A significant technological advance during the early years of Paramhansa Yogananda’s life was the motion-picture. Although Paramhansa Yogananda advised his students to not waste time watching too many movies, he often used a movie analogy to explain the central, yet difficult to grasp, yogic teaching that this Creation itself is like one big movie — a play of light and shadow on the screen of consciousness.
Swami Kriyananda gives Yoganandaji’s explanation in this way:
In a movie, the action seems very real. If you look up to the projection booth, however, you will see that that whole story is being produced by a single beam of light.
That is how it is in this great “movie” of creation. “God said, Let there be light.” Out of the great beam of cosmic light was manifested the entire universe. It is a cosmic movie, in many ways like the one in the movie theater.
Much of the difference is in degree. In the movie theater, what you behold is two-dimensional, and is true only to the senses of sight and sound. The cosmic movie is three-dimensional and is true also to the senses of taste, smell, and touch.
The movie you see in the movie theater may move you to laughter and tears. How much more compelling, then, is God’s movie, involving as it does the sense of depth, and not two senses only, but five!
This life, however, is no more real than a movie. – The Essence of Self-Realization
The beam of Light is the true reality
By way of illustrating this point, Yoganandaji would occasionally take his yoga students to a movie theater. Having chosen the best seats, he would then wait for the most engrossing parts of the movie to play out on the movie screen. As the movie-plot reached its climax, he would suddenly tap his students on their shoulders and ask them to turn around, away from the screen and look at the beam of light emanating from the projection booth. As the students did so, they realized that the movie on the screen — with its mesmerizing plot of ups and downs, joys and sorrows, life and death, — had no independent reality of its own. It existed, rather, only as an illusion created on the movie-screen by that single beam of light.
This life is no more real than a movie.Paramhansa Yogananda
In order to realize that the movie, though seemingly real, is essentially an illusory play of light and shadow, we must first withdraw our attention from the mesmerizing plot playing out on the movie screen and then focus it instead on the single beam of light emanating from the projection booth. Yoganandaji was reminding his students that in the same way, in order to perceive the true nature of the “Cosmic Movie” of Creation, we must learn to withdraw our attention from the sensory world through deep meditation so that we may focus it on the pure beam of God’s Cosmic Light. Movies thus served Paramhansa Yogananda as a perfect analogy to remind his students of their need for daily, deep meditation.
Becoming ideal actors in this Cosmic Movie
This call to withdraw within in deep meditation is, however, only one aspect of what Paramhansa Yogananda wished to convey through his movie analogy. After all, hardly any of us can simply abandon our “roles” and withdraw into meditation all day! We do have many genuine duties — such as raising a family and managing our work — that require us to engage in this world actively, whether this world is real or illusory.
Yoga, being a complete science, therefore teaches a balance between inward withdrawal and right participation in the world. Paramhansa Yogananda, being a complete yogi, used the movie analogy to teach us how to engage rightly in this world.
Consider, for example, this excerpt from his Autobiography of a Yogi:
The lifelike images of the motion picture illustrate many truths concerning creation. The Cosmic Director has written His own plays, and assembled the tremendous casts for the pageant of the centuries. . . . With inconceivable ingenuity God is staging an entertainment for His human children, making them actors as well as audience in His planetary theater. — Ch. The Law of Miracles
As Yoganandaji asserts in the last line, the “Cosmic Director” — God — has made us “actors” in his “Cosmic Movie.” It, therefore, behooves us not just to learn how to withdraw within and perceive the creative beam of God’s Light, but to learn also how to play our “roles” in this Divine Drama well.
The question naturally arises — What are the principles of right acting in this Cosmic Movie? If we are “actors” indeed, how can we play our “roles” well? I have often pondered these questions, and on my recent visit to the Self-Realization Fellowship church in Hollywood — established by Yoganandaji in 1948 — I received an inspiring answer.
Precepts for best performance in the Cosmic Movie
The inspiration — influenced by being in Hollywood, no doubt! — was to write down the qualities that made for great actors and actresses in the Hollywood movies. Perhaps these would then translate into qualities that could be applied to becoming excellent “actors” in the Cosmic Movie!
Armed with this inspiration, I decided to jot down my answer to the question: “What qualities make for an ideal actor in our ordinary, earthly, movies?” Here is what I came up with:
The best performance award-winning actor:
- Knows that the foremost quality required is that he work in attunement with the movie director. The actor is not there to do his own thing, but to help manifest the director’s vision for the movie.
- Is well-versed in the script for his role, and knows the importance of sticking to the script. He does not throw a tantrum demanding that the script be changed.
- Knows how to use his own creativity and originality to enliven his character and play his part uniquely, while staying true to the script and in harmony with the director’s vision.
- Wants to deliver an outstanding performance, but with his primary motivation being the movie’s success rather than desire for personal glory.
- Befriends his fellow actors, and is encouraging and supportive of their efforts to play their parts well. He includes the success of all the cast in his own success.
- Knows that, when all is said and done, his role is only a role in a movie and not his reality. The true measure of his success lies in the life he lives every day, outside of the movie.
As we read this list, it does not take us long as yoga students to realize that the Bhagavad Gita — the great yoga scripture which is the yogi’s manual for right living — extols exactly these same principles as prerequisites for becoming ideal “actors” in the Cosmic Movie.
Our first goal, the Gita says, is to learn to attune ourselves to God, who is both the Director and Screenwriter for this Cosmic Movie. In that attunement, it then becomes possible to perceive clearly the “script” for our earthly role. We must then use our God-given creativity to play our role uniquely and enthusiastically; not with any egotistic desire, but with the sole desire to give our best and do our part well in making the Cosmic Movie a grand success. And as we act out our roles, we must practice the principles of harmony, kindness, supportiveness, and friendship in our interactions with our friends, relatives, and acquaintances, who are our co-actors in this grand movie.
And finally, while playing out our role in an exemplary fashion, we must always remember that it is only a role and that our true reality lies neither in the role, nor in the movie, but in the pure beam of God’s Light which creates the movie.
The “Best Actor Award” can be ours!
An analysis of the lives of all true saints shows that this is how they live their lives — dutifully and joyfully playing out their God-given parts with enthusiasm and creativity, but with their consciousness firmly established in the realization that it is God’s creative Light and not this real-yet-unreal world that is the true reality. This is how Paramhansa Yogananda lived, and this is how he wished all his yoga students would live as well.
By so living we can join the exalted group of all true saints, who qualify for the Best Actor Award in God’s Cosmic Movie, and thereby attain the final goal of yoga, which Yoganandaji describes in the following conversation:
A disciple: “But sir, if good and evil are both merely parts of a cosmic drama, what does it matter what roles we play in the story? Whether as saints or as gangsters, our parts will be illusory, and won’t affect our true nature as images of God.”
Paramhansa Yogananda laughed. “You are right in the ultimate sense. But don’t forget that, if you play the part of a villain in a drama, in that drama you will also have to receive the villain’s punishment!
“If, on the other hand, you play the role of a saint, you will awaken from this cosmic dream, and enjoy oneness with the Dreamer for all eternity.” – The Essence of Self-Realization