What is realization?
Call it what you will -- God realization, self realization, liberation, moksha, enlightenment, Brahma jnana -- without an answer to this question, we cannot know whether the conventional wisdom expressed by so many is correct. And what is that conventional wisdom?
The conventional wisdom is that realization and sexual misconduct cannot go together. That they are mutually exclusive personal attributes. That a realized person -- by definition -- cannot engage in immoral behavior. That an unethical person -- by definition -- cannot be realized. That's the conventional wisdom.
The conventional wisdom makes intuitive sense and is hard to argue with, but is it right?
If the state of realization is synonymous with moral rectitude, then I think we're on safe ground assuming that Guru was not realized (since we've already concluded that Guru's treatment of some of his female disciples was unethical). From that, of course, it would follow that my paradox conjecture -- that Guru could be both realized and act unethically -- is flat wrong.
If, however, the state of realization is not synonymous with moral behavior, then -- as a matter of logic anyway -- the paradox conjecture might have some merit.
Our inquiry, though, must begin by defining the term "realization." Here's the story of how I began to conceptualize the term and how my thinking about it has evolved over time.
I first began to think about the concept of self-realization when I was 12 years old, reading Paramahansa Yogananda's masterpiece, Autobiography of a Yogi. Swamiji's preferred term, it seemed, was "cosmic consciousness" and it took me in.
"Cosmic consciousness" has some panache. In contrast to the synonymous terms of "God-realization" and "self-realization" -- which both sound like fixed destinations -- cosmic consciousness sounds boundless and adaptable, liquid perhaps. In practice, based upon the examples Swamiji gave in his book, cosmic consciousness appeared to manifest itself in individuals as both free access to a perception of the Divine coupled with some facility within the individual for magical powers.
As an insecure 12 year old grappling with identity issues, the power of control over both oneself and the natural world seemingly promised by the cosmic consciousness described by Yogananda was extremely seductive. (You can read about some of my early "issues" here and more generally about how famed psychologist Erik Erikson explains the stage of development I was going through at the time here.)
Couple that seductive attraction with the seminal pop culture event of that same year (1977) -- Star Wars -- and the basic parameters of my cosmological worldview had been forged. The idea of an undivided and all pervasive intelligent Force -- free from anthropomorphism -- with which I could obtain oneness (or "realize" my existing oneness) with was an idea that seemed natural, if not obvious, to me at the time.
As we'll discuss, over time my concept of the aim of yoga -- realization -- evolved from this first simple understanding of my pre-teen years. One thing that stuck with me, however, was the discovery of my own ideal self-image. Whether it was Sir Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan Kenobi in the brown cloak of the Jedi or Sri Yukteswar in the gerua robe of the swami, both presented the same image to my young, wide-open eyes -- that of the wise, self-confident loner.
That image, that ideal -- of the wise, self-confident loner -- never left me.
As I approached my 16th birthday, I added to my working concept of what realization entailed. It included not just the image of the wise and quietly powerful loner (ala the fictional Ben Kenobi) but it also required a facility with trance.
To my mind, trance -- or samadhi -- became the hallmark of my understanding of realization. Contrary to my initial impression, though, not all masters -- I was learning -- presented the image of the wise, empowered loner. But they all, it seemed, had ready, conscious access to the Beyond.
As I became a disciple, more nuance was added. There were grades of trance, grades of exaltation I learned. While the experience of a trance of some kind during meditation might be personally transformative, it might not necessarily guarantee permanent access to such experiences.
So, realization wasn't just the experience of trance. Instead, it entailed some sense of permanence, some sense of free and easy access to the cosmic consciousness. Guru made this point more or less explicit.
In an uncomplicated (and seemingly contradictory) way, Guru introduced some more nuance into my developing sense of what realization was. In a general sense, Guru used simple metaphor, speaking of the "Golden Shore." The Center was a boat, Guru its captain, and the disciples its passengers. As long as we stayed in the boat -- i.e., never left the Center -- we would, one day, arrive at the Golden Shore of realization.
I didn't find such simple metaphors of practical use, but in some of his early talks and writings, Guru spoke of concepts like liberation, partial realization, full realization, partial avatars, and full avatars.
Whatever those words meant, they conveyed to me the idea that when it came to the "higher" stages of consciousness, there was a continuous spectrum leading from less awareness to more. In other words, despite the simple metaphor of relaxing in the Golden Boat to wake up only upon arrival at the Golden Shore, realization entailed a more organic process of unfolding consciousness.
By necessity, it seemed to me as a teenaged disciple, a seeker's growing sense of awareness would alert the seeker as he or she neared his or her goal. And despite the arbitrary labels -- partial realization versus full realization -- consciousness is not a linear function capable of being fixed with these types of rigid, mental signposts.
By the time I moved to New York as a young adult, my take on realization had been further refined by my introduction to Sri Ramakrishna and his small band of disciples.
