interviewed by Rev. Patrick J. Harbula
Swami Chetanananda was born American and thus embodies a rich fusion of East and West. Even though his teaching is deeply rooted in the traditions of Tantrism, it is completely Western in expression. Like his teacher, Swami Rudrananda (Rudi), Chetanananda speaks in the language of America and is as familiar with rock and roll as with the Rig Veda. “There is only one thing behind the appearance of many things, and that is the energy – the breath – of Life itself. That energy is the support of our physical, mental, and emotional existence. Our work is to cultivate our awareness of that energy, which is what we mean by growing. Growing gives rise to the understanding that all experience is nothing but the breath of God.” – Swami Chetanananda
Would you explain for our readers the essence of kundalini yoga?
The essence of kundalini is releasing tensions and allowing one’s creative energy to flow.
Essentially there are three levels of kundalini yoga practice – from the traditional Agamic literatures. The Agamas are basically a series of texts that emerged from the Shiva side of the Tantric literature by the end of the fifth century A.D.
The structure of kundalini yoga in the Agamas is three-fold. In the first level of practice, personal effort is involved – even after the awakening of the kundalini within us. The personal effort can be the performance of rituals, prayers, asanas, pranayama, mantra repetition, japa. These things are called anavopaya.
The second stage of practice is called shaktopaya. In shaktopaya one makes an effort, though it is quite a bit more subtle. It is an effort to simply be aware. In the level of shaktipia one is aware of the flow of creative energy manifesting itself as mantra…or mind…or breath…or activity-experience.
The final state is called shambhavopaya, in which there is no longer any practice or any effort or any path to be followed at all. There is only pure awareness and the experience of universal integration. Kundalini yoga is all three of these.
In the beginning stage a person might have some of what I call the dualistic viewpoint- we see ourselves as separate from one another with a need to survive and succeed in the world. It’s us against the world, with each of us having a need to exchange. In Shaktopaya we transcend that dualistic idea. The process/awareness by which that occurs is one that also unites our experience of the inner and the outer. So then the inner and the outer become two stages – two separate, not levels, but platforms or stages in which we are participating in the unfoldment of the creative energy. It can no longer be thought of as mine or yours. Rather, it is a universal creative energy.
I use the notion of stages as a convenience for us to be able to discuss the subject. One of the great teachers in the lineage of Tantric Shaivism in the tenth century said something like, “Who, by degree, can enter into infinity?” In other words, there’s no such thing as levels of consciousness or stages. There is one consciousness which is continuously articulating its own creative power. Just as each of us seeks fulfillment in creative expression and through creative expression, so the divine finds his/her fulfillment in creative expression. That creative expression is the whole universe, because we are in no way separate from that creative expression and each of us in our own life acts exactly the same.
What we’re all about, every day in our ordinary life, is exchange. You do something to pay your rent, I do something to pay my rent. We are all striving to create opportunities to exchange goods and services. Most people never even rise within themselves to the level of awareness where they can appreciate that what they are doing is working at an exchange process. Most people are so locked into the tensions of the struggle that they can only think about themselves, and they never think about the exchange event. That’s all we’re all doing in this world, looking for opportunities to exchange.
Service is a fundamental part of anybody’s spiritual growth. But let’s put aside the question of spiritual growth, as successful human beings we must have an attitude of service. If your magazine doesn’t serve it’s readers then it’s going nowhere. If it doesn’t know it’s audience and try to serve them it’s going to fail. If our community or business doesn’t serve somebody, if our product doesn’t reflect some service, then it fails. So, we’re all about service. The wonderful thing about this experience of service, this attitude of service, is it gives us the opportunity to rise above that experience of struggle and to start to consider others. Considering others, we find there is a link between the two of us – a more subtle form of exchange. We discover an energy exchange. For most people their highest experience of this energy exchange is going to be biological, but there is always a more subtle exchange going on. In fact, a human being is continuously exchanging, on all levels all the time, with their environment. And we exchange with one another. So a person who is involved with his or her everyday life and takes an attitude of service participates more and more broadly in this experience of exchange.
As we at the same time practice meditation, quiet our mind, train our senses, we become aware that this subtle energy exchange is happening through our service. As this further unfolds we might become aware of the source of this energy exchange. And so, even as we live in the ordinary world, working every day, doing what we have to do – I live in the ordinary world just as much as anybody else does – we have the opportunity to recognize the totality of the creative process that really is manifesting us and that we are manifesting at the same time. From that understanding we have the chance to become fulfilled – to become completely at peace and totally free from fear.
There are a lot of flakes–the spiritual realm is the flakiest place in the whole world.
