In The Second Of Our Series Of Discussions On Thes Tate Of Consecrated Life In Canada, Michelle Rebidoux, A Visiting Professor In The Religious Studies Department At Memorial University, And Convivium Publisher Peter Stockland Talk About The Sri Chinmoy Movement'S Emphasis On Discipline,Service And God'S Unifying Spiritual Light
Peter Stockland:You've been part of the Sri Chinmoy community for many years. Do you live in a monastic setting or do you live on your own within the community?
Michelle Rebidoux: In larger centres, [the community has] rented spaces where everybody meets and there are also houses where a number of people actually live together. I live in St. John's, where it's a very small group; there are only four of us here, so we all just have our own apartments. We meet in my apartment for our weekly meditation. We don't really have the funds to rent a larger space.
PS: You keep the community going, but people live out what we would call their vocations on a daily basis and then come for sessions. You mentioned that there are nine centres across the country. Would most of them be what you're talking about in St. John's, where they would be living rooms or houses? Or would they actually be physical monastic centres?
MR: In Victoria, for example, there's a house that is owned, and it is the centre. There are also some people from the centre who live upstairs there.
It's a monastic setting in the sense that… this was raised in the conference as well, the issue of the word monastic. Strictly speaking, the word monastic means alone. If you want to really be strict about it, it only applies to the eremitic tradition, which is the hermit. Of course, it gets used for anybody living in a monastery setting with the assumption that there's some kind of withdrawal from the world.
Strictly speaking, we're not monastic. We have traditional observances such as celibacy, though we don't take formal vows. It's understood that this is a commitment. If you want to be in this group, this is one of the commitments that you have to observe. Other observances are a vegetarian diet and refraining from drugs and alcohol.
These are the basic observances. People who live in [the community] houses generally either have jobs out in the world or, if they're older, some of them are retired already.
In all of the groups across Canada, the idea is that we do work out in the world. We have our own jobs out in the world. As much as we can, we do humanitarian service. Some of the centres have businesses that help to support centre activities. Many of the members of the group will work at the businesses. These are always businesses that try to reflect the centre's values, so vegetarian restaurants, spiritual bookstores, things like this.
PS: Your community is also very involved in sponsoring marathons. I would think many members would own running shoe stores or work at the Running Room or something like that. [Laughter.]
MR: Among the Canadian centres, there aren't any such stores, but there's a very large sporting goods store run by the centre in London, England, called Run and Become.
PS: I wonder if it'll ever come here and give the Running Room a run for its money? How do people actually become part of the Sri Chinmoy movement? What's the entrance point? Do they simply start showing up at meetings at the invitation of a friend? Do they have to go through a formal process? Are there entrance requirements?
MR: Generally people come through the meditation workshops. One of the public services that we offer is free meditation workshops. One of the things Sri Chinmoy said is that the inner truth is everyone's birthright. He always insisted on that. He never charged for his teaching. He always insisted that whenever we gave meditation workshops, it was a public service, a free offering.
Something we talk about at the meditation workshops is that, ultimately, meditation is a very intimate thing. It's very personal. You have to really find your own technique or method. Ultimately, the realization you have will be, in a sense, the same realization that everybody else has, but it will also be very unique because it's an expression of your own soul. What we do at the meditation workshops is allow people to explore various techniques. We'll walk them through visualization exercises, through mantras, singing or silence, various techniques. They can find one that works for them.
Through further practice of meditation, they'll even discover other methods that work for them. This is what we do. Usually the meditation workshops last twice a week for four weeks. At the end of the four weeks, they can make a decision if they want to join the group or not; of course, there's no pressure. It's a completely open invitation. Some people join because, for whatever reason, they have become disillusioned with the religion in which they grew up. They are looking for an alternative.
In many other cases, people who come actually are still practising members of their own religion but are just interested in the spiritual meditation practices that we do. They find that their own meditation practice is supported by group practice.
We really are non-denominational. There is the underlying theology of what is called the “Integral Yoga,” based in the Indian Vedanta and yoga traditions, which Sri Chinmoy brought to the West from the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, where he spent 20 years. But the explicit teaching of it was never what he emphasized.
He never, of course, rejected it. He just didn't focus on it. I wouldn't want to say that he was a theologian in the strong sense of the term. His teaching assumed the theology as an underpinning. But he was more practical in orientation. One of the things that he said was, “No matter what religion you belong to, meditation is important.”
People who join are usually not looking for another religion. They're looking for some kind of spiritual dimension, which was either lacking because they weren't practising or they weren't finding it in the religion they were practising.
That's not to say that dimension isn't there in those religions, but for whatever reason they didn't have access to it in their own environment.
