Rick: Welcome to Buddha at the Gas Pump. My name is Rick Archer. Buddha at the Gas Pump is an ongoing series of interviews with spiritually awakening people. I’ve done hundreds of them now and if this is new to you and you’d like to check out previous ones, please go to the past interviews menu on batgap.com where you’ll see them all organized in several different ways. This show is made possible by the support of appreciative listeners and viewers, so if you appreciate it and would like to support it, there’s a PayPal button on every page of the site. And you know, considering the number of people who watch it, even a small donation if enough people do that becomes significant, but we never want people to feel obligated or to strain in any way, so that’s our attitude. My guest today is Yogacharya Ellen Grace O’Brien. Yogacharya means teacher of yoga, right?
Ellen: Yes, that’s exactly what it means.
Rick: And Acharya is a teacher. Ellen is a teacher of meditation, an award-winning poet, writer, and the spiritual director of the Center for Spiritual Enlightenment, a Kriya Yoga Meditation Center with headquarters in San Jose, California. She has taught Kriya Yoga nationally and internationally for more than three decades and has received many service awards, including the Mahatma Gandhi Award for the Promotion of Religious Pluralism. Ordained to teach in 1982 by Roy Eugene Davis, a direct disciple of Paramahansa Yogananda, her message is “Engaged Enlightenment, an invitation to live an awakened, creatively inspired, and fulfilled life now.” Along with her service as a meditation teacher and esteemed Yogacharya, Ellen is the founder of Carry the Vision, a community non-violence education project bringing meditation instruction to staff and children in schools, the prison population, and other segments of society. She is the founder and president of Meru Institute, providing healthy lifestyle education and leadership training in yoga studies, Ayurveda, and community service, and she is the host of the Yoga Hour, a weekly podcast with listeners in over 130 countries. I listened to quite a few episodes of that over the past week. Her latest book is The Jewel of Abundance, Finding Prosperity Through the Ancient Wisdom of Yoga. We’ll be talking about that quite a bit today, but that’s not the only thing we’re going to be talking about because that’s not all of what Ellen is about. But maybe we could start with that and then we’ll branch off into other things. And you know I read most of your book and listened to you do some interviews about it, and kind of a prosperity or the lack of it is very much in the news these days since we’re in the midst of a government shutdown and a lot of people aren’t getting paychecks. And you know we’re always hearing these statistics like the three richest Americans hold more wealth than the bottom they are in debt and many believe they always will be, and 78% of full-time workers said they live paycheck to paycheck. And you know in light of those statistics I was kind of reminded of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which probably many people have heard about, which E;basically he built this pyramid which I’m showing on the screen now, that initially we have these physiological needs, then safety, then sort of social needs, love and belonging, then esteem, and finally self-actualization. And Maslow kind of makes it sound like you don’t think about self-actualization until all these other needs are met, and I think there’s some truth to that. I mean if people are starving and scraping out a meager existence, they probably aren’t going to be thinking much about spiritual enlightenment. But anyway, with that as a starting point with what I’ve just said Ellen, why don’t you just jump right in and tell us what you think and then we’ll take it on from there.
Ellen: Thanks, Jack, and thanks for the invitation to be with you today. I think that’s really a good place to begin in terms of looking at Maslow, and one of the things that inspired the book for me is that I work with many people who are on a spiritual journey and learning how to pay the bills seems to be an integral part of that. So while it’s true that when situations are dire a person is less inclined to think about meditating, think about how you’re going to live or how you’re going to survive, but there are many people today who are on a spiritual path and the idea that we’ve had for a long time and that many of the traditions promote that somehow the spiritual life is “separate” from our material existence, I believe is a fundamental error we have to get over because it contributes to that dualistic mindset that sets us up for so many problems.
Rick: Yeah, and obviously some traditions have emphasized things like poverty as being conducive to spirituality and Jesus said it’s more difficult for a rich man to pass through the eye of a needle than it is, no, for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. So this is sort of in a way in some traditions this prejudice against any kind of material affluence or comfort.
Ellen: Yeah, as far as I could see, I mean I’m not a scholar of world religions, but as far as I can see you can find it in all of the traditions and you have to, from my perspective, look deeper into what these awakened beings, whether it’s Jesus or Buddha are really talking about and they’re putting up a flashing red light that is a good red light about, hey, if you get attached to things and to name and fame and all of that, then it’s very difficult to develop the consciousness to enter that kingdom, that higher state of consciousness however you want to say it, if you’re attached to wealth and things, name and fame. So there’s truth in that, but it’s sort of I think got people interpreted as that money in itself is bad, riches themselves are bad, fame is bad, any of that, but it’s not the thing itself of course, it’s what we do with it and how it’s a distraction rather than something that can be integral to our path.
Rick: Yeah, and then obviously some have swung it in the other direction, I mean some criticize the Catholic Church for being too opulent and then there have been people like Reverend Ike for instance who seem to equate the number of Cadillacs you own with how spiritual you are and there’s the whole thing of the secret, you know, using spirituality in some way, shape or form to fulfill whatever desires you may have and some of those things have left a bad taste in people’s mouths. So how do we find a happy medium between and actually use the word attached a minute ago, seems to me that that’s the awkward word because you can be attached to poverty and that’s not going to help you, you can be attached to great wealth and that can be a problem, but whatever your circumstances if you could not be attached to them and well let’s have you elaborate on what attached means, then perhaps the circumstances aren’t such a problem.
Ellen: Yeah, I think that if our goal in life is to be awake and I know you probably want to talk about what I mean by when I say that. We need to flesh out these terms. If that’s the goal, to be awake and from my perspective being awake includes making a positive contribution in this world that we’re living in. For me it’s not the idea necessarily of going away somewhere, separating yourself out from the world, but to be awake in the world and to make a positive contribution. So for me that’s the ideal that we can learn to be in the world, we can learn to create or draw to us what’s needed to fulfill our purpose, what we’re doing here and resources are a part of that, so it’s important that we learn how to do that, learn how to do it consciously and not get caught up in it, but I think it has to do with having a clear sense of what your purpose is and by that I mean higher purpose.
Rick: Yeah, well speaking of higher purpose, well before I say that, I mean obviously we have, actually this ties right into the question I was about to ask, which is that we all have different dharmas, right? We have different paths in life and someone like Mahavatar Babaji who is part of your lineage didn’t do a whole lot in the world, or isn’t doing a whole lot in the world in terms of any overt thing, he’s not running a business, but such beings are said to be critical to the well- being of the world, so it could be that someone’s dharma is to be rather reclusive and yet one can still be making a great contribution if that is one’s dharma, right?
Rick: I would totally agree with that, but I’m just trying to make the point that many people that I have talked to when they first come to the spiritual path and that includes me, I thought it was all about how do I get away from the world, it just seems so messy, if I can just own myself into a higher state of consciousness and I can go live at an ashram and everybody will be kind and loving and meditative and it just won’t be so messy, well, you know, that’s just a false idea, it’s just as messy inside an ashram as it is outside as far as I know.
Rick: Yeah, I’ve lived in them, it can be, you know, like sometimes the metaphor is used of rough stones in a tumbler and they tumble around in the ashram until they all get smooth, so it’s sometimes the personality clashes in a space like that or kind of like that metaphor.
Ellen: Yeah, it is, it’s a crucible, it’s a good space to be in in terms of that, but you know I think we can recognize that this awakening needs to happen right where we are, not by trying to get away from where we are.
Rick: Yeah, which is not to say that stretches of time in a circumstance like that might not be a useful thing, but for most people I don’t think are cut out for a lifetime of it.
Ellen: Yes, so exactly, that’s a good way to put it. So for some it is their dharma, it is their path and it’s exactly right, but I think when we look at how many people there are, you know, there are not that many ashrams, many people are just in the world having families and jobs and doing that, so is awakening possible in that context and is your job, is your life, is your vocation part of your spiritual journey? And from my point of view, absolutely yes, and even in the ashram people have jobs and it’s part of their journey too.
Rick: Yeah, I want to talk about the sort of four goals of life in a second, but just based on what you just said that Gita verse comes to mind, you know, one’s own dharma, because one can perform it, one’s own dharma though lesser in merit is better than the dharma of another. What is it? Something about the dharma of another brings danger, so we shouldn’t be envious of people who seem to be able to live in ashrams and just if we have kids and family we shouldn’t feel like we’ve failed in our spiritual mission or any such thing because if that’s our dharma it’s actually going to be more evolutionary for us than trying to do somebody else’s dharma.
Ellen: Absolutely, I think the verse says even if you take up the dharma of another and succeed, it is not useful, it’s better to fail than to succeed in the work of another.
Rick: Right, it even says better is death in one’s own dharma than trying to take the dharma of another. So we’re throwing around this word dharma a lot, we haven’t defined that one. Why don’t you talk about the four universal goals of life that are drawn from the teachings of the ancient Vedas and in the process that will define dharma.
