? Jobs seemed to skillfully blend his occupation and talents into his creative true calling — working wholeheartedly at the intersection of the humanities and the science, as he once said.

Jobs often said he wanted to make something beautiful and not just new, useful or successful. The inner level of Right or Wise Livelihood is doing what needs to be done, something we all aspire to but are often insufficiently aware of or able to achieve. I believe that making this world and life a better and more beautiful place for all is our true work and vocation.

Fairly, some might dispute that Steve’s business ethics and tactics accorded with the principles of Right Livelihood, or even that the compassionate life of the altruistic Enlightened Leader could ever possibly combine running a grand entrepreneurial business with the even greater work of edifying and enlightening the world. I personally would love to hear this further discussed and explored for the benefit of upcoming generations. Suzuki Roshi of San Francisco Zen Center used to say: “You’re perfect just as you are — and still you could use a little improvement.” This is fine wine, heady stuff. How to get from here to truly and totally here is the modern conundrum, beyond linear ideas of progress, where mindful awareness proves indispensable.

Now everyone is talking about and even apotheosizing Steve, which is, like most public discussion, both more and less than the whole story. Seasoned journalist Walter Isaacson’s big new biography of him is an excellent read, and full of stories and historical record (although Isaacson remains tone-deaf to things foreign to him, such as Zen Buddhism’s cryptic teaching and ancient Asian-style chanting and rituals), including those at Jobs’ 1991 Yosemite wedding to Laurene Powell, where his Zen priest-teacher Kobun officiated.

In his 20s, Steve predicted he would die before the age of 40, although no one seems to have known why. What affected me most about his untimely death was how young he was, only 56.

How rarely does such a brilliant shooting star pass through this local universe where people like us live, breathe, walk, wonder, work and play.

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