PS: There's a great book I'm very fond of called The Ground We Share. It's a discussion between David SteindlRast, who is a Benedictine, and Zen master Robert Aitken. They talk about Practice, capital P, and then practices, small p, within that Practice. The idea is, and it sounds like this is what you were talking about, that we may have different faith practices, but we incorporate them into a large Practice, which is the direction of the mind and the body outward to God. Does that sound like something you're working toward?
MR: Yes, I would say that's exactly what we're working toward. If anybody asked Sri Chinmoy, 'What's your religion?' he would always say, 'My love of God is my only religion.' Of course, in a Buddhist context, where there is no God in that sense, that has to be interpreted in a different way. In a Buddhist context, Sri Chinmoy would refer to God as 'Truth.' He often said that God can be understood as both personal and impersonal.
Sri Chinmoy used to talk about it in terms of self-transcendence: always opening yourself to that which is beyond. That which you open yourself to is ultimately your own higher self. You have to see that in the world. You have to see it in other people as well.
It ends up not being just selfish though: 'Oh, I'm seeking my higher self.' The higher self is actually the universal self. Therefore, when you achieve a larger understanding of who you are, you also are immediately put into a relationship of oneness with everybody else.
PS: Is it too limiting to describe the theology – again, using that word in a very broad way – as a variant of Hinduism? Has it moved to a point where it is itself, not a variant of any other dominant theology?
MR: I wouldn't say, first of all, a variant of Hinduism. Hinduism itself is so completely broad. You'd have to talk about Hinduisms. There's no doubt that the way in which Sri Aurobindo articulated the Integral Yoga, it has roots in the Vedanta tradition and the yoga traditions.
He brought it further in the sense that he combined that with an evolutionary framework. He was educated in England. One of his critiques of the classical Indian tradition generally was that it really was world renouncing. It had enormous contributions toward spiritual realization. It really did nothing for materiality.
He said that's important, too. It's important that we manifest the spiritual consciousness on Earth. Within an evolutionary framework, you have to bring in that material dynamism at the same time.
PS: You express that as, I loved the phrase, practical service – service and devotion more than knowledge and wisdom or knowledge and vision. Is that what you mean: that there has to be an actual outward sign or an outward manifestation of what it is that you're doing?
MR: Yes, an outward manifestation. As I said, Sri Aurobindo definitely had the whole vision. Sri Chinmoy, when he came to the West, didn't, as I've said many times, deny Sri Aurobindo's vision in terms of the theology. It's just that that was not where his focus was in the teaching. His focus in the teaching was on practical service and devotion. It was first of all an attempt to help manifest a higher consciousness on Earth in the material world, through service to others. Of course, all of this depends on changing one's self from within first.
It's not just service to others. He would want to say, and I've heard him say before, that service to others isn't really worth anything, ultimately, unless you change yourself within first. In fact you can't even be of service to others until you've changed yourself within. It's not service to others at the expense of one's own growth. One's own growth inevitably spills over into service to others.
PS: You talked about an epistemological transformation. What's the epistemology that's being changed? Is it counting service as a form of knowledge? How I know myself is how I serve others?
MR: In a sense. It would start, first of all, with the breaking down of the ego. Another thing Sri Chinmoy always talked about was understanding yourself as an instrument of the higher power, ultimately an instrument of God.
The epistemological change would involve how one comes to view one's own self in terms of having no ego and therefore serving others is literally being worked through by God, allowing oneself to become an instrument for God. Also, when you're serving others, who are you serving?
Really, you're serving the God in others. It's when you have that double change that you're starting to see yourself as a mere instrument of God. Also, when you're serving others, you're serving the God in others. That's where you could say the outer illusion of the divisions, the ego divisions, start to get thin and eventually just fall apart. You can see this light breaking through the surface, which is the unifying light that brings everybody together.
PS: In a Catholic or Christian context, Mother Teresa used to describe it as seeing Christ in the distressing disguise of the poor. When you see the face of someone in poverty, you're seeing the face of Christ.
It sounds to me like there's a very similar idea, even though that might not be the language that would be used. In the streets of Calcutta, when you see a person living under a piece of cardboard on a sidewalk, you're actually seeing the face of Christ. Does that sound parallel to what you're talking about?
MR: Yes. That would be exactly parallel. There's a wonderful quote by Thomas Merton. He had this famous experience when he was in Louisville one day. He was on the corner of Fourth and Walnut streets. All of a sudden, he started to see a little kernel of light shining in every single person he saw on the street. It just kept expanding and expanding until the light [within everyone] merged. The light in each person just expanded to the point where all the light merged and he could see the unity among all of them.
That kind of… it's Christ, it's God, it's… Sri Chinmoy would often use terms like peace or love or light. God is peace, God is love, God is light, or whatever words you want to use. It's the experience of that.
