Living the Eternal Way: A Talk With Ellen Grace O'Brian

Timeless wisdom from a thoroughly modern master of yoga.

Posted Feb 26, 2016

Yogacharya Ellen Grace O’Brian is the Spiritual Director for the Center of Spiritual Enlightenment in San Jose, California, a meditation center in the spiritual tradition of Kriya Yoga that serves people from all faith backgrounds. The author of numerous books including, Living the Eternal Way: Spiritual Meaning and Practice in Everyday Life, O'Brian was ordained to teach in 1982 by Roy Eugene Davis, a direct disciple of Paramahansa Yogananda who brought the teachings of Kriya Yoga from India to the West.  She is a popular speaker on the value of meditation and the importance of ethical and spiritual awakening to contribute to world peace, and among the most open-minded, down to earth, and effective teachers I know.  I had the opportunity to speak recently to Yogacharya O'Brian (known as Uma to her devoted students) about the importance of commitment in the seeker’s life, and the role of discernment on the path of spiritual awakening. 

Mark Matousek: I’d like to ask you about spiritual commitment versus escapism. We live in an age where there are many choices and a lot of seekers tend to have trouble committing to a single practice. What is your attitude toward this?

Ellen Grace O'Brian: In the beginning of our spiritual journey, it’s important to look around, investigate and learn about the paths that are available, and discern: what is your right path, what is your right way? Most importantly, who is the teacher for you? Once we find that, the best way is to then stay in one place and cease wandering. Any constant movement is counterproductive to that long-term goal.

MM: And how do we know when we have found the right practice?

EO: From my experience, it was a matter of meeting my teacher and hearing the teachings in a way that spoke to my heart, my mind and soul. I had been searching for a long time, but I always felt like I was having to “edit out” things that didn’t work for me. When I met my guru, Roy Eugene Davis, who was a direct disciple of Paramahansa Yogananda, I had the experience that I could relax. I didn’t have to fight with what he was teaching, it felt familiar to me and I felt a deep attunement. It was like a homecoming. It was a felt experience, an intuitive experience. Plus, my mind was there too. It’s not just that you fall in love with someone, you have to discern: is this the right path?

And then, we start in. To practice and not follow anyone blindly, but test out what we are learning in the laboratory of our own experience. When we do that and have some experiences ourselves, then our discernment is verified.

MM: After you committed to your guru and to this path, were there no doubts left for you?

EO: Once we commit ourselves to a path, there is a shift in perspective from looking outwardly for the key to our happiness and our security. We begin to develop our ability to follow the inner way. It wasn’t that I didn’t have any more questions or doubts, it was that my focus shifted from outer to inner. What our yogi’s call a deep, burning desire was there for me.

MM: From looking outward to looking inward is an important point that folks don’t always understand. In the beginning, we’re looking for someone to answer all our questions. Did you look for a long time before you found your guru?

EO: I was just about to turn 30 when I found my guru and I didn’t actually know I was looking for a teacher. There is that saying that when the student is ready the teacher will appear and that was true in my case. I had a readiness to embark upon the path.

My motivation was sorrow and suffering, a feeling that something was missing in my life and I later discovered this is a primary motivation for most people. My teacher appeared as a response to my inarticulate by heartfelt prayer: ‘Help me, help me.’

MM: Yes, I know that prayer. Had you tried a lot of practices before coming to a guru?

EO: I had gone to college and read widely and think my first exposure to Vedanta was through the writings of Alan Watts. But I had not engaged in practices or sadhana. That’s what was missing for me.

MM: So, it was more intellectual?

EO: Exactly. What is needed was a way in. Sometimes, we’re caught in that whirlwind of what the yogis call samsara, the suffering of the world. We’re going round and round, we’re collecting books, maybe even collecting teachers, trying to find a way out of that suffering. But until we find the key that shows us how to look inside, how to discover the divine self within, there is that tendency to keep shopping.

All of the mystical traditions provide that key. Most often, you need to get this from a teacher who can share consciousness with you, who can share the practices with you and be an inspiration for beginning to turn your life from the outer to the inner.

MM: There’s a popular cliché that tells us we need to separate the teacher from the teaching. Don’t look too close at the teacher’s behavior and just listen to what he or she says. What is your attitude toward that?

EO: All teachers are human, regardless of how revered or enlightened they are. They’re all going to have human characteristics and flaws, so we have to keep that in mind. I’m not of the school of thought that one should ignore ethical violations of the teacher. We have to take our hearts with us into our relationship with our teachers, but also our minds. We love the divine nature that we revere in our teachers, but we should also hold them accountable as we would any other human being. I think many of the problems Westerners got into with gurus had to do with leaving their discernment at the door.

