29 Aug '11
The Shared Origins of Modern Yoga and Unity Church, A Sermon given at Unity Church, Berkeley, AUGUST 2011Posted in Blog by Eric Shaw
A transcription of a sermon given at Unity Church, Berkeley, Sunday, August 29, 2011
You’ve asked me to speak on the common roots of the Unity Church and Yoga. This puts me in front of a church congregation and it’s comfortable for me. Like one of your founders, Myrtle Fillmore, I was the son of Methodists. My Mom and Dad were both ministers and I grew up watching them do what I’m doing now.
Your Sunday “Word of the Day” is “comfort.” This is appropriate because the early Hindus focused on this.
Their first scriptures, the Vedas, are all about how to gain comfort in the world—how to gain wealth, offspring—and cows! How to create rituals to get the Gods to behave—to get them to work in the people’s favor. Ritual was a huge, huge focus for them–a very precise Fire Ritual with many mantras. They called it the Agni Hotra.
These ancient Indians were not living in crisis. The world was abundant and they were “at one” with it. They lived in what historians of psychology call “Dream Time.” We know this way of thinking if we have read the Iliad or the Odyssey.
People had challenges; their consciousness was concerned with the universe, but they weren’t troubled with it. Humans knew their place in Creation.
Like the Unity Church, they were using focus, and concentration, and ritual to manage their world. They were often in awe and often in mystery. But the world was a friendly place.
That changed in India’s “Axial Age” –around five centuries before the birth of Christ, when Confucius was teaching in China, Socrates was active in Greece, and the Buddha was teaching in India. This is when the Yoga arose–as a response to Buddhism and other social developments.
Yoga, Buddhism and their sister philosophies dealt with a new discomfort in the world. Humans had lost a sense of place. They tried to analyze life as a problem, and it gave us tools like meditation, mantra-repetition and withdraw of the senses—something like what we did a moment ago when we did mediation—these things were used as tools for attaining a the higher mind—to reconnect.
This was the birth of yoga.
Yoga means union. Union with the highest–like your Church’s name, “Unity.” It meant other things, too. But this was an important meaning.
You all know the term Tantra, right? Here in America, we relate it to sexual practices. That’s because Tantra in India, when it arose around 700 of the Common Era (after Christ) affirmed the body in a new way—unlike Axial Age yoga. First, around the time of Christ, devotional cults arose and new myths about the embodiment of the Gods were shared between people. This allowed Indians to see that the Gods at play on Earth. They suspected that maybe even people could be gods on Earth! And that human bodies could be divine! We all could be divine! This was a radical concept, an optimistic concept.
It gave people a new platform for exploring Religion—for connecting to the Universe. It connected people to their bodies. The body was where the new ritual for connection happened.
Tantra refined this view of divine bodies. It was a Goddess-religion, and Goddess religions—like the despised “Mammon” in the Bible (think “mammary”–breast–woman) affirm Creation in its physicalness..
This is true of pagan, Goddess-focused, cults, too, worldwide.
Tantra said that you, the Jiva—all of you just as you are—you are divine. Here we see a foreshadowing of the very American view of our individuality being a gift to the universe. In America we think that anyone can be Mozart, Einstein or Elizabeth Cady Stanton! Tantra wasn’t quite that, but it was a foreshadowing of it. Jivanmukta became the new ideal, “Freedom in this Lifetime.” You—”just as you are”—could become a God! Actually, you are already god embodied, but you don’t know it!
This is very much like the American Philosophy called New Thought which birthed the Unity Church. Almost all the initiators of New Thought had health problems. The founder of Christian Science, Mary Baker Eddy, struggled for decades with her sickness and she studied under Phineas Parkhurst Quimby a physician in the 1860s who created what was later called “Mind-Cure.”
These folks posited that the body was holy, that sickness was the result of it becoming unholy and that—like Jesus—they could heal others by their touch or the Word of God. The message was: “We on Earth are divine—Just as We Are.” They said sickness is the delusion that we aren’t divine—we are faulty, not whole—and anybody can change that.
This idea was almost Indian in its quality.
New Thought and allied ideas were all abuzz in Boston where Swami Vivekananda arrived in 1893. Now Vivekananda was a unique bird. He was a Western and an Eastern man in one. He was the very best of both. And he became the first religious superstar to be crowned by the New Media of the time—its newspapers and magazines. Like Gandhi, or Martin Luther King or Jerry Falwell—Vivekananda was a celebrated religionist, and after he shook the country in his talks at the Parliament of World Religions in Chicago, he toured the country. He spoke in 42 cities before leaving America in 1896 and he brought yoga to America. He planted it here before he left.
You said that this church was inaugurated on Sept 11th , 2001, and you were looking forward to celebrating it (despite everything!). Sept 11th, of course changed the world. Vivekananda also changed the world on September 11–in 1893. That’s exactly 108 years before our 9/11—and 108 is a very holy number in Hinduism. He began his speech then with the phrase, “Brothers and Sisters of America!” and it rocked the house. Everybody—5000 people—stood up clapping. He rang in what has since been called The New Age. It was new conversation about the divine and who we area as humans—in both East and West. Vivekananda changed the world.
