Sunday, September 22, 2013

Today is definitely not thursday...

For the past few months i have been writing a weekly blog entry on my day off of work to compensate for my lack of Vaisnava association while performing my seasonal job on the New Jersey shore.  Although e-sociation is no substitute for the real thing, this writing has been quite therapeutic for me and thankfully it has started a few email conversations which helped me get through the summer.

While i do plan on doing a lot more writing in the future, it seems that i will not be able to post a blog on a regular basis for the next several months since i will be traveling in places with limited internet access.

Hopefully i will be able to post one here and there, but it certainly will not be as regular as it has been.

But i will say this…  these last fourteen weeks of regular writing has been really good for me.  Being steady with any devotional practice (reading, japa, kirtan, deity worship, etc.) is the key to noticeable advancement.  We humans have a tendency to only expend energy on something when it is absolutely necessary…  we like to “take it easy” whenever possible.  But when we do this with our devotional practice we might not notice its effectiveness and perhaps even dismiss it as unnecessary.

We are currently in the age of instant gratification where we want it our way, right away and will not tolerate boring transitions or delayed results.  We want to put in minimal effort and receive optimal results.

But some things are worth putting forth extra effort, and among those things spirituality is the only one that is ultimately worthy of said effort.

So, with that i invite everyone who reads this to pick a devotional practice that you enjoy doing and set aside some amount of time to do that activity on a regular basis.  And, as always, i would love to hear about what you chose and how it has affected you.

If we can somehow figure out a way to never miss the latest episode of a tv show or our favorite sports team’s game, we can certainly figure out a way to regularly chant a bhajan, or read a few chapters from sastra, or write out our thoughts.

Our character can be defined by the priorities that we set for ourselves, so let us set our default to Krsna-bhakti.

forever endeavor… amen.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Skipping over

When we are reading philosophical material we have a tendency to skip over certain parts.  For some it’s the difficult-to-pronounce Sanskrit prayers, while others will skip over the highly philosophical parts considering them to be beyond their level of understanding.  But i would say that the most skipped over sections would be the ones on the Lord’s “universal form”.

i realize that even mentioning that this will be the subject of this weeks blog entry, i risk losing several readers immediately.  But i hope that everyone will give me the benefit of the doubt and read on...  i promise to keep it brief and entertaining.

There are quite a few descriptions of the virat-rupa throughout our sastras and i have heard several reasons for skipping over them from “it’s boring” to “it’s irrelevant” to “it has no flavor”.  After all, it is referred to as a “godless display of opulence” and is usually more appealing to pantheists.  The most convincing excuse that i have heard to justify skipping these descriptions is that in the Bhagavad-gita, even though Arjuna requested to see that form, he quickly asked Krsna to resume His original form because the universal form was incompatible with Arjuna’s rasa.

Similarly, when Mother Yasoda saw such a form within her divine child’s mouth she had to quickly forget about what she saw (with the help of yoga-maya of course) so that it would not sully her motherly relationship with Krsna.

So if the conclusion is that a pure devotee does not wish to see this aspect of the Supreme Lord, then why should we, as aspiring Vaisnavas, bother to read about it?

i have to admit that for several years i too was guilty of skipping over these sections for a lot of the above mentioned reasons.  

But then, while studying the Srimad Bhagavatam in Sridhama Mayapur i came across this verse at the end of the fifth canto where Srila Sukadeva Goswami is addressing Maharaja Pariksit (5.26.38):

"… This vast form is considered the external body of the Lord, created by His energy and qualities. It is generally called the virāṭ-rūpa. If one reads the description of this external form of the Lord with great faith, or if one hears about it or explains it to others to propagate bhāgavata-dharma, or Kṛṣṇa consciousness, his faith and devotion in spiritual consciousness, Kṛṣṇa consciousness, will gradually increase. Although developing this consciousness is very difficult, by this process one can purify himself and gradually come to an awareness of the Supreme Absolute Truth."

In his purport, Srila Prabhupada writes:

“The Kṛṣṇa consciousness movement is pushing forward the publication of Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam, as explained especially for the understanding of the modern civilized man, to awaken him to his original consciousness. Without this consciousness, one melts into complete darkness. Whether one goes to the upper planetary systems or the hellish planetary systems, he simply wastes his time. Therefore one should hear of the universal position of the virāṭ form of the Lord as described in Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam. That will help one save himself from material conditional life and gradually elevate him to the path of liberation so that he can go back home, back to Godhead.”

After reading this, my opinion of the universal form changed quite a bit.

