A friend told me that when he was a young boy in Catholic school, the nuns tried to get the kids to behave by telling them that when they died they would have a bigger house in heaven.
He said that, even as a child, he could see that it was a bribe and a lousy promise.
He didn’t think the reward was worth it. So he decided that he would rather have fun than wait for some stupid fulfillment, seventy or eighty years later.
In the East, they have a different way of thinking about goodness and sin. The eastern teachings tell us that our true nature is golden. The gold of our essence defines us, and it is only our desires that distract us, so that we forget the pure gold at the center of our being.
You can bury a gold nugget, but if you scrape the mud away, the essence is still the same. Gold is our reality; it’s only our ignorance that makes us imagine we’re defined by the centuried mud of our desires.
Yogananda described the ego as “the soul, identified with the body.” We have identified ourselves with a limited physical form; and thus we’ve lost contact with what we truly are.
It’s a very different way of seeing ourselves, than the western idea that our deepest nature is dark, limited, and damned because of sin.
Charles Darwin didn’t help our understanding, when he stated that we’ve evolved from the animals, and that our essential nature is animal-like. Most biologists continue to believe that humanity has barely managed to raise its nose above the primeval mud from which we came.
In religion, the fundamentalists insist that if we simply “believe,” God will pluck us out of the mud and make us free. But the truth is that it takes a great deal of work to remove the mud that obscures the pure gold of our nature.
Our biggest problem is that we’re sentimentally attached to the comfortable familiarity of how we’ve always been.
Swami Kriyananda would sometimes make statements that I couldn’t understand. He said, for example, “You can sit in a café in Switzerland, and before people even open their mouths, you can tell what country they’re from.”
I thought it was a bit of an over-generalization, until I began to travel abroad myself, and then I realized that it’s true. The British, Germans, and Italians are probably the easiest to spot. But it isn’t our souls that make us appear French, Italian, German, or English. It isn’t our bodies, or even our dress. It’s an attitude to life that we’ve cultivated.
Swamiji remarked that you’ll occasionally see someone whose nationality is completely unidentifiable, because they’re very strongly themselves, regardless of the culture they were born in.
Swami was like that. He was free of superficial self-definitions. He lived in his essence. As a result, people would often assume that he was a native of whatever country he happened to be in. They would think he was Greek or Italian, and that perhaps he’d just been out of the country for a time, and so that was why his language skills were rusty.
I was traveling with Swamiji and some other Ananda members in Italy. And I remember an Italian storekeeper who said to Swami, “I know you’re Italian, but where are these other people from?”
Swami would tell people that he didn’t belong anywhere. If they asked where he was from, he couldn’t really answer. Every superficial self-definition had been taken away.
For seventeen years, David and I lived in the same apartment in the Ananda community. When we moved to an apartment l00 yards away, I was amazed by the sense of loss I felt. It was humbling, to the point of humiliating, to realize how comfortable I’d become, brushing my teeth at the same sink, looking out the same windows at the same scenes, and walking up the same stairs.
In Paramhansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi, he tells the story of how he and his cousin ran away to the Himalayas when they were young boys. His brother Ananta eventually caught them. At the train station, Yogananda whispered to his cousin that they should watch for a chance to escape and run away again. And he describes how his cousin balked, because he was “basking in the familial warmth.”
Our souls long to merge with the Infinite, to rediscover our true, blissful nature and heal all sense of separation forever. Life after life, we repeat the same drama. The curtains of darkness part momentarily, and we glimpse the pure gold of our nature, and the complete safety and love that accompany it. But then we remember the warmth of the familiar, and we pull back.
The Bhagavad Gita tells us how we can defeat the forces inside us that want to stay buried in the mud. Krishna challenges his disciple Arjuna to fight against his closest relations and slay them. The family members are the desires that are keeping him from knowing his true self. Arjuna laments that if he kills his nearest and dearest, life won’t be worthwhile. He cries, “How can I be happy if I destroy these people who are part of my own self?” Arjuna feels the pull of the comfortably familiar.
