Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Auckland, Hamilton & General Tourist Time

Dear Friends:

We are in the last week of our time here. On November 4 we fly back to California (except for Dambara who is joining a pilgrimage in Israel before returning to Oregon).

We leave the night on the 4th and arrive the morning of the same day, getting back what we lost on the way over.

Inward glimpses of California occasionally break through now, but the best policy is still: “Be here now.”

We are with Kavita and Aroon again in Hamilton. Last weekend we had a Saturday retreat, Sunday service, and then a talk on “Happiness” at the local Theosophical society. Tonight we have informal satsang.

We were warned in advance that New Zealanders are more “British than American,” meaning more reserved. They have to get to know you before they’ll ask questions or share experiences.

I scheduled classes for 2.5 hours -- a lot of time for a lecture, just right when people interact and engage.

Sometimes it worked. In Wellington the time flew by. By the end of the first weekend in Hamilton, the audience was contributing more. Informal satsangs are going well.

Since Palmerston North, we’ve included more music, chanting, and meditation. Probably the best idea from the start, but I’ve had to learn by doing.

People often ask me about their own spiritual progress, “Can I do more?”

My answer is a question, “Are you pushing against the edge of the unknown rather than coasting on habit?”

Nice to be able to answer those questions: Coasting: No. Learning: Yes.

Swamiji set the example of creatively serving God and Guru to the last breath. Just weeks before his passing, he finished his last book. I want my tiny feet to follow his mammoth footprints.

As I rounded the corner of 60 years -- and kept on going -- I wondered how to stay spiritually dynamic to the end.

When Swamiji announced the New Renunciate Order (June 2008) he asked me, “What do you think?”

I said, “The answer to a prayer. This will save me from spiritual mediocrity.”

“Yes,” Swamiji said. My concern was justified.

The ideal Indian lifestyle brings everyone to sannyas in their last years. Walking off into the forest isn’t the model Swamiji set. Giving everything to God is.

Talking about Self-realization to a new friend here, she exclaimed, “There is so much to learn!”

“Yes,” I said happily. “Whenever you think you have reached the edge of the possible, the possible expands before you, literally to Infinity!”

I had hardly reached the edge of the possible in 2008, but I wasn’t sure how to proceed. Nayaswami vows solved that nicely.

In Auckland, the venue Kavita chose is also a retreat center. We promoted it like any other class series. Though set in a secluded valley, the venue is close to town. People came and went for the various programs.

All of us, though, and about seven others, lived at the retreat. Meals, sadhanas, and lots of time for conversation proved transformative.

There is so much to Ananda. One hardly knows where to begin! My way is to give classes -- karma, reincarnation, meditation -- as much of the “Self-realization curriculum” as I could cover.

Having Dambara to sing was essential. A few minutes of song can change consciousness more than hours of words.

Still, even with lots of words, music, sadhana, and satsang, one barely touches the surface.

For introducing Ananda to a new audience, Finding Happiness is a godsend. It is almost like being there. Everyone in the movie, and the ideas they present, expands the definition of what Ananda is and how to be part of it.

On Friday, we go to Lake Taupo for a weekend retreat.

It is a gorgeous setting. Weather report says: warm and sunny. (We now read and quote these unreliable reports like native New Zealanders, for whom weather is an ever-fascinating, because always changing, dimension of life.)

About 20 have signed up, mostly people we have already met (plus two from Australia). Being together for three days we hope will launch Ananda New Zealand into the future.

When we were filming Finding Happiness we had to constantly remind ourselves, “We can’t include everything. This movie alone will not teach someone how to start a community.”

But it can inspire people to learn how to start one.

Many times since we arrived here I’ve had to repeat this to myself: In one class, one weekend, one month we can’t teach everything about the spiritual path.

But we can inspire people to want to know more.

May we be able to awaken Thy love in all hearts: our constant prayer.

As Swamiji often said, you can live next door to the best restaurant in the world, but if you aren’t hungry, you won’t go in.

Fortunately, when spiritual hunger comes, in Dwapara Yuga, everyone lives next door to a spiritual smorgasbord. Passing out a directory of online classes, websites, and YouTube channels has been central to what we are doing here.

In one of our programs, Dambara sang (exquisitely) some of Swamiji’s songs of divine longing -- like Through Many Lives, Mother of Us All, Divine Romance, Door of My Heart.

People sometimes feel Swamiji’s music is sad. After the singing, I felt to comment.

Belief in God is not enough. You must also long for Him. Longing moves you toward God, and pulls God toward you. Longing for God is what these songs awaken.”

“I have only two desires in life,” Swamiji said, “To realize God and to help others also to realize Him.”