Unfortunately, we conditioned souls are not attached to Krsna's sweet pastimes.  Instead we are attached to making our own sweet pastimes independent from Him in this material world.  No matter how vehemently we deny this fact, our actions show otherwise.  Our daily habits show that we are more interested in attempting to keep ourselves entertained, happy, comfortable and/or satisfied through material manipulation than we are in reconnecting with our eternal position.  So since our priorities currently lie more in self-aggrandizement than to Krsna's sweet pastimes, understanding the universal form would be a step in the right direction for us.

The process of Krsna consciousness is to take that which we are already attached to and dovetail it in Krsna's service.  In this way the activity remains the same, but the consciousness is properly directed and the same activity that once facilitated our forgetfulness of Krsna now facilitates our remembrance of Him.

We all have attachments that we know are detrimental to our spiritual growth, and although these attachments are different for every person the process to become detached from them is the same.  The way for us to overcome a material attachment is to understand its proper use.  With our consciousness thus in its proper place, the material attachment dissolves away.

In the Bhagavad-gita Krsna says, "For one who sees Me everywhere and who sees everything in Me, to him I am never lost nor is he ever lost to Me".  Our goal is to be able to see Krsna everywhere and understand how everything is a part of Him.  That is the very definition of "Krsna consciousness".  Although we cannot run away from our attachments, we can properly understand them and thus we can conquer them.  That is our process.  And since these descriptions of the virat rupa are intended to show how everything we know is merely a part of the Supreme Lord it is certainly pertinent to all of us.

The universal form gives us the opportunity to transform our fondness of the mundane to fondness of the Srupeme Lord.  It is meant to show us that all of our attachments are actually attachments to Him.  It is only because of our skewed vision that we cannot see the connection and thus we are unsatisfied.  But when we see things as they truly are, as transformations of His divine energy, our vision is clear and we are no longer a servant of our senses.

This, like any instruction, can be used properly or improperly.  i certainly am not claiming that we should drop all of our regular service and focus on the universal form.  What i am saying is that we need to examine whatever attachments we have outside of our devotional lives and gradually learn how to see Krsna in all of them.  The descriptions of the universal form help us to do this.

For example, in the descriptions of the universal form, Krsna says that the sun and moon are His eyes.  Every form of light in the material world is a transformation of the sun’s energy whether it is from stored energy in wood, coal, oil, etc. or is reflected (off of other planets etc.)  Without these forms of light, we could not see... our eyes would be useless.  This means that our eyes only work because He has eyes.

Everything we take for granted is made possible by Him, and if we took the time to see Him in all of these things from time to time we would better understand Him and His unconditional love for us.  And if we could better understand that, our hearts would quickly melt and we would naturally fall in love with Him and try to reciprocate His love by exclusively serving Him.

One day we will understand our deeply established relationship with Krsna, and when that happens the display of the universal form will be of no interest to us.  But until then we should understand that the things we see everyday and use for our personal enjoyment is an exploitation of God and His energy and is thus a declaration of atheism.

The real reason we skip over these sections is because there is a part of us that does not want to see Him everywhere.  We only want to see Him when it is convenient.  Otherwise our guilt for turning our back on Him would be overwhelming.  We are self-centered and there is no room for His presence in all of “our things”.

If we truly want to transform this selfish materialistic attitude to a spiritual one, it is in our best interest to learn to see the Lord everywhere.

Sometimes the things that we consider to be insignificant or impertinent are the very things that could potentially change our lives forever.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Letting go

i had a dream, one morning, that i was making my way across an obstacle course made of teetering cars pivoting on high poles.  As i carefully leapt from one car to the next, my weight and momentum from the jump would knock the car off balance causing it to tilt until i repositioned myself to counteract this motion.

While experiencing this exciting dream i was also fully aware of where i was outside of my dream state.  i knew i was dreaming, i knew i was in my room, safely in my sleeping bag and i was completely aware of all of the things that i had to do later that day.

Aside from the fact that there was no true danger of me falling from these wavering vehicles, there was also no point in my finishing the obstacle course.  i knew that it wasn’t real, and that my completion of it would in no way represent any ability that i truly possessed in the prestigious sport of unbalanced car hopping.

Yet i wanted to see if “i” could do it.

At one point of the course there was a relatively far jump to the next car, and when i landed on its hood the car quickly tilted down causing my foot to slip.  As i slammed down face first onto the hood, i firmly grabbed its top edge near the wipers and started to slowly pull myself toward the windshield in an attempt to keep the heavy machine from falling from its perch.