The Gita is a short book, but it covers every aspect of the path. And the ultimate message could not be simpler. Near the end of the story, Krishna says to Arjuna, “Because you are a good disciple, I will reveal to you the final secret of liberation. Forget everything I’ve said. Give me your heart. Love me. Put me at the center of your altar. Concentrate on nothing else. And everything will follow.”
It’s an extraordinary passage. The final lesson of the Gita is that if you take care of your consciousness, everything else will follow. And the consciousness that will most assuredly free us is love.
I’ve enjoyed a long friendship with Nayaswami Haridas. Haridas came to Ananda in the early years, and he has his own way of moving through the world. And because he’s happy and joyful, I’ve tried to understand the logic of how he lives.
I could see that his way was very self-consistent – it was something he practiced all the time. Somewhere along the way, he realized that the only thing that matters is consciousness. It’s a vitally important lesson, and one we all need to learn. The only thing we ever express, in any situation, is our consciousness.
If someone speaks to us politely, but inside they’re angry with us, we’re never fooled. We feel the consciousness lurking behind their words. Sooner or later, what’s beneath the surface is bound to come out.
I was browsing through a book for mothers, about how to communicate with their teenage daughters. The title is You’re Going to Wear That? It’s something a mother might casually say, but the child would hear in a very different way.
How many times have you made an innocent remark, and were shocked by the big reaction it got? If you were honest, you could see that it wasn’t only your words that evoked the reaction. There was something in your consciousness when you made the remark that the other person was reacting to.
Years ago, someone accused me of doing something inappropriate that I hadn’t actually done. Yet I realized I was perfectly capable of doing it, and that the other person felt it in my consciousness. She accused me as a kind of “pre-emptive first strike.” I hadn’t done it, but the potential was there.
Swamiji once reprimanded David and me for something we hadn’t actually done. Someone told him we’d done it, but they were wrong. Nevertheless, he scolded us.
We took the scolding calmly. But I was puzzled about why he would scold us, when I guessed that he was aware the accusation was untrue.
Several days later, I said, “Swamiji, of course you know it never happened.”
He said, “I know. But the fact that someone might say it about you – you should pay attention to that.”
The consciousness was in me. Perhaps Swamiji decided to discipline us to help us be aware that we needed to overcome that consciousness. His scolding was valid, coming from someone of his insight.
God reads our hearts. Divine Mother discounts the show we put on for others. She knows our consciousness. The only thing that will free us from delusion is the experience of our true nature, which can only come to us when we love. That’s the point Krishna makes at the end of the Bhagavad Gita.
Many of the qualities I admired in Swami Kriyananda, I thought for a long time were the result of his will power. But I realized in time that they weren’t the result of will power, but of his completely different perception of reality.
There was a woman at Ananda with whom I had a great deal of trouble. She was very overbearing, and it was doubly frustrating because she wouldn’t listen to me. For my part, I had lots of will power, too, and it always felt like we were butting our wills together.
I said to Swami, “I’m having such a difficult time working with this woman, because she’s so overbearing.”
Swamiji said, “Oh, she treats me the same way. When I’m with her, I just don’t bother to have a personality.”
It didn’t mean that he would give up his center, or his values when she was present. But a great deal of her way of moving through world was simply an expression of her personality – it was superficial, not from her soul.
Swami said, “Why have a habit like that?” Meaning, why react to her in my habitual way?
He said, “Why does it have to be a certain way? Why not be able to flow with the way people are?”
Years later, as I began to understand what he’d said, I expressed my gratitude.
I said, “It was so helpful to me, Sir, the idea of not having a personality.”
When Swami saw that we had understood something, he would often take the lesson deeper. He said, “But I don’t have a personality.”
Of course, he appeared to have a personality. He was charming and gracious. He had a unique way of being. But there was no habit in it. He did what was needed in the circumstance. If silence was needed, he would offer silence. If speaking was needed, speaking was offered. If softness was needed, he offered softness.
Someone happily told Swamiji that he’d read about a wonderful leadership technique. The idea was that if you need to correct someone, you should start by telling them a few things they’ve done right.
Swami looked almost horror-stricken. He said, “That’s so manipulative! Anybody who’s at all sensitive would see right through it. And then they’ll question the sincerity of everything you say. They’ll wonder if you’re just being nice to them so you can hack at them.”
