In this interview, Brother Chidananda, a long time Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF) monk (who now is president of SRF), discusses what it means to be successful on one’s spiritual path.
Integral Yoga Magazine (IYM): How would you define success?
Brother Chidananda (BC): Success in life, and certainly in the spiritual field, means to bring out into expression the inherent qualities of our own divine essence—the soul, or atman.
IYM: What are those qualities?
BC: All the wonderful things we wish we could abide in 24/7: bliss, love, even-mindedness, peace, the ability to always stay in the calm center of our being. And from that calm center we would be able to respond to the challenges that come up in our daily lives. Whatever events occur, we can learn to meet them with an undercurrent of divine consciousness, divine happiness, and spirit of seva or divine selflessness. As Paramahansa Yogananda expressed it: “To be able to stand unshaken amidst the crash of breaking worlds.”
IYM: How can we stand unshaken?
BC: To start, we first need to be very realistic about the obstacles—the things in ourselves and in the world around us—that make that kind of living a real challenge. It’s not something that’s effortless. The very beginning of real progress in spiritual life is the acceptance of the fact that it’s a fight. Success in life isn’t meant to be handed to us on a silver platter. Spiritual consciousness isn’t meant to be effortless or taken for granted.
In one sense, that’s the message of the whole Bhagavad Gita, which I consider the greatest of Yoga texts and therefore the greatest scripture of true success in life. The message of the Gita is couched as the story of two warring clans. Paramahansa Yogananda explained its deeper symbolic meaning, interpreting the Gita from the point of view of Yoga, showing that it is about the war between different aspects of our own being. One part of us is usually driven by ego, selfishness, ungoverned and unlovely emotions—the dark side of our mortal nature. The other side is our divine potential and abilities that are resident within each one of us, calling us to live in the consciousness of our divine nature. It is a daily battle that can only be won by starting and ending each day with introspection, with self-analysis, as we review our actions, attitudes, and reactions to all that occurred that day.
So, one aspect is to recognize that life is a battle. Where to go from there? We start by trying to inculcate, in our daily activities and attitudes, those divine qualities we’re trying to have our lives revolve around.
IYM: How can we cultivate those qualities?
BC: Paramahansa Yogananda stressed the absolute necessity of having a daily practice of meditation. Meditation is a word that—just like Yoga itself—is used in a lot of different ways. Meditation, when you understand its true, transformative power, is so much more than a period of sitting quietly, feeling calm and harmonious. Meditation is a very disciplined application of the mind and soul’s concentration power to contact and bring out into expression that innate divinity that which is latent within each one of us.
As long as the mind, heart, feelings, and surface emotions of our human nature are in a state of constant reactivity, upheaval, likes and dislikes, this incessant chatter masks and obscures the calm depths of the divine consciousness we’re trying to contact. Meditation is a disciplined practice to take our awareness beneath the level of restless and conflicting emotions—to a deeper level of consciousness where there’s light, divinity, calmness, and the awareness of a higher reality where everything is perfect.
When our minds and faculties are operating only through the physical instruments of perception, the senses, we are tricked and deluded into thinking that this material world is what is real. Maya or delusion sucks us into the most serious and fear-generating emotions. Meditation—by withdrawing the prana, the life energy, and consciousness from the outer instruments that are focused on the outer drama—allows us to gradually discover what we have in ourselves, which is much more real and substantial than the ephemeral show of ups and downs. Our inner lives then become much more real to us than the passing show. The ability to dwell in that consciousness is exactly what Paramahansa Yogananda meant when he talked about learning to “stand unshaken amidst the crash of breaking worlds.”
IYM: Did Paramahansa Yogananda primarily prescribe a path of bhakti, of devotion to God?
BC: Those who have read his writings know he had a very devotional relationship with the Divine. However, the disciples who lived around him, including Mrinalini Mata, who had the chance to be in his company and get to know him through day-to-day interactions, invariably describe him using the words, “perfect balance.”
As you know, Yoga is so universal and all-embracing because it allows for the incredible diversity of people’s temperaments. Some relate more to the feeling aspect, the devotional path of a personal relationship between oneself and the all-loving Divine Beloved, Mother, Father, Friend. Of course, devotion doesn’t appeal to all, but it doesn’t have to. There is Jnana Yoga for those who are drawn more to the path of discriminative understanding; and Karma Yoga for those whose orientation is more toward activity and selfless service; and Raja Yoga with its science of concentration and meditation.
To whichever path of Yoga you are personally drawn, by making an effort to discipline your life and your daily actions, and to guide them by the precepts of Yoga, you’re going to be uncovering that divine nature within yourself and learning to manifest it in daily life. If you get fixated on any one aspect of Yoga in isolation, very likely the expression of your soul, of who you really are, will be to some degree a bit one-sided.
Perfect balance is the essential nature of the divine atman, the spark of spirit in each of us. Those who are manifesting divine consciousness in daily life are able to pull out of themselves whatever is most appropriate in every situation in which they find themselves. We live in a world where constantly changing circumstances require constant discrimination to choose what is right. There’s no formulaic set of rules and guidelines that tell us how to apply spiritual truth in any given context. It can’t be reduced to a formula; it’s a state of being constantly grounded in your divine being, and from that awareness to bring out whatever is appropriate in any particular situation.
