COLUMBIA — Nirvana, bliss or ethereal consciousness can be reached by many means. Some Buddhists achieve it by meditating in Vairochana's posture, some Hindus through hatha yoga, and for the members of the Eckankar religion who gathered at the Interfaith Center in Columbia to practice the HU exercise souls travel in waves of inner light and sound.
“It’s actually seeing light within yourself or you could even see it on the outer," Deborah Deutsch said, who led the HU contemplation."It could be like a white light or a blue light or any color — just about any color you could imagine. And then there’s spiritual sound, and that could be like the sound of a flute or the buzzing of bees or the sound of thunder. And you can hear all this inwardly."
The Eckankar faith claims its teachings have roots in history as far as 3000 B.C., according to the religion’s Web site. Eckankar's international headquarters is located in Minneapolis, Minn., and it is a nonprofit religious organization and church with members in over 100 countries, according to a brochure.
The religion has had several Living ECK Masters who are “an expression of the spirit of God” who guide followers. The current Mahanta or Living ECK Master is Harold Klemp, who is to be respected but not worshiped, according to the faith.
Klemp became the Mahanta in 1981.
Eckankar, along with 15 other non-major religions in the United States,
helps comprise 3.7 percent of the U.S. population, according to one statistic.
To view upcoming Eckankar events in Missouri click here.
To view a list of upcoming events at the Interfaith Center, click here.
According to the Eckankar faith, the light and sound are the two aspects of the Holy Spirit. The light is "a reflection of the atoms of God moving in space," and the sound is "the audible life current that takes soul back home to God," according to literature written by the faith's leader.
Participants like Deutsch mirror a recent study on the U.S. religious landscape, which stated almost two-fifths of Americans reported meditating at least once a week, according to The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. The researchers interviewed 35,000 adults nationwide for the study. The second U.S. Religious and Landscape Survey report also said that meditation was most common among Buddhists, but that nearly half of evangelical Protestants and Muslims interviewed said they meditate at least once weekly, and about 25 percent of those without religious affiliation reported weekly meditation.
This spiritual exercise of Eckankar is called HU, which the religion calls “the sacred name of God” and is used to achieve a greater sense of divine love. This exercise was used by the participants at the Interfaith Center, who sat in chairs in a U-formation and chanted the name with long hums and closed eyes.
Deutsch, the leader of the exercise, told the participants to think of a question they willed guidance toward, then to imagine a door and then a light.
Many spoke of seeing doors afterward and the bright light that poured through them. One of these was Patricia Crockett, who has been contemplating whether her ambition to pursue law school would ever come to fruition, and she described the guidance she had received during the exercise in a form of dialogue.
“I was in the experience, and I saw the path and the steps, but I got above it; then I jumped inside the light,” Crockett said. “And then I was talking to what I call the Mahanta which is the matrix for the Holy Spirit. And so, I’m dialoguing with spirit and, ‘Well, can I do this?’ ‘Well, yeah, it’s going to be really hard’ was the answer. ‘Well, will there be joy?’ ‘Well, there’s always joy.’
"It’s like we’re old buddies. And then, ‘What about the law school thing? Is that going to be really, really hard, too?’ And it was like, ‘Haven’t you noticed that everything you do is really, really hard?’”
The other two women listening to Crockett’s testimony smiled, laughed and then nodded in a manner that suggested they had shared similar experiences.
While there are definite discrepancies among faiths and methodologies concerning meditation and spiritual exercise, there are certain parallels among them. Among these can be reduced stress, a sense of well-being, heightened spiritual sense or what some call "God-contact," and even in the case of some yoga practices, health benefits.
According to a 2005 study sponsored by the American Council on Exercise, researchers found that those who regularly practiced hatha yoga, whose origins can be traced to 2250 B.C. in the Harrapan civilization of Northern India, had increased flexibility, balance, and muscular strength and endurance.
While the Eckankar HU contemplation does not necessarily require physical activity, "consciousness unfolding" is a point of emphasis like it is with many faiths who exercise meditation or spiritual contemplation. Some of the Eckankar participants acknowledged that the HU exercise manifests goals similar to Buddhism's Middle Path, which is a lifestyle Buddha practiced nearly 2,500 years ago that seeks enlightenment through avoiding the extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification.
“Everything is fluid,” Deutsch said. “And then there’s possibilities depending on your state of consciousness, it's going to have that impact. And so that’s why we do the spiritual exercises such as singing HU because that’s going to change what happens in the outer. It’s all depended on our own state of consciousness.”
Crockett also said that the spiritual exercises or contemplations are imperative to successfully achieving this state of consciousness, much in the way training is imperative to successfully running a marathon.
“You got to do the discipline first,” Crockett said. “And with engaging in the exercises the unfolding and the evolving and the awareness leads to something called knowingness. Which is, as far as I am concerned, the greatest gift I’ve been given because I’m absolutely sure there’s a God.”
The Rev. Marci De Vier, minister of the Interfaith Center who teaches a course in miracles and has Eckankar participants as guests two or three times annually, says this state of consciousness acquired through the meditations and contemplations is pertinent to having faith.
“That’s the basic premise that I do in the course of miracles and all the other things that I teach,” De Vier said. “I am assisting other people to come to know that they know, not that they think they know, but to personally know that you have a knowing. And then when you have a knowing, nobody’s going to shake your boat.”