By Linda Johnsen
Am I on the right planet? True confession: I have a very poor sense of direction. Sometimes I honestly feel like I used to be a star-being exploring the galactic sector between Aldebaran and the Pleiades--but I made a wrong turn and accidentally wound up marooned on Earth. I mean, this can't be right. How is it possible I find myself in a world system where there are souls who take pleasure in violence and murder, where the most urgent news story is the latest drug-addled starlet being dragged off to prison, or where the pharmaceutical industry peddles medications for making our eyelashes grow longer with barely a nod to their serious potential side effects? An entire ocean is being polluted because a corporation set out to make billions of dollars by sucking energy from the ocean floor--without a clue how to respond if there should be a problem. This can't be happening! Surely any moment I'll wake up in a star cluster in the Hyades among beings of light, and quickly forget this bizarre dream. The early Christians had a name for this bewildered sense of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. They called it "alienation," and spoke of feeling like a traveler who had somehow wondered into a foreign country and forgotten the way home. In this strange new land almost everyone is drunk, and they want you to drink too so you'll forget who you really are and where you actually come from. Then the rulers of this barbaric kingdom can enslave you, and you'll serve them forever, aspiring for nothing more than another cup of their sour wine. In the U.S. today there are whole communities of people addicted to crack cocaine, who are actually living out this ancient nightmare, slaves to their neighborhood drug lords. But even if we're not drug addicts, many of us can't feel at home in this strange world. To ease this alienation, we become addicted instead to our favorite TV shows, to our desires for expensive cars or the newest electronic gadgets, or to looking good so that we can attract more sexually appealing partners. Yet something inside us cries out, "This can't be all there is to life! I know there's something more!" Fortunately for us, those early Christians also spoke of "messengers of light," spiritual masters like Jesus who drop in from time to time. These masters remind us that although we are in the world, we are not of it; we are spiritual entities who are just here visiting. They encourage us to sober up, complete our original mission (we were sent here to learn something, they tell us), and then return home with our hard-won wisdom. In an important ancient Christian text called The First Apocalypse of James, Jesus acknowledges, "You descended into ignorance, but your true essence has not been affected by it. You descended into a condition of mindlessness, yet something inside you remembered." But what is the way back to that original homeland Christians call heaven? The best of our modern technology barely got a handful of men to the moon. If we want to reach the highest heaven, Western science can't help us; we have to turn to spiritual science. Our five senses are doors to the physical world outside ourselves, the only world most humans interact with. The early Christian tradition however, very much like the Yoga tradition, taught that there are other portals, within us, that lead to greater non-material realities and to the hidden truth about our real identity. We're not really from Earth. We're just passing through. In The First Apocalypse of James Jesus explains, "Cast off the blind thought that you are this body of flesh which encompasses you. Then you will reach Him Who Is. And then you yourself will be the One Who Is." Abandoning what is alien to spirit, we become spirit. Like the great masters, we can remain in that blessed state, or we can re-enter the material world to serve other beings who have lost themselves here.
The Way Back
I was raised an evangelical Lutheran, and was taught that we do not have to meditate or do any type of spiritual practice. The only thing required is that we believe that Jesus died for our sins, and we will automatically be raised to heaven on Judgment Day. According to the numerous ancient Christian texts archeologists have discovered since the 1940s, this was not Jesus' own view. In text after text he exhorts his disciples to purify their hearts and minds, and raise their focus of attention to an inner world of light. Many early Christians believed that unless they freed themselves of desire for the things of this alien world, they would be unable to rise to a higher reality after death; negative powers would hurl them back to Earth, where they would be forced to take another birth. Yes, Jesus was ever present to offer guidance and grace, but each soul had to do its own inner work. The early Christian perspective was intensely dualistic, meaning it saw a vast gulf between the constant warfare, injustice, poverty and disease of this physical world, and the higher, disembodied dimensions of reality. The sense of alienation was intense. Focusing inward, early Christians experienced a vast expanse of light filled with wisdom, love and perfect serenity. When they opened their eyes however, they saw a world filled with terrible suffering that didn't seem to reflect that light in any way. We know from historical reports that in Jesus' time the roads were sometimes lined for miles with crosses on which the bodies of crucified prisoners hung. These prisoners were often protestors against the Roman occupation. Jesus himself was only one of many thousands of victims of the inconceivable brutality of that time. It's hard to blame the Christians for their horror and intense desire to escape to a better world, the kingdom of heaven Jesus had promised. Two thousand years later I open the newspaper to seemingly inevitable articles about the latest murders and kidnappings, and daily horrific bombings around the world. Another innocent person has been killed by a driver who couldn't be bothered to wait to sober up before getting behind the wheel of an automobile. Municipal governments are going bankrupt, people can't find jobs so they can't pay their mortgages, and the incidence of cancer is increasing to epidemic proportions. People who try to change the world for the better are stymied, while those who profit from destructive public policies flourish. It is all so bizarre that I can easily relate to the early Christians who felt like aliens being held captive on a hostile planet. Unfortunately, over the millennia the spiritual practices and meditation techniques used by the earliest generations of Christians have been almost entirely lost. Only hints and fragments about the forms of sadhana(spiritual practice) Jesus and his disciples taught are left for us in texts like the 1,700-year-old Christian library discovered at Nag Hammadi in Egypt, or in ancient Christian ascetic manuals like the Philokalia. The good news is that other cultures have been more successful in preserving practices taught by spiritual masters, most notably India, where spiritual wisdom and the modalities that lead to it have always been valued. While universities in the Western world train us in skills that can be useful in the external world, the spiritual colleges of India--the great yoga ashrams--provide an education in the spiritual sciences, training that leads to self-knowledge and inner strength. Jesus advises us to "Cast off the blind thought that you are this body of flesh," but how many Christians know how to do that? As yoga students we learn techniques of sense withdrawal called pratyahara that help us do as Christ instructed, transcending our identification with the material body till we directly experience purusha, the "One Who Is" at the center of our being. We students of Yoga learn meditation techniques to help us hold our awareness in these transcendent states. We are also given practices like mantra repetition (japa) so that even during our daily life, as we attend to our duties, we can fill our minds with sacred energy rather than idle daydreams or endless internal chatter. We can stay focused, making each day a practicum in a spiritually infused lifestyle. Through visualization exercises taught in our tradition we can direct the powers of our imagination and intention toward the expansion of consciousness and the cultivation of higher ideals. Using more advanced meditation techniques we move beyond any sort of sensory imagery, inner or outer, to a realm of pure consciousness, without form but pregnant with intelligence, creative power, and good will. With these immense inner resources, we can return to the outer world and live fearlessly, loving yet detached, enjoying but no slave to desire. The intense fear of suffering and death begins to loosen its grip as we have more direct contact with that within us which goes on after death. As we become more familiar with the kingdom of heaven within us, the Holy Spirit becomes our living, daily experience. Then Jesus is no longer a remarkable figure who lived 2000 years ago, but the living universal Christ at the very heart of reality. Like a child born to a rich family, who takes her many exquisite toys for granted, we students who've been exposed to the Yoga tradition continually over the years may sometimes forget just how valuable this spiritual treasure is. We have access to knowledge and practical techniques that have been lost for centuries in some civilizations. And when we finally come home to ourselves, to our authentic Self, we are no longer aliens in this world. We're at home wherever we are, servants of a greater power, here on a mission to learn and to share. Instead of the wine of forgetfulness, we drink the divine nectar of remembrance of who we really are. "Then you yourself will be the One Who Is." At last we're no longer alien to ourselves, and heaven is right here.