Ellen: Yeah, I loved coming upon those goals in my study, in my journey and they’re called the Purusharthas and that’s literally defined, we can say it means for the sake of the soul, for the sake of the higher self, however you want to think of that, and there are four interrelated goals and the first as you mentioned is dharma which I would define as living with higher purpose and it has of course lots of meaning to it. We think of dharma, we think of the cosmic order, the way, the sense of order in the universe out of which all ethics, spiritual path, everything coming out of that basic fundamental law of the universe, the supportive reality of the universe itself that is dharma and so this as a life goal I see dharma as really first and foremost which I see is universal for everyone is to wake up to that reality, know what it is, how we can cooperate with that and then secondarily dharma is to discover what our unique path is which we were just talking about which is often called Svadharma which one’s unique expression that brings them in harmony with that larger reality. And second goal which is what my book is about is artha which is defined as wealth.
Rick: Before we go to artha, I think a lot of people struggle with what their unique path is, you know, what is my purpose in life, what should I be doing, I’m doing this job which I don’t like and isn’t there something more important that I should be doing and also how does one find what one’s path is and does everyone have a unique path or some people just meant to do regular mundane jobs or maybe they don’t seem mundane if that’s your dharma, maybe you enjoy them.
Ellen: I think everyone does have a unique path of expression because we’re all unique that seems obvious to me, we look around you know we’re not duplicates and so we have a unique expression and people are exploring dharma much more today, it’s becoming a more popular term like yoga, people are asking what’s your dharma or thinking it’s my dharma, but I find that like many things in the West I think that dharma has become quote-unquote a thing, so people are quick to equate dharma with vocation.
Rick: I just did actually in my question. Yeah, and of course in the Gita verse we could kind of go there with it, but my sense of dharma is that it has to do with the fundamental expression of our being which includes our essential nature, our karma, our dharma, our responsibilities in life, all of that is there. So I always advise people to kind of look at, even to look back in time, look at their childhood and look at those qualities that have always been there, that have always been evident, you look at children, they’re so different and they have usually at a very young age they have some kind of fundamental qualities that are evident, some of them maybe they’re very compassionate, like my older daughter was always interested in animals and had this compassionate nature about that, and then other children are theatrical, they’re in the school play, others are artistic, others are inventing things, athletic, all of that. Yeah, so I say look back at what did that represent, those interests and those qualities, and when we think about that, when we look at, and I call them divine qualities, what are those soul qualities, qualities of the soul, whether it’s wisdom or compassion, creativity, peace, all those things. So when you begin to think about that trajectory of your life and expressing those qualities, you look at it that way first, that it’s about being and becoming and then what you’re going to do as a dharma is a natural reflection of that as far as I could see.
Rick: And maybe in light of that explanation your dharma can shift or you can discover a dharma that was more subtle that you hadn’t realized. For instance, in my case I loved drumming from the time I saw my first parade at the age of four and I was pounding on tables and finally ten years later I got a drum set and I played in rock bands until I was 20 and I loved that, but then I decided to become a meditation teacher and I just dropped the drumming thing like a hot potato and plunged into teaching meditation which I liked a lot more and that has kind of been my direction ever since. So I wouldn’t have foreseen that when I was four, five, six, ten years old, I didn’t really get, I didn’t conceive of spirituality until I was about 17 and then everything shifted.
Ellen: Interesting, that’s very interesting. So going from drumming and music in a sense into some silence I would guess. It was a more subtle form of creativity. I felt like I was operating from a deeper level and also doing something much more meaningful for me ultimately than spending my life playing in smoky nightclubs or whatever.
Ellen: Exactly, but still connecting with people.
Rick: Yeah, definitely. Let’s see, okay, so oh yes, one more thing about Dharma. You mentioned using a metaphor of a stream, kind of this evolutionary stream of the universe and there’s this verse in the Gita that came to mind when you said that, which is Lord Krishna said, when Dharma is in decay and Adharma flourishes, meaning Adharma, meaning anti-Dharma flourishes, I take birth age after age, basically to restore Dharma. So it almost seems like not only individuals but the whole society and the whole of humanity can be out of tune with Dharma, there’s some higher purpose that we collectively as well as individually could be living and we’ve kind of lost our way with that and so then there needs to be some kind of restoration of our alignment with that higher purpose. Would you care to comment on that?
Ellen: Sure. I really like that verse in the Gita and many traditions have similar in a sense prophecies like that, you know, when things get really bad I’ll show up, you know, the avatar.
Rick: Here I come to save the day.
Ellen: Exactly. So I think that’s been true, you know, when we look at history there’s these awakened beings that have come on the scene and shined a light of, hey, you know, this is what we are, this is how we can live in harmony with this cosmic order, with Dharma, this way of righteousness, however you want to call it, this is how we can express our highest nature and not our lowest nature, and so we’ve seen that, you know, in history we can see those shining ones, but I think we have a blessing of living in a time when it’s not about a single avatar showing up, but that in the book I call the avatar influence which is that many people are awakening today and that’s what is needed, you know, we now have, you know, the dissemination of enlightenment teachings all over the planet in a way that’s never happened before and so there’s an opportunity for this global awakening and for that which brings us back to Dharma coming from, you know, people everywhere and that’s really what we need and I think it’s fabulous to live in such a time.
Rick: Yeah, you probably know that quote by Thich Nhat Hanh where he says the next Buddha may be the Sangha, you know, the collection of people, so it’s kind of a many to many dynamic rather than a one to many kind of thing.
Ellen: Yes, yeah, and I even quoted him in my book on that section where he said, you know, what we need today, I think he said, you know, what we have is homo sapien and what we need is homo conscious.
Rick: Nice. Incidentally I want to mention for those watching live that if you want to submit a question during this interview go to the upcoming interviews page on batgap.com and there is a form at the bottom of it where you can submit a question. I think the upcoming interviews page is under the future interviews menu. Okay, okay, so let’s get on to Artha. Let me just pose a question to you. I live in a community which is, well I was in the TM movement for many years, I still live in a community which is one of the main hubs of that organization even though I’m not involved in it anymore, and you know I have friends who became multi-millionaires and I have friends who are basically pushing 70 and in poor health and living on Social Security and don’t know how they’re going to cope and I think in large part it’s been, well different people have different aptitudes and so on, but a lot of people sort of just kept putting all their hopes and dreams in spiritual enlightenment and attending courses and not really sort of taking advantage of certain educational and professional opportunities and maybe they’ve made a lot of spiritual progress. Not too many who would say they’re enlightened but in a way it’s kind of sad, there’s still a lot of poverty and all, so this loops us back to something we were talking about which is whether poverty should be associated with spirituality which we’ve concluded it shouldn’t, but let’s talk about Artha and if anything I just said triggers some thoughts that you might like to share with people please speak them.
Ellen: Yeah, thank you for that particular reflection and as I hear you talk about that, of course Artha means wealth and for me it was like a breath of fresh air to discover in this ancient Vedic tradition which my path is that, has come from that, to see that wealth was actually considered an aim of life, but of course it’s constrained by Dharma and the fourth goal Moksha which we’ll get to I’m sure, hopefully we’ll get to it in this lifetime.
Rick: Who knows, maybe in this interview we’ll just. So that was really a breath of fresh air and for me, my guru Roy Eugene Davis is a direct disciple of Paramahansa Yogananda, so I learned about Yogananda from him and then of course reading Yogananda’s works and Yogananda was very practical and so I mean besides being focused on people being self and what he called self and God realized, he was also very practical about people learning to use their, he called it their wisdom guided will to live life in an abundant way to do what they had come here to do. So for me I think it’s really important that people can understand that it’s not just about learning to meditate and I also see that this goal of Artha, this goal of wealth gets us into grappling with the world, grappling with our situation which can help us expand our consciousness, which can help us learn about ourselves. We bump into situations where we learn some of those karmic imprints. One of the questions that my teacher asked early on that was a big question for me, he asked, what would you do if you knew that you had all of the resources available to you to do what you felt you wanted to do and if you knew you could not possibly fail. Now he wasn’t saying that, it wasn’t one of things like you can be anyone, you can be a rock star, you can be a movie star, you can be head of a CEO, well he wasn’t saying that, he was just asking the question as a way I think to help us and it did me at that time think, oh wow, there are certain ideas that I have in my mind about who I am and what’s possible for me and what’s not possible for me, and it just kind of blew that open for me. So I see the goal of Arta in the same way, that it has that potential to help us uncover old ideas, old beliefs about ourself, about life itself that are not useful to our spiritual awakening. So it can work in that way as well, it can be a transformational path and I think it’s meant to be.
Rick: Yeah, Maharshi Vashyogi also had a similar attitude to Yogananda’s in that he used to talk about enjoying spiritual and 100% outer material, and he said that not only are the two not inimical to one another but they’re complementary to one another.