We place our tiny feet next to Swamiji’s giant footprints.

In these last days, we’ve had time to be tourists. Rachel is a born tour guide and has planned marvelous excursions. We’ve bathed in geo-thermal waters, climbed to the base of a giant waterfall (and back up again), communed with amazing trees, climbed over rocks on a black sand beach.

Mother Nature rules in New Zealand! And we bask in Her glory.

We are so grateful to God and Gurus for bringing us here, for re-uniting us with soul brothers and sisters, and letting us help launch Ananda New Zealand.

Jai Guru.

In divine friendship,
Asha for all here
Kiwis and Americans united in Master’s ray!

P.S. The ongoing photo album for the New Zealand tour can be found here.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Wellington & Palmerston North, New Zealand

Dear Everyone:

Mid-tour everyone needed rejuvenation. Dambara went off on a hike, Bryan, Rachel, and Atmajyoti are at the beachhouse of a friend, Cancer-me chose to stay home in Hamilton. The trip is jam-packed, but with enough down time to also keep it fun-filled.

Air, food, and water are prana-rich, so we continue healthy, and after a few days off, well-rested.

Tomorrow everyone returns to Hamilton and Friday we go to Auckland for the weekend. That venue is also a retreat facility. Fortunate, since we have no friends there (yet) to host us. We planned a series of classes then added sadhanas to turn it into a retreat.

That’s the future; here’s the past.

Wellington started with a program at the Theosophical Society. The Theosophists have not been on my radar until we got here. The movement started in the late 1800’s and was a groundbreaker for world brotherhood and spiritual adventurousness, promoting unity of race and religion, the idea of Mahatmas guiding the planet toward evolution of consciousness, and metaphysical thinking in general.

It has no creed of its own, but fosters honest exploration of all paths. It continues to be a force in New Zealand. In both Wellington and Palmerston North we have been hosted/aided by the society.

The Wellington Theosophical Society has a marvelous old building, narrow, high ceiling room, wood trim and floors, and an extensive lending library of spiritual and occult books. Some join just for the library, which now includes a selection of Swamiji and Master donated by us.

About 40 people came, half Theosophists, half there for the first time. A decades-long tradition of spiritual inquiry gave the room a unique flavor. The subject -- The Yugas -- was ideal for the place and the audience.

For the weekend, we moved to St. Andrews Church, another fabulous old building in downtown Wellington. Friday was in the sanctuary; Saturday classes in a smaller, modern room in the annex.

The sanctuary included one of those elevated platforms with a waist-high railing where the minister can stand to deliver his message. I enjoyed the God’s eye view it gave, but for the program opted for ground level.

I’m glad to have moved on from those church-going days, but the real estate is gorgeous, and the atmosphere profound.

St. Andrews was a marvelous venue, and I’m happy to have spent an evening there, but it was spacious for the 20 people who came. Choosing the right size venue is the hardest part of tour planning -- the delicate balance between optimism and realism.

We’ve done well enough for our maiden voyage.

It was June 2012, when Swamiji asked me to become a “global ambassador.” Profound moments often happen in mundane settings. We were walking into the Stanford Shopping center when -- between the teashop and the luggage store -- my life was redirected.

I told Swamiji I, too, felt a change was needed, and was working with websites, webinars, and a YouTube channel, to be “Global from my living room.”

“Personal contact is also important,” he replied.

Information, vibration, even consciousness comes across the internet. I watch Swamiji’s videos almost daily. Something happens in person, though, that can’t happen any other way. Especially a first contact.

I felt that in India, but even more here. Perhaps because in New Zealand Master is little-known and people are attracted as much by example as precept. Ananda people are unique.

Another reason for personal contact: more relationships are possible than just with the featured creature -- oops, featured speaker. During the breaks in the classes, everyone is fully engaged.

None of us can imagine doing this tour with anyone but this team. But, in fact, we could substitute dozens of times, probably a hundred times, and each team would be an equal expression of harmony, attunement, talent, individuality/eccentricity, and joy.

All of Krishna’s soldiers look like Krishna. And all Master’s children raised by Swamiji express the same spirit.

At the end of a recent program, with tears in her eyes a woman said to me, “You must keep on doing God’s work in this way.”

Someone later asked about the whole group, “What are you doing that makes you so different?”

That’s the right question. As Swamiji often said, you meet one or two good people you credit them personally. If you meet a whole group you think, “It must be what they are doing.”

The Wellington classes were delightful. Small attendance, not more than 10, but each person was interested, intelligent, open, and fully engaged. It was effortless to talk to them -- first about intuition, then about death and dying -- because of the magnetism in the room.