How did he do that? And what has that got to do with Unity?
First we have to understand that Vivekananda was of the elite—just like the people who created these new American philosophies in the 1890s when he got here—these new American religions of which you are a part.
Vivekananda was of the elite of Calcutta, and Calcutta was the Boston of India—it was its new intellectual center because Britain’s Administrative capitol was there. Calcutta contained the “Harvard” and “Yale” of India—Presidency College and Scottish Church College—and Vivekananda went to both of these. People called him an intellectual genius and these were Westernized schools.
He knew the West and he was a very brave and free-thinking man and he got the touch of a Guru; Ramakrishna Paramahansa was the first Hindu Saint of the modern age and Vivekananda was his special chela—his student. Ramakrishna gave him his “touch.” He transferred spiritual power to him, he gave him an experience we call shaktipat–“the descent of power.” He gave his personal power, his own alignment with the universe, his dharma. He woke up Vivekananda spiritually through this process. He transformed him.
New Thought was an elite movement, too, and Vivekananda traveled in New Thought circles. He understood their ideas. The great Pragmatist William James was his friend and he’d digested the writings of Emerson. These were both men of the Ivy league and Boston elite.
In our day, no one wants to claim the elite mantle. It makes you a target, because it’s identified with oppression and social superiority—not service. Someone said, “Jesus was an aristocrat.” Now we have reverse-elitism where we are all parading our credentials as victims or out-liers or people who’ve somehow been ignored or put down. We have upper-class prejudice—and it puts you in a box even if you point this out.
But, human life is about evolution—we are all striving to get better and we are becoming better. We are increasing our personal gifts. This is part of a full life. Our attainments make us full and we give back. There is nothing to hide. It’s a poverty of mind to fault folks for achieving things. “Don’t put your light under a bushel” Jesus said; don’t pretend you are lesser-than. There is no need to cut yourself down so you can get some kind of chit from the Politically Correct society.
Elite people are leaders—by definition. The people in Boston who started these avant garde religions and philosophies were members of an intellectual and economic elite. They had taken risks and accomplished things. Left-wing politics champions the poor, but left-wing Christianity has also been an elite movement. The Unitarians—who gave us the Unitarian ministers Ralph Waldo Emerson and William Ellery Channing (who I’ll say more about in a minute)—took over Harvard University in 1905 when Henry Ware became president. The Unitarians subsequently sent these very smart men and some powerful women to India. They were all of the upper classes; they were Unitarian missionaries.
They helped birth the Brahmo Samaj—a group of elite, Westernized Indians who wanted to reform their nation. Vivekananda was one of these and he studied under a man named Kesub Chandra Sen who was very dashing. These days we would call him “telegenic.” He was smart and handsome and courageous. He had new Western-Eastern ideas and Vivekananda learned from him. He created rights for women and spread education and reformed Hinduism. He worked to help his country rise. Vivekananda learned from him how to speak boldly. He learned PR—how to use the New Media—and how to use new ideas.
When this telegenic swami, Vivekananda, came West, he was compared to Napoleon, and he would play it up by crossing his arms and looking around disdainfully, or putting his right hand in his shirtfront, like Napoleon did–for the newspaper cameras. He was dashing and a man of conscience, like Sen. He was forward-looking and his effort, courage and poise pulled people in.
We must understand why there are two kinds of religion in America, Fundamentalist, which hearkens tothe past or an apocalyptic future, and Liberal, which looks at today and is Utopian–it things the future will be better. There are those who have embraced the world and who see “God at work in History”—an idea of Hegel’s that was developed by Marx. Fundamentalist Religion was fostered in the South where there was slavery. They could not take the message of Christ to its logical conclusion. They couldn’t embrace the fact that we all get God’s grace and that each of us is equal in God’s eyes, hence each of us can rise and improve.
They were blinded because they held slaves. The forward-looking Christians evolved doctrines called “The Social Gospel” and “Self-Culture” (self-improvement). People like William Ellery Channing–whom I mentioned—and others like Walter Rauschenbusch–who influenced Martin Luther King–wrote on the “Social Gospel.” they said that we are responsible for each another—all of us, we’re all God’s children. We are all brothers and sisters, equal under God. Channing said we all can become “like God.” He was called a heathen for this, but what he said was almost Tantric.
Slavery prevented the Southerners from embracing this. They had to look backwards—even to parts of the Bible that affirmed slavery, because they freaked when people like Channing started talking about human potential. They couldn’t see Africans as “equal under God,” or care for them, because it would destroy their society. It would destroy their inner psychology and understanding that they were elite over Blacks. Their elitism had no proper obligation in it, no knowledge that they had to give back. Open spirituality and open thought would destroy their closed-up society. The South could not operate in the light of day.
If you read Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by the famous escaped slave who became a Boston anti-slave leader, he said the devoutest Christians were his cruelest slave-owners. They had to work overtime to deny their conscience.
Your Latin phrase for the day that John read earlier was mens sana in corpore sano – “a sound mind in a sound body.”