Ellen: Yes, and I think that’s why we have the four goals, I mean I think of course if we just had Arta as our number one goal and we didn’t have Dharma then we would be too distracted to have a strong enough inner life. Well, we also have no scruples about how we earned money. Exactly, and of course that’s a lot of what we see in our world, that’s what’s in the headlines and so I think there’s an educational element to Arta as it is one of the Pudusharthas about not only how do we cultivate a mind that can help us do the right thing in the right way, but how do we begin to teach ethics in a way that has to do with our evolutionary potential.
Rick: Yeah, that’s an important point, maybe we should try to dwell on that a little bit more before we go on to some other points. The ethics thing is very important to me, I’ve helped to found an organization of professional spiritual teachers because there’s been so much unethical behavior in the broader spiritual community and we felt that we needed to articulate a kind of a code of ethics that students and teachers could aspire to, so that students in particular don’t look at teachers and say, “Well, he’s doing some screwy stuff but he seems to be enlightened and I’m not, so I’ll just go along with it.” But in any case, a lot of those scenes end up crashing and burning and ending up in disillusionment and a lot of people hurt. This is a little bit tangential to our conversation, but do you have any thoughts on all of that?
Ellen: I think it’s critically important and I do think it’s part of the evolution of consciousness that we’ve seen in our lifetime, because we have seen a lot of that unethical behavior by spiritual teachers and in spiritual communities and just like any other part of human life, it’s like the very idea that in some spiritual community those things are not going to happen is a dangerous idea, because you’re dealing with human beings wherever you are. So I think to be raising consciousness and to be having questions about what kind of ethical insight do we bring into our spiritual communities and what kind of ethical commitments do we have is incredibly important. And we’ve been around, if I can say that collectively, Rick, we’ve been around long enough to see some really positive transformation in that way. Like you say, at one point in time those things weren’t really talked about, it was like, okay, well that’s the guru and if that’s how the guru is behaving, then it must be something I don’t get, and we’ve seen a lot of destruction come out of that and then also a lack of faith in the whole spiritual process itself which has not been helpful. But today there have been a lot of communities and a lot of groups perhaps like the one that you’re a part of, that is just helping to raise consciousness to make it a safer place for people to be practicing and exploring.
Rick: Yeah, and it’s part of the zeitgeist, you know, with the Me Too movement and the expose of what’s been going on in the Catholic Church, people are fed up with that kind of stuff being associated with spirituality and they don’t want anything to do with spirituality or they want spirituality to become what it ought to be and what the highest examples of it were.
Ellen: Exactly, and from my perspective part of that is an educational process to know that you’re always going to be dealing with human beings and so people need to be awake, you know, going whenever context they’re in and not check their intellect and their own ethics at the door.
Rick: Yeah, and let’s jump to the Yoga Sutras for a minute because the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali have the Yamas and Niyamas which were considered by him to be essential to the spiritual path and I’ll have you tell us what those are in a second, and also other traditions, Buddhist and others have sort of codes of ethics that are considered to be essential to imbibe if you aspire to higher consciousness or higher spirituality.
Ellen: Yeah, and I mean the beauty and perhaps the difficulty, I don’t think it’s a difficulty, but it could be in terms of this conversation that we’re having is that in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra the higher spiritual law is given, you know, for example in the restraints, the the Yamas, the first one is Ahimsa, you know, or non-violence or non-harming, but Patanjali doesn’t say you shouldn’t have an affair with your students. He doesn’t get into the specifics but he talks about Brahmacharya there on that point perhaps. Yes, exactly, but it’s not, and that’s why people study with a teacher as far as these Yamas and Niyamas are concerned because then there’s the commentary that says, okay, in these situations this is how it would be applied. So when we look at harmlessness for example, if you start at the physical level, you don’t physically injure someone, you don’t kill, you don’t punch out your neighbor, those kinds of things, but then it’s looked at, as you know, that at the mental level and we’re looking at our speech and our thoughts, you know, that can be harmful as well. So each one requires us to explore, you know, how it is to be applied and that’s the way it should be, it is the journey, so there isn’t a list of specific Do’es and this is how you apply it, that’s your path of learning as you go.
Rick: Well, I think the whole Yoga Sutras is only 192 sutras or something, so obviously he meant to lay out some main points and let us work out the details.
Ellen: Yeah, because I mean it’s about consciousness, right? And so you can’t have a prescription that in a sense is going to decide what’s happening in a living system, you have to learn how to apply these fundamental principles that are principles of mind and consciousness, you know, how to use them, how to apply them, which is the way that we would want it to be, but left open to interpretation, you know, it also leaves some gaps in there in terms of how people look at it, like what is harmful, what is not harmful, that sometimes is open to interpretation.
Rick: One thing I think that’s interesting with all those points, the Yamas and the Yamas and perhaps with many other points we could consider, is that there are sort of levels of subtlety at which they can be considered. For instance, we’ve just kind of done that with a couple of them. Another you talk about a lot with reference to prosperity is non-stealing, what is that, astea or something it’s called? Yes, and obviously we know what stealing is and you know so we should know what non-stealing is. Well elaborate on that and then I’ll make a point about it that might be a subtler level of it perhaps. Go ahead.
Ellen: Well, it’s interesting to consider that right there in the Yoga Sutra it is a verse that points to wealth and the nature of it. So this one on non- stealing says that one who is established in non-stealing experiences the jewel of abundance or all jewels come to that yogi, they’re translated variously. And so when we look at the levels of it, at the physical level of course as you mentioned, most of us are pretty clear about stealing, not taking stuff that doesn’t belong to us, right? But I think as with all of the Yamas and Niyamas, they’re meant to be a journey in a sense of subtilization of a deeper and deeper understanding of what that’s about. So it comes down to even like not envying, not taking somebody else’s idea and claiming it as your own, there’s all those little subtle permutations of it, but it comes down to changing our mind really from lack to abundance, because it has us look at, if we’re engaged in some kind of form of stealing which might get us into lying or acting unethically, we won’t actually be maybe walking away with something from somebody’s house, but perhaps we’re lying.
Rick: Truthfulness is another one of the things. Truthfulness is in there too, but perhaps we’re lying about our income on our taxes or something like that, because we’re of the mindset that we need to do that in order to get the money that we need. So how I see it is these spiritual teachings are fundamentally about teaching us how to change our mind from that idea that we have to act unethically in order to get what we need. To me that’s the deep piece of it, because that’s about being disconnected from our own essence of being from the source of abundance within us, somehow thinking we have to manipulate others, we have to lie, we have to cheat, you have to steal in order to get your needs met and I think what’s going on with the Yoga Sutra is look at these patterns in your own mind that you need to be cleared up if you really want to live an abundant life, it has to happen within you first, it’s level of your own mind and consciousness.
Rick: Yeah, I just can’t find it at my fingertips. I saw this great quote from Dostoevsky the other day about truthfulness and how, I can’t find the quote right now, but how getting into the habit of lying kind of erodes you in a way so that you become more base in every respect, you indulge in baser pleasures and this and that and it’s sort of a slippery slope where things just get worse and worse. And there’s some cool stories in the Mahabharata and others about people who were so true to their word that if they said a thing they just stuck to it, you know, even their entire life. And there was a story about Yudhishtira who, you know, one of the Pandavas who told a white lie and as soon as he did his chariot wheels sunk into the mud, whereas previously they had sort of hovered above it, if that’s a true story. But that whole tradition places a great deal of emphasis on truthfulness.
Ellen: Yeah, and the power of the word is really what Patanjali is pointing to with truthfulness, you know, when it was established in truthfulness, their words will materialize.
Rick: Yeah, right.
Ellen: And so, you know, here again we’re talking about very subtle metaphysical law, if you will, that has to do with our own belief systems and how we’re manifesting what we believe and it’s such a powerful teaching and it’s about, you know, how do we live with a higher awareness.
Rick: In fact, there’s a lot of stories in the Vedic literature about some sage who would say a thing, sometimes it was a sort of a curse, and because he said it, it had to come true and he couldn’t even take it back because he was so established. That’s how the whole, I think the Srimad Bhagavatam came about, some young sage cursed someone and said you’re gonna die of a snake bite and that was it, the guy had to die of a snake bite, but he wanted to get enlightened before he did, so they spent the week narrating the Srimad Bhagavatam. But anyway, it’s a cool principle.
Ellen: They’re great stories because, you know, we can start looking at, you know, what are we saying, are we using our speech, are we contributing to life, are we actually cursing others, ourselves, with our speech and with our thoughts and causing life to wither around us or causing life to contributing to its prospering around us with our thoughts, with our speech, and there’s a lot of power, there’s a lot of power in our speech and there’s more power in it when we become conscious of it.
Rick: Yes, that reminded me of that Jesus saying, forgive them father, they know not what they do, you know, they’re not conscious of what they’re doing, but if we are conscious then we’re more responsible.
Ellen: Absolutely, absolutely.
Rick: Like the judge would ideally get punished more than the person who doesn’t know right from wrong if the judge commits the same crime. But on the point of stealing, to take that one to perhaps a subtler level, I think there’s a verse in the Gita which says that he who appropriates the authorship of action unto himself rather than realizing that it’s the Divine that’s performing the action is said to be a thief, so that might take it to the subtlest level.
