How Can We Grow Spiritually?

1920 - Yogananda on his arrival in America, at the Congress of Religious Liberals in Boston

Yogananda at the Congress of Religious Liberals in Boston, upon his arrival in America.

When Paramhansa Yogananda came to America in 1920, he spent fifteen years working extremely hard to get his mission started, while facing many difficult tests along the way. When he felt that it was on a firm foundation, he returned to India to see his guru, Sri Yukteswar, and his many Indian friends, disciples, and family members. A year later he returned to America, where he would remain for the rest of his life until his passing in 1952.

While he was in India, he visited a number of saints, including a little-known disciple of Ramana Maharshi who was known as Sri Rama Yogi, or Yogi Ramiah.

Yogi Ramiah lived near a very remote country village. He  was almost completely unknown; yet Master said that he was a fully liberated soul, a siddha. A photo of Master walking with Yogi Ramiah shows his unassuming appearance – he is clad in a simple white Indian cotton shirt and pants. Yet his spiritual magnetism was such that Master would later exclaim, with deep feeling, that if he had spent another thirty minutes in his company, he could never have brought himself to leave India.

While Swami Kriyananda was living in India, from 1958 to 1962, he spent four days with Yogi Ramiah. The people in the village were so entranced by the unheard-of sight of an American yogi that they would line up outside Yogi Ramiah’s hut before dawn to receive Swamiji’s darshan.

Ramana Maharshi with Yogi Ramiah

Ramana Maharshi with Yogi Ramiah

I find it very interesting to contemplate that this extremely great, fully enlightened yogi lived in such total obscurity. Hardly anyone in India knew of him, and even the people in the village had no idea of his spiritual stature. From a worldly point of view, he was a complete nonentity. He told Swamiji that the villagers would come and talk with him about the crops and the weather, but that they weren’t interested in higher things.

When Swamiji asked him, “Don’t you think you could be doing something more for the world?” Yogi Ramiah replied with simple humility, “God has done what He wanted to do with this instrument.”

It’s not as if he wasn’t doing anything for the world, of course, because a great saint such as Yogi Ramiah is able to transmit a tremendous pulse of divine light to the world, uplifting and helping many people.

Hidden just behind the outward appearance of this world, there is a mysterious interplay of light and shadow. And, thank heaven, the fate of nations is not entirely in the hands of those who hold the outward power, but much more in the care of those great souls whom God sends as his instruments on this plane.

With our physical senses, we’re able to observe the outward play of energy in the world, but we can only begin to perceive the hidden energies when we’ve refined our consciousness and expanded our hearts.

It isn’t a question that this outward world is wholly evil and delusive, and that the higher, spiritual reality is its exact opposite. In fact, there’s a subtle interplay of Spirit and matter that is always creating and sustaining this world. And when it comes to our lives, we need to realize that there’s nothing to be gained by trying to pretend that we are able to live entirely in that higher, spiritual world.

People would sometimes challenge Swami Kriyananda, “Why do I need a guru?” And he would reply, “Well, you don’t, if you don’t think so.”

“Do I need to give up drinking?” “Not if you don’t think so.” “Do I need to be celibate?” “No, not if you don’t think so.”

It doesn’t serve us to pretend that we’re more spiritually advanced than we are. It’s not realistic to believe that we’ll be able to find God sooner by adopting outward behaviors that will make us seem more spiritually aware than we are.

The only way to expand our consciousness is to work with ourselves just as we are, and to base our spiritual life on what we can actually understand at this present moment – as Swamiji put it, “with inner knowing.”

We need to accept that our happiness grows not by imagining ourselves farther along the path, but by taking the necessary small steps that will gradually expand our awareness and deepen our sense of happiness and joy.

When I left my comfortable life in San Francisco to live in a tent at Ananda Village, there was no support in the surrounding culture for what I was doing. Yet, for my part, there was absolutely no sense that I was making some great, heroic sacrifice in “giving up the world.” In fact, I ran as fast and as eagerly as possible to a place that looked like it could give me everything I had ever wanted. It wasn’t even remotely a question of following some rigid command from a frowning God who was demanding some great sacrifice of me.

