Swami Kriyananda said that he was perfectly aware that most people would never be convinced of their need to follow a spiritual path.
But he said he preferred to pretend that if he could just explain truth clearly enough, everyone would be convinced. He said it gave him the incentive to continue serving his Master’s work. And so he never ceased to experiment with ways to make the teachings accessible to all.
At one time, he even stopped writing under his spiritual name, Swami Kriyananda, and became instead the author J. Donald Walters, because he decided that “Kriyananda” might pose obstacles for readers who might otherwise be helped by his books.
At the time, many of us, including myself, disagreed vehemently with this decision, to the point that, years later, he told a group of us that he would have done it a lot sooner, except that –looking right at me – “You thwarted me.”
It was a mark of how respectful he was of the opinions of even so callow a disciple as myself. Over the forty years that I knew Swamiji, he always gave us young ones the impression that our point of view was valued.
But I simply didn’t like his changing his name to make his books more accessible. In fact, he later said, “You often thwarted me.” And, of course, in the fullness of time I offered him a full apology, which he graciously accepted, but without the slightest qualification or deferral, so that I’m sure I needed to offer it.
In any case, he was always dreaming up new ways to explain truth. And each time he came up with a new slant, he was fully convinced that it would be the one thing people would receive and respond to.
It would be a “crossover hit,” to borrow a term from the music business – it would bridge the divide from the New Age to the mainstream and become a national bestseller that everyone would love. And, of course it invariably didn’t happen, and invariably he never lost faith that it would happen.
A great deal of what Swamiji did is best understood if we consider the illusory nature of time – the day will come, and why shouldn’t we think of it as coming soon?
Many great souls are unrecognized in their lifetimes. It’s easy to think of many artists and thinkers who were ahead of their times. In fact, Swamiji was proud to be out of step with the culture he was born in, because he saw so little worth being in step with, and he wanted to be out in front, helping lead the way to a better future.
And isn’t that how we always work? We’re always working to create a better future. What good would it be, if we spent all our time just redefining what’s already here? It’s far more productive to think of energy and time as a never-ending, forward-moving flow.
Swamiji remarked that if you’re tempted to judge yourself – he added, “which I don’t recommend” – you should consider that you can never accurately judge your present reality, because by the time you’ve examined it, time has passed and the present moment is gone.
We are that flow of energy. And so what matters most is the direction we’re going, because it’s what determines, more than the present moment, what we are, and what our future will be.
The moments flash by. We see a quality in ourselves that we either like or don’t like, and barely a moment later we’ve moved on.
The direction of our energy is what most truly defines us – not the static self-portraits we paint of ourselves, but our aspirations and where we’re putting our energy, and where our heart is. With that understanding, we can be much more optimistic about our ability to change our reality for the better.
We had a wedding at this beautiful altar yesterday. Our altars are always beautiful on Sunday mornings, but this one was created especially for the wedding, and it’s more elaborate than usual.
Observing the young guests at the wedding, I’m sure many of us old-timers were mindful of the dream nature of the world, and how quickly life passes. We’re old enough that we’ve been able to watch a new generation marry and raise children, and we’ve acquired a sense of life’s longer rhythms. And it’s extremely important, even as young people, to gain a picture of the whole flow, because it prompts us to consider how many incarnations we’ve been doing this.
How strange it is that, over and over, the illusion enters our minds that this is the very first time. And then all the excitement at the beginning of life is barely recalled as our old memories fade at the end.
I was eighteen when I came on the path, and a major incentive for me was the inevitability of death. I pictured death coming at a ripe, old age, as we all do. My aunt died at eighty-nine, and in the last few years of her life I visited her often. I found it amazing to see that wizened body, and to think of how much experience had passed through that aging form.
I have a friend whose mother lived longer than they anticipated. She’d been a farm wife in South Dakota, and my friend said, “She was so frugal that she wasn’t going to give up that body until she’d squeezed every last bit of use out of it.”
It’s easy to understand that attitude – that we want to work out as much karma as possible before we discard this body. Swami Kriyananda said that we shouldn’t give up our bodies lightly – that we should struggle against hardships and disease, because it takes a long time to earn a human body, and it takes a long time to be born and grow up and find your path and figure out who you are and what you want to do with this life.