For example, consider when you have to deal with challenging people in the workplace or in the business world. There’s a time when strength or adherence to principles is essential. At another time, love, forgiveness, and the motherly or softer aspect of the Divine is the better response. To be in touch with one’s soul, or atman, is to have a complete palate of divine responses. We all would like to have a card with precise instructions that we can pull out of our pockets as we’re trying to figure out what to do in a challenging situation. I don’t think that exists! But, we can have an ongoing, intuitive guidance or prompting from within about what is the divine way, the healthy way to respond in a given situation.
IYM: Not too many people have an enlightened sage or Guru by their side who says, “Here’s what you do next.”
BC: We might think that would be convenient, but it would make us complete spiritual basket cases! It would not prod us to develop our own discriminative abilities or inner strength. Taking a little time, first thing in the morning and before retiring at night, to enter into the inner stillness will help us face the unendingly diverse challenges to our peace of mind and emotional stability, and will reinforce the connection to our divine nature. That is our only realistic hope of preserving the divine attitude and manifesting divine qualities during our daily lives.
IYM: Would you share something about your personal journey?
BC: As a teenager, when I first saw a book on Yoga, somehow that word awakened a desire in me to learn more. The typical goals and ambitions of material life didn’t really speak to me. I hoped there was something more to life. The turning point came when I read Autobiography of a Yogi. I was a student at the University of California in San Diego, which was close to the Self-Realization Fellowship center in Encinitas, where Paramahansa Yogananda had lived for years and written Autobiography of a Yogi. I began to attend some of the programs and meditations there.
IYM: There’s a huge variety of choices that any of us has when we begin a spiritual path. How did you know that was the one for you?
BC: Autobiography spoke to me on a very deep level. It wasn’t only what the book said, but the spiritual presence I felt behind the words. Right toward the end of the book there is a photo of Paramahansaji taken one hour before he left the body; it is called “the last smile.” I felt a divinity pouring out of the photo; and found myself thinking, “Anyone who can radiate that kind of consciousness just from a picture is the real deal.” So, I enrolled for the course of teachings.
IYM: Did you feel Paramahansa Yogananda was your Guru even though he was no longer in the body?
BC: I wasn’t born yet when Paramahansa Yogananda left his body in 1952. But, think about it: How is it that all these years since Paramahansa Yogananda left the body, thousands and thousands consider him to be their guide? The answer to that comes from an understanding that the Guru-disciple relationship really takes place on a non-physical level of being. If one is in contact with a true Guru, the physical aspect is the tiniest tip of the iceberg.
I was fortunate to work closely with senior disciples such as Daya Mata, Mrinalini Mata, and others who were with the Master for decades. From them I learned that regardless of whether the Guru is living in the physical body or not, the relationship and the spiritual training takes place on the interior level. I’m utterly convinced of this. It is a basic fact of my daily existence; he is as real or more so than the people I encounter in my outer life, as long as I keep inwardly in tune with him.
IYM: How is it that SRF has been able to successfully carry on his vision and grow since he left his body?
BC: The first question some asked after his Mahasamadhi was, “How can we go on without him?” But he had implanted his consciousness in those he trained; and they made the commitment to devote their lives and ambitions solely to carrying on the spiritual legacy that he put in place. So even 50 or 60 years after his passing, it’s still alive.
The next question was: “Fine, but what happens after that first generation of disciples is gone?” It’s a natural question, but you also begin to see that the answer to those concerns is, again, that the relationship with the Master doesn’t take place on an outer level.
Paramahansa Yogananda was very foresighted. He wanted to build his work for the long term, to ensure that it would remain true to his vision and spirit.
IYM: How did he do that?
BC: One thing he did was to invest a lot of his energy and guidance in the monastic order of SRF. Because for a spiritual organization to endure, to remain true and not constantly shift course depending on which way the wind blows, it has to be built on a foundation of individuals who are 100 percent vowed and committed. This doesn’t imply that monastics are necessarily superior to the many thousands of lay people who are the heart and soul of his legacy around the world. But he felt that in order for the vision to endure you have to have a solid core of non-negotiable principles, and that is what he built into his monastic order.
And Daya Mata and Mrinalini Mata continued that ideal during their leadership. I always saw that for them, even with the large administrative issues and the global outreach of the work, there was nothing of higher priority than to do everything possible to kindle and nurture the flame of divine longing in the monastics, knowing that this work will live or die depending on that. Our Guru used to say that, spiritually speaking, the reason Christianity has endured all these centuries is not because of its institutionalized political power, great wealth, or material clout; but, because of a handful of individuals who were God-realized saints—St. Francis, St. Teresa, Padre Pio, to name a few.
These were truly yogis, even though they didn’t use that word. So it is with SRF: Guruji said that to the degree that there are souls who have that deep, one-on-one interior relationship with the Divine, and with the Guru, his work will go on; that is what makes a living teaching. And the way to that consciousness is not just for those of us living in the ashram but for all who are looking for success on the spiritual path, and therefore in life.
Brother Chidananda—whose name means “bliss of the infinite Divine Consciousness”— has been a monk in Self-Realization Fellowship’s monastic community for more than 35 years. He assisted Sri Mrinalini Mata in her work of editing and publishing numerous books by Paramahansa Yogananda, including The Second Coming of Christ: The Resurrection of the Christ Within You and God Talks With Arjuna: The Bhagavad Gita. For more information, please visit: www.yogananda-srf.org.