Earlier in the week we played tourist in Wellington, strolling by the harbor, taking the funicular to a botanical garden, walking down the hill through acres of plants, trees, and flowers to lunch by the rose garden. Wellington can be cold and windy, but for us it was warm and sunny.

The city is a pleasant blend of energy and relaxation. That seems to be the characteristic of this country.

It reminds us of Switzerland, in the way everything is clean and neat, even in the less prosperous areas.

And in wealthy neighborhoods, things are simpler than in the U.S. Houses less elaborately designed and decorated. Certainly there is materialism, but not as avid as we are used to.

Every meditation, no matter how new the group, has been exceptionally still. Swamiji said that many New Zealanders are naturally attuned to subtle realms, a legacy in the land from the Maoris. Perhaps that is part of what we are feeling.

Visiting a new friend in a quiet neighborhood today it occurred to me, “New Zealand is a good place for sadhana.” Expanding Light New Zealand could be a popular destination. Plus a community to run it. Energy and relaxation. Perfect.

Oh dear. I’m getting ahead of October 15, 2014! Better get back to, “Do our best and leave the rest to God.”

On the way back from Wellington we stopped again in Palmerston North. (The North refers to the island on which it sits, there being also a Palmerston South.)

For our classes, we have not set up the full altar, displaying only Swamiji and Master, to give context to what we present. The altar comes out for Sunday service and teaching meditation afterward, and for the Kriya we did.

Even though we were offering the usual classes in Palmerston North, we felt more devotion was appropriate. Classes were held at the Theosophical Society hall -- another marvelous old wooden structure, newly refurbished but still holding decades of truth-seeking vibes.

Right under their motto -- “The only religion is Truth” -- we set up the whole altar.

Dambara always sings a few songs at the beginning, middle, and end of each program, but here we divided each session almost in half, starting with a long period of songs, chanting, and meditation. After a brief intermission, class started.

It wouldn’t have worked in Wellington, but in Palmerston North it was perfect.

We also showed Finding Happiness, to rave reviews as always.

A first-time viewer, though, later said to us, “There must be difficulties at Ananda. How do you deal with them? You should have devoted more time in the movie to the downside of what you are proposing. There are pros and cons to everything.”

I quoted Devi from the movie: “Meditation changes everything.”

He wasn’t satisfied, but I couldn’t think of more to say, nor did I feel like arguing the point.

Later I thought of the right response.

“If you want to persuade,” he had said, “you have to present both sides. Everything has two sides.”

Yes, everything worldly has two sides. Waves on the ocean -- for every crest there is a corresponding trough.

There is no opposite, however, to the spiritual path. Every effort to realize God brings you closer to God. It is the end of duality.

To present life at Ananda in terms of the “pros and cons” is to miss the point.

The purpose of Finding Happiness is not to persuade, but to inspire. In this it succeeds beautifully.

His suggestions were well-meant even if they missed the point. The movie did touch his heart, and he wanted to make a good thing better.

I had an interesting discussion with a devotee about another path where obedience to that guru is the fundamental practice. Even when the disciples don’t understand what the guru is asking, or why, still they must obey. They can question up to a certain point, then they must surrender to his will.

Perhaps this benefits those disciples. It is not my place to judge.

All I can say is: Thank you, Master, for sending us Swamiji.

Swamiji taught us to build our faith on the bedrock of our own experience.

Even for subtle questions, like “Why did God create the universe?” Swamiji answered in a way we can all understand. “It is the nature of Bliss to want to share Itself,” he said. “When you find a restaurant you love, or a movie you enjoy, what is the first thing you do? You call a friend and tell him about it.”

Happiness expands when it is shared. From this everyday example we can extrapolate all the way to Satchidananda.

I remember a time years ago when the community was questioning something Swamiji had suggested. He said, “I bend over backwards to explain things to you all. Master never bothered. A few words, a look, that’s all he gave us. We had to work the rest out ourselves.”

Thank you, Master, for sending us Swamiji!

Swamiji often said he preferred an honest argument to a mindless yes. Cooperative obedience is the right practice for this age. Respect for wisdom with full engagement of intelligence and will.

If you start with a dogma that can’t be questioned, you can only think to a certain extent. If reason doesn’t support dogma, reason has to be sacrificed so dogma can survive.

The relationship between Ananda and SRF hasn’t been part of any public discussion, but privately it is an ongoing issue. Our hosts are former SRF members. They are clear in their decision, but some of their gurubhais have expressed grave concern about their involvement with Ananda. I would love to put this whole issue behind us, but I think we have a ways to go.

