In my forty years of friendship and service with Swami Kriyananda, I had many experiences that served as important keys for my understanding of the spiritual life.
I moved to Ananda Village in June 1971. My spiritual search had begun several years earlier, through reading spiritual books and making sporadic efforts to meditate. Those first explorations, as often happens with beginners, included working with my body, especially yoga postures and diet.
This was in 1968 or 1969, when the natural foods movement was just beginning. A friend who worked at General Foods told me that there was more nutrition in the cardboard box than the cereal inside.
Nowadays, people are more consciousness of the values of eating natural, unprocessed food. And for many devotees, the body is a convenient place where they can start to work on purifying their consciousness. Diet and Hatha Yoga are accessible ways to experience how we change our consciousness by performing certain actions.
You do the yoga postures, and you feel calmer, or you feel less painful in your body. Or you begin to eat nutritious foods and you feel better. As Paramhansa Yogananda said, it’s good to keep the body fit and exercised for Self-realization.
But purifying the body isn’t the same as purifying the heart. As Swami Kriyananda put it, “The way to God is through the heart, not through the stomach.”
This morning, I was remembering a conversation between Swami Kriyananda and a teacher from India, Sant Keshavadas. Swamiji was explaining how, at this time on planet Earth, when the general consciousness of mankind is still at a relatively gross level, it isn’t possible to get very far by purifying the body alone.
He said that in the highest age, when the veil between spirit and matter is thin, it takes only a little bit of physical purification, and you can break the hold of matter and become aware of Spirit. But in the present age, where matter still has a powerful grip on our consciousness, the best way to make spiritual progress is through devotion. It’s fine make the body as pure as you can, but it’s ultimately too heavy to have much effect on your consciousness.
But I, of course, didn’t know this in 1969. I thought that diet was a way that I could exercise my will power and change who I was. I became extremely strict in my diet, and I developed a particular mental aversion to sugar, and to anyone who ate it. By the time I arrived at Ananda Village, I had gone for three or four years without letting the evil sugar demon enter my pure temple. And I thought I was pretty hot stuff. I wasn’t in Samadhi, but I thought I was getting close.
Swami Kriyananda always had a rather light attitude toward questions of diet. He once said to Paramhansa Yogananda, “Master, help me overcome my enjoyment of good food.”
Yogananda said, “Don’t worry too much about those little things. When ecstasy comes, everything goes.” Which Swami gratefully accepted.
At the end of his life, Swamiji would say, “I’m a picky eater, and that’s just the way it is. I like what I like, and I don’t like what I don’t like, and that’s that.”
When he was a young monk, Yogananda told him to always have three meals a day. He had begun skipping dinner so he could meditate longer. And you might think the guru would endorse that. But he said, “You must eat regularly, and you must eat three times every day.”
So Swamiji would faithfully sit down three times a day and have a meal, not necessarily large or elaborate, but because it was what his Master told him to do, he did it.
In general, Yogananda’ philosophy about diet was what he called “proper-eatarianism.” He said, “Find a diet that works for you, and forget about it.” But, again, these weren’t things I knew in 1971.
Swamiji saw some potential in me, thank God, but it certainly wasn’t realized potential. I was a little tense, is the best way I can put it. I was quite a bit thinner, and I had long hair that I wore in tight little braids, and I had frameless glasses. That was my self-image, and Swamiji decided that I had potential, but that we needed to develop it.
One day, for some reason, I found myself going along on an excursion to Nevada City with Swamiji and a group of people from Ananda. And Swamiji, in his innocence, which I learned to love, and in his childlike, exuberant way announced that since we were in town, we should go to the ice cream parlor. Swenson’s Ice Cream was a favorite haunt of vegetarian yogis.
So we went to have ice cream – or they went to have ice cream. There were about twelve of us, two carloads of people, and we sat at a long table with Swami at the head and me at the foot.
I sat all by myself, and in my mind’s eye I remember how Swamiji was very exaggerated with the energy of the event, helping everyone order, and getting all the ice cream on the table, with lots of exuberant gestures. In the meantime, I asked for a glass of water, no ice thank you, and I sat at the foot of the table and sipped my water while everyone feasted on ice cream.
I remember how Swamiji was so exaggerated, reaching out to taste everyone’s ice cream, sampling everybody’s sundaes, and how people were passing their ice cream around.
Fortunately, I had a sense that there was something wrong, and that the fault wasn’t with Swamiji and the others, but that the odd duck seemed to be me – and maybe I should think about it.
Who could say if a moment like that was spiritually important. But I remember it vividly, even though it was a long time ago. And I don’t think it was about ice cream.
Later, Swami had to go off sweets for health reasons. But I think the deeper meaning of the incident was about deciding whose point of view I would follow.
As many of you know, from the moment I met Swami Kriyananda, I decided that this was my path, and from that point I’ve never looked back.
