One evening during our recent trip to Mexico, we were having dinner at the home of Alicia, Ananda’s center leader in Monterrey. As we were enjoying one another’s company over a wonderful meal, the memory of another evening came to mind.
It was in the early 1980s in Rome with Swami Kriyananda. We were walking back to our hotel after having had dinner at the home of Renata Arlini, Swamiji’s longtime friend and Ananda’s center leader there. Strolling through Rome on that crisp autumn night filled with stars, we were enjoying the sites of one of the most beautiful cities in the world.
After some time Swamiji said softly, “How many dinners I’ve had over the years with so many different people in so many different places!” In that moment, he gave us a glimpse into a lifetime of sharing friendship with devotees around the world in his service to Master.
With his gift of fluency in languages and adaptability to new cultures, Swamiji was a world citizen who felt at home everywhere. I never saw him relate to anyone as if he and they were strangers, but rather always as friends.
All of Ananda has been influenced and molded by this consciousness of world brotherhood. As Ananda members have spread out to serve others throughout the world, cross-cultural bonds of understanding and appreciation have been built. In our Assisi community, we have members living harmoniously together from Germany, England, Italy, and Russia—countries that were trying to destroy one another during World War II.
Today when I read the news about the unceasing global conflicts, I realize that world brotherhood is more than a sweet sentiment: it is vital now for the evolution of human consciousness, and even for the survival of our planet.
Some years ago a friend gave us an original 1923 edition of Master’s book of poetry, Songs of the Soul. Master had personally inscribed it with these words:
There is one breath that enlivens all strange lands and strangers. Under one sky we live watched by One Father.
With my blessings,
Oct. 20, 1924
May each of us embrace the consciousness of a world united under one sky and One Father who loves us all.
In divine friendship,
Have you ever finished meditating and then realized you’d been so unfocused that you could hardly remember what happened? Paramhansa Yogananda defined meditation as “deep concentration on God or one of His aspects.” In order to achieve this, we need to bring the consciousness to one-pointed attention at the spiritual eye.
The first few minutes after closing our eyes is extremely important. Here are some things that have helped me during those critical first moments:
- When I go into our meditation room, I remind myself that I am there only to meditate. I try to put everything else on the shelf and not to think about people, projects, or problems for this period of time.
- I start with the “Ananda” prayer to Heavenly Father, Divine Mother, Friend, Beloved God, and our line of gurus. While praying, I visualize each of the gurus and try magnetically to draw their blessings. If I lose my concentration, I start again, sometimes repeatedly, until I have successfully visualized and felt a connection to each guru.
- I won’t embarrass myself by confessing my personal record for re-starts, but forcing myself to focus during the prayer means that I don’t continue if my mind is still scattered or restless.
- It greatly helps me to bring the energy strongly to the spiritual eye. I try both to keep my gaze there and at the same time to feel a sensation of energy in that area. Seeing light at this point, or even listening to AUM here, seems to calm the mind. Thoughts and worries seem to arise from farther back in the brain, and fade away once I can get my focal point back at the Kutastha.
- Sometimes after the prayer I will do some simple pranayama techniques such as tensing and relaxing the body a few times followed by regular breathing. This gives my concentration a focal point and works with yogic principles to internalize the prana.
- The Hong-Sau technique is extremely powerful if done properly and is the primary one given by our gurus to calm the monkey mind. It is very important to bring the mind back to watching the breath as soon as you are aware that it has wandered. (If you don’t know these techniques you can learn them in my book How to Meditate, at any Ananda center, or with online classes at “Online with Ananda.”)
Doing Hong-Sau completes this beginning phase of meditation. I then go on to other techniques, and try to become absorbed at the spiritual eye. As Lahiri Mahasaya put it, “Doing techniques is like cooking the meal. Remaining in the calm aftereffect poise is like eating the meal.”
One final point: the key is relaxation. Meditation should be joyful and fulfilling.
Her name was Abigail. She was ten years old with shining brown eyes and a shy smile. Her parents were members of the Ananda Mexico City Center, where we were staying, and they had brought her over to meet us before she went to school.
Putting her arms around my waist, Abigail hugged me and sweetly rested her head on my chest. After a long embrace, Abigail looked up at me with sparkling eyes, and said softly in Spanish, “I can hear your heart talking to me.”
A little surprised, I asked her, “What is it saying?”
“That you love me so much,” she answered trustingly. And that was how we began the day of our visit to the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe outside Mexico City.
We had made plans to come to Guadalupe to fulfill the intention of Swami Kriyananda, who wanted to visit there during the summer of 2013. Unfortunately he left his body earlier that spring, but we came now in his stead.
The Shrine is the most beloved holy place in all of Mexico, visited annually by many hundreds of thousands. Its story began on Dec. 9, 1531 when Juan Diego, a simple peasant, saw an apparition of a young girl on the hilltop of Tepeyac, an ancient sacred site. The girl asked that a church be built there in her honor, and from other things she said, Juan realized that she was the Virgin Mary.