Life on the outside, in the world, and life within ourselves are like two wings. In the Sufi symbol, the heart has two wings. In tantric mythology, the hamsa bird has ultimate discrimination. So great is it’s discrimination that it can dip its beak into a mixture of milk and water, and extract the milk yet leave the water. The hamsa bird also has two wings. One of those is the outside, the other is the inside.
If a person reading this article says to himself or herself, “Wow, this sounds wonderful! I really want to apply this to my life,” is there a technique you could recommend as a meditation that would help to integrate these concepts?
First of all, anybody that wants to obtain this understanding has to accept one simple fact: it is not free. We don’t have to pay money, but it is a real serious endeavor. One that I hope we do joyously but, nevertheless, seriously. Basically, what I’m telling you is it’s going to be work. I have a community and spend most every day of my life training people. I can give you some very simple metaphysical techniques which, if applied, have tremendous potential. To the extent one applies them, he or she will be benefited. There are immediate simple benefits and there are very powerful and profound experiences that lie behind them as well. It’s up to the person; it’s an effort. The basic technique that I tell you is a very simple technique – very simple.
Sit quietly, relax your body, relax your mind, and start to follow your breathing. At the end of every out breath, before you breathe in again, simply and completely relax. Watch the flow of your breath and on the end of the out breath, at that still point, just relax.
That technique in itself has tremendous power. Beyond that, I would say that perhaps the most essential thing a person needs in order to really integrate this understanding is a teacher who has done so. There are two aspects to this. A teacher, in our lineage, is a person who has the capacity to awaken this kundalini energy within another person pretty quickly. The awakening of this kundalini energy should begin to erase the doubts that people have about themselves, their own nature and their capacity. Once we experience this expansion of creative energy within us, we should feel very differently about ourselves and our ability. It is that simple.
The second thing this teacher should do is to serve as a role model for us and, through his or her behavior, to help us integrate our worldly experiences and our spiritual ideals. Because while the two things seem apparently at odds, there is a very simple middle ground in which the inner and the outer find their union. It is this middle ground that we want to train our mind and our senses to remain attuned to. That is real meditation.
There seems to be a movement in new age culture away from seeking a spiritual teacher, and towards “finding the teacher within.”
I don’t actually hear it that often, [laughter] you might. Basically, I think this situation is in reaction to some disappointments in the field of Indian teachers, and also some Tibetan teachers. Americans got involved with Indian spiritual traditions without any discrimination. The Indian and Tibetan, or Oriental, culture, has evolved over time as a series of misinformation and disinformation relative to spiritual teachers and spiritual practices. It’s intentional. There are veils and veils and veils of culture – that is something all the people there conspire to hide behind. Once you get past the culture, it’s the wild, wild west. People do anything; there are no rules. Not that there are any rules in life anyway, but in Asia people conspire to maintain a cultural image. Behind it, it’s total mayhem, chaos. Americans getting involved in that, not understanding the rules of the game, have been disappointed. There is a certain amount of naivete on our part, as far as becoming involved in other cultures and assuming that we understand what’s going on. On the other hand, there are a group of people in this country who have had deep experience in India and of Indian teachers. These people have been able to internalize, to a great degree, the essence of that tradition and then act it in this culture.
The reaction to “find the teacher within” has limited life. I have no problem with the notion of finding the inner teacher, there is ultimately only one teacher. But, I have yet to find any human being who has found that inner teacher without first having someone who has found it before them to show the way. The notion of a mentor is pervasive. If you talk to business people, medical people, or people very confident in any profession, they will tell you that without a mentor it is very difficult to succeed. It is certainly almost impossible to reach the highest rung without a mentor. For me that still holds true. We’ve seen lots of people, lots of spiritual seekers, lots of spiritual places, lots of spiritual traditions. Lots of people talk spiritual ideals, very few people find them.
In the tantric tradition, there is a Tibetan text I like, called Kindly Bent to Ease Us. It was translated by Guenther and published by Dharma Publishing. In it a Tantric monk says one of the foundations of anybody’s spiritual realization is having served well a competent teacher. I don’t think that will ever change. So, there is certainly a reaction, and I think it is a very understandable reaction, to Indian teachers and a certain suspicion of their motives.
How does one choose a teacher and avoid some of the problems?
First of all, a lineage does play some role in this. We have some chance to know that the teaching is authentic just by the fact that it has existed for a long time. That says something – it’s successful, it’s serving something. That’s no guarantee that everybody in the lineage is going to have the same level of capability, however.
