Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Business of Spiritual Consumerism and the Search for Inner Peace

[ ] The Transcended Christian: Spiritual Lessons for the Twenty-First Century
by Daniel A. Helminiak [Alyson Books]
[ ] Peace is Possible: The Life and Message of Prem Rawat
by Andrea Cagan [Mighty River Press]
[ ] Awakening Into Oneness: The Power of Blessing in the Evolution of Consciousness
Arjuna Ardagh [Sounds True]

A PUZZLED illumination of a smile painted across his pale face, a traveling sage from southwest of Punjab cautiously gleaned over a mesmerized throng of mostly middle-aged individuals in a suburban Monroe NC talk one winter’s morning.

“You are very privileged children of God,” he softly assured the group. “You have almost all of the blessings that we pray for in our country…” Before he continued, he closed his eyes—then, a deafening thirty-second pause ensued. The crowd was even more enthralled… Then, with a voice that was so meek yet so sure, the sage spoke closer to the microphone. “But why are you so unhappy?”
Blank silence enveloped the hall. This, after the 50 or so attendees to the $265, 6-hour “spiritual convergence” each narrated their reason for coming over. Divorcees, cancer survivors, rehab grads, ex-drug addicts, starry-eyed students, AA survivors, housewives, bejeweled matrons, hippies on tie-dyes, hipsters on cellphones—they all gathered to find solution to misery and isolation that they couldn’t really understand, seeking inner peace that they couldn’t define or describe without being swallowed by a mix of embarrassed reluctance and uncontained emotion.
A long time ago, according to Daniel A. Helminiak in his new book, “The Transcended Christian: Spiritual Lessons for the Twenty-First Century”: “Religions used to hold communities together, religion now splinters our world apart. What used to be the solution has become a problem for many of us.”
Truth is, communities still do gather together—but not because of “religion.” We gather not really to worship or pay respects to traditional faiths or a Divine Image – but we converge to find, explore, or invent a “religion” that fits the convenience, comfort and accessibility of a fast-paced, rational consumerist existence.
Traditional (eg. “primitive”) religions have been essentially consigned to oblivion and indifference—in favor of “spiritual” denominations that wittingly or unwittingly combine god/idol exaltation and nature-worship with new age ideals and high-technology justifications. The Yoga Teacher becomes The Priest depending on what the market (“breathrens”?) demand; the Shaman mutates into a self-proclaimed “Reverend” by virtue of a summer’s odyssey in India; the mountain ascetic is now the neighborhood Martial Arts instructor and vegan restaurant chef. The Church turns into a Spiritual Retreat – either in a 50-acre lot bedecked with organic gardens and “peaceful vibes” or an air-conditioned suite in a downtown condo (distilled water and green tea are free after a $5 suggested donation). “Unfortunately, Yoga teachers, priests, politicians, and police are human too,” says Paul Jerard, co-owner and director of Aura Wellness Center, in North Providence, RI.
“There are many caring Yoga teachers who spend time working with seniors, fibromyalgia groups, alzheimer patients, and many more people in need,” continues the much sought-after Yoga teacher. “They don’t get front page billing on Yoga magazines or Time Magazine, for their efforts, but they do get gratification.”Such as good money and a thriving day job.
“Spiritual gatherings,” “shamanic seminars,” – all mostly tied-up to/with Yoga discipline, “healthy, clean living” (vegan/vegetarian/organic produce diet), and physical fitness – have attracted the masses out of the Church. For instance, Yoga—a 5,000-year-old discipline from India—is so mainstream USA that companies including Ford Motor, Pfizer and Clairol are pursuing millionaire yogis with advertisements for the first time in Yoga Journal, the community’s leading magazine.
Consider these. sells 17 yoga DVDs, while yoga teachers – like rock stars and big-name athletes – for the first time are endorsing consumer products. “Yoga superstar” Rodney Yee, for one, pitches Vitasoy milk and tofu, and is featured in 26 yoga videos and DVDs.
Yoga vacations are also going strong. The Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in Lenox, Mass., claims to be the nation’s biggest yoga retreat center with room for 450 people. It expects guest stays to be up 12% to 18% next year from this year, which is running about 10% ahead of last year. Typical cost of a five-day yoga stay: $615 to about $1,200 depending on dormitory or luxury room.
It is in this context (and current reality) where Helminiak’s book—and Arjuna Ardagh’s “Awakening Into Oneness: The Power of Blessing in the Evolution of Consciousness” and Andrea Cagan’s “Peace is Possible: The Life and Message of Prem Rawat”—become urgent and utmost reading.While these three books – written by a Catholic priest, a well-traveled and wealthy “spiritual scholar,” and inspired by a Maharaji – fall short of directly disputing (or justifying) blatant consumerism in traditional worship, these offer us enlightening arguments and inspiring/consciousness-awakening words of wisdom that help us go through, or work around, the current “confusion.”

YOGA ENTREPRENEUR Jerard ushers a rationale that is hard to contend: “Yes, everything in this world is business, to some degree, but ethical business practice is much different from greed. Some thriving Yoga businesses actually contribute to many charities, help the community, and spread the word of living a quality life.”

