Though all genuine spiritual traditions stress the underlying unity and connectedness of humanity, conflict between religions has been a constant in human history; the death and destruction caused by war carried out in the name of god has been extraordinary. While every spiritual tradition has its genuine saints, none of them has been able to bring lasting peace between all religions. Even when a religion preaches love and charity, this can somehow be reinterpreted to justify killing the followers of other religions, giving us the supreme oxymoron, holy war. If the goal of all religions is the same and only the methods and beliefs are different, is it possible to reconcile the different paths? It has long been said that yoga is not a religion, but is in fact the spiritual basis of all religions. One can practice yoga and still be a Christian, a Buddhist or a Muslim. In truth, those whose spiritual practices are truly aligned with the deepest principles of their religions can be said to be practicing yoga in its broadest sense. Is there a simple theme to these different practices?
The Royal Road
The first summer that Babaji did not attend the annual retreat he was asked if he had a message to give to all those attending. In his response he offered a solution to the problem of religious conflict: “Surrender to that infinite consciousness is the royal road on which all human beings can walk together in spite of their religions and beliefs.” What did Babaji mean? Who is to surrender and what is that infinite consciousness? Since yoga is the union of the individual with the universal, it is the individual that must surrender, but how is this done? The early Christian saints spoke of “self-noughting,” reducing the sense of individuality to zero in the face of an all-powerful, all-knowing god. In its extremes this led to torturing the body with self-flagellation and hair shirts, but it can take the gentler, more devotional form of recognizing one’s insignificance and powerlessness in the face of such a divine power; this is one aspect of bhakti yoga. Surrender can also mean setting one’s desires aside and working for the welfare of others – the basic principle of karma yoga. Babaji has always encouraged us to limit desires as a means of quieting the mind.
The Portal to Universal Consciousness
But Babaji did not say simply “surrender,” he was more specific: “surrender to that infinite consciousness.” This term is not used by formal religions, but is known as brahman in yoga philosophy. Brahman, being a direct experience beyond the mind, cannot be defined and is almost always discussed in negative terms. As Krishna tells Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita, it is indestructible, unchanging, immortal, immeasurable, unborn, everlasting and infinite. How then does one surrender to such intangible concepts? The key is to recognize the connection between individual consciousness and infinite consciousness – it is awareness itself, the sense of being or “I amness.” The common thread that ties together all of an individual’s experiences is this sense of existing, the direct knowledge “I am.” This is the spark of divinity within each of us and is the portal to universal consciousness. As Babaji says, it is like a ray of the sun reflected in a pail of water. Unfortunately we are largely unaware of it as all our attention is on our world of thoughts and thought-coloured sensory information, just as when reading from a page we do not notice the background white of the page, and focus only on the small black marks. Likewise in our immersion in a movie we are unaware of the white screen that is always in the background of the moving light patterns. The practice of moving one’s attention from thought to the one who is aware of thought is a form of jnana yoga. When pursued persistently the sense of being becomes increasingly present in one’s awareness, becoming more dominant when the mind is quiet (hence the practice of meditation), and the purified individual consciousness dissolves into the infinite consciousness.
The Practice of Presence
Though regarded as a difficult spiritual path in the eastern traditions, this approach is gaining popularity in the west. Vipassana meditation, perhaps the most accessible form of Buddhism for westerners, advocates presence by shifting attention from thought to pure sensation. The increasing popularity of teachers such as Eckhart Tolle and Adyashanti, who also advocate the practice of presence, adds power to this movement. Some might find this practice perplexing, thinking “of course I’m present.” But we are not usually in the present moment. When Babaji was once asked what he saw in the people in front of him, he responded: “A roomful of sleeping people, half in the past and half in the future.” To be quietly in the present is to be awake. The elusive goal of harmony between religions, and in the bigger picture, world peace, can only be reached when individuals are at peace within themselves. As Thich Nhat Hanh says: ”Every breath we take, every step we make, can be filled with peace, joy, and serenity. We need only to be awake, alive in the present moment.” There is a price for this. We must give up the little “I,” that complex yet illusory bundle of thoughts that traps us in the past with regret, blame and nostalgia, and traps us in the future by turning the past into fear, anxiety and desire. Surrender is indeed the royal road to peace.