I saw the beautiful new film “Awake” about Yogananda last night and it stirred up for me memories of my early days in spiritual searching when his book "Autobiography of a Yogi" was a trigger into exploring eastern spirituality. This was true for thousands of people in the 1960’s, as his experiences were radically different than most of our Christian teachings, yet allowed space to include devotion and all other religious practices. Many were intrigued and inspired to learn meditation. He changed our lives by simply expressing his own Truth.
Since those days I have explored many other yogic traditions and Buddhism as well, finding my way through the range of practices and phenomena that arise in each. It has been a great gift to my own spiritual life and also transformed the focus of my work as a therapist.
For Yogananda there were experiences of great light, being in Samadhi for hours, receiving clear intuitive guidance, feeling touched by and connected with other dimensions and his deceased guru, and finding himself invited to speak to audiences of thousands all over the U.S. and India. The life of a guru is sometimes as vast as the inner expansion he or she has known. To look at his life may cause one to feel that spiritual awakening is all bliss and useful messages from beyond and a calling to serve the world. For most of us it is not quite so easy.
I see a guru as a transitional object. It is not the person that is a guru, but rather the guru role is thrust upon him or her through the emptiness that is available when one has fallen free of personal conditions. This role can be used freely by those students who are seeking the understanding of their true nature until they are ready to find the guru within -- their own direct connection with inner wisdom, unconditional love and a liberated life, free of old patterns and conditioning. When this inner realization is known there is a deep relaxation of the mind, so that inner judgment and preoccupation with the senses fall away, leaving a quiet presence and openness that allows others to feel a transmission of peace. This can feel like bliss or love or stillness – it can shift from moment to moment. Gurus transmit that which we are and this is why they feel so magnetic to many of their students. With some a student will fall into the vast stillness and expansiveness of consciousness; others may experience an energy that stirs their system toward awakening.
But what is missing in the story of Yogananda is the information that this potential for awakening may bring chaos and trauma into the average life, because at the physical, emotional and spiritual level change can be challenging. Some might say this makes spiritual practice dangerous. But I disagree – just as birthing a child into life is a significant moment, awakening is an invitation into a new life. The rewards far outweigh the risk. Most who awaken experience physical changes – hormonal, sensate, energetic, vibratory – and psychological shifts – flashes of memory, emotional upheavals, new perceptions, even occasional parapsychological events. Every identification and belief system is challenged, even the identity with a spiritual tradition, and the need to live in authentic alignment with our Truth becomes pressing.
The body is an atomic structure – a field of energy infused with consciousness. As such it is in some mysterious way connected with all energies and consciousness. We are a movement in the whole of creation. When spiritual emergence occurs the field we are is getting rewired. This is rarely acknowledged in spiritual communities, perhaps because of concern about frightening aspirants, or because some who teach have not yet felt this aspect of the awakening experience. It may be that great masters like Yogananda come into the world with their bodies pre-wired for awakening and need no transformation, but the average person who is in this powerful process is going through a radical change, and needs to feel trust that it is a transformation that is responding to their own longing for Truth, love or God.
The process takes us into unknown territory, and certainly in the west this is not part of the mainstream spiritual dialogue, or medical paradigm. One must learn to live at peace with the mystery, let go of all beliefs about how it ought to be, and meet their inner guru, their own connection with what Yogananda calls the Divine, and others might term the Source. This is not a religious experience so much as a knowing of spirit and spaciousness within and without, and an opening to wisdom and love far beyond the personal self. So the one we thought we are is required to step aside and fade away, leaving only the flavor of the unique personal character to be expressed and meet its destiny in the world.