“Ethical business,” which is clearly rooted to physical/material gain, is apparently beyond what both Helminiak and Maharaji Prem Rawat exalt as “the nature or man.” Says Prem Rawat, “I believe the worst evils of the 21st century are the same as they have always been—not being able to understand one’s self, not being able to understand what we are all about. Those become the worst evils because they cause us to distance ourselves from our true nature.”
What I witnessed in the $265/6-hr Monroe NC “spiritual convergence” articulates the point. In the outset, we see well-heeled citizens on Prada, Russian Broadtail coat, and Forzieri earrings, who could easily score a $199 leather yoga mat and $55 “Zen flare” biking pants—but couldn’t find the right word to express their funk. “I seemed like I had everything,” recalls ex-country star Tanya Tucker on Good Morning, America, “but I couldn’t understand why I was depressed.”
Helminiak—a Catholic priest, theologian, psychologist, and author of the best-selling “What the Bible Really Says about Homosexuality”—presents essays that “take the experience of alienated Christians as a paradigm of the current religious crisis: religious people ousted by their church claim that they are the true prophets of the day.”
The book discusses similar cases most “spiritual retreats” and yoga courses vow to address: divorced people ostracized by their religion, youths torn between sexual adventurism and physical intimacy, “women seeking ordination in the churches and equality in society,” educated, matured and devout believers who still seek a “deeper spirituality” thereby questioning traditional doctrines and ethics.
What I find illuminating in Helminiak’s book is its discourse on the “spiritual equivalence of Western and Eastern religions” and “the “moral bankruptcy of consumerist capitalism, the religious requirement for political activism.” It would be hard to navigate that discussion or let it seep into a “seeker’s” crowded room of acquired truths, unless that individual has already somewhat passed through or experienced life and living’s criss-crossing avenues. We all search for the ultimate peace in material gain (that slides to hedonism) and sociopolitical/ideological “selflessness,” but still we gravitate to that dark, cold corner of unmitigated sorrow.
Helminiak isn’t telling us how to solve our misery. Like Prem Rawat and Arjuna Ardagh – or even Paul Jerard – he is simply guiding us back to where we came from and where we’re supposed to be heading, depending on where we are at the present time.
"Peace is Possible" breaks down Helminiak’s theological/socio-psychological sermon into a more personalized conversation. The book delves into the extraordinary life of Prem Rawat. Andrea Cagan, a best-selling biographer, brings home the Maharaji’s transcendence straight into the living room – accessible, concise, articulate, tangible, and sparkling.
Throughout his life, since age 3, Rawat has opened doors to enlightenment with just his pronouncements and lectures. It was widely reported that he was discovered by nomadic hippies at his home by the Himalayan foothills when he was a child, and then brought to the West at thirteen.
This book may invite doubting thomases in us, but we cannot mistake the “immaculateness” of the Maharaji’s message—a return to the pristine basics of inner serenity against a complex journey into the labyrinths of “spiritual deduction.” Given present day realities, the spirit that lingers in this book may prove to be quixotic and ethereal – when contextualized within and around where we’re deeply submerged (technological disconnect, market economy, disintegration of family). The author, however, was able to communicate Prem Rawat’s inspiration without glorifying the man’s mortality; this book is more of journalistic reportage than an exaltation of one’s divination.

“AWAKENING INTO Oneness: The Power of Blessing in the Evolution of Consciousness” elevates (or simplifies) Daniel A. Helminiak’s Christian “spiritual lessons” and Prem Rawat’s almost-mythological aura into a radical, scholarly thesis. More importantly, Arjuna Ardagh takes the discourse of spiritual reawakening to a more clinically personal but globally significant and urgent issue.
Of the three books discussed here, “Awakening” remains closer to Paul Jerard’s argument that spiritual “masters” also “serve somebody” (to evoke a Dylan song), profit-wise. Ardagh has hundreds of thousands of followers in India and the West which makes his “house of worship” more of a cult empire. Reports say that his temple cost $17 million dollars. He sees this phenomenon as a sign of a global transformation of consciousness—which easily communicates with the sensibility and sensitivity of people these days. His teachings zoom in on the “personal and professional relationships,” without so much atmospheric rhetorics, and his “solutions” can be deductive as it is clinical (“enlightenment as a specific threshold of neurological functioning”). Hence, Arjuna Ardagh is economically-viable, AKA the “global transformation of consciousness.”
Daniel A. Helminiak, Prem Rawat (by way of Andrea Cagan) and Arjuna Ardagh give us three one-way mirrors how to look at the world, outside and in, not the other way around.
As we all grapple for reasons to believe and continue to search for the everlasting-life chamber of joy—as Gucci grabs headlines with its $850 yoga mats, the body-conditioning Pilates arrives in Asheville, and health and fitness instruction takes 60 percent of U.S. fitness clubs’ prospectus, and we all save up few hundreds for six hours of powwow and “spiritual talk” by an enterprising nerd with an assumed Cherokee name – the search for inner peace remains elusive. It is always difficult to breathe peace and contentment – nurture a healthy body and pure spirit – without balancing the checkbook.
So while “instant bliss” is peddled in your neighborhood health shop and “ready-made” tips are available at Yoga Journal—whose subscribers increased 90,000 (in 1998) to 310,000 to date—healing time continues to elude us. Take time, however, to check out the aforementioned books. Their combined cost, at least, is lesser than a “$265 for a 6-hour spiritual convergence” in Monroe NC.
Peace is possible if we start from within than without. That is free, always.

No comments:

Post a Comment