I realize how unusual it was, but following Swamiji seemed like an incredibly glorious opportunity. How could anybody not seize it? And the freedom with which I made that decision is something for which I’m eternally grateful – I feel very blessed to have had such karma.
But to have brought myself to the point where it never occurred to me not to follow, and where, once I made that decision, I never looked back, seems an extraordinary good fortune.
People ask, “What did your parents think?” And my immediate thought is, “What does that have to do with anything?”
I was twenty-two, and it’s not as if I was disrespectful of my parents, but it was my decision, and what did it have to do with anyone else?
Now, we have to work for many incarnations to reach the point where we’re able to perceive our spiritual reality, and put our entire will behind it. And, partly, of course, it’s by the grace of God that we’re able to make such a change. But it’s also a question of having developed a great deal of inner strength.
Nothing in our society encourages us to develop that kind of wisdom and strength. You don’t see billboards that say, “Consider the spiritual path! You’ll be so much happier if you renounced everything!” And very few of our parents, siblings, spouses, and children will ever tell us, “Asha, please renounce the world!”
So there has to be a great deal of inner strength, and there has to be a capacity to perceive that there’s a higher reality, which in itself is a very rare and subtle grace.
Looking around us, it seems self-evident that the material world is the real world. And the ability to see that there’s something beyond it, and that it’s vastly more important, is a great blessing, and a sign of genuine spiritual development.
I had an elderly friend with whom I would have philosophical discussions. My friend believed that the external world is the only reality there is, and that if we want to be happy we must accommodate ourselves to our outer environment. And I, of course, believed the opposite – that the inner world is the reality, and that if we want to be happy, we need to adjust our consciousness.
We would discuss these things until we reached the usual impasse, and then we would go have coffee, because there was nothing else we could do.
It’s a wonderful point in your spiritual evolution when you receive the grace of God to recognize that there’s a subtle reality beyond this world, and the inspiration to separate yourself from the mainstream and stand firm against opposition and persecution when people tell you you’re crazy.
Your friends and relatives will say, “Do you really know what’s going on with these people? How well do you really know them? Are you sure they don’t have hidden motives?”
If you live in America, one of the greatest things people fear is to be considered gullible; to be seen as less than shrewd. In this country, people feel it’s their duty to put on the brakes and think – “Well, yes, I had a wonderful experience at Ananda. In fact, it was an amazingly deep, heart-opening experience. But, hmm, maybe there’s something I’m not aware of…”
So we wait and watch. It’s a quintessential American trait, and it’s true of some European cultures as well. But it isn’t that way all over the world .
To be able to buck that cultural reality – to feel what you feel, and follow through, takes a great deal of personal power. And then, just when you think you have it all arranged exactly right, at the point where you’re able to stand up to everyone and buck the mainstream, you get to be a disciple. And then it’s suddenly not your point of view that matters anymore at all.
Suddenly, you’re in a relationship with brothers and sisters on the spiritual path, and you’re in a relationship with the Master. You’re in a relationship to your teachers. You’re in relationship to the scriptures. And now, after you’ve worked with every ounce of your strength not to listen to anybody who tries to dissuade you, everything changes. There was nobody around who could teach you, and now there is somebody who can teach you, and you have to use all your power to perceive reality on a subtler level.
You suddenly find that you have to let go of the habits that have served you up to this point. Because we have to outgrow the particular we were wearing when we traveled this far.
Sitting at the table in 1971 with everyone around me eating ice cream, I’m not sure if it was a critical moment in my spiritual growth. But a little less than ten years later, I had a moment where I was struggling with an issue that seemed much more important, and yet Swamiji was very casual about helping me. In fact, he didn’t help me at all.
Later, he said, “That was a critical test. If you hadn’t passed that test, you would have left the path.”
“Oh, my God!” I said, “Why didn’t you tell me?”
He said, “I didn’t think it would help you to know.”
Nonetheless, we do have these critical junctures in our spiritual lives. Was the ice cream parlor one? I think it could have been, because what I saw in front of me contradicted everything I was committed to, and I had sound reasons for my choices. I could have given Swamiji all the facts and figures about the terrible consequences of consuming sugar. And at that point it would have been easy to walk away. “These people don’t know what they’re doing.”
But I believed, based on my own experience, that Swami Kriyananda knew what he was doing, more than anybody I’d ever met, and certainly more than me. And this is when discipleship begins. Becoming a disciple sounds lovely, until your point of view, your desires, and your ego are contradicted. And then, how will you decide?
That’s the spiritual path in a nutshell – how will you decide? And, oddly enough, it’s about trusting yourself. You come to the spiritual path because of some deep experience that persuades you that it’s real. And you must hold on to the clarity of that moment when you received your first true intuition, and not let the mice of doubts chew on it.