I wrote a little saying, ‘The ticket to enlightenment is not transferable.’ A teacher can’t give it to us. We have to immerse ourselves in the teachings and practices we are given. The teacher can’t do it for us although the teacher is a bridge for us.

MM: And when the teacher is not walking the talk, is that a sign for us to look elsewhere?

EO: I think it depends on what it is. If there is something egregious, it needs to be addressed. Sometimes, a student won’t understand a teacher’s behavior. A student can say, ‘I’m confused about this behavior and this is the teaching, can you help me understand?’ Isn’t it an ideal situation where one can have a respectful conversation about how the teachings are to be understood?

MM: There is a period of having to take the teaching in, working it in the inside and integrating it into one’s life and practice. How do we know when we’ve taken a practice as far as it can go and it’s just not working for us? How do we know when it’s a bad marriage or when it’s our own resistance?

EO: That’s difficult because as individuals, we have samskara imprints, we have karma. Although it is a universal nature to the path, it’s also quite unique in terms of how it is we work our way along the path.

I think there is great value in satsang, in spiritual community. We can talk to others and find out about their struggles or get suggestions. In the highest sense, there is always the teacher we can go to and say, ‘What is this? I’ve been practicing and... nothing.’ Sometimes we have an idea based on the experience of others, but it may be that what we may or may not be experiencing is exactly right for us.

There is a beautiful story about Sister Gyanamata, one of the senior disciples of Paramahansa Yogananda. She was a yogi of wisdom and her path was counseling other disciples. James J. Lynn, was called Saint Lynn. As another disciple, he had very dynamic meditation experiences, and Sister Gyanamata did not. When she got ready for her transition, Paramahansa was at her side and asked her if there was anything that she wanted at that point to complete her life experience. She said she had not had the samadhi experiences in meditation and wondered if she was missing that. His response to her was: ‘Sister, you are already there. Why would you want to have an experience when you are already in the light of divine truth and wisdom?’ So, her way was different than the way of St. Lynn.

MM: So, it has a lot to do with expectation.

EO: Yes, and when we are in a community, it can happen like that. We compare ourselves to what others are experiencing and that’s an obstacle.

MM: What is your attitude toward bringing other practices from other traditions into your hybrid, personal, spiritual life?

EO: One needs to be dedicated and stable on their path and then there’s no problem with being inspired or enhanced by a reading or literature or even a form of meditation from another path. But that period of time usually takes years.

We have to understand that ultimately, a spiritual path is about freedom. But is freedom just moving from system to system, from practice to practice? The yogis would say, ‘No.’ Is it freedom to be so constrained that you feel you could never be inspired by anyone or anything that’s not part of your lineage? That’s not freedom either.

MM: Let me ask you about discipline, Uma. When folks hear that word, they think of a tyrant with a whip. How do you define and teach discipline?

EO: Students from the West do hear the word discipline as self-punishment or doing something that you don’t want to do, because it’s good for you. I explore that by asking, ‘What is your experience?’ I invite them to re-define it, and also offer a deeper explanation. I define discipline as doing what pleases the soul.

MM: Beautiful.

EO: Yes, the right discipline, whether it’s the right diet or a daily meditation practice or being kind in a relationship, all of those things please the soul. They bring us higher or deeper happiness. I focus on self-discipline as being self-care or providing self-love. Self with a capital “S.

MM: But discipline may please the soul but not the ego.

EO: In the short run it does not please the ego but in the long run it works out. The goal is to purify the ego and have the ego serve the soul.

MM: One last question about spirituality and escapism. A lot of folks use the seeker’s life to separate from their familiar context, thinking that truth and wisdom are somewhere else. What do you think about bringing spirituality home?

EO: Paramahansa Yogananda said that it’s an obstacle when we create a false separation between our material and spiritual existence. As a devotee, I came to the path hoping to escape. I thought, Oh good, meditation and transcendence, get me out of ‘here.’ Life is messy, relationships are messy, the body can be difficult. I thought I could just meditate and leave it all behind.

Initially, yoga did take me out of the world, in that I shifted my focus to developing an inner life. But I discovered as others do, that the more you develop the inner life, the more you come into touch with yourself, with others and with the world. Yoga took me out of the world but brought me back in a very profound way. It didn’t allow me to escape, it just transformed my relationship with the world. I think we might count that as one of the benefits of sticking to a path.

MM: So, we’re integrating our practice with our everyday life.

EO: We have to. Being in the world gives us plenty of sand to polish the oyster. There is that saying, ‘It’s easy to be a saint on a mountaintop.’

I tell people, ‘You don’t have to go looking for a spiritual intensive, you have one just living your own life.’