In our classes at Ananda Sangha, we often touch on reincarnation. Yet in more than forty years of sharing the teachings, I’ve had just one personal experience of remembering a previous life clearly.
I’ve had many intuitions about my past lives that I believe were true. And I’ve assembled pieces of the puzzle of past lives that seem to justify saying “This is who I think I was.”
For example, when David and I were on our honeymoon in Greece, we climbed to a hilltop above Athens, and it was very hard for me to come back down off that hill. The buildings were ruins, yet I felt an incredible happiness being there. As we walked down, I stepped off the trail several times to linger in that feeling.
Years ago, I had a vivid dream of a past life that helped me resolve a difficult relationship I had with a woman at Ananda Village.
The dream was quite unusual because it lasted all night. I would wake up several and come back to the present, then I would fall asleep and carry on with the dream.
It started at the end of a previous life, when I was living as a nun in a monastery. I was very happy there. I had become a contemplative nun there at a relatively early age, and I wasn’t terribly old when I passed away.
Before entering the monastery, my name had been well known in the country where I lived. I’d been a prominent person, but on entering the monastery I had taken a new name and kept my former identity a secret.
Somehow, it came out who I’d been. The circumstances that had led me to the convent were revealed. The other nuns knew about them, because they had been public and very dramatic. There was a great deal of sympathy for my position, but in the dream I said to the nuns, “It was exactly as it was meant to be, because, you see, it brought me here.”
I had a tremendous sense of peace in my heart, which was a true expression of my feelings about the difficult events that had led me to a relationship with God, and this deep opportunity to live a holy life, none of which would have come about without the tragic events that had brought me there.
In the dream, I began to see the circumstances that had led me to the convent. I’m sure it will come as no surprise that I was a revolutionary. (laughter) I had a husband whose identity wasn’t revealed in the dream, but he and I were the people’s champions. We were noble, perhaps even royal, but we were highly placed in society. The monarch, who was a woman, was cruel and much hated. So my husband and I took up the cause and became somewhat effective, to the extent that the queen wanted to get rid of us.
It was a time of horses and carriages, and when we got wind that our lives were in danger, we got into a carriage and were galloping away through the night, just like in the movies, when we were apprehended. And we were helpless, because even though we were well placed, we were revolutionaries and not on the side of power.
So we were dragged away, and my husband was put to death in a terrible way before my eyes. In my dream, I was reliving these events, watching as I went through them. Because I was female, I wasn’t considered a danger, so there was no need to put me to death. But the queen hated me, and I hated her equally.
After my husband was dead, I was of no consequence, as a woman, so I went off and entered the monastery. I can feel these events even as I tell them.
So, what happened when I woke up? Of course, it’s the queen with whom I’m having so much difficulty in the idyllic world of Ananda Village. I’m living face to face with this woman with whom I’ve had so much trouble in at least one previous life.
I didn’t tell her about the dream – I only told Swami – but she somehow got wind of it, and so she trotted off to a past-life reader. And it will come as no surprise to discover that I did horrible things to her as well. We had been rivals, and I had poisoned her. And I believe I did, because my feelings toward her were that intense. I wouldn’t have poisoned her in this life, but I wouldn’t have objected if someone else had. (laughter) That’s putting it too strongly, but I could feel the full power for the old hatred and revulsion.
When I told Swamiji about the dream, he said, “I believe all of this is true.” He confirmed not only the general outlines, but the details.
Now, this woman and I were suddenly using the dream to dislike each other even more, and finally Swamiji had to sit us down, because it was rolling out of hand. My only excuse is that I was twenty-six, although it’s not much excuse at all.
Swamiji said, “Neither of you would be capable of anything like that now. You’ve learned. You’ve had that painful experience and you’ve learned. So you can’t hold each other to these realities any more. You have to acknowledge it in yourself, and you have to acknowledge it in each other.”
It was very helpful – because don’t we just love to use our past lives things as an excuse? “I don’t like her because she did terrible things to me.” Whereas the point is to get over it, and not continue to live it.
Now, that was part of it. The other part, which struck me powerfully, is that the day after I had the dream, I was walking around as if the events in the dram had happened that night. And I had such a strong awareness of the illusion of time, particularly where our emotions are concerned.
Now, bear in mind that all of us are walking around with our memories of the many things that have upset us. Perhaps it’s an inharmonious discussion you had with someone. And you find yourself making excuses and polishing fine-sounding rebuttals that you couldn’t think of at the time. Right?