Larry Rider with baby Elisha Johnson, “Tipi Hill,” at Ananda Village, 1980

Larry Rider with baby Elisha Johnson, “Tipi Hill,” Ananda Village, 1980

As a small child, St. Teresa of Avila was already deeply devoted to the spiritual life, and extremely eager to have an eternity with God, as the Catholic Church promised to those who would live a good and pious life.

teresa-of-avila

Teresa of Avila

Teresa’s inner experiences would eventually far transcend that simple promise, but it was the concept of salvation that she could grasp as a child. So she calculated her options and decided that the quickest way to have an eternity with God was to be martyred. And because the surest way to be martyred at the time was to go out and try to convert the Moors and have the Moors cut off your head, she persuaded her brother, when she was eight years old and he was seven, to set out with her to find the Moors so that they could have their heads chopped off.

Even as a child, she had the tremendous will power and spiritual determination to want to cut through the doctrinal red tape and go straight to God. Her father eventually found the two children walking down the street with their little bags, on their way to be martyred.

On the one hand, it was a very clever thing to do – just a little bit of bother and pain, and then they would enjoy an eternity of bliss with God.

Teresa was a highly privileged child, who would grow into an extremely charismatic, beautiful young woman who could have had anything she desired. But when she began to take up the spiritual life in earnest, the world no longer looked the same to her. Day and night changed places in her heart, and she took up a life of great inner discipline and dedication to God.

Her story is filled with days and nights of determined will power and effort. Because the spiritual path is never easy, even for those whose view is clear. But she had the insight and strength of conviction to be able to say, whenever people would try to persuade her to return to a worldly life, “No, this is not what I want anymore.”

The process of turning away from the world and setting our feet firmly on the spiritual path is beautifully described by our spiritual reading for this week, which is telling us about the quality of truthfulness.

It says that truthfulness is the ability to look at ourselves without self-justification or excuses, and to have the capacity to understand our own true motives.

It’s telling us that we need to be very clear about what we’re trying to do in this life, and who we are. And an aspect of the spiritual life that can seem a little depressing is that God and Guru know us far better than we know ourselves. And no matter how old or mature and wise we may think we are, to them we are little children.

When I was seven years old, my parents sent me to a sleep-away camp. I was one of the youngest children, and we were shown how to weave potholders on a little stretchy loom. It was too much for my seven-year-old fingers, and I ended up without any potholders, and on Parents’ Day, when my mother and father came to visit, everybody else had potholders hanging on little nails on their bunks except me. So I took two of them from the bunk above mine and hung them on my bunk. And of course the little girl whose potholders I had taken noticed right away, and there was a big kerfuffle. I remember saying to my mother, very strongly, “They fell!” And although my parents were very strict with us about always telling the truth, I remember how sweetly they understood. I don’t remember even being scolded; I only remember being comforted, and I think of that day whenever something happens in my life where my expectations are disappointed, or I’ve disappointed my own expectations of myself. I think of that little child’s mind that was able to say, with so much feeling, “They fell!”

It wasn’t really my fault! I really didn’t do it! No, no, no, no! And it really isn’t that my entire concept of this life is wrong, and it really isn’t that God is trying to guide me to a deeper, more lasting happiness. No, no, no! That’s not what’s happening. And maybe I can find a twilight zone where I can still think of myself as a devotee while I ignore the truth that distinguishes between good and evil.

This is the story of the Garden of Eden. It’s a horrible story, unless we understand the spiritual meaning of it. As Swami explains in The Path, the traditional interpretation tells us that these poor saps very innocently took a bite of the forbidden fruit, and then they were exiled forever. And what kind of a God would want to do that, sending them to hell for taking an innocent bite of the apple? But it’s telling us on a deeper level where our true happiness lies.

Paramhansa Yogananda explained that the forbidden fruit of the tree at the center of the garden is a symbol for the sexual energy. And Swami explained it very simply. He said that once we take a physical body, we are compelled by many physical imperatives. We have a tremendous compulsion to eat, and to protect ourselves from the elements, and to sleep. And Swamiji said that sexuality is the most powerful physical imperative, because it’s a force that we absolutely must deal with, one way or another. And once we’ve identified ourselves with the body, and we’ve begun to experience life in a physical form, a whole host of physical drives begin to compel us. And with those false identifications comes a very specific, very powerful sense that if I don’t have certain things that I believe will make my life easier in this body and give me happiness, I will suffer terribly.