My aged aunt was reduced to her bright-blue eyes, which had always been her salient feature. She became more birdlike, you might say – the life in her peered brightly from that old body, and you could look in at her life’s experiences through her eyes. She wasn’t a spiritual person, but she was an energetic, intelligent woman, and you could feel the long trajectory that she had travelled, and who knows where she might go next?
The scriptures tell us that there’s a time and place for everything, and that we cannot hasten the ripening of our spirit by merely willing it.
Watching our children grow, we long to be able to help them skip over the all the learning that we had to go through. I remember Swamiji saying to me, “Yes, it’s tempting to think sometimes, ‘If only this one had these qualities, and that one had these qualities, and this one could be like that.’ But,” he said, “Better not to go there.”
Don’t even start down that path. Because each of us has our own strange and individual knot of our own unique and special confusions that we imagine it’s so important and necessary to hold onto. And the best way to befriend each other is by understanding that there’s a natural step forward, and that the step will be different for each one of us.
Swamiji’s genius as a leader was that he was always able to tell what a realistic “next step” would be. And that’s why whenever you had an encounter with him, you always felt encouraged.
It wasn’t that everything he asked of us was easy. And it wasn’t that we succeeded every time. But he was extremely intuitive, and sometimes he would put challenges before you that you couldn’t meet. Because what was needed wasn’t actually about success, as much as about self-honesty.
Sometimes being handed an assignment that you couldn’t meet would force you to a more realistic appraisal of yourself. Because the real goal isn’t always objective – doing a good job with what’s in front of us. Rather, it’s about finding out, “Who am I? Where am I going? How can I get there?”
The scriptures tell us, “Don’t waste these high truths on people who can’t accept them.” And it’s excellent advice for working with ourselves as well. Yogananda said that if we would do one-hundredth of what he taught, it would take us to freedom. But everybody takes a different path. And that’s why he taught so much.
But the ability to stand calmly in our own capabilities is important. To say, “This is for me. This is what I can do.” Because if we try to impose realities on ourselves that are unrelated to our own ability to succeed at them, those teachings won’t help us. They won’t take us in the direction we want to go, and we’ll just become confused.
The Gita puts it this way: “Do not teach these things to those who lack self-control or devotion, or to those who are unwilling to serve, to those who aren’t interested, and to those who mock these teachings.”
The spiritual teachings give us practical guidelines for a life of ever-increasing inner fulfillment and joy. And at a certain point, it has to become important enough that we’re willing to discipline ourselves to do it. Even though our teachings tell us that the divine light is natural to us, and that bliss is our true nature, it’s self-evident that our energy is always being drawn in other, incompatible directions.
We’re continually looking for ways to distract ourselves. “Fillers,” is what Master called them. And, my, but our society specializes in fillers. It’s a bazillion-dollar business that’s focused on ensuring, as a friend put it, that we’ll never be alone with our thoughts for a moment. And the conspiracy of our culture is not merely to fill the space around us, but to agitate it.
I was in a store, shopping for some simple items, and the music being played gave me a feeling that we were marching off to war, and that we needed to be violently agitated while we purchased our toothpaste. I was conscious of the assaulting force of those agitated sounds, and how much effort it took to maintain a level of equanimity. And I fell into a temptation, not unusual for me, to storm into the manager’s office and give him a piece of my mind. Which, of course, would have no effect. I speak from personal experience that it wouldn’t have an effect. Even if I argued that it would be to his economic self-interest to play more uplifting music, it would have had no effect on him.
But I realized that I should be able to rise above it. And I ought to be able to have my own inner reality.
We were with Swamiji in a church in Europe, and it was an extremely noisy place. We were trying to meditate, and we were becoming a little agitated by the noise. And just then, Swamiji looked over at us and said, “You should be able to concentrate over it.” Because, really, it’s a question of what we’re most deeply tuned into.
David and I were traveling in the eastern U.S. and attended his nephew’s bar mitzvah. And like everything nowadays, whenever there’s sacrament, whether it’s a wedding or a bar mitzvah, it’s a prelude to a party. And then the party started, and the music was deafening. And I would usually become agitated, but at some point the music became incidental and I couldn’t hear it anymore. In a strange way, it had gone beyond noise into silence. But I was pleased to think – look at that – we’re always masters of our own reality.