Not long ago, there was a situation that I really didn’t want to end harmoniously. I wanted to say my piece. I wanted to say what was on my mind, even though the situation was over. And even if it was last year, or a hundred centuries ago, of course it’s not done, because these strong emotions register in our chakras and become part of our vibration and who we are. And so we walk around with our big collection of anger, disappointments, fear, pain, or whatever it might be.
Now, I want to tie this all together. In this life, I was born into very fortunate circumstances, with a good family and a comfortable home. I had nothing to complain about. In this idyllic life I didn’t even know that bad things could happen to children. It didn’t cross my mind, though I remember feeling there was something wrong with the family of one of my friends.
In my family nobody even drank. There was never alcohol in the house. When I went to college, I met a man whose mother was an alcoholic, and he told me incredibly awful stories. And I was shocked, because such a thing had never crossed my mind.
And yet I was born with an intense anxiety about life. I don’t mean an anxiety in my heart, because I was a perfectly cheerful and happy little kid. But I had this incredible drive to find a way out – out of the meaningless world I saw before me.
I’ve shared how I stood at the picture window in our house when I was ten, watching the man across the street mow his lawn. I thought, “Lord, please don’t let this be it!” I didn’t say Lord because I didn’t know about God yet. But I was saying, “This can’t be it. Am I going to get older and end up like that?!”
My personal nightmare was the station wagon with a dog in the back and three or four kids, and me driving them around. Although I wanted to get married and have kids, that was the image of my personal nightmare, that I would get old, but I would never become wise.
As I became older, I realized that my determination was much greater than most people’s, and that what set me apart was that I was willing to actually change myself to make things better.
Everybody wanted things to be better – they wanted this person to fall in love with them, and that award to come to them, and this success. But I learned that people were eager to talk about what they weren’t getting, or what they wanted, but they were very reluctant to take themselves in hand and make it happen.
I realized that I was willing to let go of my desires for things I couldn’t have, and I was willing to work on my own nature, insofar as I knew how. And I began to understand that the key to life was not outside myself but inside.
Now, I knew nothing about reincarnation, and I certainly knew nothing about galloping through the night in a carriage and being arrested by a cruel queen. That dream was far in the future. But when I saw Swami Kriyananda for the first time, I knew in an instant that this man had broken free – of what, I didn’t know. But he had broken free, and I wanted that freedom. I wanted it more than anything. And I never looked back.
I remember driving with Swamiji, and saying, “Sir, I had such a desperate desire for another reality.”
While I was growing, up I couldn’t have put it in exactly those words. The only way I knew to describe it is that I wanted to be happy. And I knew that happiness wasn’t driving a station wagon around with two kids and a dog. Being happy was something much more profound.
I said, “But, Swamiji, I’ve never even suffered. Nothing bad has ever happened to me, I got everything I wanted. What is this?”
And he said, “Past lives.”
Ah, yes – past lives.
Because of the position I’m in, people often confide in me. So I know how many of you have had difficult experiences of various kinds – sudden losses, the death of loved ones, very difficult childhoods, the many difficult things that can happen. But taken as a whole, it’s not so bad, is it? We aren’t living in a concentration camp or a torture chamber. We haven’t been displaced from our homes or subjected to genocide.
There are things that happen on this planet that are almost unimaginably bad. But when I reflected on my dream, I realized that the bad things only happen once in a while, and it’s enough.
Every once in a while, we have to lose everything. Perhaps it’s for a few years, or we lose it all in a single big moment, and maybe it’s even death. But somehow the difficult experiences all break and fall away. Maybe they break in a way that is so stunningly terrible that it takes us many lives to recover. But, very slowly, we’re pushed to see that God has a very different plan for us than we envisioned for ourselves, and that we must go through this terrible middle ground to learn where our true happiness lies.
I think that’s why it takes us so many lives to learn. The life in my dream was as bad as I can imagine. It was on the extreme edge, with losses of a kind that we would prefer to think happen only in the movies, and that you would shudder to think of happening to yourself.
Master would push people to the breaking point, to see which way they would break. Swami tells how he and Norman, a brother monk, were digging a swimming pool for Master at his desert retreat. It was very hot, and they were hungry and tired. There were all these mounds of sand that they’d piled up, and Master came out and had them take a two-by-four and push the sand down until it was level.
Swami said, “I don’t know if I can explain to you how hard it was.” He described how Master had them level one mound after another, until Norman, who was a big, strong man, was muttering under his breath, “Why is he making us do this? We’ve been working all morning.” And Swami finally got the joke and stood up and laughed. Master smiled and said, “I was playing with you. Now go and have your lunch.”
Sometimes when God pushes us, it’s not such a joke, is it? He pushes us far past our breaking point, because he wants to see which way we’ll break. Will we break toward anger and resentment? Or will we turn with open hearts to Him?