Ellen: Totally, and that gets in a sense back to non- attachment that we were talking in the beginning, which is the idea of ascribing to the small self, the ego- based self, I am the doer and I am the owner of experience and I am the owner of the outcomes of that experience. Yeah, that’s a slippery slope of identifying with that ego-based self as the doer and the owner of experience, which just a little bit of investigation will tell us in the Gita, I can’t quote the verse to you now, but there is a teaching about the different factors of action, right? And one of them which is called the fifth factor is always the mysterious, the unknown element. We have control over certain things, over how we prepare, where we’re going to do what we do. We have this Skype call and we set it up, we set up the lighting and we do our testing and you read my book and I tried to put purple on so I look nice and all of that, but we really have no control over whether the power goes out or not.
Rick: Yeah, I’ve had that happen.
Ellen: Sure. It’s just a simple example of there’s always something that is out of our control and so to imagine that somehow we control all outcomes is just kind of ridiculous to begin with.
Rick: Yeah, and that gets us into an interesting area which I don’t know, I bet you in your tradition you have a phrase for it. Maharishi used to call it support of nature, but what he meant by that was, you know that saying like you got up on the wrong side of the bed or something, like nothing goes right for you, you hit the red lights, you don’t find the parking place, you know, all kinds of, you’re just kind of born under a bad sign, that was a song. Whereas others, things seem to go quite smoothly, it’s like unseen forces as it were are helping to orchestrate their life and things just are conducive to their success. That’s kind of a whole interesting mechanics of that we can get into I think.
Ellen: Yeah, in my tradition we talk about that as Divine Grace. There are the forces of nature which we can learn about, we study the gunas and the different qualities in nature and how to learn how to cooperate with nature, but beyond that is this Kripa, we call it Grace, this element of Divine Grace that you also can open yourself to, you know, this in the traditional way, we don’t create grace, we don’t cause it, but we can certainly, there seems to be some way that we can open ourselves to it, but there’s connection in my tradition, I have heard the teaching that there’s a connection between self effort and grace, although self effort doesn’t cause grace, so it’s sort of a mysterious connection and I’ve seen that in my life and I think it’s just a matter of becoming receptive to that, maybe more harmonized inside of ourself or something.
Rick: There’s that saying God helps those who help themselves and some gurus say take one step toward me and I’ll take a thousand steps toward you, things like that, so we have to make the initial effort perhaps, but then there do seem to be, I mean just to get explicit, I know people who say that they have subtle perception and that they actually can see sort of guiding what spirit guides or whatever they are, kind of hovering around and orchestrating and kind of attending to people even in ordinary circumstances, so if that’s true then you know there is this subtler realm in which reside subtler beings who are kind of involved in human affairs and there’s that Vedic saying Satvamevajayate, truth alone or purity alone is victorious, so the assumption here is that if you amass more of that then you will attract the support of the subtler impulses of intelligence that operate in nature and it will make your life more successful or smooth.
Ellen: Yeah, and Patanjali talks about one of the ways to raise consciousness, help clear the mind is to contemplate the consciousness of awakened beings, and so sort of like tuning in to a higher consciousness, higher vibration if you will, and you know for me it’s my ordinary experience of that is if I allow myself to get too wrapped up with the thinking mind and its swirling nature versus when I can cultivate a clearer mind, a quieter, more open heart, then there seems to be that resonance and that connection that’s really not about outer circumstances, but life itself seems more supportive, but I suspect it’s because I’m in a more receptive place.
Rick: Yeah, receptive is a good word there because I think sometimes opportunities are subtle and it takes receptivity and a sort of kind of subtle discrimination or discernment to pick up on the correct course of action to take, you know, we’re not necessarily, it’s not necessarily announced with a bullhorn, you just have to sort of have a feeling of which way to go, an intuitive feeling, and then that kind of works out.
Ellen: Yeah, I wrote a poem about my experience of kind of shifting from that, you know, just running around in the mind versus being open to grace.
Rick: Do you have that at your fingertips to read or would it be hard to take you a while to find?
Ellen: I think I can find it, let me look. Okay. Yeah, it’s called Fire in My Heart. [Pause] Some days I sit near your fire, feeding it the kindling of desire. Live in the way the Buddha said and the light will grow in you. Live in the way the Buddha said and the light will grow in you. Sorrow and joy come in, sit down together as friends. Everything that is needed appears. Other days I forget about the light, set out alone in the dark, ambitious prodigal with damp wood determined to start my own fire. When the invitation to the heavenly feast arrives from the universe, I politely decline. I have prepared a feast for you, will you come? No, I am too busy with matters of life and death. I insist on my own way saying no to love until no becomes sand in my mouth. Why all this suffering, I ask? Come, sit by the fire. Forget about life and death, being and doing, coming and going. Soon the sitar will begin, its notes will make you weep for everything lost and gained, for the extravagant mercy of the One.
Rick: Great, that’s nice. Is that from your book, The Moon Reminded Me?
Ellen: Yeah, that’s in The Moon Reminded Me.
Rick: Why don’t you hold that up for a second. There it is, nice. Thank you. I’ll list the link to that on your page.
Ellen: Thank you.
Rick: A question came in, might as well ask it, it’s a little bit out of context with what we’re talking about, but this would be a good point to ask it. So I think you know this fellow, he knows you because he said, thank you for your Sunday talks at the center, the energy you exude is unfailingly cheerful and tranquil. This is Mark Peters from Santa Clara, California. He said, Yogananda speaks of many visions and mystical encounters in his autobiography. Has this type of extraordinary experience played a role in your own unfoldment? If so, would you be willing to share an anecdote or two?
Ellen: Well, yes and no. So yes, there have been experiences that I’ve had along the way and just experiences in meditation, breakthroughs in meditation which allowed me to experience a shift in consciousness, which allowed me from time to time to have experiences of inner phenomena that I’d read about, inner light, inner sound and potentially talks about those experiences as potentially faith building. If you have some experience when you’re meditating, it can help you think, okay, this is something that the sages wrote about, wow, I’m having that experience. So that’s a yes in terms of phenomena and my no is that my teacher always said, whatever you experience, forget about it, just continue to go beyond that, don’t get stuck in phenomena or feel that you’re enlightened because you saw a light in your meditation. So the yes is having those ecstatic experiences can be faith building, but my no is from the tradition that I come from, there’s a keep on keeping on was the teaching of Lahiri Mahasaya, don’t get stuck at any of those places of phenomena. So there’s those experiences in meditation and then for me there’s the eyes wide open experiences in the world of seeing the nature of reality in expression. So for me those experiences are the most meaningful, whether it’s some apprehension of this divine grace, divine order, the nature of the mind to where I feel my heart, I would describe it as my heart opening and it’s an awesome experience of the beauty of life, the tenderness of it, the vulnerability of it, the deep shining core of it. That’s why I write poetry because I cannot put it into words. So I don’t know if that answered the question and I’m really grateful that you’re listening and that you sent your question and I hope that was helpful.
Rick: It was helpful to me, I thought it was a good answer. You know I mean people have probably heard this before that you know flashy experiences while they may be interesting and nice are not it ultimately and that what we’re really aspiring to is kind of a 24/7 state of realization which is not at all flashy, it’s just extremely natural, but it bears reminding sometimes and sometimes when people do have some kind of flashy experience they jump to conclusions in terms of how enlightened they are or whatever, it can be a bit of a pitfall.
Ellen: Yeah, and that’s why it’s been a blessing that my teacher has continually reminded us that those experiences do not mean that we’ve experienced the ultimate and we should just keep going. And I do want to say that as inspiring as the life of Paramahansa Yogananda is and of course he’s inspired people all over the world, it is possible then of course to compare ourselves and our meditations to his meditation and how he describes his meditation and that’s not so helpful I don’t think, and so I think it’s useful to know that meditation even as he taught it is not about having ecstatic experiences, it’s about waking up.
Rick: Yeah, that’s a good point and I think it bears repeating that it’s not a good habit to compare oneself to others in terms of what we think we’re experiencing and versus what we think they’re experiencing.
Ellen: People are so different aren’t they? And I always say that it usually turns out that your your married to or your best friend is somebody who has very different experiences than you, and so you think, geez, that’s not happening to me, how come? I’ve seen that so often with couples or people who are close or even they’re inclined, maybe one is a bhakti, they’re off to kirtan and the other is a jnani yogi.
Rick: Sticking on the book.
Ellen: Really, exactly.
Rick: Yeah, so I mean you just said it, I was just going to say people are wired differently and they have different aptitudes, different inclinations, different nervous systems, and so it’s only going to create confusion if you compare yourself with them. Even if somebody’s having all kinds of extraordinary experiences, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re more enlightened or something and it’s absurd to even ponder whether they are, I mean it doesn’t really help, I think. Although I’ve been guilty of it myself, you know, you get kind of impressed.
Ellen: Yeah, and then it’s really problematic if we impress ourselves, our own self.