As i cautiously maneuvered myself, the car started to shake and slowly began to slide from its pivot point.  i looked back to see if there was a way that i could leap back to the previous car, but with the present car almost vertical i was both to low and too far away to perform such a feat.  i had no choice but to keep climbing the car which now seemed to be hanging by a thread.

Every time i pulled myself higher the car would rumble and fall a little bit as if it could give way at any moment.

i still knew that this was just a dream, and i also knew that it was almost time for me to wake up. (i confess… this all happened while i was taking a nap before Srimad Bhagavatam class while i was living in the temple)  Even knowing all of this, i still wanted to see how this was going to turn out…  would i fall to my doom with fifteen hundred pounds of metal crushing me?  Or would i somehow be able to climb up and pivot the car the other way with just enough time to leap to the next car before the former would go crashing down without me?

In our Vaisnava philosophy the first thing we are taught is that we are not our bodies…  we are spirit soul…  that which animates these bodies…  eternal beings occupying temporary material bodies.  As such, this whole temporary world is essentially just a very convincing dream.  Our bodies begin and end and go through many drastic changes in between, but the one who experiences these things (the soul) stays the same throughout all of it and still remains even after the elemental bodies are long gone.

This concept is certainly not exclusive to Vaisnavas.  It is, by definition, a foundational tenet for all spiritualists.  All spiritual practitioners can agree that needs of the soul outweigh needs of the body.

So why is it, then, that although we fully understand that we are spiritual beings and that our best interest lies in directly serving the Supreme Lord, we often times put our spiritual practices on the back burner to our material endeavors?  Why is it that even though we know we are not these bodies and not the controller or enjoyer of anything, that we still try to control and enjoy our situations?

The truth is that we are merely trying to amount to something…  to be relevant, to have an impact, to be the first, the best, the only…  to be eternally remembered and honored even after we are gone!

But even if our outstanding achievements are recorded in books for future historians to remind the common man of, our legacy will not last very long in the grand scheme.  Furthermore, our material accomplishments will not help with our spiritual advancement.  So the question becomes: why are we wasting so much time and effort on something that is only momentarily significant for only a few people when we could be focusing our efforts on something that will yield eternal results?

Well my dream during my “japa time” nap answered this important question…  we just want to see what happens.  We are more attached to the mundane storyline than we are to the real one.  We are not ready to relinquish our illusion of control.  We want to feel the pride of accomplishment even though we know it is illusory…  we want to feel supreme independence.  Essentially we want to be God.

That last sentence does not necessarily imply that we want to be the supreme controller in charge of everyone’s lives, it just means that we want to be a controller of something when in fact we can’t even control our own bodily functions.

So until we can give up our aspirations of being the worlds greatest unbalanced car hopper or whatever other ultimately insignificant dream we have, we will not be able to grab ahold of true satisfaction…  we can not grab a flower if our hands are full of sand.

Sure some goals seem noble and worthy of our undivided attention and action like “breakthrough cancer researcher”, “protector of the innocent” or even “worlds best parent”.  But curing a disease without enriching the patient’s spiritual life, rescuing someone from a dangerous situation without pointing out life’s true danger (dying without pursuing spiritual advancement), and putting food on the table and providing shelter for ones children without educating them about their true protector is merely an attempt to take credit for something that we are absolutely incapable of accomplishing.

We cannot truly save a life because eventually everyone will die.  We cannot truly protect one from danger because if one is meant to get hurt, karma will find her way to them.  We cannot truly provide nourishment, for we can only take what has already been provided by Krsna and give it to those who are under our care.

This of course does not mean that we should stop caring for, protecting or providing for others, it just means that we should give credit where credit is due and we should not try to steal any of the glory.

So whatever happened in this dream of mine?  Did i fall and die?  Did i miraculously figure out a way to regain balance and continue the course?

Actually, what happened was i woke up and went to Srimad Bhagavatam class.  The dream ended with a cliffhanger and its sequel was never made.

i can only hope that at the end of this life i am as detached from my actions as i am from that dream…  cause i definitely do not want to come back to see what happens.

It should be understood, at this point, that merely letting go of material desires does not qualify us for entrance into the spiritual realm.  But it does free up our grip so that we can grab onto something substantial.

What are you holding on to?

Thursday, September 5, 2013

The funny thing about focus...

At the most important times in our lives…  the truly pivotal moments…  the do or die situations, we all know that the best way to achieve positive results is to hunker down and focus on the matter at hand.  We believe that if we just focus on a problem enough we will be able to solve it and then resume our default apathetic mode until the next emergency presents itself to us.

