Today is the birthday of Paramahansa Yogananda, the man responsible for bringing yoga to the West over 100 years ago. I found out about him more than 15 years ago when I lived in Southern California – and the Lake Shrine Gardens, which became part of his Self-Realization Fellowship in 1950, quickly became my favorite place to visit for reflection, meditation, prayer and guidance. It’s said that Yogananda meditated and prayed all over the grounds during the process of its development into what we see today. I can tell you from personal experience that a feeling of tranquility comes over me as soon as I step into the garden, and the meditation sessions I’ve had while visiting have been life changing.
One of the last times I visited the Lake Shrine Gardens, I purchased a copy of Autobiography of a Yogi, the book Yogananda wrote about his life and which was originally published in 1946. When I read this book for the first time in the early 2000s, I had vivid dreams at night about meeting gurus and great philosophers. In its pages I found guidance that allowed me to reconcile my Christian upbringing with my newfound spiritual beliefs and studies. I’m currently on my third or fourth reading of the book – it’s a wonderful way for me to wind down before going to sleep, and with each reading I gain new insights.
I don’t consider myself a devotee of Yogananda, but I am definitely a huge fan of his work. His words resonate with me and bring me peace and comfort when I read them. At the Lake Shrine Gardens, there is a small bas-relief near the entrance that says, “Many Paths, One Truth.” That one simple sentence has given me a foundation to show compassion to those who have different beliefs than I do. Because if they are choosing love – which is the truth that I try to live by – then we have something in common.
You can find out more about Yogananda and his life’s work here.
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Judaism has interested me for many years, probably due in large part to the fact that I was raised Seventh Day Adventist (SDA) and there’s a correlation between SDAs and Jews in how they observe the Sabbath (Friday sundown to Saturday sundown) and their dietary restrictions (SDAs encourage and promote vegetarianism, but those who do eat meat will typically shun pork and shellfish). When you grow up in a religious tradition that is a bit outside of the box, even among other evangelical Christian groups, it’s nice to feel understood in some small part by another religious group without having to go into long explanations. This is particularly handy when you talk to fellow Gen X’ers about why you are completely unfamiliar with Friday night TV shows and Saturday morning cartoons during the pre-VCR years.
I also had an English teacher at my SDA high school who was part Jewish and he had us read The Chosen by Chaim Potok, explaining to us about Jewish traditions and holidays. Momcat and I ended up reading all of Potok’s novels and she, too, was very interested in Judaism. Pops had a colleague whose father had been a rabbi, so she would ask him a bunch of questions about what services were like, the reasons for certain traditions (she particularly liked the use of stones on graves as a remembrance).
I think it’s all these things combined that make me very aware when the Jewish high holidays start. Tonight marks the first night of Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the Jewish new year. I spent this morning reading about Rosh Hashanah traditions: the blowing of the shofar, eating round challah with honey, eating apples with honey, eating part of a fish or ram’s head. Not sure I would be up for that last one, but I do like the symbolism behind it.
It’s the symbolism behind many Jewish traditions that I find the most fascinating. I don’t recall feeling like it was okay to use or wear symbols of my faith or spirituality while growing up SDA. There were baby dedications in church, and full immersion baptism once you’d studied with your pastor, but iconography and talismans weren’t used or encouraged. I don’t remember any other symbolic gestures or rituals, and in hindsight I think I needed those to help me connect to a higher power.
During this morning’s research on Rosh Hashanah, I learned about Tashlich. The basic premise, as I understand it, is to cast your sins into a body of water. After the Tashlich prayer is recited, you shake your clothes as if to shake off the sins.
But here’s what really spoke to me about this tradition (taken from Chabad.org):
The goal of Tashlich is to cast both our sins and the Heavenly prosecutor (a.k.a. the Satan) into the Heavenly sea. And when we shake our clothes after the Tashlich prayer, this is a tangible act to achieve the spiritual goal of shaking sins from our soul.
Needless to say, the physical motions near the water and fish of Tashlich are not what grant us atonement. But if we pay attention to the symbolism and apply the sincere desire to heal our relationship with G‑d as portrayed in the physical demonstrations of Tashlich, then it serves as a crucial part in the process of repenting and returning to G‑d in purity.
When I lived in Southern California, I often went to the beach to look out at the ocean and have a talk with the universe about what was bothering me. Seeing dark, deep water stretched out in front of me, with no land in sight, was symbolic to me of how vast the soul is, how there is so much going on beneath the surface that I cannot even begin to fathom, but that as I dive down into the depths of my being I can find those parts of myself that need healing, bring them to the surface, then release them back into the water. Going to the beach to process was a huge part of my spiritual growth.
What’s clear to me in this moment is that what I was doing was a form of Tashlich: casting my troubles into the deep sea, letting a higher power help me release them from my soul. I found the symbols I needed and in so doing, I found the spiritual connection and inner peace I craved. And now, every time I go to the ocean, whether the Atlantic or Pacific, I know I can find it again.
Shanah Tovah to my Jewish friends, followers and readers.