The next stage is, I think, very simple. The spiritual teacher will never focus the attention of the student on the teacher. The teacher should always focus the attention of the students on themselves. A teaching that says anything like “the guru is going to do it for you” is really full of shit. The basic thing you have to know is that once you have attained the opportunity to have contact with a real teacher you will have to work your ass off. Having this understanding is one important step. A student has to understand that he or she comes to a teacher to grow, and the teacher should promote that understanding. You are here to grow yourself. A teacher is not like the sun to which we all look up in the day time. The teacher is like the ground we walk on – the unseen support in our life, the unseen place where we stand. You should not see the teacher.
People have a tendency to put teachers up on a pedestal, especially in the Eastern traditions. Being a Swami, how do you deal with that?
I try to be as obnoxious as possible. Anybody that is serious, and stays around long enough, is going to put me up on a pedestal, take me off, put me up on a pedestal, take me off, put me up, take me off – then they are going to cut the shit.
There are a lot of flakes – you understand that the spiritual realm is the flakiest place in the whole world. You get more crooks in the religion business, and more suckers, than anyplace else. But the serious people who honestly want to do real spiritual work will come and stay, and they will go through this experience of up, down, up, down, until they finally stop. The main issue is this: when someone puts me up on a pedestal, do I buy into it? The teacher who is a little bit weak buys into the pedestal trip and starts to manipulate and use the student. Then you’ve got problems. Ultimately, student and teacher are one and there has to be the opportunity for parity. There has to be the possibility of an equality. This is not to say that a student shouldn’t continuously respect and honor his or her teacher, no matter what their attainment. The greatest saints have always honored their teachers. The teacher has to be within themselves humble and simple enough to allow students to come up. There are two kinds of spiritual communities: one spiritual community is a life raft and the other is like a launch pad. Serious students of spiritual growth will seek a teacher who will launch them into their sadhana. Others will search for a life raft, something to hang on to. I have no objection to life rafts at all, I’m happy they’re there. I just hope I’m not one of them, and I try not to be.
One other point is the function of a teacher to nourish the students and, as much as possible, not to nourish themselves on the student. I’m not going to mention any names, but there are two big models in Indian tradition within the last two years where we have seen teachers collect a lot of students around themselves and in effect nourish themselves on their students. You will never find large groups of people, large movements, where the students are nourished by the teacher. The real, substantial, quality situations will have a tendency, I believe, to be smaller. Mass movements can’t sustain quality in anything. That’s why you don’t find great restaurants that serve ten thousand people.
In your book, you wrote about breaking cycles. How does that fit into this?
I don’t remember right at this moment exactly how that went. Frankly, I’ve forgotten everything about that book. I liked it, but I forgot it all. But breaking cycles, right at this moment what occurs to me, is that the way to break one’s cycle is to find the still point within one’s creative flow. Ultimately, we are nothing but a whole series (or range) of vibrations that emerge from one simple creative pulse. At the center of that pulse is a still point. Find that still point and all cycles are transformed it doesn’t really matter what cycle we are talking about, whether your emotional cycle, or biorythmic cycle, I don’t care. All cycles have a still point. Find that still point and the cycle itself is forever changed. A person extends and extends, and finally refines themselves to a point where there is almost no cycle apparent – through the simple breathing practice I gave earlier but broadly through kundalini yoga. It doesn’t matter whether we call kundalini “chi” or “ki” or “spirit” or whatever. Kundalini is the term for the training I am articulating and I use that term with the highest degree of respect for the people who have passed it on to me. I ultimately don’t care what we call it. It is the awareness of our own creative energy and the exploration and following of that creative energy to its source.
I’m going to present this from a point of polarity, and let you work through that. What you are teaching takes a certain amount of discipline which is resisted by some, perhaps because of the association with discipline experienced as children and being forced to do things. So, there is currently a trend toward going with the flow.
There was a great cartoon in The New Yorker a couple months ago, where an old hippy and a man the same age but in a business suit get together. The man in the business suit is saying, “Well, I went with the flow, found myself in law school, graduated, went on to make a million dollars, have a wife and kids, and now this is what I am.” The person went with the flow. The fact of the matter is that going with the flow, in the colloquial sense of the term, is flowing down…the river, or flushing down the toilet….going down the tubes. Going with the flow is nowhere. Going with the flow is only following the natural tendencies. It’s allowing ourselves to be dominated by our biology and by the lowest level, the most brutish level, of the forces governing our environment. Ultimately, going with the flow is about ending up with a ton of responsibilities and no higher level of consciousness than how you’re going to pay off your next Master Card bill.
To get one’s kundalini energy to rise, to intensify one’s creative energy in order to change the total pattern of our awareness and allow some expansion – a person has to have some discipline. You have to. Essentially, what we have to do is build up the pressure within ourselves; we raise our own creative energy. It is an intensification of the creative force. It’s a kind of pressure that we are building. It takes a lot of discipline. You know that every great spiritual tradition, without fail, has put forth the necessity for some kind of discipline. This is a discipline that in no way denies us spontaneity within our creative expression. It is discipline. Think of great artists, great actors, great musicians. What kind of person is going to be a great musician if they don’t know how to play an instrument? And if you are going to play an instrument, don’t you have to have enough discipline to sit down and practice a lot? Yes. It is impossible, impossible that a person without discipline will ever attain anything but perhaps six children.