But this is the society we live in, and it’s easy to become annoyed. But it’s the time in which we’ve chosen to live, and there’s a reason for it. And unless we’re willing to exercise self-control and hold ourselves on the path, there’s no point in pretending that we’ll get any benefit from it. And the greatest way to have that degree of self-control, as the Gita tells us, is devotion.
What does “devotion” mean? It means that something is more important to us than anything else. And so we devote ourselves to that thing.
We think of devotion as love, but love is what follows naturally from our devotion. We devote ourselves to something we value. We devote ourselves to the spiritual life, to our relationships, to raising our children, to accomplishing our career ambitions, to developing our art, to serving others. And unless we’ve made that decision, this teaching will pass us over, and this life will have been pleasant enough, but it will have done little for us unless we’ve chosen it deliberately and given our hearts to it.
A woman wrote a letter to Swamiji asking about the kind of work she should do. She said, “Nothing draws me. Nothing interests me.”
Swamiji said, “Ah, you’re waiting for ‘it’ to give it to you.”
He said, “First you have to give your energy, and then all of a sudden you’ll find that the magnetism is there.”
And so we have to become devoted, and as I was saying, it’s not effortless. It takes self-control. When you see people of accomplishment, you find that they’ve made a deliberate decision to accomplish. And so it is on the spiritual path. We have to make that decision and affirm and renew it every day, even when it’s easy to be distracted or complain.
I’m in a store and I can’t bear the noise. I want toothpaste and aspirin, and I’m running a big scenario about how they ought to live differently. And where does it all take me? How will it work out for me? What’s the end of that road?
We all know what the end will be. We’ll become a person who’s devoted to grumbling. And as we get older, our brain will get stuck in grumbling. And is that where we want to be when we’re born again, complaining and whining? “Somebody fix it for me!” And frankly, nobody’s listening.
We have to be devoted to the evolution of our consciousness, and to the joy of our hearts. And we must weight every decision against those two criteria – the expansion of our awareness, and the joy of our hearts.
“Will this contribute, or is it going to take away?” Otherwise, the teachings are wasted on us. We can be clever, but without devotion and self-control we won’t make progress. The Gita tells us that the spiritual path is for those who have devotion, and who are willing to serve.
I had a conversation with a friend who’s very devoted to the path and has lots of self-control. So those elements were nicely in place for him. But after we’d talked for awhile, he said, “I’m just not into service. I’ve never been into service.” And I was stunned. I had to say, “Give me a minute, I need to adjust to this.”
I said, “That’s a reality I’ve never considered.” And it took me back to when I was eighteen and introduced to the teachings of Self-realization for the first time.
One of my frustrations, before I found this path, was that I felt I had so much to give. I don’t mean that I had positive things to give, but I had so much energy, and all of the popular causes that I saw people pursuing around me seemed pointless. I thought of myself as a fanatic without a cause, ready to give myself a hundred percent, but without anything worth giving myself to. And when I discovered Self-realization, I knew I had found a worthy cause.
When I came to Ananda, one of the things I loved was that from the moment I met Swamiji, I realized that he was starting a community and a retreat so that we could share everything we had with others.
From the first day, I cooked the meals for the guests at the Seclusion Retreat, because I was convinced that service is joy. It was self-evident to me, but I realized that it isn’t so for everyone.
Some of us have to go through a stage that’s described in the Festival of Light, where the little bird is interested in its own realization, and it says, “What do these others have to do with me?”
But if we’re trying to get spirituality exclusively for ourselves, and we don’t open our hearts and start to expand our sense of self-identity, then as Sri Yukteswar put it, we won’t be able to take even a single step forward on the spiritual path.
And that’s how service helps us. By serving others, we are expanding our hearts, and our self-identity, and serving ourselves in the deepest, most direct way.
We get up in the morning, shower, dress, meditate, and make breakfast. And we do these things for me, because I’m this particular person. But the whole of the spiritual path is to break this tight self-identification and the illusion that “I am this, and all else is separate.” That’s the fundamental illusion that prevents us from knowing God. And service is the means by which we begin to break that spell.