PS: I also love what you said about having to discipline the body to be a fit instrument for God. That actually has a very Catholic ring to it as well. [Laughter.] Can you tell me a little bit about what's behind some of the running events, the marathons. I believe the community hosts an ultra-marathon called the 3,100 mile self-transcendence race? That's a long way to go for self-transcendence.
MR: Yes, it is. [Laughter.]
PS: Have you ever done that particular race?
MR: Oh, no. I haven't done that one. I'm in pretty good shape, but that requires somebody who's trained very seriously.
PS: Do you run marathons?
MR: I did. I haven't lately because I haven't had much time. I'm teaching full-time at the university here. I've gotten out of the training.
The emphasis on fitness supports the goal of the manifestation of the higher consciousness. The idea is that the higher consciousness is a very high vibration. It's a very bright and powerful vibration. The goal really is not, so to speak, to enter into states of meditation and go up, as it were, into higher states of mind where you could, ultimately, say, leave the body.
That's not the goal. The goal is to actually bring that consciousness or receive that consciousness down into the body. It's not a world-renouncing, leaving-the-body experience. It's bringing that consciousness down and using that to actually transform the body and transform this world.
It's very powerful. It's a very substantial vibration that you're bringing down. The body needs to really be in very good shape to be able to sustain the intensity of that vibration. Fitness is definitely necessary.
This goes along with Sri Chinmoy's philosophy of self-transcendence, the very idea of bringing this consciousness down into the body and using it to transform the material existence on Earth. To hear that said, some people might say, 'Oh, that's just dreaming.'
What's holding people back is really, ultimately, fear. In fact, I remember a wonderful quote by Nelson Mandela, who said that our greatest fear is not a fear of failure. Our greatest fear is the fear that we are infinitely powerful and that we can achieve amazing things beyond our imagination.
That's what we ultimately fear, the fact that if we really have the divine within us in some way, then we can manifest miraculous things. We're afraid of that. That's part of the process of purification as well. Purifying oneself is learning how to use that power in the proper way, not for egoistic purposes.
These incredible races, 3,100 miles or ultra-marathons, are partly a way of training oneself to overcome one's own perceived limits. People say, 'Oh, no one can run that.' But they do. [Laughs.]
People who have never run marathons before may think, 'Oh, I could never run a marathon.' But they train and they do. The emphasis on sports is not only to keep the body fit but also to show others that limits are really something that's in the mind because of fear.
It's part of the way of transforming the emotional centres within the human being. Fear is the one thing that really holds us back.
PS: There's actually a lot of work being done around distance running and the way the mind interferes with what the body can do.
We always think, 'Oh, well, you've only got so much glycogen or you've only got so much energy in your legs or the rest of your body.' Actually, evidence suggests it's the brain that kicks in and inhibits us. It's a protective factor. The brain begins to think it's protecting the body from injury. But if it can be convinced otherwise, you can actually go much farther than you believe.
There's actually a practical, empirical, demonstrable dimension to exactly what you're saying. Discipline really does make the difference.
MR: I can just speak for our own group. It's extremely disciplined. I have to say Sri Chinmoy was quite strict about, as it were, the rules, the celibacy, the rigour of observance, the rigour of practice, the rigour of service. Whenever you feel like you have restless energy, what's the best way to spend it? Go shopping, or seek some enjoyment in consumer culture or something like that? Physical fitness can be a great outlet for spending restless energy.
PS: The discipline sustained. At the opening of your talk, you noted you were the only one presenting at the conference who was outside a Christian or specifically Buddhist tradition. I'm wondering, how did that feel at the conference? How does that feel on a regular basis, where you don't fit into neat categories that most of us have about what faith is supposed to be or what religious belief is supposed to be?
MR: I don't have any problem with that at all. I teach religious studies at Memorial University. I'm familiar with all the world religions. I've even gone on retreats at the Cistercian monastery in Rogersville, New Brunswick.
I've given talks there. I know some Buddhist groups as well. I'm familiar with the spiritual dimensions of other traditions. I teach a class in Christian mysticism at the university. I never feel out of place. I always feel quite at home, even when I'm among people from other traditions. I'm familiar with those traditions.
When Sri Chinmoy was here, he was very, very active in interfaith dialogue. He would always be having visits from other religious leaders. He was invited to give the opening meditation at the 2004 Parliament of the World's Religions in Barcelona. He gave a silent meditation. He moved very comfortably in an interfaith world. He always said, as I mentioned before, 'My love of God is my only religion.'
I never feel as though I'm out of place no matter where I am in terms of any religion. I always feel as though I want to celebrate the deep, rich, spiritual, self-giving, beautiful dimensions, notwithstanding all the problems that every tradition has. I didn't mind at all that I was the only one.