The online dictionary says this term, self-realization, is a translation of Atma Jnana, Sanskrit for knowledge of the true self. Jnana refers to knowledge gained from personal experience, as opposed to book knowledge. Then it goes on to say that self-realization may be conceived of in various ways, and that a number of paths are said to lead to it. To me, self-realization was the hippy term tossed around in San Francisco by panhandlers looking for karma to pay their rent. Starting with the folding green in my wallet, naturally.
Growing up living in Southern California I got to see a variety of folks walking a different walk aiming for the paths to their destiny. Hare Krishna folks set upon us when we left the airport, giving us loving embraces if we didn't move fast enough while glowing with their spiritual path. I never found them upsetting but rather sweet, if oddly dressed. Spare change went to them automatically because I knew some kids who'd found the safety in the Krishna faith that they didn't have at home. They had a few houses around town, and we'd see them wandering around in their simple robes with shaved heads (and a lock of hair flowing from their heads) and always with flowers.
I never bought into the Moonies because I felt they had a rather darker agenda. The Unification Church was huge and world known, but the few I'd seen in news and public weren't very happy as far as I could tell. It was many years later I found out that the term was considered derogatory and hated by the members. Yet their own leader used the term, but preferred Sunnies. Still didn't sell well in SoCal as far as I ever saw. Nobody I knew had joined the Unification Church, so I wasn't overly burdened with knowledge about them, other than some rather bizarre tales of mass marriages decreed by the Reverend Sun Myung Moon. I had always thought marriages should be more private, but then all those folks seemed to enjoy the attention so who was I to complain? I had heard about abductions and deprogramming of members and really had mixed emotions about them overall.
Unfortunately there have been some darker alternative paths out there, and San Diego was stunned at the mass suicides in 1997 in an upscale area of the county. Heaven's Gate sailed off into the tail of a comet with their deaths, according to their doctrine. I wasn't living here then and was blown away to see one of my old babysitting neighborhoods was national news. The more I heard about the religious group and what went on, I was saddened by the loss for the families of the members. A recent news story interviewed the surviving member at the ten years anniversary of the deaths, and the member was calm and still looking for the next comet, it seemed.
Lately here at the Piker Press there has been a request to find things in our backyard to share with our readers. I'd seen on local news something about the Self-Realization Fellowship in Encinitas having lovely gardens open to the public a few months ago. Then the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi died at the beginning of the month, reminding me about a treasure in my own backyard. Yoga had always been around my life; I have known some very sweet folks who've practiced and taught yoga for decades. One of the gals I used to baby-sit for had a wide following locally with her classes and books. The death of the famous guru nudged me back to checking out the gardens.
I picked a Saturday to head over to the Meditation Gardens. I knew where it was from college geology classes and my surfer brothers. Let me explain. I don't think I knew the official name to the place until a few years ago. The surf spot below is called Swami's. It's a well-known break that has awesome waves, and a nearly inaccessible beach up until recently. As California grew more domesticated, many of the hard to reach surf spots got good stairs and parking. The spot above where the center for yogi sorts was called Swami's. Early in Paramahansa Yogananda's personal history, the founder of the Self-Realization Fellowship, he was referred to as the Swami Yogananda so I pretty much figured out where that local name came from without resorting to asking anyone.
Okay, so why did I mention my college geology classes? Well, my professor had been local for quite a while and began to trace the erosion of the cliffs in Encinitas. The Self-Realization Fellowship had one of the best historical records of erosion given how much of their real estate fell down the cliffs and drifted back into the ocean; it was prime example in class. He had pictures of him standing on various spots along the cliffs during the decades. There had been a Golden Lotus Temple designed by the Paramahansa Yogananda and dedicated back in 1938. By about 1943 they found out how bad the cliffs were and were able to rescue the furnishing and fixtures but the structures were lost. The golden lotuses that were on the original temple were moved elsewhere and all that remains is the terrazzo steps and a placard marks the spot with a picture of the old temple.
A swimming pool still is on the edge of the cliffs that the Paramahansa Yogananda used to use. I looked at the pool with the stunning art and knew it won't be here in another twenty years no matter how they brace the cliffs. In the forty odd years since it was surrounded by land it now has a mere three or four feet of space between the empty pool and the cliffs.
I went to the Meditation Gardens over two weekends this past month. The first time was a Saturday and I parked on the street where they have their books and gifts available for purchase and where it looked like a few members of their fellowship lived or worshipped. I walked up the hill to the Meditation Gardens, carefully marked, until I found the entrance. Signs posted explained the rules and I hiked briskly up the stairs. The first thing I noticed was the quiet solitude offered by lush and green niches and floral lined pathways. I was pleased nobody was using a cell phone or talking overly loud. I snapped pictures undisturbed and found the koi ponds to be amazing. The fish are healthy and large with nice markings. Small waterfalls run between the various pools and the paths are clean and lined with seasonal flowers.
The cacti I saw were well tended and old. Patches of different cactus were intermixed in a really nice array. The koi ponds are on more than one level and there are benches scattered to relax and meditate. One of the big concerns that close to the ocean is erosion and they carefully spell out the concerns. That said, naturally, there had to be someone who hopped the fences to take pictures of the surfers down on the beach. I watched a guard talk to them and walk off after they obviously told him they didn't care if they fell to their certain death. He smiled and shrugged at me as he left them there. But then I figured he told them the dangers and they were more interested in getting the shots. Watching the surfers ride the waves, I could see the pull but didn't cross the barriers for the chance at watching a local catch a wave.
After I had snapped my fill of the area I wandered home. Rains landed and I broke my toe, so I wasn't able to revisit the Meditation Gardens until last week. I picked a Sunday and hobbled my way slowly up. Some things had changed in the two weeks. I'd shared with some of my friends what I was thinking of writing about. I'd picked up the handouts at the Gardens and listened. One of my friends had read the works of Paramahansa Yogananda about his life story, Autobiography of a Yogi, which is widely recognized as a good text and reference in classrooms and studies. His comment was that he found the Fellowship to be Evangelical Hinduism. My brother and his wife had courses in World Religion and joined one of the Sunday services and found it to be an enjoyable mixture of more than one faith.
This was the same brother who first introduced me to Swami's because he surfed there. He also has met yogis visiting the shrine and studying there. At the end of the Meditation Gardens there is a beautiful home. It's not mentioned on the maps but visually is arresting. My brother spoke with a yogi who said it was the home of spiritual leaders within the community. When I saw the home the second visit I did understand what he meant. There is a stark beauty to the brick lined driveway and the well crafted home.
Sadly, when I visited on Sunday someone felt compelled to interrupt the Gardens with a vocal cell call. Yet I also saw a couple being counseled by someone who seemed to be religious about marriage from the tidbit overheard on my walk. A few people were being educated about the faith on picturesque cliff tops. There is something about the Gardens that calls to me. I will revisit it with a little more information and open eyes. Truly a gem in the community and worth a walk through if you get the time. The paths aren't kid safe, so make sure you keep an eye on the little ones. The stairs can be brisk on the mountain top beauty but worth the time. And if you want to learn more about yoga and the Fellowship the town of Encinitas is more than open to be explored -- in fact it is being referred to as the Yoga Mecca of America. I think it's pretty cool to have in my backyard.