By Penelope Sullivan
I still smile when I recall how my quest to uncover the secrets of longevity led me to discover the presence of God and that true health and vitality begin within.
Seventeen years ago I was in my mid-twenties and working at an area health food store. This was a period when I had deeply begun questioning existence, purpose and what creates a truly peaceful and happy life. I also was considering becoming a naturopath and had been delving into the study of physical health.
To this end, I would question my long time regular customers on what they would attribute their longevity to. I always picked those that were in their eighties or nineties and were still smiling and had a bounce in their step, for I knew on some level they had something to share! Well, the answers were surprisingly the same and went something like this,”…Family, apple cider vinegar, and God………Family, black strap molasses, and God…..Family, peppermint tea for my heart….and God…”
I thought, “…Wow I know about family….I know about molasses…maybe I should find out about God….” And so, a two weeks’ notice and a bus ticket later, I found myself in northern California, at Ananda Village, a yoga community based on the teachings of Paramhansa Yogananda.
To be clear I don’t even know if I had heard the word Guru before, probably not. I had fairly regularly practiced hatha yoga postures at home, but that was the extent of my direct experience of the yogic philosophy. So, needless to say, I did not know much. What I did know is that when I stepped foot on the land at Ananda, I was literally struck by the all-pervading stillness and quietness. It filled me and I experienced a deep sense of rightness.
I dove right into the activities. Besides regular meditations and yoga postures, karma yoga or selfless service, composed the biggest part of my day. So unlike the pervading theme of working at all cost for personal gain, karma yoga speaks of seeing Spirit as the doer behind all activity and the idea of being unattached to any end results. At first glance, this may sound dis-empowering yet I have found this practice very freeing and quite powerful. I began to imagine myself as a vessel through which this Grace or power can flow through. With this type of thinking, tiredness seemed to melt away as did the resistance that can so easily come up as we focus on our likes and dislikes and our own abilities.
I also learned that the word Guru translated to mean dispeller of darkness, and that yoga loosely translated to mean union with God. Most importantly, I was not only intellectually memorizing these ideas, I was actually feeling a “lightness” come into my life and an ever increasing sense of connection and depth within my being and with the world around me.
Because these concepts and experiences resonated on such a deep level, I was surprised when I saw how nervous and questioning my relatives and old friends became when I mentioned staying on at yoga community.
Unfortunately, God has gotten a bad rap. Perhaps it is from the organizations that emphasize that we are naturally sinners and separate from God…or perhaps it is from the organizations that ask for complete adherence to outward rules without offering much in the way of inner experience….perhaps it is the injustices that the civil and women’s rights movements have brought to attention in the not so distance past. Whatever the reasons, I have seen that many people are very afraid to give up their sense of personal power.
In addition, to many people, God is a very ambiguous term. The question then becomes what is God and what does he/she/it have to do with daily life?
I love the idea that each us on some deep level wants to be happy…wants to be at peace….and has felt an expansion within our being at some point in time. Personally, I tune into the aspects of Divine love, of peace, of bliss…of power…and feel these underlying currents rippling through my life and awareness. I feel this force that beckons me to go within and from this point of knowing to act in this world. I feel when my actions are in harmony with this inner knowing and when they are not, more and more. This to me and so much more is a beginning description of God….the tip of the iceberg…not even mentioning the vast and miraculous intelligence that surrounds us on the Earth and expanding outward to all creation. I love the idea that we each have our own, very intimate relationship and understanding, of the Divine. So for me, in beginning to think in this way, and open to this type of God, and then perform “mundane” activities such as cleaning or gardening, each activity became a liberating and sacred event…and in doing so began to transform my life.
Some friends and relatives who resonated with all of this, I found, still questioned why meditate so often? Why be so disciplined?
I began to see that few of us really know what freedom is. Our culture raises us to seek outside thrills and enjoyments. We have things to bring us up. We have things to bring us down. We are taught to strive for the biggest and the largest….and this is termed freedom and success.
The truth is as one of my favorite teachers HariDas said, “…we are all half-baked saints…” or as Yogananda said, “…we are all a little bit crazy…” In a nutshell, most of us are a mixed bag of contradictions and varying desires that are counterproductive and are largely driven by whims, passing fancies, more surface emotion.
I wanted discipline because through it, I felt free. I felt clearer within my own being. I still remember one of my deepest most profound mediations….While sitting in the quietness, I had this deep sense of sweetness….and it seemed to be saying…remember this…remember this quality…..It’s so easy to get caught up in everything going on, in the outside world…It can be so easy to get swept away by the pervading current….but remember that this sensation and feeling is always within you. Remember this….”
So what became of becoming a naturopath? Over time I did go on to get a degree in both nutrition and herbal medicine. Yet now the cornerstone of my practice is supporting and offering to others the gift in nurturing inner growth. I see that without that vital component, there is an integral piece of the puzzle missing. Then I bring in the physical elements. They too are important and have their own place. I love the story of Yogananda achieving a high state of awareness and then his teacher handing him a broom. His teacher told him that until we were beyond this world we could not neglect it. Likewise Yogananda said that almost all disease stemmed from poor nutrition. He emphasized the importance of whole foods, the healing power of greens, juicing, proper exercise and sunlight. He was and is the most holistic healer that I have ever read. …and yet he said take this all in and then forget about…..and not be fanatical. I see a lesson in this for most of us. I have seen people that only focus on the physical and are still full of discontent…and I also see very serviceful, beautiful people eat all kinds of things and really neglect their physical bodies…because they do not want to focus too much on the outward. I feel that if we can find a way to balance these different sides…we will flourish and see that they are but two sides of the same coin…and that in being physically healthy, the Spirit within us can shine and that if we deepen our Spirit and connection a vitality and Grace can flood our cells and our Presence. Blessings to you all!