In the major monotheistic religions, a good deal of time is spent acknowledging the darkness in humanity. We admit our sinful nature, and work with such darkness by aiming to reconcile with each other and God through repentance. Through this process, individuals are encouraged to emulate the divine as it is considered the main source of light and goodness in the world. Eastern faith traditions acknowledge both the light and the dark, but more time is spent on cultivating the light compared to Western counterparts. Rather than an external divine source, followers are encouraged to find and grow the light and goodness already in themselves.
One school of thought focuses mainly on darkness, while light exists outside individuals. The other line of thought focuses on the light already present in the individual. Darkness is typically not dealt with. If anything, the Eastern traditions only address it with respect to expelling and dissipating darkness. It is dismissed but never really analyzed. I think a blending of these tendencies is called for. Dwelling on either the dark or the light denies another part of ourselves. Without fully acknowledging and working to understand both sides, we risk either fearing ourselves or failing to live up to our potential.
I was talking about meditation with a young woman that follows the teachings of Yogananda. I asked if she found it difficult to meditate. My companion answered yes, very much so. In fact, she wasn’t sure if she had ever managed to actually meditate. She had been developing her meditation practice for two years and could not say if she had every meditated ‘successfully’. My companion explained that according to Yogananda’s teachings, the goal of meditation was to cease all thought, which can be achieved by letting the heart be still, suspending emotion. I found this concept interesting. In this line of logic, emotions drive thoughts. It’s quite contrary to the way we usually think about emotions. Typically, we have a thought, either elicited by external circumstances or from within the conscious, and then that thought triggers an emotional response. The two differing notions create a scenario much like the chicken and the egg. What begets what? My companion an I contemplated this for a while, reaching no definitive conclusion.
Having thought on this further, I think this conundrum can only have a both / and answer. We’ve all had cases where emotion is reactive to an idea presented by ourselves or someone else. But I also think that we’ve all experienced emotions with no trigger, perhaps this can best be described as a physiological experience. With the emotion already present, it’s only a matter of time before the mind finds a thought to justify or perpetuate the emotion, giving way to the scenario Yogananda describes.
It makes sense that he would discuss this scenario because it would be an especially difficult part of meditation. The logical self is deciding to meditate, so it would be working to clear the mind. But the emotional self is more difficult to tame and creates havoc with the conscious. Emotion exists independently from logic. Logic can have great influence over the thoughts in the conscious, but it has little effect on emotions that manifest in the entire body. In order to affect emotion, it takes a multipronged approach that targets both the mind and the body. Yogandanda and other great thinkers provide such an approach through yogic practices such as asana, mantra, and pranayama.
I’ve claimed again and again in my writing that it isn’t something alluring or exotic in the secular world that draws people away from organized religion, but rather something within organized religion that turns them away. Some of the most common reasons people give for leaving their faith organization are hypocrisy, bureaucracy, and plain old personality conflicts. But not everyone storms out angry following a string of offensive incidents. Some simply become disillusioned and disappointed by scarcity. Scarcity of man-power, scarcity of open-mindedness, scarcity of inspiration, scarcity of professionalism, and scarcity of a divine connection.
I read something recently that made me think about people’s motivation in all aspects of their lives, especially faith. According to Joseph Campbell, “People say we are seeking meaning for life. I don’t think that is really what we are seeking. What we are seeking is to feel the rapture of being alive”. This idea wraps up that scarcity idea in a nice little package. People want to feel alive. And in America’s world of junk food and television, we need to feel that aliveness desperately. When our place of worship does not provide it, or worse, works against it with stagnation and decay, the choice to move on is a natural one.
Campbell, Joseph. 1972. Myths to Live By. New York: Viking Press.
Today, on July 4th, I would just like to encourage everyone to take advantage of their freedoms. In the United States, we have a great deal of freedom in regards to spirituality. Depending on where you live in America, it may seem like there is only one spiritual path, or at least one that is better accepted than others. But in all reality, there is almost no option unavailable to us.
Whatever your spiritual inclination, celebrate your freedom to believe and act as you choose. Celebrate being able to belong to your faith tradition. Celebrate having the freedom to mix traditions into something more unique. Celebrate not having to do anything related to faith. While I believe that a spiritual life is healthy, worthwhile, and relevant, celebrate if you are an atheist. The freedom to not believe is not available to all. The ideal of independence that is so vital to the fabric of our nation, has given rise to an entire spectrum of spiritual traditions (including a lack there of in some cases). Freedoms as varied as ours gives way to diversity. And that is most certainly something to be celebrated.
Happy Independence Day!