The topic of this article is very dear to me. I have been passing through isolation several times in my life, in religious and spiritual contexts very far from each other: Catholic Church, Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF – founded by Paramahansa Yogananda, the renowned Hindu guru who brought Kriya Yoga to the West) and Goenka’s Vipassana-organization (inspired by the teachings of Buddha).
It is important to say that in each one of these environments, I have been spending years of dedication, attempting to put into practice and worship all spiritual principles, traditions and meditative practices they were promoting. In one of my previous posts, “Rosary Prayer, Kriya Yoga and Vipassana meditation – comparing experiences”, I have been describing some of the benefits related to the meditation-techniques I have been following in these three different spiritual paths. Now I will focus on more uncomfortable aspects related to my experience, knowing that many other people are living similar struggles: I hope my honest sharing will be beneficial to those persons who, like me, have been living isolation in spiritual organizations, but still believe there is a great treasure behind the controversial side of every walk.
When I decided to deepen my understanding of Catholic religion, I took the commitment to go to the Holy Mass every Sunday, to pray morning and evening about one hour per time, regularly attending the confession-sacrament, giving time for welfare, and I began to study and practice Christian mysticism. I became a fan of Rosary-prayer, in particular. Yet, being myself baptized also in the SRF, I felt the wish to keep alive the Yoga-side of me as well. I felt Christian tradition was lacking in practices exploring the connections between body, mind and energy. Furthermore, I could not take many teachings of the Church literally, especially dogmas, which were dramatically cutting off with my Yoga-background without creating any opportunity for a fair dialogue.
Catholic Church is very complex. There are still lot of suspects towards eastern meditation-techniques, in particular connected to the fear that they are too much related to their own specific religious/philosophical background to be acceptable in Christian environment. Yet, things are rapidly changing and throughout all my life I have met many priests, nuns and monks not only open-minded towards oriental philosophies, but practicing eastern meditation-techniques themselves. In their own Christian spiritual path, they could receive great benefits from such practices: Yoga and Zen meditation, for example, were considered by them as “treasure of humanity”. Recently, Pope Francis wrote: “The same Spirit everywhere brings forth various forms of practical wisdom which help people to bear suffering and to live in greater peace and harmony. As Christians, we can also benefit from these treasures built up over many centuries, which can help us better to live our own beliefs.” (Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, 254)
Despite of such bright personal attempting of shaping Church into a more inclusive system, the institution is still far away from being that universal nest (= Catholic) which welcomes all human beings without generating exclusion or distinctions in different classes. I remember, in my childhood, the feeling of being all the time very careful in expressing my own beliefs: at the age of eight I had to stay out of my class of Catholic religion, together with a Jehovah’s Witness –boy, since I explained that I believed in reincarnation. It is interesting to notice that reincarnation was a normal option in Christian faith, as it is still nowadays in some Islamic environments, till the second council of Constantinople (537-555), when for political reasons the Catholic emperor Justinian encouraged the condemning of Origen doctrines about reincarnation as heretical. Origen was, at those times, one of the most respected fathers of ancient Church.
I had to be even more careful when explaining my Yoga-meditation practices in Catholic environment: if I did not meet the right persons, it was easy to start never ending quarrels… which often ended up, among boys of my same age, with the stigma of being labelled as the “odd one”.
Another crucial theoretical “heresy” I was afraid to share openly was that I did not believe that Jesus was the only Son of God: Christ was, not Jesus. According to the Gospel, the Logos (the Son of God) was before this universe was shaped, he spoke through prophets, he fully embodied himself in Jesus. I believed the same Christ, which is one, spoke through prophets of all religions and embodied into many “avatars” (incarnations of God) of the world: Jesus, Krishna, Buddha, Lao Tsu, … Jesus’s awareness was so profound that he could identify himself with the only Christ, and he could say aloud: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me” (John, 14,6). As well as Krishna could affirm: “I am situated within the heart of all living entities. I am the beginning, the middle and the end as well of all living entities” (Bhagavadgita, 10,20). Therefore, Christ is the “true Light which gives light to every man coming into the world” (John, 1,9), and it is potentially abiding in every one’s heart. By following one “avatar”, you are attuning yourself with the only Christ.
When I got married, then, the restriction of not being allowed to use contraceptives did complicate our sexual life quite a lot.
After about eight years of daily Christian meditation and seldom Kriya-Yoga practice (in secret and full of sense of guiltiness), my divorce put me in front of a choice: continuing of being an active member of Catholic Church, with the limitation of not being allowed to eat the Holy Bread and therefore being officially labelled as a public sinner, or looking for a place where I could feel fully accepted for what I am. I was not worried of preserving my honour, but I took such a challenge as an opportunity to come out from the hypocrisy of denying my Yoga-background and beliefs. Without any act of definitive cutting with Church, I just choose not to become a victim of it. I took distance.
I decided to deepen my Kriya Yoga –practice and to become an active member of Self-Realization Fellowship. The founder Paramahansa Yogananda preached that Yoga is for all, no matter race, nationality, religious background. And his own religious sense was so wide that it embraced all faiths: I felt I could breathe again. Unfortunately, SRF was not recommending to practice other meditation techniques but Yogananda’s.
The motivation for such a restriction sounded reasonable.
