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Saturday, August 7, 2010

How To Know God

I did not pick up a 10 year medallion. At nine-and-a-half years, convinced I would not drink or drug again, I set off to cash in on a law degree that I had earned in my sobriety. I didn't drink or drug again, but thus started the craziest (and most painful) portion of my life. Five years later, I finally made my way back to AA, with the urging and help of an old AA friend, and my sponsors to be.

When I returned, and after perhaps another nine months regaining some semblance of AA balance in my life, two old-timers came in to my life and became my spiritual mentors. They were Harry, who would teach me meditation and explain the highest potentials attainable through the spirit, and Chuck who would explain the true nature of alcoholism to me, and who would become my co-adventurer into all aspects of spiritual life.
After my first sit-down with Chuck and the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, he said that if I was serious about this spiritual quest, I should read The Essential Rumi and Patanjali's Yoga Sutras. I ordered both of these from the bookstore.  Finding, the first was easy as it is a best seller translated by the poet, Coleman Barks.  But I had to choose from over a hundred different commentaries on Patanjali's Yoga Sutras that were then available. Fortunately, while I was waiting for my book order, my other mentor Harry lent me a copy of what he called his "Book of Spiritual-Realization". It  was called How to Know God: A Commentary on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, written by Christopher Isherwood and his teacher Swami Prabhavananda. (Synchronistically, when my book order arrived, I had picked the exact same commentary from amongst the 100's available!)

In How to Know God (which can be found here), Isherwood and Prabhavananda render a wonderful analogy of the mind and the "skhandas" - or habitual thought patterns - which are in essence the same as what we would call "character defects" in AA. They explain that "yoga" - the word for "religion" in the East - means to reunite with the Godhead that is imbued throughout every being, and which is the essence of each being.  In this sense, "yoga" (which derives from the same Sanskrit word as the English "yoke") is the same as the inner religious path examined by William James in his Varieties of Religious Experience. (The word "religion" comes from the Latin re, meaning again; and ligare, meaning to tie or unite - as in ligature, or ligament.) In other words, as Isherwood and the Swami explain, yoga is the practices by which the individual reunites with his authentic being, or the atman in Hindu parlance.  Patanjali's second sutra, or thread, says that, "the practice of yoga is learning to still the thought stuff or the mind"

(It is important to for the reader to know that Patanjali's yoga practices do not include the "hatha yoga" practices that are common in the yoga studios of the West.  Hatha yoga is seen as a later practice that is viewed as merely preparatory, readying the body and mind fit for studying the six limbs of classical yoga.)

Isherwood and Prabhavananda go on to give the following beautiful analogy of the mind, and the skhandas or character defects which obscure its true nature. (Remember, that page 55 of the Big Book says that the fundamental ideas of God is within each man, woman and child, "although it may be obscured by calamity, pomp and worship of other things.")

In How to Know God, the authors describe the mind as being like a clear lake, at the bottom of which rests the atman, or God within. While at first it is possible to see straight through the lake to God, thought waves and thinking stirs the surface of the Mind-lake and its water column, so that in time the lake becomes turgid and we can no longer see to the bottom.  And just like a muddied lake, there are habitual currents and eddies (i.e., our habitual ways of thinking, or our "old ideas") that build up sandbanks and pebble beds that further obscure the lake bottom.

They explain, however, that as one learns - through self-examination, meditation and prayer - to still the thought waves of the mind, and through a disciplined practice of doing so, the mud settles out of the water and we can again see to the lake bottom.  Yet, even when the water is again clear, we are left with the sandbars of the skhandas (our defects of character), which tend to channel our thoughts, just as sandbars channel the currents in a lake.  But, they explain, through patient and persistent practice even these obstructions pass away, so that once again the Mind-lake becomes clear and we can see all the way to the bottom - which is the Ground of Being - and, thus, we complete the process of reuniting with the Godhead, or making conscious contact with our Higher Power.

I find this to be a wonderful analogy of how the AA program works.  We come in with a muddied mind, but come to believe that there is a Higher Power somewhere within our access.  We then work to clear the waters, through a shared moral inventory, making amends and continuing to watch for character defects through a continuing inventory.  Then we practice the arts of self-examination, meditation and prayer, through which we realize a spiritual awakening. Finally, by consistent effort, we may be afforded what Bill describes in Step Eleven of the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, as "a new state of consciousness and being."

I am grateful to the two old-timers who picked me up and became my spiritual mentors, as I am to my sponsor and those who came before him.  Through these people, a message was carried that helped show me there is a far Greater Reality than that which I had only theretofore experienced in the choppy waves at the top of my Mind-lake - the dangerous waters of the ego, or if you like, the bondage of self. And this is a message that is handed down to us, not only through more experienced AA members, but from the wisdom traditions passed down from the very sands of time itself

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