Peace is that underrated quality, the one we sometimes don’t realize we’re living without. Given the myriad distractions of modern life, it sometimes takes a major wake-up call to remind us to stop and tune in.
In 1946, one of the great spiritual teachers of our time, Paramahansa Yogananda, broke with tradition by publishing Autobiography of a Yogi, a book about his mystical experiences with saints and seers in India. These secret teachings had been passed down exclusively to ascetics in ancient times, but due to a special dispensation, Yogananda and his lineage shared the age-old practice of Kriya Yoga with everyday people. In 1945, as Yogananda was putting the finishing touches to the book that would transform millions of lives, we deployed the Atomic bomb as a weapon for the first time in human history. Yogananda, foreseeing what was to come, wrote: “The human mind can and must find within itself energies greater than those within stones and metals, lest the atomic giant, newly unleashed, turn on the world in mindless destruction.”
We now had the means to extinguish the human race. But Yogananda knew that those same subatomic forces we had harnessed to produce the bomb, were also within every cell of our beings. They were the very energies the ancient Rishis had cultivated within the mind and body to elevate human consciousness. The urgent lesson of our time was to use those energies for a higher purpose -- to find the still place within where peace is an inexhaustible aspect of the Divine.
This is one of the many lessons I learned from Yogananda, whose works I spent the last 6 years absorbing in every possible way for a documentary film on his life called Awake: The Life of Yogananda, which I co-wrote and directed with Lisa Leeman and co-produced with Peter Rader. Yogananda rocked my world by systematically dismantling how I viewed human existence.
At the onset of filming, I challenged a senior monk from Yogananda’s organization, Self Realization Fellowship, by declaring that I had a problem with the word “God.” He asked me if I’d ever experienced a feeling of peace.
I remembered as a child feeling moments of deep connection in nature, or while visiting hermitages in the Abruzzi mountains in Italy... and in the intense quiet that followed a heavy snowfall in the northeastern United States.
“Of course,” I answered.
“That,” he said “is an aspect of Divinity. Build on it in the stillness of meditation, and you’ll experience God.“
I realized I had an opening. Peace was something real and tangible that I had experienced, both externally and internally, many times. I was suddenly curious to connect to it in a different way -- that is, to allow and imagine that the kernel of Peace within me could actually be an aspect of God. What a concept!
Yogananda was a radical, a revolutionary – a total game-changer. His timing in bringing his teachings to the West in 1920 couldn’t have been more perfect. When he first arrived in America, everything was up for grabs. Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity has just been proven by an astronomical observation of a solar eclipse in 1919. And the Quantum Physicists that followed him were telling us that matter on the subatomic scale was elusive, erratic, based on vibrations and probabilities... that where we placed our attention could actually alter physical reality.
The Rishis of India had developed a similar ontological framework nearly 3000 years prior. In ancient times, scientific and spiritual pursuits went hand-in-hand. The separation of these disciplines actually came fairly recently. As Harvard Physicist and Physician, Dr. Anita Goel, who is featured in Awake: The Life of Yogananda, explains: “Several hundred years ago, things like alchemy became chemistry, numerology became mathematics, astrology became astronomy, metaphysics became physics. And the separation of objective reality and subjective reality actually enabled science to make great progress. Many of the biggest breakthroughs in science and technology in the last century have been made in reductionistic silos.”
But, while it allowed Western scientists to deepen their understanding of the gross material world, they lost touch, perhaps, with the more mystical aspects of our place in the cosmos. Today’s communication technology may have brought us closer in many ways, but it’s also been the source of constant distraction and noise, which those of us on a spiritual path must find a way to silence.
Yet the kind of peace that Yogananda was talking about isn’t about checking out and living as a hermit in a mountain cave. He famously said: “It shows more spiritual fiber to live a godly life in the jungle of civilization, full of human tigers, wolves, and snakes, that bite at you because you are doing good.”
Gandhi, who had been a lawyer in his day, was also a practicing yogi, who took lessons on Kriya Yoga from Yogananda. In fact, Gandhi used the yogic principle of ahimsa to promote peace in the world, which was a key influence on Martin Luther King, Jr., who changed a nation through the same philosophy of nonviolence.
Yogananda guides us to be “calmly active and actively calm” when we do our part in the world. With this comes a clarity, a focus and a serenity that puts us in touch with our interconnectedness with all beings. When, in meditation, we experience the cessation of the disturbances of the mind, we come into contact with inner Peace. Once that happens inside, outer nonviolence is inevitable.