Most of us imagine that to achieve self realization, we need to radically change our lives. Stop doing this, do way more of that. We imagine that becoming a monastic would be the ultimate commitment to this path, and it makes sense — the intensity of experience! That must be the key, right?
Brother Govindananda is a resident monk at Self Realization Fellowship in Los Angeles, and an experienced retreat participant as well as a facilitator. Brother Govindananda suggests that in fact, the most powerful approach could be just the opposite:
“It’s not so much what we are doing when we are on retreat, but what we are no longer doing because we are there. I particularly find when I go on my own retreats here in the ashram, it allows me the opportunity to reflect on what I'm doing from moment to moment, and to work on changing habits that are obstacles to my own spiritual unfoldment. Immersing yourself in meditation and spiritual teachings in a silent atmosphere for several days is a wonderful thing to do. When you connect with your source as the soul, it allows you to go back into the world with a much greater sense of inner security and peace.”
Founded in 1920 by Paramahansa Yogananda (Autobiography of a Yogi), the Self Realization Fellowship (SRF) now has temples and centers all over the world. Through his Kriya Yoga teachings, Paramahansa Yogananda taught how it is possible to have a direct, personal experience of God through scientific techniques of meditation which lead to Self-realization. And although the philosophical exploration can sometimes feel vast, Brother Govindananda explains it quite simply: “Rediscover your relationship with God, go deeper into the abode of the higher self, and remember that you belong. You have purpose. By practicing silence and stillness in meditation we are able to go within and experience who we really are – not on an intellectual level, but on an experiential level. The retreat gives me the space to have that realization that I am not this body. I am a soul.”
But for many, it isn’t that easy. Spirituality is rife with complications, so we asked Brother Govindananda to speak to a few of the barriers that keep people from realizing their spiritual nature. He shared about our complex modern relationship with God.
“Many people in the West have been intimidated by the idea of God, that he is judgmental or unfeeling. Paramahansa Yogananda introduced to Westerners a broader concept of God — as taught in Vedanta and the Upanishads, the ancient scriptures of India — that God is sat-chit-ananda, ever-existing, ever-conscious, ever new Bliss. But he also spoke about the personal aspect of God. He would start many of his prayers with addressing God as Father, Mother, Friend, Beloved. He was providing this idea that God is not this entity in some corner of the cosmos waiting to judge us and throw down thunderbolts. He is love and joy. If you’re intimidated by God, then you need to change your concept of God. He is as near to us as we allow him or her to be.”
So we have some cultural baggage around our concepts of God. But is that all? Brother Govindananda continues: “I think there is a kind of a subtle thing here when people say they are intimidated by God. What is really going on? It might be more than we aren’t ready to or want to make the changes that living a spiritual life might entail. Herein lies the real problem. In the Bhagavad Gita it is referred to as the battle between the ego and the soul. The ego holds us back from discovering who we really are – the soul, God’s pure reflection.”
Here, it becomes apparent that our relationship with the idea of God is more complex and personal than we might like to think – a situation in which the ego is attached to a certain lifestyle that doesn’t leave room for a vision of the divine. Brother Govindananda references the sacred yogic texts to explain further.
The message of the Bhagavad Gita, India’s sacred scripture, revolves around this idea of life as a battle between the ego and the soul. Yogananda calls it the joyous battle of duty. In the very opening paragraph of the Gita, King Dhritarashra (who represents the blind mind of man) asks Sanjaya, the metaphorical representation of impartial introspection: ‘On the holy plain of Kurukshetra…when my offspring and the sons of Pandu had gathered together; eager for battle, what did they, O Sanjaya?’
"In his commentary on the Gita, God Talks With Arjuna, Yogananda explains that this is the question to be asked by every spiritual aspirant, and states: ‘Through honest introspection he analyzes the deeds and assesses the strengths of the opposing armies of his good and bad tendencies: self-control versus sense indulgence, discriminative intelligence opposed by mental sense inclinations, spiritual resolve in meditation contested by mental resistance and physical restlessness, and divine soul-consciousness against the ignorance and magnetic attraction of the lower eg0-nature.’ So it is that the ego continually creates excuses for us not to embark on the spiritual journey.”
There it is. The ego creates excuses to hold us back from beginning our spiritual journey because we have ideas about how it will be, what it will mean for who we believe ourselves to be, and the ego does everything it can to resist that change. It lives deep in our cells from a lifetime of thinking we are separate. Brother Govindananda goes on to discuss the illusion of separation of God and self.
“These ideas we have, which may be from our upbringing, are that God is this person, and we are separate from him. But, we are not separate from Him. This is a delusion that goes very deep. Who or what God is, is something that is beyond intellectual understanding. True knowledge of God is gained through experience had in deep meditation. As I mentioned earlier, the Vedantic definition of God is sat-chit-ananda, ever-existing, ever conscious, ever-new bliss. Also in the Vedantic tradition, there is an expression which in English translates to ‘Thou art That,’ the oneness that exists between the soul and Spirit.
“This union between soul and Spirit is the whole point of the spiritual path, and it can be realized through meditation. This is why the retreat experience is so important for the seeker. By regularly practicing scientific techniques of meditation, such as Kriya Yoga, the yogi eventually experiences deeper and deeper states of consciousness. In the beginning, he or she may experience a sense of peace and well-being, and gradually that feeling will expand into a state of joy and bliss – the ‘perennial native state of the soul’ as Yogananda says.”
Beyond intellectual understanding, many teachers would say, we meet God in the silence. This doesn’t require removing yourself from the world and taking monastic vows; self-actualization begins with the simple intention of dropping into inquiry. What is my relationship to God? And as the ideas about what the spiritual path “means” begin to unravel, amidst the complexities and the questions, God is waiting.