Vivekananda was proud of his body. He brought yoga to America in a time when fitness was all the rage and he was surrounded by these Bostonians—many of whom became his benefactors—who were doing something called “Harmonial Gymnastics”—blending New Thought and Mind-Cure with exercise programs to help people. His ideas were taken up by them, and some, like William Walker Atkinson—started to call their Harmonial Gymnastics “yoga”—while Genevieve Stebbins did yoga-influenced stuff and called it Harmonial Gymnastics!
This was part of a huge cross-fertilization, a huge cross-cultural conversation that had roots clear back with the liberal missionaries.
Unity’s creators: Charles and Mytle Fillmore created their ideas at the time. Of course, Charles was debilitated by a childhood hip injury and Myrtle had tuberculosis. Both were cured by studying with a disciple of Mary Baker Eddy, but they couldn’t use the Christian Science label for what they decided to teach. And so they developed the Unity Church and Unity ideas.
This is Berkeley, California! We live where New Age is standard culture. Calfronia is the “birthplace of all thins new.” Is anybody here going to Burning Man? It starts tomorrow and many people are leaving today. It is a celebration of our creative power—an exposition of a possibility that has changed the entire modern philosophy of art and it is an experimental community where a lot is happening just like the yoga community where I am centered.
But I also think we are spinning our wheels--making great things out in the desert, feeling good in yoga. The forward-looking element in our culture is still very much silenced. We who believe in the goodness of our world and the goodness of ourselves are quiet. When Progress fails, people hole up, people get scared and they go away. They go away to the desert or they go away to inner, mystic states, or they go back to the past, like Fundamentalists. These are all escapes. They are all dodges of the problem.
We have a problem, people. It is a survival problem—the kind of problem that is juicy, provocative, lovely, powerful, life-threatening, inspiring. We are facing the biggest crisis of Machine Age culture. Power that makes CO2 gases is probably to going to kill millions or billions of people in the next hundred years. It will strongly diminish and possibly destroy civilization. It’s a big problem and it’s shapeless somehow, it has no human face. We can’t hate it like we used to hate Russians or now the Muslims.
Do you remember when we tried to solve it? We had the gas crisis of the early 70’s, the failed helicopter raids to save the Iranian hostages in ‘79, and finally the Berlin Wall fell in ’89—these things changed us. Do you remember that time, you older people out there? First, we realized our vast technological society was vulnerable, then we learned we weren’t invincible militarily, and then we learned we no longer had a life-threatening human enemy! We lost “reasons to be.”
Did we look for new challenges? Did we look at the real challenge? Jimmy Carter tried to change Energy policy in this country. It was the “The Moral Equivalent of War,” he said. He was serious about our oil dependence. You! Fellow Old Folks! Do you remember that?
What happened then? Did we go toward the problem? No. We chose to a dream weaver president. We all went into a dream. Reagan talked of a “Shining City on a Hill” but he dismantled our means to get there. This was all old thinking, a dream. Even Clinton coddled us. He did very little.
The snake is still in the back room folks, the black liquid still boils in our veins. Coal still blackens skies.
My parents were Methodist Ministers. I grew up hearing my mother and father preach a Social Gospel. I grew up reading about Martin Luther King and the Berrigan Brothers—Catholic Priests who poured blood on draft files during the Vietnam War—and hearing about William Sloane Coffin, the Chaplain of Yale who was tossed in jail and tossed out of pulpits when he marched against the war or stood for Gay Rights.
If I can do anything from this legacy, it is to preach to you today as forward-looking people, as ones who have embraced this Earth and the notion that we are all God’s children. I need to say to you, “Get Busy!”
The Bible has good sayings of a past culture. It is an old elite text, and it can be used to put people down and advance narrow ideas, or it can open us. Proverbs 29:18 says, “Without a vision, the people perish.” The Bible gives us images of societies and peoples who used God’s power to become better, to improve, to follow Life, to be Real. The Bible can guide us to face reality. Here, it says, “Have a Vision!” Be changed by your vision and dance with History, dance with society and learn to live. Let God, the highest, the potentiality–our true self–guide us.
We have a great tradition. It is a tradition of hope.
Obama doesn’t talk about hope anymore, does he?
If he’s lost it, but we must let him go. We must move past him. We are the Ones.
We must elevate the conversation—again!
We can’t run away, we can’t go inward, we can’t go backward. It’s a change-the-world moment. We must go outward– to struggle toward comfort of conscience.
Revolutions are happening all over the world and we can join them.
Unity has calls itself “A Religion for Adults.” I charge you to be adults. To care for this world. To take responsibility. We evolve or go home! We can make bridge to a New World, as Swami Vivekananda did. It is time to choose newness. It is time to let something go. In a couple weeks it will be ten years since 9/11–on this Church’s 10th birthday. It’s a good time to let the fear of that day go. It is a good day to plunge madly, happily forward. To be new. To wrestle with the hardest things and have a good time doing it.
Thank you for letting me address you. My blessings to you. Go out! Do the good work of good people! Amen. Amen. Amen.