The Bible offers us a comforting promise: If we forgive, we will be forgiven. If we are sorrowful, we will be comforted. And the greatest promise: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”
All of the experiences of countless lives are precisely arranged to help us purify our hearts, so that we can know God. By purifying our hearts, we remove the obstacles that block us from God’s light, so that it can shine forth as our true reality.
Christ’s words touch on something that many people struggle with on the path – doubting whether God can really love us with all our faults and weaknesses, and whether we’re pure enough to be worthy of Him.
Satan’s best trick, as I’ve often said, is to persuade us that we don’t inherently belong to the light. But the truth is, the divine light is the essence of what we are, and if we want to know God we only need to remove the obstacles that obscure the light.
In the spiritual life, we must continually do battle with the many influences that want to confuse our hearts. We imagine we’ll be happy if we can just fulfill one more desire. But what is it that we’re really looking for, behind all our human longings? Time after time, our minds get confused about this. And the source of our confusion is that we follow our mind without purifying our heart.
People who are addicted to drugs will affirm with their mind, “I don’t want to do this anymore!” But it’s much harder to persuade the heart, because of the many desires that can pull us away.
We long for happiness, but until that desire becomes all-consuming, we’ll find ourselves making lesser choices. In fact, until we reach the state of complete devotion to God, we make so many lesser choices that it really doesn’t help us to get upset about it.
This is why I encourage people, “It’s bad enough that you’re making lesser choices – don’t make a complex out of it! Because you’ll just end up with two problems instead of one. And the danger is that, long after you’ve stopped making lesser choices, you’ll still be torturing yourself over the bad things you’ve done in the past, and punishing yourself for your mistakes.”
The habit of self-loathing can bind us for incarnations. And how does it ultimately help us? By fretting about our weaknesses, we’re just making another lesser choice.
It’s important to remember that every great master who ever lived has found freedom by walking exactly the same path that we are on.
This is a wonderful contribution of the Bhagavad Gita. The New Testament seems to suggest that Jesus Christ is the only being who ever attained oneness with the Father. But the Gita tells us that a saint who comes into this world as a fully enlightened being started out exactly as you and I. And every lesser choice that we’ve made, every wrong decision, every adventure into darkness – the masters can say, “I’ve been there.” Because it’s the nature of spiritual growth that we cannot truly understand until we’ve made our own mistakes and had our own experiences.
Life challenges us to go ever more deeply into the field of consciousness until we finally realize what we’re truly longing for. And isn’t that the only question that matters: What am I longing for? And where can I find it?
That question defines the entire problem of our existence, doesn’t it? “Where do I imagine I’ll find happiness?”
It’s the single question that confuses us above all others, until we finally realize the answer.
Last week, I had the opportunity to give a class at Spiritual Renewal Week. And when I stood up to speak, I found myself in deep emotional waters.
What prompted it was a concert the night before. I went to the concert by myself, and afterward I found myself walking up the hill in a parade of attractive young couples who were lovingly holding hands.
There are lots of young couples at Ananda now, fine young people, and there’s a spirit of romantic love in the air, in its most intoxicating form. Just beautiful young people discovering each other. And there are many God-sent relationships – so it’s uplifting as well, and I’m not in any way making light of it.
But walking in their company, I felt a tremendous wave of nostalgia pass over me. Now, I’m very happy to have been well-married for a very long time. It’s been a wonderful experience to have a lifelong partner. So I’m not at all against marriage, though I do think that “old love” is better than new love.
But what was I longing for? The mind has its coolly rational thoughts, and then a wind of nostalgia sweeps over us, born of the feelings of the heart.
There’s a French expression, nostalgie de la boue. It means “nostalgia for the mud.” We sometimes long for a more easeful life, to slip back into a place where we won’t have to put out so much effort anymore, at least for a time.
Years ago, my friend Arati and I went swimming in the Yuba River. It was a very hot summer day, and we were enjoying the cool water. There was a large boulder that rose steeply out of the water, and we invented a game called “Evolution of the Species.”
We would crouch down low in the water, and then we would slowly evolve until we made it to the top of the rock and became human beings and liberated souls. We were being playful and silly, acting out the soul’s journey of evolution through mineral, plant, and animal forms until it gains a human body and finds its final freedom.
