[You can ask your own question here.]
I grew up in the Bible Belt and my parents regularly took me to a church where public displays of piety were the norm. I was deeply embarrassed by these outbursts, coming as they often did from people I knew to be spiritually ignorant, even mean-spirited in their religion. I formed a deep-seated aversion to public worship of any kind. True spiritual feelings, I decided, must be kept within the heart; anything else is hypocrisy. Now deeply involved in Ananda, with a rich inner spiritual life of my own, I still find it hard to participate in public worship, and have done so only because Master says it is important. I used to think my reluctance was a virtue; now I see it as a hang-up. Can you help?
Freedom is the goal of the spiritual path: liberation from all limiting ideas and self-definitions. Moksha is the Sanskrit word. Stages toward moksha include freeing oneself from subconscious habits, unexamined ideas, and compulsions based on false premises. Your aversion to public worship falls nicely into this category of things to be overcome, as you yourself have realized.
“Reason follows feeling,” is something Master often said, meaning if we are emotionally predisposed toward a point of view we will find lots of good-sounding ways to justify it. It is quite common for the aspiring devotee to use true spiritual principles to reach false conclusions.
Fortunately, you have noticed. Good work.
Each devotee has his or her own relationship with God. Bhav is the Sanskrit word which means “spiritual mood” or way of approaching God. Some are, by nature, outwardly expressive, others deeply private. So it isn’t a matter of right or wrong.
However, certain principles do apply to everyone, whatever their bhav. The most important one here is magnetism. Master said that whether your energy flows outward to the world or inward and upward toward God is determined to a great extent by the company you keep. It was to this he was referring when he said, “Environment is stronger than will power.”
The point is unless you live in complete solitude (and even then, there are subtle vibrations that may still affect you) you are always in some kind of magnetic field generated by the consciousness of the people who surround you. Even alone in your own home you have neighbors nearby -- many of them -- and their thoughts, feelings, and attitudes bombard you constantly.
Swami Kriyananda lived for some years in an apartment in San Francisco when he was earning the money to start Ananda. It was well off the street, in a quiet area, and in terms of audible sound, exactly the same day or night. Still, during the night, it felt quieter, and more conducive to meditation and creative thinking, because everyone else was asleep, and therefore the apartment was less bombarded by their restless, worldly thoughts.
Yes, the stronger your own magnetism and the deeper your inner life, the less affected you will be. But it is naïve to imagine that you are unaffected.
The effect of the environment around is cumulative and lingering. When you cut onions to make dinner, days later you may still get a whiff of onions from your fingertips. Even if you have just been near the onions, your clothes and your hair may retain some of the odor.
Vibrations of thoughts and feelings are far more powerful than mere onions! It behooves us then to immerse ourselves whenever possible in the vibrations we seek to make our own. This is the reason Master spoke so forcefully about the importance of spiritual communities. Jesus, too, recommended to his disciples that they live together.
This is satsang, which means “the company of truth,” or “the company of truthseekers.” Yes, just hanging out with high-minded people is also satsang, but think how much more powerful satsang can be when everyone is dynamically focused on a high-minded expression. When we pray, chant, meditate, follow a ritual, listen to a discourse, naturally we are more powerful and united in our focus than we would be just sitting in a room together.
In an interview Swamiji gave about the importance of The Festival of Light -- the ritual we do at Ananda every Sunday -- he said that even when people meditate in the same room at the same time, still, often, they do not meditate together in the sense of consciously uniting their force to help one another spiritually.
Swamiji added that whenever he meditates with other people he consciously meditates with and for them.
So here is another way to look at it. Let your time of spiritual practice in the company of others be a time of giving to others. Pray on their behalf. Chant whole-heartedly, knowing that the deeper the response you receive from the divine, the more divine power there will be in the room for the benefit of everyone.
In the early years of Ananda, when we all lived together at Ananda Village, there was no question about going to Sunday Service every Sunday. It wasn’t about whether or not we enjoyed it or felt inspired. Although we did both enjoy it and feel inspired. But even if we hadn’t, it was our duty to go, an act of friendship to participate with full energy and concentration. Otherwise, the Service wouldn’t exist! The mere repetition of words by the one leading the Service did not in itself create the experience. What made it powerful was the commitment of each participant to go as deep as possible into the spirit, together.
“When enough people call sincerely enough,” Swamiji writes, “a mighty flow from the river of grace is deflected toward this planet; a new ray of Light is drawn downward, and all who tune in to it are uplifted as they never could be, were they to struggle merely on their own.”
Imagine if you were living in some remote area, the only devotee for miles around, how you would hunger for the opportunity to share inspiring times with others. You have the good karma to be in good company. Embrace it with gratitude.
As for hypocrisy.... Well, just because some people who express spiritually are hypocritical, doesn’t mean that spiritual expression in and of itself is hypocritical. You have to take it case by case. But I can see that you have already moved past this misunderstanding and are now looking for a way to pick it up by the right string.
Try self-offering to God in the company of others for the benefit of others as a reason to participate and see if that helps.
[Questions and answers from other Ananda ministers worldwide can be found on the Ask the Experts page of Ananda.org.]