Excerpted from Meditation as a Way of Life by Reverend Alan Pritz, a guide to the meditative life based on the teachings of Paramahansa Yogananda and a variety of religions, including Christianity.
Amusingly, my inner journey began when I was quite young and was watching a television Western. There was little to recommend most cowboy plots: heroes, villains, and ladies in distress—archetypal elements set amid horses, whiskey and tumbleweed. This particular show, a dimly recalled episode of some sort, but not to be confused with the later TV series called Kung Fu, was unique because it featured two samurai warriors out West. Predictably, whenever these men passed through frontier towns, local rowdies wanted to fight. The samurai inevitably dispatched them with martial-art skills and continued on, leaving sore wranglers in their wake. Seeing those two fight—victoriously yet dispassionately—converted my childish emulation of the sword-fighting hero Zorro into something more exotic. Karate-like attacks on anything that moved became the norm, and eventually my parents enrolled me in martial arts training, on the condition that I lay off the dog.
Tales of my prowess would be fabricated: I was not Bruce Lee. I was a dedicated but unremarkable martial arts student who simply persisted. This anecdote of my brown-belt test offers an accurate, if humbling, perspective.
In the martial arts world, the brown-belt test is a serious rite of passage from clumsy beginner to relatively advanced student. Until this point, the idea of being a black belt inhabited a quasi-mythic, unobtainable domain. Suddenly it was within reach.
As with most martial arts exams, testing is open to the public. Guests gather, classmates flit about self-importantly, teachers coalesce into judging panels, and you try to look devastating. Since I was a timid sort, this test was a nerve-racking event I had dreaded for months. Test day came, and I arrived anxious and distracted. En route to the locker room I noticed my car keys were missing, not a good thing given my strained disposition. In near panic, I retraced my steps outside and, with mixed relief, saw my car was safe and… still running. No more need be said.
As for the test, I passed. Ten years later found me a black belt in two systems, one in my primary Chinese style and another in a Korean tradition. In fact, I excelled as one of a group of advanced students and was promoted to the rank of sifu, or teacher—proof that even mediocre ability could be transformed by hard work and commitment.
This era was noteworthy for cultivating in me a healthy body and a broad, receptive mind. When not training or teaching, I avidly read about mysticism to gain insight into non-ordinary laws and subtle realities. My metaphysical curiosity grew beyond what was accessible in the martial domain, so I turned towards yoga, meditation in particular. Such pursuits were not widely popular back then where I lived, so it was hard knowing how to proceed. Unlike the biblical Job, who was relentlessly pummeled by divine tests, my knowledge-gathering process was akin to Monty Python’s search for the Holy Grail. The Divine allowed me free rein for comedic value. As mentioned, I knew what I wanted—meditation training—but knew not how to get it. Consequently, my journey lurched forward inelegantly. In fact, while experimenting with anything that could propel me forward, I fell under the narrative spell of a book about yogic adepts. In emulative fashion I decided to test my mettle by practicing austerities, an inconceivably foolish idea without proper guidance. One evening I entered a sauna, assumed a meditative pose, and settled in to conquer heat sensitivity. As time passed, I no longer felt hot and exalted in this seeming first triumph over the flesh. The truth was less glamorous. Lack of sensation came not from mystical ability but from sweat: the body’s cooling system was simply doing its job. Several hours later my rump felt uncommonly tender. A subsequent, discreet exam revealed an enormous blister formed in a delicate area, proof that, despite my mental aspirations toward transcendence, my nether regions failed to oblige!
Offbeat experiences aside, mysticism captivated me. Sages of all faiths shared transcendental insights that common religionists lacked. Gazing beyond the bounds of ritualized dogma, they spoke authoritatively of principles that guided the destinies of people and planets. I was passionate to learn about this area, as it revealed an underlying order and intelligent purpose behind the apparent chaos of creation. Chief among influential books was Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda. Curiously, my first response to this book was to feel slightly disconcerted: I could not tell by the cover photo if the author was male or female. I later learned that such androgyny reflected perfect masculine/feminine balance and was reminded not to judge books, or people, by appearances. After cracking the book open, I was enthralled. The recounting of this master’s life touched me profoundly. Being ready for its message and in a position to act upon it, I put my belongings into storage and went to a mountain retreat in California, where I could obtain the meditation and spiritual training I yearned for.
Understand that spirituality is neither a code word for impracticality nor an excuse for irresponsibility. Radical actions like mine are not recommended per se; they can create more difficulty than they are worth. My situation, however, was such that this step felt right. Being single, without debt, and seven years into the same job, I needed a vital redirection for my life. Additional academics or another job simply were not the answer. For months I had experienced a strange pull westward. This did not make sense at the time since I was not prone to such phenomena, but I now recognize it as inner guidance. Fortunately, I was able to heed that call, studied with an accomplished teacher, and gained the tools for my life’s work. And a life’s work it is, because, unlike ordinary graduate pursuits that are mostly scholastic, meditative competency is assessed by direct realization. Seeds of insight yield the fruits of wisdom only after years of disciplined practice and cultivation.