SRF was teaching that: “Steadfastly following a single path and applying its prescribed methods will take you most quickly to your Divine goal. Once you receive the Hong-Sau and Aum Techniques, we recommend that you concentrate on them (rather than concurrently using techniques of other paths) in order to reap the highest results from your practice. Students who are already following a given faith may of course continue to participate in such forms of worship they wish.” (SRF – Answers to frequently asked questions, 7)
But what to do if my Catholic faith already provides other meditation techniques, such as Rosary-prayer, Ignatian meditation, contemplation and so forth… and what if you sincerely experience that such techniques are actually helping each other and they are not working “concurrently”? Once, a SRF –monk told me “life is short and you are free to choose how to employ your own time in the best way”, encouraging me to choose whether to continue my Rosary-practice or to fully commit with Yogananda’s techniques. That made me feel guilty every time I was praying Catholic Rosary, or practicing some Christian contemplation-exercise. My own experience was telling me that I was doing right, but I felt guilty, deprived of the support of a group or of a competent spiritual father, capable to understand me.
SRF then adds that the highest and best technique taught by Paramahansa Yogananda is Kriya Yoga: the quickest method to attain union with God, since it works straight with life-energy, which is the intelligent dynamic power underlying universe. But if you wish to take that step, you have to abandon other religious practices: “Those students who wish to dedicate themselves wholly to the Self-Realization Fellowship path may formally take this step by receiving Kriya Yoga” (SRF – Answers to frequently asked questions, 7). In practice, you may continue to attend other religious practices and being member of SRF, but you will have no access to the “pearl” of Yogananda’s teachings, as well as in Catholic Church I could still be integrated as a public sinner, without access to the “body of Christ”.
Furthermore, I realize now that Yoga-philosophy contributed to exasperate my conflicting relationship with sexual sphere: how not to feel guilty of wasting life-energy, every time you have sex?
Anyway, I just continued to practice Kriya Yoga regularly, two hours a day, throughout two years more.
Then I had a twelve-day-break, when I attended a Vipassana-course, as a part of my artistic research during my Master Degree Programme in Theatre Pedagogy. I was exploring silence as a space of dialogue between art and spirituality, and a friend of mine suggested me to participate to such an intense silent retreat. Vipassana-technique, as taught by S.N. Goenka, is based on mere observation of real body-sensations, and eventually, of their deriving thoughts. No pranayama (breath-energy exercises), no mantras (inner chanting or praying), no visualization. No God.
It has been a shock, but also a great relief, to meet such a neutral spiritual technique. I did not feel perfectly comfortable, since the lack of pranayama-techniques was confusing all my ideas about meditation and the lack of prayer was cutting my spontaneous attitude of connecting to my deepest Self and to the heart of all others in a dialogical way. I did not understand why visualization was considered as a technique working just on the surface level of the mind. I think that imagination is a faculty as real as our own faculties of listening and observing, and it may be used as an effective tool to expand our own awareness, within and without the body: why to struggle ten days attempting to feel a sensation on my hand without imagining my hand, when, just by mentally visualizing it I am capable to bring my attention there immediately, and therefore feeling all sensations in that area? Another doubt was that, even though pranayama was not mentioned as being part of Vipassana-technique, Taoist masters wrote in many books that “wherever there is awareness, there is Ch’i”, that is to say: prana, life-energy, concentrates wherever I focus my attention. And actually the training in passing my awareness systematically throughout all my body, was producing a spontaneous flow of vibrating subtle sensations running up and down, and I was wandering if Vipassana-teachers were just avoiding to label the theory of inner-energy in order to remain grounded on the mere objective phenomena of perceiving specific subjective sensations.
Yet, I felt such a technique was integrating some aspects of meditation that were not so much enlightened by Christian or Yoga tradition: a pure contact with reality, purified from the forms (and the poetry) of specific religious theories, a kind of mystical way non-dialogical with invisible realities, but digging into the depths of our own body-mind. I got the impression that I found something extremely important to improve my meditation, something that helped me to perform better also the other contemplative techniques which were still in my own background.
I practiced regularly Vipassana-meditation two hours a day throughout two years, “refreshing” every now and then my other techniques: as an art-pedagogue, in my workshops and classes I make use of concentration, meditation and contemplation –techniques. I have also to be ready to encounter new spiritual practices, in order to better understand my brothers and sisters coming from other religious cultures. And of course, being myself an instructor of Kung Fu, I have been practicing Ch’i Kung exercises throughout twenty years and I am currently teaching simple techniques of Taoist-meditation. That has been the tip which generated my third isolation-experience. As I had already completed one Vipassana course, Goenka’s organization was not able to accept me again to a new course, unless and until I would completely discontinue my teaching of meditation. I was not allowed to participate to other Vipassana-retreats, since I was already teaching other meditation techniques, and it was expected that I would be completely satisfied and confident with the techniques that I was teaching, and had no need to practice any other technique.
Unfortunately, my life-vocation is what I define “experiential ecumenism”: I will never be able to understand my spiritual fellows just by reading some books about their own religions; I must share, till a certain extent, some of their own spiritual routine, living it “from within”.
Now more than ever, I feel the importance of the support of a group or a spiritual father, yet I am tired of feeling guilty of “ruining” or “delaying” my attainment of the final goal, whether it would be union with God, enlightenment, freedom, salvation, peace, bliss, love… just because life enriched me with the encounter of different beautiful spiritual paths.
It feels hard to walk alone, but at least for now, that is my way. If you, gentle reader, had the patience to read all this article, please: say one prayer for me!
And may God bless you!