Rick: Yeah, that’s even worse. I always say I prefer to err on the side of considering myself less evolved than I may actually be. Okay, so far we’ve discussed in terms of the four, what do you call those four things again? Purush artha’s?
Ellen: Yeah, purush artha’s.
Rick: Okay, so we’ve discussed Dharma and artha and we’ll probably come back to artha a bit more, but the next one is kama, which means pleasure I guess, and probably when most people hear kama they think of the Kama Sutras, but probably there’s more to it than that, right?
Ellen: Yeah, although sexuality is certainly part of pleasure, we hope it is, and again like wealth, for people who come onto the path of yoga, philosophy and practice as a meditative path of self realization, God realization, this idea that wealth and pleasure are somehow included as life aims is, you know, there’s a breath, usually when I introduce the purush artha’s and I get to wealth and then pleasure, people would just like, there’s nervous laughter that breaks out in the room, you know, like here we are in a meditation center and now we’re going to talk about money and sex and how they are actually part of holistically living a spiritually conscious life, and so it makes sense really when we think about it, like if you were a person who is an excellent meditator and you’re “spiritually awake” and you’re miserable and you don’t enjoy life, then what’s the point? You know, to me it’s sort of obvious that enjoyment of life is critical to even following a path.
Rick: Yeah, and like the other things we talked about, there are different flavors and levels of enjoyment. I mean, you can experience a lot of bliss both in meditation and perpetually as a result of meditation, that’s a form of pleasure, and there’s a friend of mine who wrote a book called Happy for No Reason, it’s not like you’re indulging in anything external that’s causing this happiness, it just is there in your heart, in your experience as a kind of a baseline.
Ellen: And as a life goal, it’s tremendously instructive because in order to actually enjoy life we have to study the nature of our own mind and learn about the nature of happiness and the nature of the soul, and as you were pointing out, there’s a beautiful book title by the way, Being Happy for No Reason, that we have that capacity and ultimately yoga points us in that direction to learn how to distinguish between happiness that we experience from a pleasure that we experience from the senses, at one level of pleasure that we experience from meeting a goal, for example, in life we feel happy when we accomplish something, happiness that we experience when we serve, when we do something to care for others and the happiness that we experience that’s inherent to our being that is the bliss of the soul. So learning about those distinctions and where they lead are actually essential to us really enjoying life because we know and I mean that was part of my pre-getting onto the path, the journey of just being disappointed, I was just like disappointed, wait a minute, I have this, I got that, I did this, I achieved that, but there’s something missing and I didn’t really know at the time what was missing was myself, and of course myself wasn’t missing, the self is never missing, but my ability to connect to myself was not there and I didn’t know who I was and so I was seeking that enjoyment of life completely externally and so as a life goal it is really essential to learn about where we find happiness and where we ultimately find bliss and how, I mean it changes everything.
Rick: Yeah, would you say, I’ve heard it said, that anything that we well there’s that great Upanishad, you can probably quote it, you know that it’s not for the sake of the life that the life is there but for the sake of the self of the self is there and then not for the sake of the friends or whatever but for the sake of the self and he ticks off a whole bunch of different things and it says in every case that whatever fulfillment we derive from the outer experience is actually a reflection of the inner fulfillment.
Ellen: Yeah, exactly, and what we love in life and even in that quote in the Upanishads wealth is included in that one.
Rick: Right, not for the sake of the wealth that the wealth is there but for the sake of the self.
Ellen: Exactly, and it’s such a beautiful quote that what we really love is that the self, we love that the bliss of the soul and we love the beingness, the life when we love another we’re loving that essence of being, that’s the truth of it.
Rick: Yeah, I think a good example that might illustrate that point is, you know if we consider someone let’s say who’s very wealthy and has a very attractive spouse and a beautiful home and everything that they could want materially and yet they have severe insomnia or they’re really ill or something like that, then they can’t enjoy any of those things, whereas if a person is sort of feeling wonderful inside, you know just full of happiness and bliss intrinsically, naturally, then even living in very simple circumstances that person tends to be happy and tends to enjoy the things that they have.
Ellen: Yeah, and really as a practice as I was mentioning it’s learning about kind of different levels if you were, different levels of happiness, what brings us what and what’s temporary and what’s not, and once we get that distinction we can, and this is a basic in the Vedic system, this is like a basic step of awakening is unhooking when we begin to see through conditions as the source of our happiness or our security, that’s a point at which we really enter more deeply into the path and I was talking about my own journey of disappointed, what’s going on here and that’s a place where a lot of people come, it’s an entry, it’s a trailhead, right? It’s an entry onto the path where we feel we’re suffering because we don’t know how to find happiness and so we have an understanding that which we’ve gathered, that we’ve been able to bring to ourselves has not brought the quality of lasting happiness that we’re looking for, it ultimately disappoints because it changes and it’s subject to change. So that awakening to that doesn’t mean that we don’t enjoy the things in our life anymore, which I think is an important distinction, it’s not that we have to shun our favorite flavor of ice cream or that things that we enjoy or that we have and that we appreciate, it’s that we just become aware of the distinction of the quality that we’re looking for of happiness that is unconditional, can only be found within us.
Rick: Yeah, so just because something is transitory doesn’t mean you shouldn’t enjoy it, but you know there have been notorious examples of people who tried to make transitory things perpetual, the Romans would have orgies and they would, well it’s kind of too graphic to describe, but they would do certain things so that they could continue eating and stuff like that. So enjoy your meal but then that’s fine, that came and went but still there’s this baseline of fulfillment that doesn’t depend on whether you get this meal or that meal or whatever.
Ellen: Exactly, and we don’t ascribe our well-being or happiness or security to those things because that’s the mistake that keeps people just tethered to that, looking for the next thing, the next lover, the next job that’s going to ultimately do it. So it’s just unhooking from that, because the teachings tell us and most of us know in our own experience that that’s just a source of sorrow and suffering to make that mistake, that error, it’s fundamental error.
Rick: Yeah, I read those statistics in the beginning about how people are living paycheck to paycheck and they’re in debt and everything else. Well, you know at Christmas time every year they always show on the news these mob scenes in malls and stores and they talk about how much people are shopping and everything and you see these people fighting over the latest bauble and I sometimes when I see that kind of thing I think, well, you know probably that’s why a lot of them are in debt, they’re just craving this stuff which they probably don’t need and then the new iPhone you got to get and so on. And so if you’re looking for all your fulfillment in these outer circumstances, chances are you may compromise your financial health.
Ellen: Yeah, it’s really a good point and there’s two things I want to say about that and hopefully I don’t lose them. One is that it’s compensation, I mean we all do it in some way, you’re describing it in a big way, right? Compensation, people trying to make up for maybe how they haven’t been with somebody or show somebody that they love them by getting more and giving more gifts or whatever. So that points to this life aim of enjoying life, appreciating it in ways that are about the soul, for the sake of the soul. And then also the other piece I wanted to mention when you talk about living beyond our means also as a way of compensation, right? For not being connected to ourself and doing what brings us joy, what has heart and meaning, then we get into these behaviors that I would call stealing. So living beyond our means is actually stealing ourself and in a big way, in the way like in our country that we’re so in debt, we’re stealing from future generations and we’re stealing from the environment itself, the way that we plunder the earth. So this article in my mind has tremendous ramifications in terms of how we live.
Rick: Very good point. It may sound harsh but I sometimes think of those who are obfuscating the whole environmental crisis and climate change and now all this being guilty of inter- generational genocide, because there are going to be very severe consequences to this whole thing and if we’re sort of so living for the moment or for the next quarter, in terms of the quarter of a year, or for the next election that we want to win that we ignore, we lose the big picture, then we’re stealing big time.
Ellen: Exactly, and there is no real wealth in that because you’re always chasing the next thing. So to find out about what real wealth is, in my mind is critically important to awakening on our planet.
Rick: And you know also those short-sighted ways of being that we just described are also stifling possibilities, they’re stifling potential solutions which could be much more wholesome, but you know economic like, and also talk about truthfulness, I mean there was a book called Merchants of Doubt and it talks all about how the cigarette industry hired all these PR firms and everything to sow doubt about whether cigarettes cause cancer. They knew what they caused cancer but they wanted to make their money and sell their cigarettes and some of the very same PR firms are working for the anti-climate change interests and the oil companies now, telling lies in order to fuel greed.
Ellen: Yeah, and greed is really at the core of it, if we look all the way down it’s greed that’s at the core, but below greed is the insatiable ego self, that’s always trying to satisfy itself and its longings but it cannot be satisfied from that level of reality, so that is why it’s critically important that people wake up, it’s the most important thing that is needed on our planet at this time, because from that level the problems won’t be solved.
Rick: Yeah, I’m glad we’re coming around to this point, and in case, I mean it’s worth just dwelling on it for a moment, that is what we’re saying here is that ultimately all the world’s problems are symptomatic of undeveloped consciousness and that if consciousness individually and collectively were sufficiently developed, most of these problems would, or if not all, would just kind of solutions would be found, either they would just disappear because we wouldn’t be intentionally creating them or we’d find means of ameliorating them.