One more reason why personal contact is important: An SRF member came to our program then later said to Atmajyoti, “What I was told about Ananda is so different from what I experienced. I don’t know what to do.”

“Go with your heart,” Atmajyoti replied.

Sage advice. As Master said, “Only love can take my place.”

Much love in Master,
Asha for the Ananda New Zealand team

P.S. The ongoing photo album for the New Zealand tour can be found here.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Palmerston North & Hutt Valley, New Zealand

Dear Everyone:

Six days ago we left our home in Hamilton, heading south. We are still getting used to the need to dress warmly the further south we go. At the southern tip of the north island especially the wind blows fiercely.

Yesterday was a typical spring day in New Zealand -- warm sunshine, cool wind, rain, hail, and a 5.1 earthquake! Fortunately, no damage was done. Everyone is skittish about earthquakes, after the devastation of Christchurch (South Island) a few years ago. So much was destroyed the city has yet to recover.

Our first stop was Palmerston North, where Kavita used to live, and where her parents still reside. Pramod and Urmilla were perfect hosts, opening their home, and feasting us on homemade Indian food and what Rachel deemed “the best masala chai ever!”

This visit was added to provide Kriya Initiation to 3 new initiates, and a first-time- with-Ananda renewal for 3 Kriyabans.

Kavita’s spiritual life started in Palmerston North with a meditation group there. When Kavita discovered Ananda, she naturally wanted to share this with her long-time devotee friends.

We arrived on Wednesday and gave a satsang in the very room where Kavita came to know Master, and the next night we gave Kriya there.

Years ago -- 1982 -- David and I traveled with Swamiji through Europe for six weeks. He was on a lecture tour; for us it was our honeymoon. (After Swamiji went back to America, we had a more traditional celebration: two weeks in the Greek isles.)

That was before Ananda had established itself in Europe. Swamiji did programs in many cities, each arranged by individual devotees or small groups. Some were old SRF connections; others had come afterwards.

About 5 times during that trip, Swamiji gave Kriya initiation for a handful of new initiates, usually in the living room of someone’s home.

Our first acquaintance with Mayadevi and Helmut -- long-time leaders now of Ananda Assisi -- was staying in her parents’ house in Frankfurt, bonding over the making of Kriya drink for the ceremony Swamiji gave there.

The initiation in Palmerston North was sweet deja-vu of that trip with Swamiji.

The fabulous traveling crew rose to the occasion, converted the small living room into a temple to our Masters. Already there were pictures and artifacts, but with permission, we used the pictures we had brought to make it unique for the initiation.

Even though we have all attended many Initiations, this was one of the most moving, because of the uniqueness of the setting and the profound gratitude of those being initiated, both the first-timers, and those renewing.

Because of the infrequent occurrence, and the expense of travel, it is unlikely that two of the new initiates could have participated in a Kriya ceremony if we had not come to their very doorstep.

Watching each disciple kneel before the Masters and place their offerings with such loving care --- every effort, every expense to bring ourselves to that moment counted as nothing compared to the inspiration filling that small room.

One of the new Kriyabans wrote:

“For your tireless service, for seeking out the separated and lost, for helping us achieve what we were always looking for, for extending hope of receiving Kriya in simplified circumstances in these fearful times...I thank you from the bottom of my heart. I am honored to be among the first initiated here.”

The next morning, greatly uplifted in spirit from the ceremony the night before, and fortified with several cups of “the best masala chai ever,” we left for Hutt Valley, a city within commuting distance of the capital, Wellington.

Traveling from Hamilton to Hutt Valley over two days we experienced the amazing variety of this country. Fields in a shade of green that seems more astral than material. Sheep and baby lambs arranged with such pleasing harmony one imagines an Artistic Director places them in the fields each morning for the pleasure of those passing by.

Rolling hills give way to forests, and eventually to a barren highlands, with two snow-covered, volcanic peaks rising dramatically from the plains, at the edge of an immense lake. Then again into forests, velvet green fields, and, suddenly, we are looking are the roiling waves of a vast ocean.

Rain and wind gives way to glorious clouds, then sunshine, then clouds and rain again.

Also cheese-tasting (and buying) and “the best ice cream in New Zealand” at the not-to-be-missed tourist stop, with a wandering peacock there to greet us.

New Zealanders are very health conscious. Whole grain and gluten-free options abound. Eggs, produce, and dairy products are delicious. Inasmuch as good food is the “last legitimate pleasure of the yogi,” we are enjoying ourselves immensely.

Hutt Valley is the home of Kavita’s partners in the planning of this trip, Bryan and Linda Rose. Bryan is a long-time disciple of Master. Master’s devotees here have a national retreat every year and through those events Kavita and Bryan became friends. When she shared Ananda with him, he took to it enthusiastically.

