Art of Living was an easy thing to slip into for me, as I was raised with a lot of eastern spirituality in and around my family. The problem, as I see it, is that Art of Living says one thing in the outer circles to draw people into a seemingly benign set of values and beliefs, and gradually changes the meaning of these words as you get drawn further and further toward the “inner circles” (reminds me of this, actually…).
I wanted to look at three basic articles of faith (or catchwords) in the Art of Living universe and see how this happens.
The basic premise of any meditation practice is that it alters your state of mind in a positive way. Art of Living markets the kriya and other yogic practices as methods to reduce stress, calm the mind, and improve your daily life from the inside out. A quick and easy way to relax, rebalance and slowly train the mind to let go of petty botherations– sounds great!
Later on though, your practice becomes the method by which you pursue enlightenment– and I mean pursue enlightenment. Rabidly.
During my time in Art of Living I realized that everyone around me desperately wanted to get Enlightened, but I really wasn’t sure what it meant to any of them. More strange still, I began wanting it, and I didn’t know what it meant to me. I realize now that the logic goes something like this: Guruji is Enlightened (more Enlightened than anyone else on earth has been in thousands of years), and he has come to show us the Way. Since what I want is to be close to HIM, and to become more and more like HIM, I want to Get Enlightened. (Honestly, for most of us I don’t think this is any loftier than why I suddenly got into all the bands my crush was into in high school, or developed a passion for dancing when my boyfriend was a wonderful waltzer. When we’re in love, we mirror the beloved in hopes that it will earn their love in return, and that it will make us seem more beautiful.) Sri Sri gathers to him people who must be special somehow– maybe if I got more enlightened I’d be one of those people. I really, really think that hope is at the core of a lot of devotees’ practices.
What is Enlightenment according to AoL, why do people want it, why does Guruji subtly suggest he offers the WAY to it, and isn’t all this desire for some glorified indescribable state of equanimity rather counterproductive? Why all this feverishness to be rid of feverishness? These are questions I can’t entirely answer, but would love to hear others’ thoughts on the matter.
Ultimately, there’s no need for a Guru without the belief that there is a higher state of mind to reach, your guru has reached it, and that you want to get closer to That State, Whatever It Is. Gradually the purpose of meditation stops being relaxation and de-stressing, and becomes the cultivation of Divine Consciousness to the extent that Sri Sri has supposedly mastered it. We the faithful come in for some yoga and we end up waiting for Godot.
Again, a seemingly altruistic and hard-t0-disagree-with point: we should serve others. It’s pretty easy to say “I’m for service!”, rather like the ease of saying “I’m against cancer” or “I’m for puppies”, and the overtures about seva remain general and goody-goody until you spend a few hours in satsang.
Sri Sri will tell the story about how a young man wanted to do service, and so he stood all day at a street crossing waiting for a blind person or an old woman in need of help getting to the other side. How foolish! (and the chorus, I among them, would gleefully giggle) Service is always there, there are many kinds, even doing your job with an attitude of service or raising your children with an attitude of service is seva. Brilliant.
And, in all honesty, that idea really opened my heart and gave me a new outlook on daily life. I am still grateful for the idea that all things can become seva if you are acting from an attitude of loving kindness.
But at the end of satsang, the sales pitches start. Make a sankalpa. Tell all your friends. Thank the person who brought you here, and bring 5 new people. Do everything you can to “Spread the Knowledge”. To a newcomer, spreading knowledge seems like a good thing. It’s easy to overlook the THE. Gradually, though, contrary to what Sri Sri himself says– it isn’t everybody’s knowledge, it’s the Knowledge of His Holiness Sri Sri Ravi Shankarji, Guru of Joy. Service is spreading HIS knowledge, HIS teachings, and bringing others to THIS path.
I remember a rather sickening time when I stopped telling friends they should try whatever meditation seemed like a good fit, vipassana or zen or a movement meditation like tai chi– and started only telling them why kriya was so amazing. Afterall, it was Seva.
Again, how can you possibly be against smiling and dancing and music and a One World Family? (although, having read Not Without My Sister, that phrase no longer seems quite so innocent. I’m skeptical now of anyone insisting we are all a Family– it is a beautiful idea, but less beautiful when you remember how a lot of people feel about their family)
The idea that life is to be celebrated, that the mystery of existence is a wonder to be experienced and not a problem to be “solved” is a beautiful notion. One of the things I found most appealing and attractive about Art of Living is this attitude of celebration, teachings about “the beautiful I Don’t Know”, and the emphasis on happiness as a practice and a discipline rather than an occasional perk of life or the result of infinite riches, limitless sex, and endless youth sold to you by That Corporation Inc.. I think this is a valuable awareness to cultivate, and I wish more people approached life with the attitude that their happiness is their responsibility and their practice, not the job of the world to provide. Also, coming to understand that happiness can arise completely independent of the satisfaction of desires was a wonderful aspect of my time as a devotee.
The darker side of this becomes clear when you get in towards the middle, where the only time people seem to really be happy or celebrating is when guruji is nearby. It’s as though all their joy and wonder lives in this little man, and leaves with him when he goes. I’ve never seen people so stressed out as they are at the ashram before or during one of His visits–or so depressed as they are after he leaves. It becomes all about HIM being happy with them , and not about being kind and gracious to one another.
Also, it was my experience that happiness, or the outer signs of it, became a sort of measure for your spiritual stature– so if you weren’t happy about something, that could easily be used against you to undermine a legitimate grievance. “Oh, he’s full of complaining mind” could be said to belittle and discredit a man with a legit complaint– and it often is.
You can see this easily in the blogosphere– the people who argue that these critical blogs shouldn’t exist suggest that we are all small minded, unhappy people with an axe to grind otherwise we wouldn’t be focused on the “negative” and saying so many “bad” things about AoL.
Being unhappy doesn’t make you unspiritual– it might mean you’re not being dispassionate, but there are times when dispassion isn’t appropriate. I am passionate about people not being sold a false set of goods, and I am passionate about young girls not growing up believing their guru will take care of their whole life if only they’re good enough, that they are always safe from sexual predators in HIS house, that HE knows them completely better than they do and he will choose a perfect husband for them and that the best life for them is that of a teacher spreading HIS knowledge. I care about that, and I would prefer to be passionate about injustice and warning others of the dangers in cultic situations like AoL, rather than ‘dispassionately’ go about MY life and not say a word.
Ultimately, Art of Living takes out the nuance and complications of life. It answers questions like, “what is enlightenment?” with pat replies like “follow me and find out!”, or “How can I be happy?” with “How can you be unhappy?!? You ARE joy!”. For a while it makes everything better, simpler, and easier to digest. But there IS nuance to life, there are shades of grey, and even service can have a dark side (like when people are used as full-time volunteers to raise money for an organization that operates as a business and claims religious tax exemptions, meanwhile not disclosing how the funds are used.) Wouldn’t it be better to let those people realize only THEY can find their own bliss, rather than pretend a guru can lead them to it?
Maybe I’ll never be Enlightened. Maybe I’m not serving a Divine Avatar. and maybe I’m not always as full of wonder and joy and generosity as I could be. But at least I’ll never pretend I’m enlightened, or be a dupe for a narcissistic sociopath with a messianic complex– and meanwhile, on my grumpy days, I’ll practice happiness and get better at it.