I think of Palo Alto, which is an amazing enclave of exceptionally intelligent, well-educated, refined and cultured people who, generally speaking, have very good taste. It’s a completely fascinating, very lively place to live. And spiritually speaking, it’s presenting us with the opportunity to make a magnificent experiment and test this world to see if it can ever make us truly and lastingly happy.

Stanford Shopping Center, Palo Alto, CA

Stanford Shopping Center, Palo Alto

It’s very good karma to be born in an environment like this. It’s good karma to be born into a wealthy family, because you get to try it out a lot faster. A friend of mine, whose mother died when she was relatively young, suddenly had a lot of money and responsibility. She had credit cards, and she was able to live like an adult, as a teenager. She didn’t misuse the gift, and she said that it was wonderful in its way, because by the time she was nineteen, she was finished with that world.

Some people have to spend entire lifetimes exploring the options that the world can offer us, and making a desperate attempt to see if they can get this world lined up perfectly so that it works. And maybe they’ll come back and try it again, time after time.

Master said, very sweetly, that we come back to this world, not because it fails to fulfill us, but because it “almost works.” And that’s much more aggravating, because it tempts us to think that if we can just come back and tweak it a little, it will finally fulfill us.

And the wonderful thing is that God gives us an eternity of time to make up our minds to choose Him. But until then, we get to keep trying, and there’s nothing spiritually wrong with it, because we are powerfully compelled, and God is aware of the power that these physical imperatives have over us.

We’re pushed into a relationship with the world around us, because whether we’re willing to admit it or not, there are lots and lots of things we want, and there’s a lot that we don’t yet know. So we get to have marriages and children and families, and all of the things that God has placed before us.

Sri Yukteswar said that the purification of the heart is a very long process, and that purifying the heart means to remove from it all of the restlessness that makes us think we don’t already have within ourselves everything we’ll ever need to fulfill us.

I’m very aware of the theory, and I’m sure that many of you share my understanding of it. It’s a theory that we all deeply believe is true. But my lack of capacity to adhere to it perfectly, and to know, in the deepest center of my being, what will fulfill me, continues to exist because there are all of these restlessnesses in my heart that, time and again, I have to act upon by pushing out and discovering whether the story will come out differently this time.

The other reason we’re pushed out to try to find our fulfillment in this world is, thankfully, at a little bit less depressing, and much sweeter. Because it’s not only that we have to fail repeatedly, but that we have to succeed. We have to get the beautiful home, and we have to experience the marvelous opportunity and the joy of creating a home environment that will be exactly the way we want. People can spend many, very creative lifetimes buying one house after another and making them beautiful, so that they can find out how much happiness it’s possible to get by making their outward environment just so. Or by raising a child of whom they’ll be so proud, and who’ll be loyal and loving toward them. Or by having an intimate relationship, and a deeply personal kind of love, and finding out how much happiness it can bring them.

Because we can learn a certain amount from being disappointed, but what then usually happens is that we’re tempted to think that if we can just come back and tweak it a little, it will be perfect.

Sooner or later, we have to experience all of the beautiful things and beautiful experiences that this world can give us. So when you find yourself longing for this or that little thing, and devoting lots of time and energy and attention to getting it, don’t imagine that you’re going contrary to God’s spiritual law, or that you’re going against His wishes for you. Far from it – remember that it’s He who is impelling you. As Sri Yukteswar said, the heart is impelled to find out how much good can come from looking outside itself, until it reaches the point where it can finally say, “Oh, but how much more comes to me when I surrender my life to God!”

The issue is not whether we can or cannot have these beautiful gifts. The issue is whether we’ll have the inner freedom to follow God’s guidance, and whether we’re still being compelled by these imperatives.

When I think of my past and present lives, of which I’m fairly sure there will be at least a few more, I’ve come to understand that it’s not that I want to live in a monastery, or be martyred at a young age, or have comfort or wealth, but that I want to have a freedom from compulsion. I want to be able to stand in the center of my being and let God bring me the experiences I need, instead of always being compelled by my restless heart’s longing to step outside my center and try to take it for myself.

These are very high ambitions, and they take many, many, many incarnations to be fulfilled. I had a conversation recently with a friend who expressed his restless longing for the pure peace of God‑realization. And it’s a very admirable desire – this restless impatience with the world.