People like to imagine they can achieve success by clever shortcuts. They want to learn to manipulate and gouge people. But what nobody teaches us is how to love. How to look at other people with our whole heart and see our own self in them, the divine self. This isn’t something we can fake. And when you encounter it in someone like Swamiji, the reality of life begins to look very different.
I have friends whose consciousness I enjoy, because it expresses expansive qualities. It’s delightful to be with them and practice having no personality of my own, just absorbing their way of being. A good example is Haridas.
It’s fun to mimic other people’s rhythms, especially if they’re different from our own. I occasionally like to imitate the peculiar way people walk, or the mannerisms of their speech, to try to understand the consciousness they’re expressing that way.
I was watching some teenage boys, and I thought, “What would make a person walk like that?”
You know how teenage boys walk, self-consciously affirming their own identity. It’s a movement from the lower chakras. There’s a downward energy, as if they’re trying to sink back into the mud. It’s strongly expressed in the music they listen to, with a heavy downbeat that affirms: “This is who I am.”
Imitating people can help you feel what it’s like to be inside their reality. Once you get into the other person’s reality, the oddest thing is that they tend to open their hearts to you. It’s something I’ve seen many times over the years, in part because I do lots of counseling, and I’ve had the opportunity to sit across from people while they open up and reveal their consciousness.
While I was writing Swami Kriyananda – As We Have Know Him, I spent a week at Ananda Village, interviewing more than fifty people for the book. I asked them to talk about their experiences with Swamiji, which is a subject that’s close to their hearts.
Now, these people were deeply dedicated to the spiritual path. They’re good people, no matter how many idiotic things they’ve done. But it was amazing to see how, when you stand in someone’s consciousness, all sense of judgment disappears.
Every living person is moving in the same reality that the rest of us are moving in. They’re trying to find their place in the world, to learn how to be happy and escape whatever misery has come upon them.
We try in so many ways to find love and freedom. We try so hard to organize our little scene. We’re like little children, setting up our dollies just so, and having our little tea parties.
The Masters see us behaving the same way even as we grow into adulthood. We drive our little car, we sit in our little house, we marry our little husband and our little wife. We get it all arranged just so, and we say, “See, Mommy, I have it all set up just right!”
We go into our closet, and we’re so pleased because everything’s nicely arranged. It’s a perfectly natural instinct. God put us here, and we have to live in the right way. Swami had a closet with his clothes in it, and he had places to live in America, Italy, and India, and he would consciously try to make them beautiful.
It’s not as if we should turn our backs on the world. We have to live. But the important question is: Where is our consciousness? Am I doing this for my own self, to make everything right for me? Am I doing this from dogmatic adherence to a set of rigid rules, because then everything will work out?
The problem with that approach is that it’s tremendously confusing when our system of rules breaks down. “But I did everything right! I went to church all the time!”
There was a book about a rugby team who were traveling on a plane that crashed in the remote Andes. They survived for seventy days, and finally one of them walked out in a desperate bid to get help.
The captain of the team was a charismatic man. The others respected him tremendously, and when they found themselves in this crisis, he naturally stepped into a leadership role. He was a tremendous source of courage and comfort for them.
He was a devout Catholic, in a very traditional sense, and he was persuaded that because he had done everything right, they would be rescued.
At one point, they managed to get a radio going for a short time, and they learned that the search had been called off, because they were too high in the mountains, and too much time had passed.
It created a terrible crisis, and it shattered this man’s world, because he felt that he’d done everything right, and he assumed that everything would go well. In a short time, his strength and courage disintegrated, because the orderly structure of his world had collapsed. He couldn’t deal with it, and he soon gave up and died. Some of the others got out, but he couldn’t go on, because the forms by which he defined his life were taken away.
Many of us live with a similar delusion: “I’ve done everything right, Lord. Why are you treating me this way?”
Swamiji would make fun of wrong attitudes. If you make fun of something when it’s easy, you’re less likely to cling to the same attitude when it’s harder to let it go. You can remember it as a joke.
The first home that Swami built at Ananda Village was a geodesic dome. It cost $5000 and was covered with a spray-on foam. It was an experimental building technique.
