I recently saw the film Awake, The Life of Yogananda. Yogananda was an Indian yogi who introduced countless Westerners to the practice of meditation and kriya yoga, which he described as the “airplane method to God.” He founded Self Realization Fellowship and wrote an influential book, Autobiography of a Yogi, to share his teachings. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend his inspiring book to those interested in the spiritual journey.
This blog is not intended to be a film review, but instead to convey some of my thoughts upon seeing the film. My short theater critic-style take on Awake is this: The film is well done with interesting archival footage. The tone is just a bit preachy. But, don’t let that stop you from seeing the film. I think it’s really worthwhile, inspiring, and thought-provoking. Here are a few of observations that I wanted to share with you:
We still look to things outside of ourselves for happiness. Yogananda came to the US from his native India in 1920. In the Roaring 20s, the masses were obsessed with drinking, dancing, sex and making money. “If you keep running after too many hobbies,” he warned, “you won’t have any time left for bliss.” Fast-forward almost a century and you find the general public similarly obsessed. Only with computers, cell phones, email, texting, social media, YouTube, and movies and music on demand, there are more ways for us to distract our selves. The lure of outer worldly things is as powerful as ever—think Sex and the City character, Carrie Bradshaw’s famous obsession with Manohlo Blaniks and Jimmy Choos. Still, inner peace, true happiness and unconditional love can only be found by going within.
Letting go of ego energies is not a walk in the park. The film recounts how Yogananda found his guru, Sri Yukteswar. Then he recalls that having his master clear out all of the ego’s conditioning felt like having his molars taken out—not sure those are the exact words, but you get the picture. If you’re doing your personal work and going through a dark night of the soul, keep going. Letting go, forgiving, unlearning, whatever you have to do, it’s all worth it. If you find yourself asking “What is wrong with me?” The answer is nothing is wrong with you. You are experiencing the human condition. And remember, you are not alone. You can call upon Spirit to help you.
Despite the hype of many modern day new age teachers, the spiritual path is not all smooth sailing. The film chronicles various challenges that Yogananda experienced. For example, he didn’t want to leave India and go to America to begin his life’s work. But he left everything he knew, and came anyway. Upon arriving, he didn’t get it right immediately. He first set up shop in Boston and learned that he wasn’t in the right place to do his work. So, he moved to California where he was well received. But, later on, he faced resistance, scandal and a lawsuit by his close friend. He said, he felt that he was being sorely tested.
If this man, who Deepak Chopra called a “spiritual prodigy” in the film, had to face these obstacles, we shouldn’t be surprised when we to encounter challenges of our own. Such challenges are personal; i.e., they may not look like what Christ faced in the desert, or Gandhi was met with when he organized against colonial rule. The challenges we face are unique to our soul’s path of evolution. They help us to learn about our selves and grow from the experience.
We all have the potential for self-realization. Like all other potentials, it needs to be developed. In his day, Yogananda’s teachings that you could experience God directly, God is “in the spine,” and meditation changes your brain were revolutionary. Today, yoga is everywhere. Science confirms that we are energy and that meditation improves the brain. Still, acknowledging this potential and developing it are two entirely different things. Like any other potential, to actualize the potential for self-realization, we have to develop it by practicing in daily life. All of the masters say, this means practice, practice and more practice. Yet, people often don’t stick with meditation, or other transformative practices, because they don’t see big results right away. Likewise, on the journey, progress is not peak experience after peak experience. In his book Mastery, George Leonard, co-founder of Esalen Institute, advised that, “To take the master’s journey, you have to practice diligently, striving to hone your skills, to attain new levels of competence. But, while doing so—and this is the inexorable fact of the journey—you also have to be willing to spend most of your time on a plateau, to keep practicing even when you seem to be getting nowhere.” I’m writing this to encourage you not to give up. Stick with it.
Wherever you are in life, you can begin to transform yourself. In the film, a devotee recalls a conversation with Yogananda. The man had asked the guru whether he could continue his life while also studying with him. Yogananda asked the man, “Do you smoke cigarettes?” The man answered, “yes.” Yogananda replied, “You can do that,” and asked him, “Do you drink alcohol?” The man replied, “yes.” To which, Yogananda said, “You can do that.” Then, Yogananda asked the man, “Do you have relations with the opposite sex?” To which the man responded, “yes.” Yogananda said again, “You can do that. (pause) . . .”But, you may find that do not want to do these things so much anymore.”
I thought this was great! Personally, I’ve never adopted any strict philosophy or diet. I find that if I try to make too severe a change in lifestyle or diet, there is a backlash. My heart isn’t in it and I won’t stick with it for the long haul. Instead, I make incremental changes and build upon them. Over time, habits, that are not good for me, seem to just fall away. I encourage you to do the same. Wherever you are, start there. Just take a small step.