My personal style as a spiritual loner -- the wise, self-confident individual inspired by Sri Yukteswar (the "real" Obi-Wan Kenobi) -- was bolstered by Ramakrishna's fiery exhortations to his disciples and the image of its result in the person of Swami Vivekananda.
The Gospel, however, conveyed something more subtle to my understanding of realization. If Sri Ramakrishna was not only realized but a full avatar to boot -- as I believed then and believe now -- then it was apparent that realization itself had far less purchase in the real world than I had previously thought.
As profound and exalted as Sri Ramakrishna's trance experiences were, they apparently had little positive effect on Thakur's ability to interact with the world outside a religious context. In fact, reading about his life from a distance, it's hard not to conclude that in a very real way he was weak and afraid of the world, just as five year old child might be.
Whatever realization gave to Sri Ramakrishna, it did not give him knowledge of the world. It did not give him the ability to read. It did not relieve him of a stutter. It did not give him the ability to earn his keep, look after his young wife, or manage his personal affairs. In short, realization seemingly gave Thakur conscious oneness with the Divine and the uncanny ability to talk and sing about that experience in a singularly unique way, but not much else.
As a young 20-something, my own experiences (humble as they were) seemed to confirm this idea (that an exalted spiritual state didn't necessarily translate into facility in any other fields of life).
So, by the time I left the Center, my concept of realization was already nuanced.
While I was personally attracted to the idea of the wise, quietly empowered spiritual loner (the Obi-Wan Kenobi model), I knew masters came in all shapes, sizes, and personalities. (Ever hear the apocryphal tales of Trailanga Swami?) And while a free and easy access to trance seemed to be a necessary attribute of realization, that exalted state said little to nothing about the individual master's accomplishments in any other field.
After leaving the Center, it would take another seven years before I experienced a reawakening and further refinement to my concept of realization.
Though the further refinements were made over the course of the following couple of years, in essence they came down to two basic ideas. First, that my concept of realization as a singular, static achievement was imprecise. Second, that a lifelong assumption of mine that there was necessarily some connection between my "outer" (objective) behavior or actions and my "inner" (subjective) experience of exaltedness was simply wrong.
On the first point, I credit Sri Aurobindo. I'd never read a book by Sri Aurobindo while in the Center, but I ate them up after my reawakening. It was Aurobindo's idea of the triple transformation (as I interpret it) that really affected my old concept of realization as a singular achievement.
Aurobindo identified three component parts to the human transformation: psychicazation, or the process by which the psychic being annexes the rest of the human psyche; universalization, or the process by which the individual begins to identify with the cosmic influences on the being; and supramentalization, or the process by which the transcendental consciousness takes root in the individual.
Importantly, Sri Aurobindo stresses that these three processes are independent of one another. While these processes may take place sequentially -- one after the other -- there's no hard and fast rule. In fact, they can take place simultaneously or in fits and starts.
This seemed important to me because it suggested -- and Aurobindo may have said as much -- that one may have solidified a direct link to the supramental or transcendental consciousness, as Sri Ramakrishna seemed to have done in our example above, but that alone didn't mean that one had complete psychic control of one's human nature. Realization wasn't just a matter of arriving at the Golden Shore.
It was more complicated than that.
On the second point -- that my actions didn't seem to bear on my subjective spiritual experiences -- I had my own life to show for it. I wasn't a celibate disciple; I drank, swore, got angry, spent my days studying "worldly" subjects, gave up meditating on Guru's picture. And yet, the psychic flame within continued grow and grow.
Again, I took surprising comfort in Sri Aurobindo's writings on this point, in particular his epic poem Savitri. Writing of Princess Savitri's father -- a king, and unknown to most, a sage -- Sri Aurobindo wrote the following lines, which I think underline this idea that there's no required connection between one's subjective consciousness and one's objective actions.
One and harmonious by the Maker's skill,
The human in him paced with the Divine.
His acts betrayed not the interior flame.
This forged the greatness of his front to Earth.
Apart he lived in his mind's solitude,
A demigod shaping the lives of men.
One soul's ambition lifted up the race;
A Power worked, but none knew whence it came.
He made great dreams a mold for coming things,
And cast his deeds like bronze to front the years.
His walk through time outstripped the human stride.
Lonely his days, and splendid like the Sun's.
I've grown to love this idea of the "interior flame" hidden from the sight of all others, of no outward appearance of "spirituality," of loneliness and inner splendor coexisting. And, of course, these particular lines appeal to my notion of the wise, self-confident loner.
Well, that's about it.
With the exception of one last component -- the neurological basis of spiritual experience -- this is where my understanding of realization stands. While conscious oneness with the Divine -- presumably through free and easy access to trance -- is the defining aspect of realization, as a practical matter that says little about the realized individual.
To my mind, realization does not mean -- necessarily -- that the realized individual has transformed the rest of his or her human psyche or organism.
That's the young Cambridge graduate, Indian revolutionary, and burgeoning yogi, Sri Aurobindo above.