The secret of spiritual growth: start where you are

It was always a source of wonder to many of us, how Swami Kriyananda could manage to be everyone’s friend, even when people had opposite intentions and were at loggerheads with each other. He couldn’t possibly support both points of view, yet he made each person feel that he was completely on their side.

I recall a project we started years ago, where quite a number of people were opposed to what we were doing, yet everyone ended up feeling that Swamiji understood their point of view. Because, in fact, he did. He didn’t necessarily believe you were right or wrong, but he understood your perspective.

The problem with worrying that we aren’t better than we are is that it brings us to a complete standstill.

The problem with worrying that we aren’t better than we are is that it brings us to a complete standstill.

Jyotish and Devi told the story of a man who lived at Ananda Village. He had a difficult personality, and everyone was at their wits’ end trying to deal with him. Finally they went to Swamiji and said, “He’s messing up the entire department. It’s a disaster, and we don’t know if we can continue to work with him.”

Swamiji said, “Well, he’s doing the best he can, considering who he is.”

Several years later, Jyotish and Devi themselves were feeling insecure about a project they were starting, and Swami told them, “Well, you’re doing very well, considering who you are.”

And, isn’t that the truth all the time?

People often say to me, “Oh, I’m not worthy of this. I can’t do that. I’m not good at this.” And it’s important to learn how to deal with our imperfections in a kindly way, with the right perspective. Because nobody can undo what you’ve done before. And we are, in fact, responsible for our karma – this much is true. But whatever we’ve done when we didn’t know better, before we truly understood the consequences – well that’s just the product of who we were right then.

As Paramhansa Yogananda said, if we had true wisdom, we would never act against our own best interests. And if we have bad habits and don’t realize the consequences, so be it – it’s who we are. But ultimately we need to understand that it’s all water under the bridge, and that the only thing that matters is the direction we’re facing.

Are you facing in the direction of greater expansion and happiness? And are you moving in the right direction with full energy? Or, if you aren’t already in motion, are you at least thinking of how you can start to move forward? In other words, it’s always a question of doing the best you can. As Yogananda said, “All you can do is the best you know how.”

For many years, I had a too-harsh attitude toward myself. And I finally figured out that I was holding myself back, as if there was a better version of me hiding in the closet, and if I could just keep this false self in check, my real self would jump out of the closet someday and define me. But in the end I had to realize that it wasn’t going to happen, and so I developed a little mantra, which I still think of in times of emergency: “If I could have done it better, I would have done it better.”

None of us get up in the morning and decide, “Let’s see how much trouble I can get into today.” You may be tempted to imagine at times that your children do it deliberately, but they don’t, in fact. They’re just thinking of how much fun I can have. And all of us really want to do well, but we can’t because we have this amazing force of karmic energy which we aren’t easily or quickly able to turn around, or instantly replace with our real self that’s hiding in the closet.

But we can turn our karma around and change if only we’re moving in the right direction and doing the right thing, one step at a time. That’s why Sri Yukteswar said, “Everything in future will improve, if you are making the right spiritual effort now.”

It’s something worth emblazoning on our hearts. Now, of course, how quickly everything will improve depends to a great extent on how deeply the karma is embedded.

Swamiji used to say that it’s like pulling a nail out of a piece of wood. You don’t know how deeply the nail is embedded, or how long it will take to pull it out completely. And our karma can be very complex, requiring that we balance a whole host of bad habits and past mistakes. So we can’t know if there’s a quarter-inch of the nail left to pull out, or five inches. But Swamiji encouraged us to have faith that if we will just keep pulling, sooner or later everything will change.

I was told that the Dalai Lama said that if you want to evaluate yourself spiritually, you should think in terms of decades.

Look at yourself now, and look at yourself ten years ago, and then look again ten years from now. But don’t judge yourself in between, because change is a long, slow process. Just go on changing little by little, and if you’ve invested your faith and energy in the right direction you can be certain that everything will improve.

That’s the beauty of the path of Self-realization, that we are free to learn and make progress by moving forward a little bit at a time. It’s why Jesus urged us not to cast our pearls before swine, lest they turn again and rend us – that is, don’t give the teachings to those who won’t understand, because it won’t help them.

Master would walk up and down the skid-row district of Los Angeles. He wasn’t’ initiating people into Kriya, and he wasn’t explaining pranayama and the five branches of yoga. He was simply walking up and down because there were souls who were ready to turn their lives around, and he wanted to give them the inspiration they needed.

I read about a woman who studied Stephen Levine’s teachings on dying. And when her Jewish grandmother was in a nursing home in Brooklyn, in the last days of her life, she called Stephen and said, “I want to go sit by her bedside and read The Tibetan Book of the Dead.”

Stephen said, “Hm, maybe not.” He said, “Why don’t you sing Yiddish love songs to her? Give her the inspiration that will touch her heart. It won’t help her to give her something she can’t relate to at all.”