This is the journey that all of us are on at this very moment. At this stage of our soul’s long progress, we’ve allowed ourselves to become identified with a human form, with its myriad ego-born desires for endless variations of pleasure and praise.
David and I were on vacation with Swamiji in Goa, in southern India. We were out walking with him one day, and we passed a painting in a shop window. It was a very mediocre painting of a well-dressed Indian woman and her suitor. Swamiji looked at the picture and said, “You can see that he’s consumed with lust for her, looking at her in this way, and she’s rather proud of herself for having captured him in that way.”
Whenever we would pass the shop and see that picture, it was agonizing, because you could identify with every part of it. There was the nostalgia for that swirling romantic energy of the world, of ego-identity and the fire of youth, with all the expectations of fulfillment, and then the inevitable crash.
It isn’t an ugly, bad, or unnecessary story. And that’s the worst part – that it isn’t unnecessary, because we do have these longings, and they are planted in us for a purpose. And no amount of verbal warnings – “Watch out! It’s not what it seems!” – will dissuade us from following our misty dreams.
Those longings will move us, and we need to understand that they are implanted in us by God. We have to walk our own path, because until we’ve explored every one of those longings, there will be a part of us that won’t be satisfied until it can taste that particular fulfillment.
So there I am, walking up the hill, having lived a wonderful life, truly a divine life, and this tremendous nostalgic longing falls over me. And I marvel at how my delusions seem absolutely endless.
Swami Kriyananda quoted Paramhansa Yogananda: “You aren’t safe until you’ve attained nirbikalpa samadhi.”
Nirbikalpa is the highest state of God-realization, from which we can never fall. Yogananda told Swamiji that in past lives he had attained sabikalpa samadhi – the state of ecstasy in which we temporarily merge our consciousness with God, but from which we have to return to our normal ego-consciousness.
Master said that Swamiji had fallen from that high state because he doubted the guru owing to intellectual pride. And Swamiji said that when you fall from that state where you can enter samadhi at will, you don’t fall very far. But you aren’t safe until you’ve merged your consciousness forever in God.
Now, on the one hand it can be frightening to think that we can know God and fall away. But on the other hand, let’s recognize that we need to trust God, trust ourselves, trust the process that God has created, and have faith. After all, what choice do we have? Each step of our soul’s long journey is part of God’s lila, His play.
For twelve years, from 1991 to 2003, Ananda was embroiled in a lawsuit that Self-Realization Fellowship filed against us.
History is full of examples of this kind of thing – where the “first church” enjoys its monopoly until the second church splits off, and then the first church tries to hold onto what it thinks it owns exclusively. The second church then escapes, and you have the third, fourth, fifth, and eighth reformed version of the second. And so it goes. You find this especially in America, where new churches spring up like wildflowers.
And so the first church sued us. And the leaders of the first church of Self-Realization are great souls. They are great devotees of Paramhansa Yogananda, great disciples, and great yogis. And yet they lost their way for a time, feeling that they had to do this unpleasant thing, which we managed by the grace of God and Guru to thwart.
Now, some people become very alarmed when they discover that great souls can do things that aren’t entirely admirable. And I’m assuming that you accept my point of view on this, which is that I don’t think it was admirable at all of them to sue us. And in the midst of the process, there was a period of about twelve hours when Swami Kriyananda became deeply concerned about this – that great followers of this path could make such a grievous error. But the next morning he said, “I don’t know what this path has done for others, but I certainly know what it has done for me. My faith in this path of Self-Realization is my own, based on my own experience. It doesn’t matter if it works for anyone else on the planet. It works for me.”
I resolved it in a slightly different way. I thought, “Wow! Even great souls can get confused and make mistakes! There’s hope for us all!”
The reason I mention this is that the greatest difficulty people have on the path is failing to fully accept where they are now standing on their long spiritual journey. And the problem isn’t where they actually are, but where they perceive themselves to be – that is, how they judge themselves for being less than entirely saintly.