Ellen: I believe that and I think it ties into the fourth goal, if I can say that.
Rick: Yes, I’m thinking we should get to that on a brighter note.
Ellen: As Moksha, that we’re here to awaken, to experience liberation of consciousness from this identification with the small self, with the ego self, we’re here to find freedom from that and in this lifetime, so to move out of this framework of spirituality that enlightenment is for some special people in another time or some future time or that this avatar, this person is going to come, is going to save the world. So that look, these four goals that we’re talking about, they’re universal goals and they’re for everybody and guess what, besides Dharma and Artha and Kama, we have Moksha, like okay, we’re here to wake up and as you were just saying, that we can see is the critical factor of how do we not plunder the earth, how do we stop going to war over our differences. We wake up and one, we wake up to the fundamental connectedness of everyone and everything.
Rick: Yeah, do you think that the Purusharthas, that’s the word right, Purusharthas? Yes. The four things, are they in any way sequential or did they sort of rise simultaneously just the way the limbs of our body kind of grow simultaneously? I think that’s a yes and, so yes, in my mind, yes they’re sequential and yes they’re simultaneous. So I don’t think that it’s useful to hold them like, okay, first we do Dharma, then we do Artha, then we do Kama and then if we’re lucky we have time in our life when we’re retired and we start focusing on Moksha. My teacher often tells the story that people would say to him, well, I figure that when I’m getting ready to leave this body, because everyone is already enlightened at the core of their being, that’s our essential truth, then I’ll just wake up to that on my way out and his response about that was always, well, that’s just cutting it too close. And also, if you’ve ever been with someone making their transition, that’s not the time when you want to try to be accomplishing that goal, you want to do it before and of course that’s what all the traditions say. So I think there and Phil Goldberg who wrote the Forward to My Book, he likened the Purusharthas to the four legs of a table, so that they can bring a balanced approach to our everyday life and our spiritual pursuits, but given all that, so yes, they are intertwined, they’re interdependent and we could have talked the whole show about how they’re intertwined and interdependent, but there also is something to be said about the sequential nature of how the Hindu tradition, the Vedic tradition has looked at stages of life in terms of Dharma as a young person when you’re getting your ethical education and your moral and spiritual values that are inculcated as a young age and then you become a householder in the world and you’re learning about wealth and I always think it’s interesting if we look at that sequential one that means that what would be called the forest dweller stage, retirement stage is when you start looking at pleasure, which is interesting to me because perhaps it’s that we have a greater capacity to see the actual nature of beauty in life. I don’t know, I haven’t completely thought that one through but I’m thinking about it and then Moksha is when you can focus more attention on it, so that is there but they’re all at once and some of those periods of life perhaps have a greater orientation. Does that make sense?
Rick: Yeah, it does. I was thinking like if we’re, let’s say we’re doing a regular meditation practice, then Moksha is growing, I mean the samskaras are being worked out and consciousness is getting, the mind is becoming more clear, so liberation is being cultured or it’s growing, may not be complete or final but there’s something in that direction and as you do that naturally you’re going to be more aligned with Dharma, you’re going to perhaps have more energy and creativity which will help with Artha and you’re going to sort of feel better and enjoy and your senses are going to be more clear, so there’s more capacity for kama and so they’re all growing simultaneously.
Ellen: Absolutely, that was a beautiful way to describe it, that is how I see it. If you’re moving along on this spiritual path you can’t really help but sort of lift all the legs of the table up.
Rick: Yeah, if you pull one leg of a table the others are going to come along.
Ellen: That’s right, that’s right and if you don’t have one in there you’re going to be off kilter and so that’s a beautiful way and that’s been my experience anyway, of come as I mentioned in the beginning I thought well okay I’m gonna just meditate and sort of get out of this whole thing, but no, yoga brings you back into the world to live a spiritually conscious life and has you engaging in life in a purposeful way and in an enjoyable way and ideally that light of moksha is there, you’re making progress toward it, but it’s also a goal that I think we need to keep in front of us, otherwise we get all about accomplishing something even on the spiritual path, we’re going to accomplish something spiritual.
Rick: Perhaps we could talk about service a little bit. I used to always, not always, I used to have, I don’t know, when I wasn’t as happy a person as I am now, I very much kind of like was inspired by the idea of not getting incarnated anymore, just getting out of here, have done with it, and then over the years I’ve felt that well we’re all instruments of the Divine to one degree or another and obviously if God is omnipresent, if God is really the essence of everything, then we are like a sense organ of that and if we can serve, if we can be sort of an instrument of some sort of divine plan, then what’s the rush? I saw this YouTube video of some old yogi and someone asked him about reincarnation, he said, I don’t care, whatever God wants, I’m happy to just serve. Do you have any comments on that?
Ellen: That’s a beautiful way to put it. Yeah, and to me that’s like serving without attachment to results and serving for the joy of it. Tagore’s beautiful poem where he said, I awoke and discovered that service was joy, and so it’s the opportunity that is given to love and to serve, to participate, that is it, but when we get attached to what we’re doing, looking for the results in it, trying to liberate ourselves as a side benefit or whatever the idea is about it, ultimately that gets in the way of the joy of it.
Rick: Yeah, another thought that’s been kicking around my head as I was reading your book and listening to your various talks is that I’ve heard from physicists that at the level of the vacuum state or the most fundamental level of creation, there’s more latent energy in each cubic centimeter than there is in the entire manifest universe at an expressed level, and if there’s a correlation between consciousness in its ultimate sense and what physics understand to be the ultimate reality, then our own being, our own consciousness ultimately is a tremendous repository of energy and we might also throw in creativity, and so if we can have access to that and if we can get the pipeline connected between that and our active life, then that obviously has tremendous relevance to affluence because it gives us the wherewithal to accomplish more.
Ellen: It does, and I would say to accomplish with joy, so there’s a different quality of it and I don’t mean that it’s never hard, there’s never difficult or it’s never challenging, but my experience is when I feel connected to that creative energy of the universe and I want to call it that somehow connected into this stream that is bringing forth the divine idea, divine insights or I feel somehow I’m connected, I’m in the right place at the right time and just in the stream of it, that there’s a sweetness to that, there’s a joy to that that’s different than striving after a result, even though there’s the inspiration to do something, to offer something, there’s a way of being in it which is finding some delight in the way, sometimes I’ll put it this way, sometimes I feel like in my life I’m just doing the best that I can to keep up with grace.
Rick: That’s great, kicking and screaming.
Ellen: Well, sometimes it’s like that and I mean, one time I described my spiritual life like a breach birth, which wasn’t really a great metaphor for me, but it was sort of like going into my life butt first and then like seeing, wow, seeing so much in hindsight about this life force that was active in my life and moving into experiences and awakening, but I was looking at it in hindsight, sort of my life in my rear view mirror, so at some point I said, no, let me just open my eyes to what is here right now and not be looking so much in hindsight and figuring it out, let me just be awake where it is.
Rick: Yeah, that thing you said about joy kind of reminded me of a verse, I think it might be from the Brahma Sutras, but it’s “contact with Brahman is infinite joy” and a nice metaphor for that is like if you’re lying in a bathtub and you’ve been lying still for a while, you may not feel the warmth of the water, but if you start sloshing around it starts to feel really warm. So somehow, you know, well to take that verse from the Gita, “yogasthakuru karmani” established in being perform action, when action is performed while established in being, it kind of stirs up the bliss.
Ellen: Yeah, it does, and Yogananda I think probably paraphrasing that verse said, “this side of the transcendental field is ever new joy.”
Rick: This side of it, he said?
Ellen: Yeah, this side, meaning here we are in this expressive field and in that expressive field is ever new joy, you know the expansive nature of Brahman, it’s ever new.
Rick: Yeah, Maharishi used to say that the purpose of creation is the expansion of happiness and if we take the word lila which means play, why do you play? Because it’s fun, it makes you happy. Yeah. So if that’s true then we’re kind of fulfilling the very purpose of creation by living in such a way as to be more joyful.
Ellen: Yeah, for me there’s a quality of greater aliveness in that and I don’t mean that as again, we talked about this earlier, like happiness that comes from externals but just the experience of for me the beauty of life, the tenderness of life, the love that is present brings such joy to my heart and my being and even in the midst of sorrow it is there. In the deepest sorrow when you experience someone passing from this realm that you love, the way the heart breaks and the tenderness and the sense of presence that is there to me is part of the beauty and in the deep way part of the bliss even.
Rick: Yeah, and it’s not symptomatic of being a schlep in terms of your level of consciousness. I mean there’s all sorts of beautiful stories of great saints and sages who experienced appropriate grief and so on when someone dear to them died.
Ellen: Yeah, exactly. Yeah, so even in the midst of sorrow there’s a quality of being that can remain, that’s what I’m trying to say.
