About twenty years ago, we were assaulted by lawyers, and on several occasions I had to have my deposition taken.
Now, my trade, so to speak, is communication, but the lawyers had to teach me that when you’re being questioned by the opposition in a lawsuit, communication is NOT the goal. You simply don’t tell them anything they don’t specifically ask. And it was not easy for me to get into that mode, to listen carefully and respond very literally to the exact words.
Of course, our lawyer had to step on my foot several times until I could shift my brain and hear only the literal words. But I learned how to be a very good witness for our side, and they didn’t depose me for long because there wasn’t much they could get out of me.
But I realized how differently we function in this world than we often realize. It dawned on me that in normal conversation we don’t just listen to the exact words of the other person, but we feel their vibration. We sense their intentions, and we form a picture of their energy.
In The New Path: My Life with Paramhansa Yogananda, Swami Kriyananda describes several incidents where Yogananda knew what Swamiji had said, even though he wasn’t present at the time.
Yogananda would often correct Swamiji for errors that he had no way of knowing about except through his intuition. When Swamiji expressed surprise at this ability, Master said, “I know every single thought that you are thinking.” In The New Path, Swamiji describes a number of occasions where Master proved it.
Swamiji remarked that a person’s first response, on finding that his guru can read his thoughts, might well be embarrassment. But he said that he wanted Master to know his every thought, because he wanted all of his thoughts to be turned toward God.
Swamiji was at a level of spiritual development where he could legitimately aspire to give every to God, and Master trained him accordingly.
But we can only be as open and transparent before God as we are ready to be. And it isn’t a question of saying a fervent prayer to God that we’re eager to let Him into our hearts. Rather, it’s a question of how much courage we’ve developed to let Him into our hearts.
How willing are we – right now, at this point in our lives – to abide with God? And how much time will we spend with the part of our consciousness that is “sort-of” interested in God?
Swamiji made a series of short videos called Ask Me About Truth, where Nayaswami Dharmadas played the role of interviewer.
At one point, Dharmadas asked, “What if you want to change, but part of you doesn’t want to change?”
Swamiji said, “I really don’t understand that question at all.”
Dharmadas tried again: “What if you want to admit that you were wrong, but you don’t really want to admit you were wrong.”
Swamiji laughed and reiterated that he really didn’t know how to relate to the question.
But then he said, “Before you can make any progress in life, you have to work with what is. You have to accept reality as it is before you can change it.” That was the closest he would come to answering the question.
Later, as I thought about Swamiji’s answer, it struck me that his perception of reality was always extremely simple – that all of the joy we are seeking comes from divine attunement, and all the misery we experience comes because we’re out of tune with the Divine.
As the conversation with Dharmadas unfolded, Swamiji said, in essence, “If you feel that way, you haven’t suffered enough.”
He said, “That’s the point of suffering. The point of suffering is to teach us the consequences of our own behavior.”
Once we learn our karmic lessons, we find that we suffer less – and that we have less choice than we imagined. Happiness of the highest type only comes by giving ourselves completely to God.
The law of karma is simple. We are made a certain way, and when we cooperate with the way we’re made, everything flows harmoniously. But when we rebel against the way we’re made, and try to make our own rules, sooner or later the consequences roll over us.
When we suffer, we have two choices. We can be angry that we’re suffering, and more determined than ever to make our own way work. Or we can find the humility to ask a sincere question: “What am I doing wrong?” What have I not yet understood? Even more powerfully, we can invite the Master into our awareness and say, “Show me.”
But, you see, some of us haven’t suffered enough. And the pleasure of holding on to our familiar habits is deeply engrained.
Habits are so darling. I just really enjoy them. “Oh, here’s my cup of tea, I’ll carry it over and sit in the sun and read my book, and then I’ll go upstairs and do my work.”
We get into our habitual ways of being – what I think of things, and why I like these people, and that person is icky, and this one needs to get his life in order, according to my idea of what it looks like to have a well-ordered life.
We play our personal habit-scripts over and over, without understanding where they come from.
I’ve never been to the Grand Canyon, but I’ve seen photos of the geologic strata that are revealed by the river that has cut into the earth for thousands of years. Geologists can read the strata and tell us about the events that occurred in former ages.
Similarly, if we could analyze the strata that we’ve built up in our nature over thousands of years, we could understand the source of our habits and karma.
As “a woman of a certain age,” I’ve stepped completely away from the world of fashion by becoming a Nayaswami. But I’ve always enjoyed watching how the mind freezes when we reach a certain age, and how from that point on you become fairly fixed in what you think looks good.
I remember how, after living in the remote foothills at Ananda Village for a decade, we went down to San Francisco to start an Ananda center.