Will I believe what I felt from Swami Kriyananda at our first meeting? Or will I let ice cream be more important? Swamiji doesn’t follow my dietary plans, he doesn’t agree with my political opinions, he doesn’t want me to continue in the way I want. And on what basis will I decide?
Swamiji once asked me to speak to a woman who was arguing with him in a way that he didn’t think was appropriate, but he didn’t think he could communicate with her.
He would often do that, because he never wanted to push people to the point where they would turn against him. So he would often send someone to talk with them on his behalf, because if they were relating to Asha instead of him, for example, we might be able to have a different conversation.
At any rate, Swamiji sent me to speak with this woman, and we happened to be driving to San Francisco together, which was convenient because it would give us an opportunity to talk.
I knew the issue was delicate, so I sat in the car and prayed to Master, “If there’s an opening, you’ve got to help me.”
As soon as I prayed, the woman turned to me and brought up the subject, and we had a conversation about it. Finally, I said to her, “You have an opinion. He has an opinion. On the face of it, who do you think has a greater chance of being influenced by egoic self-interest? He, who has been meditating and doing Kriya for thirty years? Or you, who have been on the path for two years?”
Fortunately, she had a sense of humor. She said, “Hmm, let me think about that for a minute.”
But, you see, it’s a beginning. “I’ve been self-sufficient, and it has served me well. But what are the possibilities now? Have I reached the apex of wisdom? Have I realized all the happiness there is? Is it possible that I can learn something I don’t know?”
You don’t have to abandon who you are. It would be foolish to try. But you have to be open to the fact that this might not be the end of the road, that there’s a huge universe of wisdom before you, and you can be interested in that road. Because if we’re open to the grace of God, it will take us in directions we can’t presently imagine.
Soon after I arrived at Ananda, I was in charge of the retreat kitchen. This was 1971, when Ananda was centered at the meditation retreat, and the farm was completely undeveloped. About thirty of us were living at the retreat, and nobody had their own kitchen, so we all ate together in the common dome.
The kitchen wasn’t at all like the beautiful place it is today. It was a pathetic, primitive dome that leaked like a sieve and was ugly.
One winter’s day, I got up at five in the morning and walked to the kitchen to cook breakfast. It had snowed overnight, and I stood outside the kitchen admiring the dome covered in snow, and the exquisite pattern of icicles around the platform. There were long icicles that reached from the platform to the ground, and it was gorgeous. I’d never seen anything like it.
I admired the icicles for a time, and then I made my way inside, and of course the reason for the icicles was that the pipes had frozen and burst, and the kitchen was flooded, and the water had run out under the dome and made this beautiful curtain of icicles. Welcome to Ananda circa 1971.
I went to the shower house and got water from the heater and emptied buckets of hot water on the kitchen floor, and then I made breakfast.
It was what we had, and what could you do? In fact, I thought it was all rather a lark.
Anyway, I’m in there cooking, and I’m still as fanatical as I can be about diet. It was just before Christmas, and I’m feeding everybody just right, and I have the strange idea that if a recipe calls for sour cream, you can whip up tofu and it will be just the same. And if it calls for chocolate, you can throw in carob and it will be the same.
How these thoughts get into our minds, I don’t know, but I can only imagine the devil made me do it.
It was the first year that we planned to have a lovely Christmas celebration, and Swamiji wanted us to have eggnog. Not with liquor in it, but he had the idea of a Christmas tradition that we would start. And there was a recipe that everyone still calls “Swami’s Eggnog Recipe,” even though he actually copied it from the bulletin board at Safeway.
So he hands me the recipe, and it calls for sweetened condensed milk, regular milk, sugar, and a few other things. And I don’t know where my brain was, but I decided that instead of sweetened condensed milk I would put honey in a thick mixture of powdered milk. So I made this God-awful mixture.
Could I not taste it? Later, Swami said that I was so committed to my mental theories that I literally couldn’t taste it. I would mentally decide that something was good for us, and then it tasted good to me. It was pure ego. Do you see how powerfully the ego can influence us?
So it’s the afternoon of Christmas Eve, and it’s begun to snow, and it’s turning into a blizzard. The meditation retreat is six miles up an unpaved road, and Swami comes up early, because he senses that there’s something terribly wrong, and he asks if he can taste the eggnog.
“Yes, of course.” I hand him a little cup, and he puts it to his mouth, and he doesn’t say anything, but he goes over to the sink and very delicately spits it out.
“Hmm,” he says. “It doesn’t taste quite as I remember it.”
So we had a little discussion, and I explained how I’d made it differently.
“Hmm,” he said, “I’m not sure that’s really the best way to do it.”
We look out the window, and it’s now a full blizzard, and the nearest store is three miles down the dirt road and seven or eight miles down a paved road to a convenience store next to a gas station.