Now, this is true when it comes to how we relate to ourselves. And, once again¸ it was a defining feature of Swamiji’s extraordinary capacity as a leader, that he was calm and relaxed about the process of spiritual growth. You never felt that he had anything at stake in how we were. He didn’t need to make us be different. He just wanted us to be able to change for our own happiness. And he knew that we would change. As he said, “You’ll get it right sooner or later. Why waste a few million incarnations? Why not get it right now?”

Whether someone was restlessness in meditation, or somebody was causing a big karmic problem for hundreds of people, he would always think of the positive steps you could take.

He would always give you something to do that you could actually do. And then you could make much more actual spiritual progress than if he would ask you to do something that was completely beyond your present abilities.

Very often, we set ourselves impossible tasks, because on some level we want to be able to say, “Well, I tried the spiritual path. I meditated and it didn’t work for me, so now I’m back to drinking.”

Whereas perhaps if you could have cut down on your drinking gradually, while doing your spiritual practices as best you could, it would be a step you could realistically take.

I was listening to an interview on the radio yesterday where the guest was a career criminal. He’d been in trouble with the law countless times, and he’d been sentenced to jail for about fifteen years. And then suddenly the charges were dropped, and he said he felt he’d been given a new chance. He happened to be watching a television interview with a famous Hollywood personality who’d been arrested for drunk driving. And the host said, “Has being arrested caused any stigma for you in the culture of Hollywood?”

He said, “In Hollywood? Are you kidding?” He said, “You can have anything behind you and nobody cares.”

So this young criminal thought, “Hollywood! – that’s for me!” He lived near the studios, so he went over, and as he put it, “because I’m a hustler,” he now runs a talent agency that provides real criminals to play criminals in the movies – people who’ve been in jail, who are hardened criminals, because they know how to play the part. It’s legitimate work for real criminals, because they get to play who they are.

Don’t you just love this planet sometimes? So they interviewed some of the criminals, and one guy said, “Yeah, there was a high-speed chase and I was running from the cops, and I know how to do it.” He said, “I get to do gang graffiti, and I get to steal stuff, and I get paid for it and nobody raps me!”

Alf Tupper, “The Tough of the Track,” from a popular English pre-1960s cartoon strip. No matter our station in life, as ultramarathon runners like to say, what counts is “RFP” — relentless forward progress.

Alf Tupper, from “The Tough of the Track,” a popular English pre-1960s cartoon strip. No matter our station in life, what counts is encapsulated by an acronym of ultramarathon runners: “RFP” — relentless forward progress.

You wouldn’t exactly call it Kriya Yoga. But in its own way it is, because it’s asking, “What’s the raw material we’ve been given to work with? Let’s see if we can turn it in a better direction, one step forward, one inch at a time.”

You don’t take a guy like that and put him in a monastery. It would be cruel to the monastery, and it wouldn’t help him. It would be casting your pearls before swine. Not that he’s a swine, but he wouldn’t recognize it as a pearl. It would only make things worse for him. But to be able to play a criminal – wow!

And this is how we have to look at ourselves. We have to ask ourselves with complete honesty not only what might be good for us, but what we can actually do. Because you’ll make a lot more progress one inch at a time, throwing yourself into something you can actually do, rather than something you can’t really do, and if you tried, it would only make you discouraged.

Master says, in the Autobiography, “Most people don’t make spiritual progress for a very simple reason: because they lack spiritual adventurousness.”

Isn’t that interesting? What holds us back is a lack of willingness to think bigger. We roll along repeating the same patterns, life after life, trying to figure out what we want to be. I’ll be a lawyer, a doctor, an engineer, and I’ll get money and marry and have a house. And we run the script until we repeatedly lose everything we have.

Like the little bird in the Festival of Light, we lose everything we have until we develop a little bit of spiritual adventurousness, if for no other reason than because our fanny is on fire, and we can’t stand it anymore and we’ve got to run forward to get out of the heat.

The saints tell us that it’s important, in a very real sense, to relax. Don’t relax your vigilance or your determination, but realize that the spiritual path is a long process. So give it your absolute best, but remember to be relaxed in your efforts.

Ananta gave a talk at Spiritual Renewal week on the need for vigilance. He used a phrase: “Rust never sleeps.” Coming from a family that ran a metal business in San Francisco, you can understand where he picked it up. And it’s true.

On one hand, we can take as much time as we care to. But on the other hand, we can never stand still. We must always be gung-ho. That’s a Chinese expression adopted by the U.S. Marine Corps that means “It can be done!”

We need to have some little task always in front of us, some little way we’re trying to improve. Above all, we need to make it something we can actually do. Because huge shifts will come from tiny investments of time and energy.

There is no such thing as eternal damnation. That’s a terrible picture, a horrible picture that was invented by man, not by God. We are made of the same stuff as the Infinite Spirit.

God is our beloved. You may give up on Him, but he will never give up on you. As it says in the Festival, “Though eternally rejected, He remains our friend.” That’s quite a promise, isn’t it?

So, go ahead and try running in the wrong direction if your karma compels you to. Because it won’t make any difference in the end. When you’re exhausted from the struggle, you’ll be ready to say, “Here I am!”

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