“If they hadn’t done this to me, I wouldn’t feel so bad.” God knows, we all carry resentments. I have to say that when I met the queen again in this life, I didn’t like her. I was very anxious for her to disappear, and I had very little capacity to see her in her own context. My sympathy wasn’t big enough. My heart still wanted revenge. And as long as it wants revenge, as long as it wants its part, as long as I don’t want it to end harmoniously and I want to say my piece, then what happens? I get to do it again and again.
And that’s why my friend – and we eventually became very good friends – that’s why she was willing to go out and find out how horrible I had been. Because until we find the will to break in a positive way, we get to play endless games of ping-pong until finally, after many lifetimes, we begin to understand that we’ll never find happiness that way. It’s a reality that’s very, very difficult to accept – that it’s we who need to change. It’s why this church is so small, relatively. It’s why only a handful of people take Self-Realization seriously, as we do.
But, you see, in the end it’s the only choice. It’s the only choice because it’s the law of life. We were made for bliss. We were made to be one with Spirit. We were made to be in harmony with all that is. We were made to take the blessings we receive and share them with all. And through every difficulty, no matter how unfair it may appear, when our consciousness expands and we begin to see it from God’s viewpoint, we understand that it was God loving us all the time.
There’s a beautiful poem called The Hound of Heaven, which Master read aloud in a recording. It’s about a man who’s fleeing from God. He’s frightened because he feels he’s being pursued by what the Hound of Heaven. He flees everywhere from that inescapable presence until at last a hand comes over him, and he realizes that it’s “the shade of His hand, outstretched caressingly,” and it’s pulling him into the light.
So often we define ourselves as if we were in opposition to the world. So many things happen that we like or don’t like. This pleases me and this doesn’t. I want this but not that. I want people to conform to my desires.
When Swami went off into the infinite, a year ago, he was almost eighty-seven. His poor body! He couldn’t even walk without help. Yet we wanted him to stay with us just one more year. Afterward, I said to myself and to others, “Trailanga Swami lived for three hundred years and Babaji lives forever. If Swamiji could have been like them, it would have been nice. But failing that, death is inevitable.”
We think, “Yes, but it was my child who died!” Or my wife, or my husband, or my aged mother – and why does this have to happen?
Because God has so much more to give us. And like the child who doesn’t want to go off to kindergarten, we say amidst our tears, “I want to stay home with you, Mommy.”
A little girl in our community was enamored of the Virgin Mary. She’d been reading about the shepherds and Fatima and Bernadette of Lourdes. They were simple people, and they had visions of the Virgin Mary, so she told her mother that she didn’t want to go to school anymore. She wanted to be a shepherd, because shepherds were the most likely to have visions of God. She didn’t need to learn to read because she knew how to count sheep, and that was enough.
We smile when children have such touching ideals, and when little boys promise to marry their mothers. “I’m going to live with you always, Mommy, I’m never leaving.” And then they turn into hulking teenagers who won’t come even home for dinner.
We think it’s adorable, and just like children we say to God, “This is what I want. I don’t really need freedom. I don’t really need bliss. I just want a station wagon with two kids in the back and a dog!”
And Divine Mother smiles the way we smile at the six-year-old. “I know, my dear, that’s what you want now. That’s because you don’t understand.”
So She allows us to go away and experiment. And it breaks our hearts. And it’s God who does that. It sounds awful, but He does it on purpose, because He wants to see which way we will break. Will we become softer and more expansive? Kinder and more compassionate toward others? Or will we harden, and the next time try harder to get what we want and hold it in place? And then God has to pound us a bit harder until we break again.
But we need to break as the saints break, the way we saw Swamiji at the end of his life. So soft, so blissful, so kind. We need to break in that way, only because there is no other choice for us.
Years ago, Swami gave a talk where he put it like this: “Sooner or later you’re going to get it right. Why waste a few million lifetimes?”
Ask yourself why. Is it worth it to hold onto this anger? To hold this resentment, to hold this sorrow, to hold this sense that others aren’t treating you right, and so you’re justified in being angry?
And perhaps you are justified. And the reward for insisting is that you get to keep it. And you get to suffer. And you get to fight the world. You get to be right. What satisfaction! – you get to be right, but you get to be right all by yourself, when God is calling you to an infinity of bliss.
In my dream, I realized that God gave me the tragedy of the first part of that past life so that He could give me the bliss of the second part. As I told the nuns, “It’s all right, because it brought me here.” Here, meaning to the awareness that the Divine Mother is always with me, and that everything unfolds as it’s meant to, for our ultimate bliss.
(From Asha’s Sunday service on 5/25/14.)