The Bhagavad Gita states that we grow through three natural stages as we evolve spiritually. In the final stage, where we’re very close to God, the Gita says that our delusions are like a little bit of smoke that obscures a fire, and that it takes only a little puff of wind to reveal the flame.
We all have various amounts of smoke that obscures our vision. And it may take the form of a longing for worldly fulfillment, as I felt when I walked up the hill with those beautiful couples and thought, “Oh, to be young and beautiful again!” And these are the thoughts that cause us to reincarnate, because what you strongly wish for, you will surely get, and you’ll be able to be born young and beautiful again.
A friend of mine was a serious meditator and yogi. But when his first child was born and he saw that helpless little baby, so utterly adorable but flailing away and completely dependent, he never missed another meditation. He said that although he’d been a good meditator, he became absolutely disciplined, because he saw what it meant when those longings consume us. Because every desire of the heart has to be fulfilled.
As I walked up the hill with the young couples, what I felt was not a small thing – it was a feeling that completely overcame me. I can talk about it calmly now, but it was not a small feeling. And I thought, “My, there’s no end to our delusions.”
We must be extremely careful and self-aware and conscious, because we need to turn every thought toward God. And we must practice with kindness and compassion for our weaknesses.
Minutes after that experience, I found myself standing alone under the broad sky, and I felt my feelings come back into balance. The longing was gone like a wisp of smoke blown away by a puff of wind.
But some longings are much harder to dispel. The Gita says they are like rust on a mirror. You have to scrub hard to remove the rust. And there’s no escaping that effort.
It hurts my heart when people tell me about some painful issue they’re facing, and then they say, “I know it’s stupid to feel this way.”
No! – it’s not stupid! You’ve spent a great many lives working yourself up to this state of delusion, and it can’t be tossed off lightly. We are attached to people, to things, to youth, beauty, pleasure, wealth, and position. And this is who we are.
In my book, Loved and Protected – Stories of Miracles and Answered Prayers, I included a story by a man who had a very colorful past. He put his name on the story, which was courageous. And the first thing he said was, “You might think that being a drug addict and a devoted disciple of a great Master is contradictory. I’m here to say it’s not.”
But, there you are – you’re caught in a certain reality, and it may take some hard scrubbing to remove that patch of rust from the mirror of your soul.
And then the Gita describes the lowest state of delusion, which is like a baby in the womb. The baby will come out at its appointed time, and with all the good will in the world, you aren’t going to make it be born a second sooner. These are the delusions that Swami Kriyananda said we should put on the shelf for a time, until we can develop the inner strength to deal with them. “Fight the battles that you stand a good chance of winning,” is how he put it.
A great part of what it takes to be successful on the path is calm acceptance. Just calmly accepting that you’ve spent many lives building yourself up to your present reality. You’ve invested great energy in that reality, and you’ve persuaded yourself on a deep level that apparently this is a good idea. And even if it has begun to dawn on you that maybe it isn’t such a good idea after all, you’re going to have to wait out the full term until the lesson can be born.
We need to recognize that, as Paramhansa Yogananda said, the spiritual path is a long-distance race. It is not a sprint. We don’t want to be a straw fire, as Master put it – wildly enthusiastic, burning hot and bright, and then suddenly our fuel is exhausted and we flame out, unable to remember why we were so excited.
We need to be able to say, “I’ve made my choices. They’ve brought me this far. And now I’m getting back to work.” And we need to do it daily.
The man who wrote about being a drug addict was pushed to the bottom of life’s well. He was arrested and taken to jail, his clothes were taken away, and he lay in a bare cell in his underwear. Everything was gone, all self-respect, freedom, everything. And he discovered that when there was nothing left, God was still there. He said, “It’s a hard test, and I wouldn’t recommend it for everyone, but it was certainly worth it for me.”
And that’s the story of the spiritual path. Our hearts have to crack again and again, until everything that is impure in us, which is to say, not part of our true nature, has been broken and crumbled away.
And yes, it’s a painful process, but far less so if you know where you’re going. And that’s the path in its essence. “I know where I’m going, and no matter where the road may lead, I know that I’m on the road that will take me there, as long as I hold on to God and don’t give up.”
God bless you.
(From Asha’s talk at Sunday service on August 24, 2014)