Rick: Yeah, it doesn’t get perturbed.
Ellen: And it’s big enough to allow the sorrow to be, so I think it’s a mistake people often make on the path that they’re not supposed to feel grief, they’re not supposed to feel anger, they’re not supposed to feel sorrow. Well, I don’t get that, it seems to me you would be sort of ossified, you’d be mummified. Why would we want to not have emotion? I think that what those teachings are about is that you don’t want to be stuck in that, the potentially reactive quality of an emotion, but it’s not that you don’t, for goodness sake, it’s not that we don’t want to feel, at least that’s not true for me.
Rick: Yeah, when I was about 19 or so and I had been with a girlfriend who had previously had a problem with heroin and we kind of broke up because I was going for meditation and wanted to go on long courses and stuff and she wasn’t interested and it looked like she was going to go back to her previous lifestyle and I was kind of upset by that and I went to my TM teacher and I told her what was going on and she said “be an ocean,” just that one phrase, it helped a lot.
Ellen: Beautiful, yeah, it gave me chills when you said that.
Rick: There’s a verse from the Isha Upanishad which has always puzzled me a bit and you deal with it very beautifully, I’ve heard you talk about it in some of your interviews. The verse is “they enter into blinding darkness who worship Avidya, that’s ignorance, into still greater darkness as it were do they enter who delight in vidya.” So I’d love to hear your commentary on that.
Ellen: The Isha Upanishad it really says it all, it is kind of a surprising one, I like it for that reason because we’re familiar with many scriptures that say “okay, in the world you’re going to have trouble, don’t put your hopes there and you’re going to have trials and tribulations and you’re not going to find it there, so you’re not forgetting about the world.” So we’re used to that, but here’s one that says “okay, you’re going to have trouble in the world, but in the inner life vidya, this knowledge from within, if you’re only focused there you’re going to have more trouble.” And so that’s one of those things where those teachings that you say “what? Really? I mean I thought it was all about that.” And so for me that Upanishad points to the middle way, which is that it’s neither in the world nor is it exclusively in the inner realm of meditation, that we have to find this balance of really being awake in the world, so that’s what it means to me.
Rick: Yeah, and just another possible interpretation of it, I’ve seen people who have focused so exclusively on the inner that they became not only dysfunctional but kind of crazy with reference to the outer and actually had to be brought down in some way or given sedatives or something, because they dove in without proper integration.
Ellen: Yeah, certainly the danger of spinning out, right, in not being able to ground the spiritual experience in the world.
Rick: I had a couple of friends who actually committed suicide who just kind of went off the deep end, so it’s important to stay balanced.
Ellen: Totally, and again it’s that both are necessary. We’ve heard that saying, it’s easy to be a saint on the mountaintop, right? And for me that’s about, it’s possible to think that we’re more enlightened than we really are just by isolating ourselves in our own inner world, but in the world of relationship we get to learn about our edges, we get to learn about our foibles, we get to unlock some of our samskaras, some of the patterns in our mind that if we were not perturbed, if somebody wasn’t pointing it out to us or rubbing up against us to ignite that fire, we might not know that about ourselves.
Rick: Yeah, I’ve lived in monastic settings for years and you can get very idiosyncratic, you can get just very sort of hung up in your own mindset without proper checks and balances as you might have in an actual relationship. And you know it was very good for me to get married, a little hard on my wife at first because I was such a nutcase, but you know she’s very practical and down-to-earth and she was in the corresponding program for women but somehow maintained greater practicality than I did. But in any case, I mean just the crucible of sort of that close relationship where you just can’t get away with your BS, it can be very evolutionary if you don’t run away from it.
Ellen: Yeah, I have found it to be so and I feel very fortunate to be married to a man who’s also a yogi on spiritual path and we have different gurus, we’re in different traditions, but the intention is still the same. And so you know for us our marriage has been a gift to our awakening path.
Rick: How are you doing on time, you okay?
Rick: I’m good.
Rick: Okay, good. So there’s a few questions that you sent me as notes that I think would be just good to ask because they’re really good questions and I probably wouldn’t have come up with them myself, at least not all of them. Do you feel we’ve sufficiently described what the awakening process is? You posed the question, how would you describe the awakening process to someone who isn’t sure what you mean by that?
Rick: Let me just add a little sub note to that question. A lot of times people refer to their awakening, I have my awakening, as much as I dwell on this topic I often think what do they mean by that exactly, you know, it’s like using the word liquid, I drank some liquid, that could mean any number of things.
Ellen: Right. So you know for me in the tradition of Kriya Yoga that I studied in practice for many years, awakening is coming to know, not just know about, but know directly in your own experience, know about and know through experience realization that what you are as a spiritual being, you know being able to observe the nature of the mind, the nature of reality, have insight into that but also direct experience of it. So for me if that’s a awakening process is something that happens over time and I know that there are people who do have spontaneous experiences of waking up and they’re just awake, but in my experience and that of many people I have met over time it’s a gradual process of the mental field becoming clarified and so that inner light of consciousness becomes perceptible, it’s no longer obscured by the thinking mind, the sense mind.
Rick: If you don’t mind my asking, has that happened for you? Yeah, I mean of course over time, it’s sort of like a sunrise.
Rick: Right, yeah, yeah, when did it exactly rise?
Ellen: Yeah, so it’s that what I can say is that over the years it’s become more clear to me, my reactive nature is much less, so that has settled down. So I think it’s possible for people to wake up and become self-realized, you know to know who they are because they know about it and they experience it directly, but then is that full on enlightenment? No, I don’t see it that way, I just see it as a process of awakening, you know who you are and then there’s karma to work out and there are samskaras in the mental field that are yet to be cleared and so in my experience, do I know what I am? Yes. Do I see the nature of life and reality? Yes. Is there more? Yes, I believe there’s more.
Rick: Yeah, I think sunrise is a good metaphor. I just checked my weather app and the sunrise this morning was at 7:27, but I know it was light before then, but it wasn’t as light as it was when the sun I guess first peeked over the horizon and that wasn’t as light as it is now, it’s like 1:40 in the afternoon here, so it’s probably a good metaphor. I mean, many people do say, and maybe you could comment, that there is a moment which is really the watershed moment or the turning point from between not being awake and awake, but that there’s still a great deal of refinement and evolution yet possible. I think Rupert Spira sent me an email recently, he said there’s an end to the path to God but there’s no end to the path in God.
Ellen: Oh, that’s beautiful, that’s beautiful. Yeah, it makes me just kind of stop and breathe and reflect on that. I think one of the questions about liberation, about enlightenment is whether there is a steady state of that and certainly there are, the witness of the sages say yes and the technical nature of the Yoga Sutra and other scriptures say yes. There’s a point at which the mental field, not only thinking mind but the buddhi, the intellect becomes so purified, we would say so sattvic in its nature that it is similar to that of the light of the self which then can shine through it completely and there’s an awakening energetically of Kundalini in which the person then no longer falls back into forgetfulness or falls back into delusion.
Rick: Yeah, Joan Shivaputra Harrigan talks about reaching the Makara point maybe it’s pronounced, at which point the energy can’t go down again and there’s that verse in the Gita that you just reminded me of, the sage of steady intellect, the intellect is said to be like a candle that does not flicker in a windless place, so it reaches a sort of a silence or a steadiness that’s not perturbed by external circumstances.
Ellen: Yeah, so in terms of my experience on the path that it is again like the sunrise, there’s progress towards that steadiness, towards clarity and I was having a conversation with Edwin Bryant who has a commentary on Yoga Sutra, it’s a beautiful commentary and he was talking about how our spiritual journey is really about sattva-sizing, he made up that word, sattva-sizing our life and the mental field, so becoming more and more illumined, more and more clear, so that’s how I see the journey.
Rick: Yeah, in terms of the gunas they say that tamas has a hiding quality, an obscuring quality, whereas sattva is kind of I guess translucent you would say, it doesn’t obscure the self, and that’s why the whole deal about ethical behavior and purification and yoga and so on, it’s not that you couldn’t possibly have a glimpse of the self or even a perpetual one with more Tamas and Rajas in the system, but it’s just less likely.
Ellen: Yeah, and it makes sense to me, that’s one of the things that I, that’s one of the reasons why I fell in love with yoga, because I didn’t have to check my intellect at the door and these things made sense to me about the mechanics of it, about how it works and then when you start to test it out in your own experience and you find that, oh yeah, I can see that, I can see how that works, my mental field is becoming brighter, I am able to experience the rising of a samskara and there’s a little bit of a pause space in there now where there wasn’t before, there was just the woooooam snake bite coming out, right? Yeah. And now it moves slower, so there’s a choice point in there, so there’s things that we can observe, but one of the things I’d like to say is that one of the things I found refreshing about yoga of course was the teaching that a spiritual practice is not about creating a spiritual condition. When I talk about sattva sizing, which I like that word, it’s about sort of making our life more peaceful, more luminous, but we’re not doing that because we want to become spiritual, we’re doing that because we want to be able to express more fully that which we already are.