Swamiji turns to Seva, who has a little green VW Bug that can go anywhere. And Swamiji says, “Why don’t you go to North San Juan and buy the right ingredients?”
I said, “But, Sir, there’s a blizzard.”
He said, “Oh, Seva’s a good driver.”
And off she goes to the convenience store that has the ingredients. About an hour later, she comes trundling up through the snow, and I make the egg nog correctly. And that evening many people tell me, “Oh, Asha, the eggnog made the evening!”
Who has a better chance of being influenced by God? I could have argued my point of view. But why? Are we here to perpetuate what we are? Do we want the pleasure of dying exactly the same as we were born? The willingness to change, and to be a bit spiritually adventurous, doesn’t in any way negate what we’ve accomplished so far; it just says that there’s much more.
Finally, this is a story that I’ve told at various times, and I’m not sure I’ve ever fully understood it. But perhaps I’m getting the point now by telling these three stories together.
So here I am, I’m cooking for the whole community, and they’re depending on me for their meals, because nobody has a kitchen. Ananda is growing, and it’s winter down at the farm, and there are only a few crops we can grow. One is kale, and the other is Jerusalem artichokes. And even in my fanaticism, they weren’t my favorite foods. But it was what was available, and it was fresh and organic, and so I served kale and Jerusalem artichokes at least once a day, and sometimes twice a day to those poor dears at the retreat.
They would come in every day, and there it would be, kale and Jerusalem artichokes. And I had absolutely no ideas for making it taste good. I just cooked it and put it out for them. And finally a delegation went to Swami and said, “Please do something. Take her out of there or fix it, because we’re dying.”
By this point, it had begun to penetrate my fanatical brain that something was wrong. I was sort of peripherally picking up that something was wrong, and that feeding people was more than about the vitamins in the food. There was some kind of heart quality that was missing. And I began to try, but I couldn’t taste the food, so I couldn’t tell. I was making an effort, but my efforts weren’t helping.
After the visit by the delegation, Swami came to me, and again, so delicately, he said, “Hmm, that dish you made at lunch was a little bland.”
I immediately said, “Oh, yes, Swamiji, I know it was. I tried to make it better, but it didn’t turn out.”
He could see that I really wanted to know now. So he took a second step. “Hmm,” he said, “a lot of what you make is a little bland.”
What a perfect choice of words! Not “It was God-awful and completely inedible!” Which people were saying to him.
“Oh, yes, Swamiji. But I don’t know what to do about it.”
He said, “You know, I could teach you to cook.”
I said, “Could you? Would you?”
That weekend Swami Nirmalananda came to visit us. And he was a solidly built Swami who liked his three meals. He stayed with Swamiji as a friend for about three days. And Swami said, “Why don’t you come over and we’ll cook together?”
I said, “Great.” and I showed up with my pen and notebook. I was ready, because I already had some mental concepts about how I could cook better, and I was going to get some new ones.
So we started cooking, and Swami was not a recipe cooker. He was an intuitive cooker – he would throw in a little of this, a little of that. And he’d say, “That’s too much, but we’ll balance it with that, and we’ll throw in this …” And I’m frantically trying to write it all down.
And, again, I think, “There’s something wrong with this picture. And I don’t think it’s Swami.”
So I put down the notebook and did very little but hand him things, because it was impossible to learn the way I thought you had to learn. So I just handed him things and washed dishes and stood next to him. And we cooked steadily for three meals a day, over three days.
For our last meal, before we started cooking, we were sitting around relaxing, and Swamiji said, “Why don’t we have fruit for supper?” Seva said, “Oh, that’s a nice idea, I’ll make a fruit salad.” And Swami said, “That would be nice.”
But as Seva was on her way to the kitchen, Swami said in a very exaggerated way, “Oh – no, I’m teaching Asha to cook.” So he took me up to the kitchen and we cut fruit.
The next morning, I knew how to cook. I have no idea how it happened. And since then, and I say it without pride, because it’s not something I did, but somehow I knew how to cook.
God can give you anything, if it’s supposed to be yours. And Swamiji was able to shift me from a mental concept into a divine flow.
Once you’ve learned this principle in any particular thing you do, you see, you find that you can apply it anywhere. And that’s the point.
Swamiji was able to get through to me through cooking, because cooking was completely unimportant to me. I was raised in an intellectual family where cooking meant nothing at all. So I didn’t have anything at stake, and I could throw myself into it and say, “Okay.” But once you get the point – “Things flow through me, but they aren’t me” – then, far from contradicting the power that you’re trying to express, it amplifies it literally to infinity.
From the smallest things, the seemingly most trivial events, our spiritual life is formed. “Take care of the moments,” as Master said. “and the incarnations will take care of themselves.”
God bless you.
(From a talk at Sunday service on September 7, 2014)