I’m not here only to take care of myself. I’m here to take care of others, because as the Festival says, “we are a part of all that is.”
This is the central affirmation of the Festival of Light. We are a part of all – and, really, if we are a part of all, how should we behave? You see, this is the expansive spiritual purpose of marriage, and even more so of having children. Because the parents have to embrace this little entity as their own self completely.
When I was new to the path, there were two significant people in my life, and I loved one of them very much, and the other I couldn’t get along with. One was a karmic enemy, and the other was a karmic soul mate.
I was so confused about this, and finally I said to Swamiji, “Well, maybe it’s not such a problem that I dislike this one. The problem is that I love this other one too much, and so the contrast is the difficulty. So maybe I should love one a little less, and then maybe I’d love the other one a little more”
Swami said to me, “That is the stupidest idea I have ever heard.”
I just love that! He rarely spoke so bluntly, but on that occasion I deserved it.
He said, “The reason great love is given to us” – and this is the divine purpose of romantic love and raising children – “is to show us how blissful it is to love without regard for yourself; to show us the bliss of serving others as if they were ourselves, and discovering that in fact they are ourselves.”
The perfection of our love is expressed in our wedding ceremony, “May our love grow ever stronger, more selfless, more expansive, until we see everyone, all human beings, and all creatures as our own.”
The action of service is how we develop that love, and how we experience it, and how we realize that it is real. Because there is no difference between us.
In Whispers From Eternity, Yogananda writes: “Help me to spend for others as freely as I spend for myself.”
That’s a big line to cross, isn’t it? But why should it be so? If I would buy for myself, why wouldn’t I buy for someone else? What’s the difference? It’s worth meditating on the reasons we think it’s different.
And, again, the Gita says, “Don’t share this teaching with those who aren’t interested.” For us, it means that we need to carefully pick and choose among our many choices only those that will resonate with our heart. Go where your heart goes most naturally. And don’t bother to torture yourself with that which doesn’t call to you.
That was Swami’s genius. He could see what our next step was. Nothing by itself is either positive or negative except as it takes us forward on our own natural path toward God.
As Yogananda said, every circumstance is neutral. Whether it seems happy or sad depends entirely on the happy or sad attitudes of the mind. So, choose that to which your heart goes naturally – to devotion, chanting, singing, or Kriya Yoga, if that’s where your heart truly goes, or to this or that service or relationship. Whatever it might be, because as long as you’re moving forward you will be affirming your true reality – not the mistakes you’ve made before or in this moment, but who you aspire to be.
And never, ever, as the Gita says, speak ill of your spiritual path. Never, ever. And never allow anyone around you to speak ill of it. Yes, we have days when we wish there was an alternative – “Is there no easier way out?”
I would sometimes ask Swamiji, “How are you doing today, Sir?” And he would say, “I’m tired of – ” this or that situation, whatever it was.” Meaning, “I’m tired of it all.”
But don’t ever let yourself drift toward negativity toward your path or your gurubhais, or what God is asking of you. Because these are your lifelines to freedom.
The slightest denigration of that which is holy will not serve you. You don’t want that vibration anywhere in your consciousness. Be the Pollyanna of your spiritual circle. Be the one who’s happy all the time about your circumstances. Believe me, it will serve you far better in the end.
If you allow that little bit of thought to enter your consciousness – “It’s their fault somehow, they aren’t giving me what I deserve” – then very soon you’ll find that everything you’re being given will fall away.
Master tells us not to pour our water into a leaky bucket, and not to become a leaky bucket yourself. Don’t go around punching holes in your bucket of divine grace. Every day, be grateful. If you don’t like this or that, just stop looking at it, and shift your gaze and over here.
In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali says that if you have a wrong attitude, cultivate the opposite attitude. It seems simplistic, but it’s a big world, with lots of positive directions to look. You can spend your time looking around in all directions, but look to the Light. Keep your attention on the Light. We are that which we aspire to. We are that which we concentrate on. And let us become more of that which we are, and what we were meant to be.
(From Asha’s talk at Sunday service on August 3, 2014)