I had a number of interesting conversations with Swamiji toward the end of his life, when he would reflect on the tremendous temptation to become irritated all the time. Of course, it wasn’t even remotely that he was irritated all the time, but he remarked how easy it would be to become irritated and impatient, because everything in this world seems like such an interruption – it seems to be constantly, inconveniently interrupting our efforts to have the happiness we want above all else.

But at the end of his life, he wrote very differently. He said that he used to feel that kind of impatience, and he used to long for another world, but that his Guru had blessed him to know that wherever we are, that’s where God is. And when you think of it philosophically, there is no place that is more or less divine, and no individual that God loves more than any other.

We remind ourselves of this every week during our Festival of Light – that it isn’t only the saints who are loved by God, but that He equally loves even those who have sinned most greatly. And that is us. We certainly have sinned most greatly, if not yesterday, then at some other time. And we no longer remember that God is no less present wherever we are, and that Self-realization is ours, and that it’s merely a question of improving our knowing.

I think this is a more efficient way to go about our lives on the spiritual path: to accept this simple reality, and work with ourselves exactly as we are, in the circumstances where God has placed us – instead of being forever anxious about what we’re doing or not doing, and what we ought to be doing and ought not to be doing.

Let’s face it, this is the world that we’re living in, and it’s a place where an incredible amount of rajasic effort is required of us.

Swami set the supreme example, because he never rested, night and day, right up until the end. Even in his final days, he was pushing out and trying to make things happen for God. And we, too, can use the restless anxiety in our hearts that compels us to be in constant motion, to be ambitious for God. We can act it out from a center of knowing that God has put us here, and that we have to stay busy for Him.

Swami and I came up with a playful phrase to describe this restless need for activity – how we each have our particular “petty enthusiasms.” We’re always compelled to be doing something, and we need to pass our days making this world a little brighter for those around us, and those who’ll come after. But it’s the inward surrender that matters.

Mother Teresa

Mother Teresa

Mother Teresa of Calcutta said something very beautiful. I had the opportunity to meet her on several occasions when we were in India. She was an extremely no-nonsense person – she was “all business.” And when somebody would try to speak to her about the great work she was doing, she would have none of it. She would say, “I’m doing what Jesus asked me to do.” And that was the long and the short of it.

If you know her story, she was on a train near Darjeeling, and Jesus said to her, “Go and serve the poorest of the poor.” And she got off the train and did it. But that was all she was ever doing – she was simply doing what Jesus had asked of her.

Imagine how simple your life would be, if you could narrow it down to that extent, where you would always know that what was being asked of you was whatever was right in front of you.

Someone asked Swamiji, “How do you know what your karma is?” And he replied, “Well, look around you.”

Again, someone asked him, “How do you know what your dharma is?” And he said, “If it needs to be done, and you’re next in line.”

Swamiji put tremendous effort behind whatever he had to do. But he said to me, in a way that I found a little depressing at the time, that people think it matters so much what they’re doing, and yet we all have so many lessons to learn, and we can learn them in any number of ways. So it isn’t really what you’re doing that matters, but whether you’re doing what God and Guru have asked.

Jesus isn’t really asking us to have this or that job, or to live in that house or marry that person or give birth to these children. He simply says, “Love me.”

There’s a book by a man who had a near-death experience, and he found himself in the presence of Jesus. And the Savior, as he called Jesus, asked him, “How much have you loved?” And because the man had not loved very much at all, he tried to justify his lack of loving. And Jesus just smiled and kept saying, “How much have you loved?” He spent the rest of his life loving. He became a psychologist and counselor, and his life was very simple. His practice was that with everything that came before him, he would love it, because he wanted to be able to give Jesus a better answer next time.

I love to think of my after-life “review.” I weigh a lot of my decisions on the basis of whether I’ll be able to stand before the masters and say, “Yes.”

“How much did you love?” “As much as I could.”

Swamiji said that the only question he was concerned about was when he would meet Master again, and Master would say, “Have you loved me?” And Swami wanted to be able to say, “Sir, that’s all I’ve ever loved.”

God bless you.

(From Asha’s talk during Sunday service at Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto, California on May 28, 2017.)

 

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