Rick: Yeah, well that’s kind of what spiritual should mean anyway. That’s what I think, yeah, but there’s a lot of confusion about that and it’s easy to fall into that trap that somehow I’m going to become spiritual when I meditate or if I follow the Yamas and Yamas I’ll become a spiritual person, and no, you just become a clinging person trying to be spiritual.
Rick: There’s a very funny guy named JP Sears who has been on that gap, who has this whole schmiel, a whole shtick he does about being ultra spiritual and he’s written like twelve and a half steps to becoming ultra spiritual and he makes all these funny YouTube videos.
Ellen: I’m going to have to look for that, I think having a sense of humor about it is really helpful.
Rick: Yeah, you’ll see him on that, if you look in the BatGap index, you’ll see Sears, remember Sears, Robux. What do you think about people let’s say who were enlightened or awakened to whatever degree, to a significant degree? I always avoid the the e-word you know because it has this sort of superlative static connotation and I always kind of feel like there could be further refinement, but let’s just use it for the time being, and yet then they begin to succumb in an older age to Alzheimer’s as Robert Adams did. Do you think that they lose their inner awakening as the physical instrument deteriorates or is it somehow awake to itself regardless of what happens to the body at that stage?
Ellen: Yeah, that is what I think. My husband’s guru is Haridas Baba, Babaji they called him, founder of Mount Madonna community, Mount Madonna Center, and in one time he had a question for Babaji about that which was similar to why do these things happen to people who are awake and things happen to the body and Babaji said the body has its own karma. I thought, oh, that’s just such a brilliant way to express it. So the self, that which we are does not have karma, but the body and the mind, your mind of course is a reservoir of karma, but the body itself when you think there’s just cause and effect at the physical level, that of course the body would have karma and the mind too, but that doesn’t mean that the self does.
Rick: Sure, but yoga aspires to purify the body and make it a more fit instrument for the realization of the self. So then the question is once the self has been realized, but then the body begins to deteriorate or maybe you have a stroke or your Alzheimer’s or you’re impaired in some way, it sort of seems like you’re reversing the process of preparation that yoga undertook, and could you therefore lose the realization or somehow once one has realized one is independent of whatever happens to the body?
Ellen: That’s what I think, that the realization does not have to be subject to the body. Now, ideally, I think our spiritual practice does remove some of those karmic influences, that’s one of the goals, right? So that’s why yogis are sort of focused on healthy body, healthy mind, so that we can be awake, we can live a long time, we can experience liberation in this lifetime, and I have seen many very healthy yogis who have adopted the lifestyle, my own teacher among them who is in his late 80s and he’s very bright and healthy body, healthy mind, and ideally that’s what we want to see, but if there is karma left in the body or the mind, does that take away from the awakeness of the self? I wouldn’t think so, and I don’t think that it’s necessary to superimpose that outer on the inner experience.
Rick: So it just impairs the ability to function in certain ways, but it’s not necessarily going to impair the self’s record, because it does say in the Gita for instance the self realizes itself by itself, it’s not like we realize it as if it were a thing that we separate from it could realize.
Ellen: Exactly, yeah, and then if you go down that, if you take that path of, well if somebody has this happen physically then it takes away from their illumination, then it also kind of tweaks the goal of somehow we’re looking for a perfect body, perfect mind, means enlightenment, but that’s not the standard.
Rick: Right, yeah, and obviously there were all kinds of cases like Ramana dying of cancer and experiencing a lot of pain, but apparently from what he said having no influence on his realization.
Ellen: Yeah, it’s just beautiful to read his story and like people say I’m dying, where would I go?
Rick: I think that’s what he said, please don’t leave us, where would I go? Yeah, and then of course, you know, there are the kinds of things that Yogananda talked about in his book of you know, interacting with Sri Yukteswar after he had died and you know him being very much alive and just sort of in a different or in a subtler body, so there’s that whole consideration.
Ellen: Yeah, which is an interesting one in itself because you know some people feel like well there is ultimately no personal self, therefore when the body dies there isn’t going to be anything left and reincarnation is nonsense because that would imply that there’s something or someone to reincarnate, but I could explain that away, but would you like to give it a crack?
Ellen: Well, I don’t have a memory, I don’t have a memory of another lifetime, so I don’t know, I will say that it makes sense to me that that the mind you know carries the blueprint and I think it was the Dalai Lama who said that you know just because the body dies we don’t have evidence that the mind does as well. You know, people confuse the mind with the brain, you know the brain dies with the body as the physical organ, but there’s no evidence at this point that the mind dies and along with the mind is where the karmic storehouse is, which you know according to the theories of reincarnation would give rise to another birth, yeah, to work out those impressions, those karmic impressions. Yeah, to me it makes sense, you know, just observing nature, the cyclic nature of things, you know, why would we be any different, why would we be separate and apart from nature that is birth and death and birth and death.
Rick: Plus there’s tons of evidence in terms of little kids having detailed recollections of past lives and they look up all the evidence and it’s kids talking about what kind of plane he flew in World War Two and who his buddies were and what his name was, all kinds of stuff.
Ellen: And I know I’ve had some experiences that you don’t know whether you, at least I don’t know whether I manufactured that in my mind or whether it’s really a spiritual insight. I saw my father after he left his body and that’s a common experience for people by the way. Oh yeah, people don’t talk about it because it sounds too kind of crazy, but it’s an interesting phenomenon and I wasn’t looking for him, I wasn’t trying to have a seance or anything like that, but it just showed up and I could see, it wasn’t like a physical appearance but it was a subtle realization that that’s who it was and it was a really beautiful experience for me actually because my father was agnostic and I was always, I don’t know about reincarnation, but I came in with spiritual yearnings and so I was in a family without religious inclination or spiritual inclination and so I often think well, purely on the psychological level I was there to balance out the family. But he didn’t really oppose my journey, but he didn’t really seem to have that for himself and so when I saw him after he had left his body that the insight that came, the communication that came was him just showing up and saying, well, it’s true. And it was like a blessing, so whether that just came from some pattern in my mind, I don’t really know except that I know how the experience felt for me, it was very faith building for me to have that experience.
Rick: Yeah, I’m inclined to believe it and it’s just like one of those things that I think are getting more and more into the popular culture these days. People are just, there’s so many TV shows about this kind of stuff and I think people are just beginning to get it under their belts, you know, that this is the way the universe works and you know, whereas quite some time ago one might have been burned at the stake for believing such things or whatever, you know, it’s just like the whole society is evolving to more profound understandings of things. Well, is there anything that you think you might have wanted to say that we didn’t get to? Some poem you’d like to read in closing or anything that, you know, I don’t know, half an hour from now after you’re hung up you’re gonna say, oh, I wish we thought of that.
Ellen: Well, probably that will be there. But yeah, you know, poems are always a great way for me to just say what I can’t say. While you’re looking for the poem, let me just sort of make some closing remarks so that I don’t have to make mundane remarks after you read your beautiful poem. So, everyone listening has been or watching has been listening to an interview with Yogacarya Ellen Grace O’Brien and she’ll have a page on batgap.com on which I’ll link to her books and her websites. One of her websites I’m showing on the screen right now, that’s one of whom I’ll be linking to, and then another is, oh that’s her book, another is, there it is, there’s Ellen’s website, well it’s Ellengraceobrien.com, yes, and you have another one for the csecenter.org which is the center that you run in San Jose. Good, and obviously people can get in touch with you through those and you travel around and you give courses and you have regular weekly meetings there in San Jose for those who live in the area and so people can get in touch with you.
Ellen: Great, and things happening online so all that is on the..
Rick: They have webinars and stuff like that.
Ellen: Yeah, at the Ellengraceobrien.com.
Ellen: That’s great. So, this is a little poem about the awakening journey and it’s also from The Moon Reminded Me, In the Heart is a Well. In the heart is a well filled with the sound of silence. Drink from it. One taste changes everything. How do I know? The day I stopped sitting on the edge and fell in told me this. The day I stopped sitting on the edge and fell in told me this.
Rick: Nice one. Yeah, okay, well thanks so much Ellen, I’ve really enjoyed both preparing for this interview all week and then spending this time with you.
Ellen: Thank you so much Rick, it was really a pleasure for me and an honor to be on your program and I really want to thank you for all that you put into this website, it’s really an inspiration and the work that you do, I mean preparing, it’s not just the conversation that’s heart-to-heart, soul-to-soul, but also that you spent the time that you did learning about my work and the work of others that you bring on to the program. Deep bows and thank you for that.
Rick: I kind of multitask, so like this afternoon I’ll be out cross-country skiing in the woods listening to something or rather I kind of do that, you know, cutting the grass and whatever else, it’s a nice way to sort of keep your attention on this stuff and prepare for these interviews.
Ellen: Well, it’s wonderful, wonderful work and I’m glad it’s prospering and just encourage people to keep on supporting it.
Rick: Thank you very much. Okay, thank you to those who’ve been listening or watching and we will see you next week.