The problem was that the dome would flex with the heat of the day and the cold at night. And as it expanded and contracted, it created cracks. One winter we had something like sixty inches of rain in six months, torrential rain, and a great deal of it poured into Swamiji’s house. There was a trapdoor in the floor, with a ladder that he could climb down to get firewood from under the house. And he would lift the trapdoor and sweep out the water.
Swami would say, jokingly, “I’m so sincere, Lord. I’m doing everything I can. Why do You keep raining on me like this?”
The builders tried many ways to seal the dome, but from the beginning Swami said, “You’ll have to put a roof over it.” That’s what they eventually did – if you stand on the porch of Crystal Hermitage now, you can see the roof over the original plastic dome.
So often in our lives, we wail, “I’m trying so hard, Lord, I’m doing everything right. Why aren’t you keeping your side of the bargain?”
We have this grand sense of entitlement. It’s the idea that we’ve been good, and God owes it to us to treat us a certain way. But He doesn’t.
God has a single objective, which is to purify our consciousness so that we can give our hearts completely to Him, without fear. We try to hold on to a little piece of reality. And it’s our clinging that determines how deeply we remain covered with the mud of delusion, unable to experience the light that’s trying to shine forth from the gold within us.
Krishna says, “Give your heart completely to me. Nothing else matters. Let go of every other duty. My grace will come to you.” Throughout my adult life, I listened to Swamiji explain this truth. And I can say that I’ve only just begun to understand it.
Swamiji tried to tell us, “When you give yourself completely to God, you have more of yourself than you could ever have, when you try to hold back.”
We are like children, clinging to our little tea sets, failing to understand that we can never fully express our own small talents when we try to claim them as our own. It’s only when we realize that everything we are seeking is contained in the divine awareness that we begin to understand what we truly are.
Whatever tiny experience of the Divine you’ve had, whatever grace has touched your life, cling to it. Return to it again and again. Remind yourself of it. Enshrine it in the altar of your heart.
The ability to find happiness and freedom from suffering is not about the orderly way you live, or the pure diet, or if you can say, “I go to church regularly.” It’s entirely about your consciousness.
Are you doing these things for love of God? Are you cultivating the ability to love God?
Freedom comes by chanting, meditating, contemplating the Masters, expressing gratitude, and disciplining the mind to release its childish clinging to the things of the world that can disappear in an instant. All that matters is consciousness.
After years of watching Haridas, I began to understand that he was always watching his consciousness. In the midst of a meeting, if he caught his mind wavering ever so slightly from kindness and sympathy, he would suddenly go off on a tangent, in order to bring his consciousness back to where he wanted it to be.
Maybe a tiny bit of judgment would arise regarding someone, and he would launch into an explanation of the goodness of that person. You would be talking about someone, and all of a sudden Haridas would be explaining how this person was wonderful, what fine things they’d done, and wasn’t it sweet how God was playing in them?
You’d think, “When you’re finished, can we go back to the subject?” But Haridas wouldn’t be diverted from the most important subject, which was getting his consciousness right. For a brief moment, some aberration had entered his mind, and nothing existed for him but his consciousness. Until he could make it right, other things didn’t matter.
Most organizations worship efficiency. They hire people who are fine administrators. They don’t like to go off-topic in meetings, because it’s inefficient and inconvenient. But the way you are in your innermost being is far more important than whatever you’re doing outwardly.
The world today is a very difficult place. The problems are insoluble, because the consciousness is wrong. No one would have to go hungry, no one would have to starve, if the consciousness were different.
We pour aid into foreign countries, and the greedy politicians deposit the money in their Swiss bank accounts, to prepare for the moment when they’ll be thrown out. It can drive you crazy, unless you realize that consciousness is more powerful than any outward circumstance.
Your capacity to influence the world on the level of consciousness is limitless. Work on that level. In every circumstance of your life, work with the right consciousness. Even if you’re a political activist, don’t let yourself forget the higher reality, even for a moment. “Give me your heart,” Krishna says. “And everything else will follow.”
(From a talk at Sunday service, Ananda Sangha, Palo Alto, California.)