Amazed, Juan Diego ran to tell the Spanish bishop what he had seen and heard. But before accepting Juan’s story, the bishop told him to go back to Tepeyac for a miraculous sign. And there on the normally barren hilltop in mid-December, Juan found blooming flowers not native to Mexico – beautiful Castilian roses.
The Virgin appeared to him again and arranged the roses in his woolen cloak. Juan raced back, but when he opened his cloak to show the bishop the miracle, there he found more than just roses – on the fabric was imprinted the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The miraculous cloak is still on display in the Basilica that was later built there, for all to see and worship.
On the day we visited, thousands of people from a distant district, Puebla, were completing a week-long pilgrimage to Guadalupe which happens every year from Feb. 5-12. Some came on horseback; the elderly came in buses; but most of the people we saw – men, women, and children – made the journey on foot.
They were weary, footsore and limping, with eyes reddened from sun and dust, but they carried aloft beautiful white silk banners with the image of the Lady of Guadalupe and her words, “Am I not your Mother always?” Trustingly, her tired children come from all over Mexico to receive Her blessings.
The Divine Mother has appeared in different times, places, and cultures throughout the world, but the experience is the same for all. She comes so that we can feel Her embrace once more and hear the words Her heart speaks to us always: “I love you so much.”
There was only stillness. A stillness so profound that no words existed to describe it. And bliss, a bliss so fulfilling that nothing more was desired or needed. But the nature of the bliss was to expand, ever to expand. And so a small part of the still, infinite bliss began to vibrate. And this was the primordial duality: stillness and vibration. The one became many, and different rates of vibration became sound, and light, and power, and joy, peace, calmness, love, and wisdom.
These vibrations were called “words” in the Bible, and AUM and prana in the Vedas. Out of them the universe was formed. That which was farthest from the stillness seemed inert and without awareness. It formed into the mountains and the valleys. Then came the rivers and the seas; the fiery stars; the air; and finally the ether. These elements—earth, water, fire, air, and ether—beget life, which became ever more aware and, finally, self-aware.
But at the heart of every atom the primordial stillness remained, and a yearning to return to infinite bliss. This yearning throbs in all humans, the children of the bliss. The minds of men, which demand words and forms, clothed the creative vibration with different names and images. And even though none of these could begin to hint at the vastness of Infinity, they managed to placate the desire of those in a body to worship a God with a form.
When the yearning to return to the source grew strong, the still bliss manifested as the teachers of men. To some, those who thirsted greatly, these saviors stretched out their hands, and offered the living waters of Spirit. Others, so parched that their hearts had shriveled, turned away to wander even farther into the desert in search of gold and power.
But a few, a very few out of millions, yearned to discover the spring from which the holy ones had drawn the desire-quenching water. So the teachers showed them a path, which led not through mountain passes, but through stony hearts, and past uneasy minds. The guides taught the seekers how to still the ever-moving breath and quiet the restless thoughts. Gradually, by shunning the gaudy attractions of matter, these seekers became calm again. They began to see an inner light and hear once more the ever-entrancing sound of creation. Then, finally, the breath, restless from the moment of birth, became stilled, and they were freed from the prison of flesh and bones. Their multitude of desires became just one—the yearning to return to their ancient home.
Then, finally, they found again what they had always wanted and always been—everything.
It was quiet and cool in the interior of the dimly lit church – a dramatic contrast to the ceaseless activity on the college campus during this hot day in late spring of 1969. A friend had given me Autobiography of a Yogi to read, and it had awakened in me a keen desire to learn to meditate.
My friend had been studying meditation through the mail for three months and considered himself somewhat of an expert on the subject (a little prematurely, I’m afraid.) We decided to find a quiet place to meditate, and the little stone church across from the student library seemed an ideal place.
Without any idea of what to do, I simply found a seat on a wooden pew, closed my eyes, and relaxed into the silence around me. What happened next was an experience that remains vivid after all these years, and that determined the course my life would take.
First I felt a heightened sense of awareness, an expanded sense of personal identity, and a deep peace. As these intensified, I began to experience a great joy welling up within me that seemed to come from the core of my being.
After some time, I couldn’t contain myself any longer, and I enthusiastically burst out, “It’s all inside us – a tremendous sense of joy!”
My friend dismissed my words with a shrug, and replied, “Oh, no – it’s much more difficult than that. You have to study meditation for years and learn different techniques before you can experience anything.”
A little crest-fallen, I thought I must have done something wrong. It took me some time to realize that my first impressions had been quite right. The fruit of meditation, whether for a mere beginner or one who has practiced for years, is the experience of the joy of our own being. Don’t lose sight of this and mistake the means (the techniques of meditation) for the end (God’s bliss).
Paramhansa Yogananda gave us these words of encouragement: “If you have made up your mind to find joy within yourself, sooner or later you shall find it. Seek it now, daily, by steady, deeper and deeper meditation within.” This was the gift God gave to a beginning meditator many years ago in a quiet little church, an experience she has cherished and tried to build on ever since.