Although this seems to be a solid strategy in theory, there is a little more to it that we should be aware of if we want to steer clear of disaster.  Any good photographer will tell you that the thing about focus is that you must first understand how to select the proper focal point.

One day i was driving my car to pick a friend up from the airport.  As i steered through the turns on the winding road, a bottle of Gatorade rolled around on the passenger side floor.  When i turned the steering wheel to the left, the bottle would roll to the right, when i accelerated, the bottle would shoot backwards, etc.  When i noticed this, i imagined what would happen if i stopped paying attention to the road and instead put my focus on the movements of the bottle…  i could make it roll around in specific shapes and patterns…  it could be a really neat game!  Of course if i had actually played this game my car would have wound up either wrapped around a tree, in a ditch or smashed up against another vehicle, and the motions of the Gatorade bottle would no longer be of any amusement to me.

But if we think about it, this is exactly what most of us are doing with our lives.  This life (whether we accept it or not) is a spiritual journey.  We are spiritual beings searching for our rightful place.  We all start out on various points on the spiritual path and the choices we make determine whether or not we make forward progress on said path.  If we focus on spirituality and seek bona fide instructions with our consciousness focused on the Supreme, we will surely make forward progress.  But if our focus is elsewhere, our life becomes the equivalent of a useless mangled wreck wrapped around a tree.

Magicians use a trick called misdirection to divert our attention from what is really going on so that their deceitful ruse seems mystical or transcendental.  Our material minds are expert magicians, as they play similar tricks on us making us think we are still on our desired spiritual path while misdirecting our attention to mundane endeavors.

To illustrate this point further, let’s say that there is a father who finds out that the neighborhood kids take a shortcut to school on a short path through the woods.  When the father checks out the shortcut he notices that on one side of the path there is a tree root sticking up out of the ground a little bit.  If this prompts the man to start a campaign about how this shortcut is unsafe because of a tripping hazard and subsequently proposes a nine step plan on how to fix the shortcut (because if the root is simply cut to remove the tripping hazard, the tree might die and turn into a crushing hazard, therefore making it prudent to remove the entire tree, which then removes the shade and rain cover from the path leading to sunburn and mud hazards, which suggests that the path should thus be paved and that a canopy be constructed over it with padded covers on every pole and safety rails), one might say the man’s focus, although noble, is a little off.  If all we see are problems, our focus needs to be adjusted.  There is no need to fix every minor problem on a path that we do not own when we can simply walk around them with much greater ease.

This, of course, is not to say that no problem is worth fixing.  There is nothing wrong with building a bridge to get across a river here and there, but we should expend our energy wisely and only when it is necessary.  And when it is necessary, we should still be careful to keep the focus where it belongs and not become trapped or attached to one of the easements we helped pioneer.

Even while actively on the path of spirituality, there is always the danger of distractions.  There are many side effects that come along as a result of our successful spiritual advancement, which can be a major distraction if given their own separate value.  Sometimes these mere side effects are mistaken for the process itself and with our attention thus diverted, we miss out on the full benefits and as a result are delayed in reaching our desired goal.

As we make spiritual progress, we are endowed with unprecedented clarity, a strong foundation of knowledge, a sense of humility and other attractive qualities.  When people begin to take notice of these qualities there is a chance that we will lose sight of their connection with our spiritual path and instead embrace our newfound popularity and again return to the (now slightly nicer) material pool, all the while considering ourselves still on the path.

Of course eventually we realize that our clarity, knowledge, humility, etc. have stalled out on some sort of plateau and it is during that critical time where we have to make an important self-evaluation.  While some will blame the process at this point for failing to continue to work for them, others decide that it is again time to hunker down and focus, considering this to be their next obstacle.  But the truth of the matter is that in these situations we left the path as soon as we considered ourselves the cause of our advancement…  we have been living on the obstacle for years, spinning our wheels against it, not understanding why we haven’t gone anywhere.

And all of this is due to misdirection… we think we know what is really going on, but the fact is we have absolutely no idea.

So how do we make sure that we no longer become the victim of this misdirection?  How can we avoid being duped into believing that we are going somewhere when we are in fact stuck?

We simply have to periodically assess and adjust our focus.  There is only one focal point.  Are we focused on ourselves or are we focused on Krsna?  Self-focus will keep us spinning our wheels and wrapping around trees whereas Krsna-focus will get us beyond, around, over or through any material obstacle no matter how big and daunting it is.

It is up to us to decide what we want to focus on...  and it is up to us to make sure we keep focused at all times.  We have no one to blame but ourselves if we get distracted, so pay attention.