He and Linda planned to be at SRW this year, but a family emergency prevented it. So, except for e-mail and a few Skype calls, this was our first meeting.

They have a lovely spacious home where, to our joy, we have all managed to find a room or cubbyhole to stay in. On a tour like this, everyone adds to the magnetism and even a day apart feels like a long time.

Bryan Rose is well-educated in Master’s teachings and in the almost 20 years of being a disciple has obtained many unpublished or out-of-print writings of Master or collections of teachings from other disciples. We’ve enjoyed a box full of Master’s magazines dating from 1925, a notebook of quotes from Brother Bhaktananda and also from Brother Turiyananda, among other treasures.

In advance of our arrival, we shipped Ananda Publications from India and Bryan has been avidly reading through Swamiji’s books and The Wisdom of Yogananda series.

We brought him a copy of Fight for Religious Freedom, by our attorney Jon Parsons and, as you can imagine, we’ve had some lively discussions as Bryan, Kavita, and us sort through the amazing SRF-Ananda karma.

After all these years I’ve come to a very simple way of explaining it. SRF is centralized. Ananda is de-centralized. For each organization, this is both an organizational and a spiritual principle.

Being so far away from the “headquarters” of both SRF and Ananda, it is more obvious than ever: So few on this planet strive to live in the light. What pleases God most of all is to love one another, for in God, all are equal. Whoever loves God is our brother and sister.

We had a full weekend of programs in Hutt Valley. The venue again was lovely, a room in the Dowse Museum of Art.

Bryan and Linda live right on the edge of town, and the Museum is within walking distance. Transporting books and all the other paraphernalia of Ananda-on-the-Road required that The Marshmellow (the name of our van...we’ve changed the spelling from “mallow” to “mellow” to express the attitude of those traveling within it) still had to be used, but most of us walked back and forth.

New Zealand is a major exporter of dairy products and other agricultural goods. If they could package and sell the prana in the air, however, it would be the richest nation in the world.

The turnout here was smaller -- about 15 for the free lecture and no more than 6 for any of the classes. Kavita has been active in Hamilton for some years, and she has built up a group. Here Bryan is just getting started with Ananda, so this is the beginning.

Having a whole weekend together, we shared lunch, and sometimes dinner, bringing our new friends to Bryan and Linda’s where we ferreted around in the kitchen and made meals together.

These informal interactions are as important -- perhaps more so -- than the formal classes. Ananda is a way of being in the world. It is spiritual family.

When we showed Finding Happiness here, there was hardly a dry eye in the room. Swamiji’s presence is so powerful. And the picture of what life can be like when you put God first is thrilling, both for those of us who have decades of experience in Ananda, and for those seeing it for the first time.

Although life in New Zealand is beautiful in so many ways -- national health care, among other things, removes many worries -- depression is a major problem. Kavita speculates this is because life is so comfortable, there is nothing to strive for and the “agonizing monotony” as Master’s calls it in Autobiography of a Yogi, leaves people groping for meaning.

Master’s teaching can be a solution.

Nature is vibrant, and much respected. The biggest ecological problem is imported predators -- rats and other rodents -- brought over on the boats with the Europeans. This was devastating to the indigenous bird population, and efforts are being made now to restore the balance and protect endangered species.

Bryan is deeply engaged in this and has taken Dambara into the high hills on an outing related to this effort.

Yesterday, Bryan took Dambara and me to a nearby park. In typical fashion, it was sunny for the drive there, but as soon we reached the parking area, dark clouds moved in, torrential rain fell, then hail.

A few minutes later, the storm abated, and we decided to take the walk we had planned. It was a rainforest after all, so getting wet should be part of the story. When you travel halfway around the world you want experiences you can’t get in your own neighborhood.

We crossed a river on a swinging bridge, wandered through thick forest down to the river’s edge. This area was used for Rivendell in the filming of The Lord of the Rings. You can imagine how magical it was.

Tonight we have a program at the local Theosophical Society. The subject is The Yugas. Should be interesting.

This weekend we will be in Wellington on Friday and Saturday, then Palmerston North for Sunday Service and a class in the afternoon.

For me, this journey is about attunement: To be in the moment, to feel what God and Gurus want, and as best I can to be their messenger.

Keep us in your prayers.

In divine friendship,
Asha for Ananda New Zealand

P.S. Turnout for the first Wellington talk was about 35 people -- a full house of dynamic and interesting people. Many plan to come to the classes on Friday and Saturday night. More about that next letter.

P.P.S. More photos of the trip so far are online here.