We were living with virtually no money, in a completely rural environment, and we had no fashion sense at all. So we needed to buy city clothes, and we went to the thrift store, where we were amazed by the gorgeous things we could buy, quite cheaply.
And then we moved to San Francisco, and we felt so sharp, men and women alike, in our lovely new clothes. And after a few months one of the residents told us that we looked really great – for a decade earlier! We looked “peculiar” was how she put it. We were nicely dressed, but we looked a little strange because we were frozen in the geologic stratum of an earlier era. And, of course, that’s why we were able to buy all the lovely clothes at the thrift store so cheaply, because the former owners had moved on.
When I was fifteen, I figured out that we all dressed the way somebody told us to. If we lived in France, we would look completely different than if we were from America, and depending on where we lived, there was a force that told us how we were supposed to look.
My point is, don’t ever imagine that you’re choosing freely. We aren’t able to choose freely until the ego is completely dissolved and all our desires have gone away. Until then, we’ll always be tuning into some external idea of how we’re supposed to be.
So the question is: what kind of reality should we tune into, at this point in our spiritual life? Because complete freedom isn’t an option until we’ve conquered the ego.
Given that we aren’t free, we’ll always have certain personal preferences. And the great challenge is to answer the question that Dharmadas tried to ask Swamiji: “What if we’re of two minds about what we want to do? Which one should we follow?”
When I was younger on the path, I went through a difficult period where I had a very hard time feeling God’s will for me. And I gradually realized that whenever I was confused, it was because I was afraid.
I was afraid that something would be taken away from me. But I came to understand that admitting our fears is a very honest place to be. It might not be where we’d like to see ourselves, but it’s honest, because it’s our present reality. And the single most important key to being in tune with God is to work with things as they are.
That’s how Swami finally answered Dharmadas. He said, “We have to work with things as they are.” Because the key to the spiritual path is to expand your own, present boundaries.
There was a prosperity guru who believed in donating a percentage of your income to spiritual causes. And, of course, some people rise easily to the thought of giving ten percent of their income. But this man’s principle was a challenge – “If it doesn’t make you nervous when you write that tithing check, the check isn’t big enough.”
Wherever we are, do we want to stay there comfortably forever? We need to ask, “How much happiness do I have, and how much am I suffering? And how much longer do I want to stay here?”
Attunement with the Divine comes by answering these questions as honestly as we can, and then pushing at our real edges. And when we do that, the result is an increase in our happiness.
I was reading some letters that Swamiji wrote to me years ago, and it struck me how often his closing advice was, “Be happy.”
Even though I think of myself as a happy person, I remember how very difficult it was to adjust to the discrepancy between who I wanted to be, and who I actually was.
I was stuck in a geologic stratum that says, “You aren’t good enough – therefore you can’t be openhearted and happy in God’s presence. Look at all the things you haven’t yet accomplished.”
But I gradually understood that until we are absolutely free, we’ll always be burdened with weaknesses and deficiencies.
Even great saints are conscious of their limitations. But the difference is how they react to them. Do we open our hearts and welcome God, who is eager to take our hand and guide us through our limitations to true happiness? Or do we cling to what we presently are?
Jonathan Livingston Seagull was a popular book in the early 1970s, about the journey of self-perfection. The author, Richard Bach, became a sort of pop-culture guru, and he was pretty good at it. I love something he said: “If you’re attached to your limitations and fight to defend them, the reward is that you get to keep them.”
Whenever I find myself trying to justify why I can’t do this, and why I can only do that, I think, “What will your hesitation get you except more of the same?”
There are times when your only option is to stand back for a time and say, “Lord, the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” We mean well, but we aren’t strong enough to act on our good intentions.
“Lord, I want to open my heart to Your power that will make me free, instead of wallowing in my hypnosis that believes there’s no way out. But I’m not feeling strong enough right now.” And then He will help you become stronger.
Someone asked Swamiji, “How can we know our dharma? How can we know the actions that will take us toward freedom?”
He said, “If you’re standing next in line, and it needs to be done, then it’s probably your job to do it.”
Instead of looking around and asking, “How can I have a life that’s better than this one?” we can ask, “How can I live this life more beautifully for God?”
How can I make these habits I’ve built up over many lives my companions on the journey, rather than viewing them as barriers that separate me from God? Remember that God loves it when we come to Him exactly as we are.
“To all who received him,” St. John said, “to them gave He the power to become the sons of God.”
Wherever we’re standing, we can make it a little more beautiful, a little more in tune, a little more open. And you’ll be surprised how, in time, the doors to the Infinite will open ever wider before you.
God bless you.
(From Asha’s talk at Sunday service on July 6, 2014.)