If you ever have the experience within yourself – one time – of the joy that arises within your heart from the experience of your inner self, you will not think of it as discipline for a moment. You will be out of your mind to have it again and again and again. It’s not a discipline at that stage. It’s only a discipline when you’re busting your butt to try to get something you’re not sure is worth it. From the first time I ever saw my teacher, I felt something within myself that was so extraordinary that meditation, and everything else in my life, was simply the vehicle to get in touch and stay in touch with and unfold that experience. When you discover, really feel and experience, your own creative energy with great certainty there will be no more discipline in your life, per se. you will not feel it as a discipline. These will just be the actions that you take in order to remain in touch.
If you have a girlfriend and you really care about her, calling her every day on the phone is not a discipline. It’s what you want to do. I live in the same world you do. In our conversation about gurus, everything is up to the student. Nothing is up to the guru. I wrote a book of poetry called Songs from the Center of the Well. A real teacher is nothing but a well; whether the student drinks or not is up to them. The teacher is an enormous resource, but the student has to drink it. Any teacher is a continuing student, a continuing disciple of the divine. That’s what empowers a person to teach. All of us as students must continually reach into, consciously tap into and drink from, that infinite well within us every single day. It’s no joke. It’s real. It’s extraordinary.
Some spiritual traditions emphasize moving away from the physical by controlling or suppressing the energies of the lower centers. What I’m sensing from you is much more balanced.
There have been Puritan systems within India, Vedanta and part of Buddhism. Any system – and Christianity is a big one – that promotes the notion of repression, the worthlessness of the world, or it’s evil nature, is a dualistic system. Even Vedanta, which claims to be nondualistic, is in fact dualistic. Buddhist teachings, even though they claim to be nondualistic, are not. Christianity and Judaism are definitely dualistic. We can refer back to Einstein who demonstrated that energy and matter are interchangeable. They are in fact the same thing – it is an accepted and proven part of our reality. The world and our spirit are the same thing, not different.
A person who is involved in repression on any level will end up just as stuck as a person who is totally undisciplined, a libertine. It is up to us to experience our humanness fully and to see beyond that humanness into the depth of what we are. I have no resistance, fear or concern about my biology in any way. I am not adverse to making money. I think there are a million better ways to make money than being in the religion business. I am not adverse to sexuality, I think it is a wonderful thing. But on both counts there is a lot more to you and me than making money or getting laid. Most people are dominated by those two biological instincts, totally dominated. A spiritual person has to have the capacity to manage those forces and to sublimate them to some degree in order that they will be able to have the energy and the concentration to see deeply into themselves. There is an old saying in a number of scriptures – the Buddhist and Hindu Tantras – that says something like “one rises by that which one falls.” It means, in the grossest sense, that there is nothing wrong with sex or money in or of themselves. They are a perfectly wonderful part of creation, beautiful in that sense. It’s what we do with them that is a reflection of our own consciousness and also a reflection of our own potential to grow. So we should manage our energy very well because it’s our most important resource.
For most people, life is a gigantic drag. The only reason we do spiritual work and live the way we live is because it is, as far as I’m concerned, the most fun way to live. I’m really, completely enjoying my life. What I’m trying to share is the capacity to enjoy life. It means we have to work a little bit, we can play a little bit, but most importantly, we have to know ourselves and conserve our resources. By conserving our resources today (being a little bit sensible), we will have resources to spare tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow. A human being is no different – in our personal lives we have the same need to be responsible that our society should have had a hundred years ago. Then we wouldn’t have the ecological mess that we’re in today. Each of us can preserve our own ecology and in that way have a rich and happy life for a long time. That’s balance.
THE NITYANANDA INSTITUTE a nonprofit organization, headquartered in Cambridge Massachusetts is dedicated to the active practice of a spiritual life based on the teachings of Swami Chetanananda. The institute has many facets: a community of over a hundred residents, a full schedule of hatha yoga classes, twice-daily meditation sessions, periodic workshops in meditation techniques, relaxation techniques and health enhancement programs of art, music, and dance. Quarterly weekend retreats, public Satsang programs on Sunday mornings and a wide range of publications produced by its publishing house. Rudra Press. Chetanananda’s books include “The Breath of God.” and “Songs from the Center of the Well.” The Nityananda Institute, P.O. Box 1973, Cambridge. MA 02238.
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