Several years ago, while grieving the loss of an immediate family member, I decided to take some time away from my day-to-day responsibilities to go on retreat for some much needed seclusion and perspective. Venturing down to Southern California, I sought refuge in one of Paramahansa Yogananda’s ashrams. Having been a devotee of his teachings for many years, I hold a deep affinity and solace to in his retreat centers. In present times, his community earnestly strives to uphold his teachings of yogic wisdom. The centers to this day remain permeated with his vibrations. In addition, the collective spiritual intentions of his community create an ideal haven for travellers wishing to reconnect with their greater selves.
During my brief sojourn at the ashram, I was fortunate to spend some time with spiritual counsel from an elder monk, Brother Bimalananda. For readers who didn’t know him, he was one of the few elders in the monastic community who had lived and served in the ashram while Yogananda was still living on this physical plane. Yoganandaji accepted him into the monastic order in 1948, soon after their first meeting. It was also well documented that Bimalananda was quite fortunate to have spent some time in his teacher's direct company at the Self-Realization Fellowship Lake Shrine before Yogananda’s final hours on this plane, before he passed into Mahasamadhi, in March 1951.
For those who were fortunate to have met Bimalananda while he was still around, they knew he was a wonderfully sweet and simple soul, extremely joyous and generous. He possessed a very soft, gentle physical demeanor, yet piercingly sharp eyes, and the deepest smile that divulged a playful innocence. Towards his later years on earth, his physical body seemed frail, you would hardly have guessed that it housed someone who gave of themselves a full lifetime of spiritual service and deep mediation. But even if you had met him only once, you still knew better. He was extremely charitable with his time, and always at the ready to provide earnest spiritual help for those who asked.
Yogananda’s teachings are rooted in simple yogic wisdom, however, his teachings do not require any formal commitment to a specific set of beliefs. The proof lies in the pudding, so to speak, and the essence of his teachings ultimately lie in practice. I will share our exchange in hopes that it offers some solace and inspiration to you, dear reader, in our current clime and time.
Brother gave me some compassionate words of solace and counsel concerning my recently deceased family member, as well as a guided visualization meditation to feel connected and actively express love to them, even while they were transitioning into the higher realms. I recall that as he was conveying his message to me, his eyes were closed, almost as if he were seeing my relative on the other side, and acknowledging that they were in our midst. After several months of vacillating between darkness and grief, his words offered a great deal of peace to me.
Afterwards, our conversation turned towards my marriage, he enquired about my relationship with my wife and family members. We spoke about the feminine aspect in creation, and the importance of honoring that embodiment as divine.
“Whenever you encounter a female,” he said, “always visualize yourself that you are in the presence of the Divine Mother. Whether it’s your wife, your mother, family members, or any other woman you meet. Constantly remind yourself: This is the Goddess, right here. She’s with me right now. Mentally bow before Her, in the image of the woman in front of you. If you do this, not only are you honoring all women and controlling your thoughts and impulses as a male, but you will become more enlightened as you progress, with this practice. You’ll begin to see her everywhere, and in everything.”
Even now, some 20 years after, I reflect back on his words, imbued with deep devotion towards the feminine embodiment of the Divine and wonder at how different the world would be, if we all but strove, even for a few moments, to put into practice his simple suggestion.
Being in his company, as our conversation inevitably came towards the end, I pressed my advantage and enquired about his one-on-one interactions with Yogananda while he was living. By 1951, Yogananda was not only a world teacher by then, but an extremely accomplished and enlightened Yogi, and by all accounts, was a remarkable being. How simple and elegant, his response:
“You know, Joey…it’s hard to explain, but when I was in his [Yogananda’s] presence, I just felt so happy. Yogananda was so blissful, no matter what, that his peace and bliss just overflowed to anyone who happened to be in his company. I just felt so happy whenever he was around.”
He continued: “But then, after he passed, I realized…if I visualize him strong enough, I feel that same happiness. And it doesn’t matter if you knew him or not, anyone can feel that sense of happiness and bliss if they meditate on his form. Just close your eyes and see him there, you’ll start feeling just as happy as I did when he was around.”
How simple his explanation, yet how elegant! How devoted he was to his spiritual teacher. In the end, I realized – it doesn’t matter which form you use to connect with the Divine. For Bimalananda, his teacher was Divine, and the Divine was fully embodied in his teacher. The more he meditated on his form, the more the Divine entered into his heart. And his heart was indeed, always full.
It’s funny how spending a little time with someone can have such a tremendous impact on you. When I think back on my life journey up until now, whenever I feel disconnected, all I have to do is visualize that form of the Divine Beloved. Standing in that Bhāvana, that deep feeling of contemplation, we eventually become what our hearts dwell upon.
Whenever we contemplate the Divine, through meditation, mantra or any other practice, it becomes extremely helpful for us to remain connected to our motivation for doing so, lest it become reduced to a mechanical practice. To connect to the heart, we need to find the switch that connects us. This is why contemplative practices are as much of an art form as they are a ritual or technique. Bhāvana itself is not a technique per se…just as you would greet a loved one, or a best friend after separation, when you sit down to contemplate…stand into that loving presence. Convince yourself, as Bimalananda did, that the Divine Form – in whatever form that is – is gazing lovingly upon you, and accepting you for who you are. In due time, we realize that – in reality – we are never separate from the Divine. But we do still need to remind ourselves, every now and again.
Thank you, Bimalananda – I want you to know that I haven’t forgotten your advice, and keep trying. I bow to the divine image that dwells in you. And to your great teacher as well, who continues to inspire me as well as others.