Given this framework, I advise readers to heed circumstances that feel significant. Curiously random events may actually hint at important steps on one’s sojourn. For instance, a former student once shared how she had been browsing for inner growth books when Autobiography of a Yogi virtually leapt off a shelf at her. She subsequently heard of my kindred meditation trainings and enrolled in a class. Her friends found this synchronicity unnerving; I consider it natural. As the saying goes, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” The scenario had naught to do with me, other than I was available as a teacher when the evolutionary warp in her karma enabled her to act upon her spiritual curiosity. It merely reflected patterns set to promote those ready to step onto higher soul terrain. A biblically similar expression is, “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.” Guidance is always available, although sometimes it is whimsically rendered. Here’s an example:
On the cusp of leaving for California, I was emotionally conflicted. Abandoning the familiar to pursue meditation training was a leap of faith, especially with no job or friends to buffer the experience. Swinging between joy, sadness, and doubt, I opted to drown my woes in Chinese food. I coaxed a neighbour to join me for dinner, and table talk inevitably turned to imminent concerns: “Should I go or not?” Our conversation resolved nothing, yet after the bill arrived and fortune cookies with it, I opened mine and laughed, for, of all possible things, it said, “Yes, go ahead with confidence!” Ancient oracles might have used sacred rituals to interpret divine will, but evidently Spirit chose a more comedic delivery system with me.
Beneath the obvious humour is a significant spiritual lesson: Do not get derailed by doubt. Change is tough, and people often prefer the known over the unknown, even when it hurts. Despite wanting improvement, good intentions are frequently derailed by weak resolve. Why? On one level, bad habits are simply hard to break. On a grander scale, creation contains positive and negative forces that affect us all. Where there is light, there is also darkness. There is hard and soft, good and bad, yin and yang. All coexist; none abides without the other. Newton’s third law of motion describes this phenomenon as, “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” Metaphysically, as we pursue positive directions, oppositional inclinations often get activated. They can manifest in every aspect of life. Consider how friends invite you over for homemade pasta just after you start a diet. In spiritual matters, this curious phenomenon manifests when high-minded aspirations trigger sabotaging tendencies or counterparts. For example, self-discipline may attract temptation; faith may attract doubt; forgiveness may attract grudges.
Consider the classic cartoon of a devil sitting on one shoulder while an angel perches on the other. Both whisper in your ears to influence you, yet you must choose the correct counsel. Movement toward light may awaken the shadow, but that is OK. One does not get strong by wrestling babies, and you will not be abandoned. Persistence in right resolve attracts supportive aid. Negative forces are effective only when granted consent. If defeatist voices arise within, conquer them through wisdom. Impersonal demons are but metaphysical pests intent on promoting failure. Swat them away and forge ahead with confidence.
Returning to my narrative, after overcoming my predeparture woes, a joyous sense of adventure arose that lasted through my westward trek. Then, a second wave of resistance struck. Arriving at the California retreat, I paused, immobilized before its isolated roadway, thinking, “What the blazes am I doing?” Worse, I could virtually hear my older brother trumpeting with laughter. My family was not overly fond of my ashram investigation, and, although I stayed the course, over the next six months my brother regularly called the communal-retreat phone asking whoever answered if he could speak with “the Mahatma,” his code name for me. Bless older brothers. Having little choice, I took his jibes in stride, figuring they must be part of my unscripted training.
At the onset of my ashram adventure, I was not only stricken with residual cold feet but, in addition, my car died. Having fulfilled its transcontinental contract, it took a sabbatical that left me stranded and unable to contemplate diversions until needed repairs were made. Accordingly, I stiffened my resolve to enjoy myself and learn what I could. After all, I had pursued this course, not vice versa. The initial routines were so novel that I did not miss anything from my prior life. Two weeks later, however, found me descending into haloed stir-craziness. Hatha yoga, chanting, meditation, and philosophy were elevating; scenic vistas were pleasant company; and a healthy lifestyle was hardly torturous; but such sanctity grew wearisome. Without television, restaurants, or movies, I suffered from stimulus deprivation and craved an evening of something decidedly non-devotional. The nearest town was too far to reach by foot, so a kindred neophyte and I plotted a cure for our goody-two-shoes blues: pilfering organic grapefruit from the ashram larder. It was a lame diversion, but the forbidden fruit actually did taste exceptional!
As is often the case with thwarted desires, my deprivations proved remarkably insightful. In spite of myself I began to settle in and settle down. Lacking significant distractions, I became calmer and increasingly attuned to the mountain environment. Vistas became lovelier, and the peace churned from meditative routine became distinctly more pleasurable. I began having a delightful time. Once my car was repaired, though, I raced to town for the buzz of urban activity. Surprisingly, I found myself jarred by even minor amounts of stimulation. I realized that most people—including myself—are addicted to activity. Workaday lives are saturated with it, and holiday themes are often chosen for high-adrenaline adventure. Value is rarely placed on simply being, and cultivating calmness does not factor into most people’s lives. This is ironic because resting the nerves enhances sensory perception and the capacity for enjoyment. For example, when we have been sick and holed up in a house for several days and then step outside after recovering, the world virtually sparkles. It has not changed; our quality of perception has. The lesson of my escape-to-town adventure was that meditation interiorizes awareness and refines its external capacity. Needless to say, I embraced the remaining retreat time with increased enthusiasm and receptivity to events around and within me. When it was time for me to move on, I did so as a far more integrated and conscious person.
The journey of awakening does not require a somber attitude, excessive piety, drama, or anything else beyond sincerity and showing up. The journey is for anyone ready to take it and willing to pay the coin of self-effort. Let the truth as you understand it continue to guide you. Stay open, enjoy whatever transpires, and let the process unfold naturally.
Read more on this topic in PURIFICATION OF INTENT: A spiritual seeker’s guide to understanding awakening and the path>>