Monday, May 23, 2011


 E. Ethelbert Miller asks if Buddhism, Christianity, Islam or any spiritual tradition can help black men overcome the difficulty they have being good fathers. I don't need to recite the dire statistics. You know what he's talking about.
I'd like to angle in on this question by introducing E-Channel readers to the work of a man I have long admired and learned from, the late, great meditation teacher Eknath Easwaran. After a career as an English teacher in India, Eknath Easwaran came to America in 1959 on the Fulbright exchange program, and once he established himself in California he founded the Blue Mountain Center of Meditation in Berkeley in 1960. He was a remarkably prolific writer, one very literary and with a delicious sense of humor, as you might expect from a retired English professor. Like his hero Gandhi, Easwaran embraced and taught those things that are positive and valuable in all spiritual traditions. 
I began reading Easwaran's works in 1981, all his books and translations of Hindu classics, and every issue of his journal The Little Lamp (that was the pet name given to him in Kerala by his grandmother, Eknath Chippu Kunchi Ammal, whom Easwaran saw as his most important spiritual teacher). And I have long been in the habit of giving to friends and former students either interested in meditation or experiencing suffering his concise, compressed, 16-page pamphlet Instructions in Meditation (1972), available through a press he founded, Nilgiri Press. 

That little instruction manual summarizes the eight-point program for meditation and leading a spiritual life that we find in Easwaran's other books. I trust it completely. The first thing I came to realize when I became a father at 27-years-old in 1975, is that when you have a child you must cease being a child yourself. You must put aside childish things and childish ways, and this can be especially hard for some people in America's infantile, narcissistic "youth culture" that seems to trap so many people in prolonged adolescence. You must become a practicing grown-up because you have brought into the world a helpless, completely vulnerable life that depends on your care and unselfish devotion 24/7 for at least 18 years (but usually longer) until you empower him or her to become self-reliant. Parenting is the most important job any human being can have. And as someone once said, it does involve a" life-time sentence." Easwaran's Instructions in Meditation is an infallible guide for being such a parent and a grown-up.

           The eight points of his program are as follows:

1). Meditation. "Most of us have grasshopper minds dispersing our attention, energy, and desires in multitudinous directions, and depriving us of the power to draw deeper and richer resources for creative living," Easwaran writes. Meditation is the antidote for those characteristics of what Vivekananda famously called the ever agitated and out of control "monkey mind."

2). Japam. This is "repetition of the mantram or holy name." In Sanskrit, mantram  literally means "mind refuge," or "mind protection." Think of this in terms of how you've seen elephants swinging their trunks wildly until a mahout gives the elephant a stick to curl its trunk around. This always calms the elephant. The mind is like that and during times of emotional turmoil simply needs something to hold onto in order to steady itself. Japam is that stick and serves that purpose. (Just before I have to give a reading or a lecture, I always find myself silently doing japam as I sit listening to someone introduce me to an audience.)

3). Slow down. Easwaran quotes British poet John Donne when he says, "Be your own home and therein dwell. Let us find our center of gravity within ourselves by simplifying and slowing down our life."

4. Ekagratha. Or one-pointedness. "Everywhere in the modern world we see people splitting their attention in many ways." In Sanskrit, ekagratha is translated as eka which means "one" and gratha, meaning "to hold or grasp." Thus, concentration is a single-grasping by consciousness of an activity or object.

5. Sense Restraint. Easwaran writes, "Sense stimulation is the slogan of the network of mass media all around us. A Western historian goes to the extent of calling modern civilization a sensate one. Therefore we have to be extremely vigilant to ensure that we do not come under its tyranny...In order to train our senses we have to exercise discriminating restraint over the food we eat, the books we read, the movies we see, the music we listen to, and the places we frequent. Gandhiji was fond of pointing out that control of the palate helps in controlling the mind."

6. Putting Others First. To answer the question put to me today, I would like to quote at length what Easwaran says about putting others first:
"Our emphasis on the family context is because it gives us countless opportunities every day for expanding our consciousness by reducing our self-will or separateness. When we are dwelling on ourselves we are constricting our consciousness. To the extent that we put the welfare of others first, we are able to break out of the prison of our own separateness.
"This need not mean following the wishes of the other person always, but when it seems necessary to differ, it must be done tenderly and without the slightest trace of resentment or retaliation."

7. Reading the Scriptures. "We need to benefit from all the sources of inspiration we can find and the sacred scriptures of all religions should come first on our list."

8. Satsang. "Association with spiritually oriented people. We need companionship and support when we are changing the very basis of our life by changing our old ways."
Most of us are house-holders, not monks. We are the laity and have not renounced the world by entering the monastery (yet). By following Easwaran's Instructions in Meditation, we all can be better fathers, mothers, sons and daughters, students and teachers, employees and employers. The context of the family, and fatherhood (or motherhood), are fertile ground for daily spiritual practice and refining our ability to give generously and unselfishly.

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