I’ve always been impressed by the way Paramhansa Yogananda’s teachings, and particularly the way Swami Kriyananda expressed them, accommodate such a wide spectrum of human needs and human natures.
The teachings show us how to achieve God-realization while keeping our feet firmly planted on the ground. The masters have given us a thoroughly practical path, one that doesn’t leave us stranded with wonderful-sounding ideas, but without a clear plan for acting on them.
Years ago, Swamiji developed a system of spiritual practice that he called “superconscious living.” It was a vast collection of ways to bring spiritual principles into our daily lives. Swamiji wanted to help people shift their awareness from everyday realities to the divine reality that lies behind them.
A big problem on the path is that God is merely a theory until we’ve actually experienced Him. So Swamiji filled the superconscious living course with techniques for shifting our consciousness so that we can be more aware of the divine reality operating silently in the background of our lives.
At the time, he talked about how people often believe that superconsciousness should be freely handed to them. Speaking of superconscious living, he said, “This is not shaktipat.” Shaktipat is a practice where the guru transfers his divine power, his Shakti, to the disciple, usually by a touch.
Many years ago, I visited an American ashram that had an Indian guru and was very Indian in its ways. The guru gave a talk, and at the end we lined up, women in one line, men in another, and as we came forward the guru whacked us with a peacock feather. He sat there transmitting his shakti, whack, whack, to the men and women.
There’s a great truth in the practice of shaktipat, because a Self-realized soul can indeed transfer his spiritual power to those who are able to receive ti.
This is why, in India, the disciples touch the guru’s feet. In Autobiography of a Yogi, Paramhansa Yogananda describes how he would touch his Guru’s feet whenever they met, and how he could feel the guru’s spiritual power being transmitted through that touch.
We are always generating vibrations at the frequency of our state of consciousness, and a person of God-realization can transmit vibrations of an entirely different order. And if you can open yourself to receive those vibrations, they can lift you into a state of higher spiritual awareness.
In Swamiji’s last years, when he lived in India, the ushers at his talks would have to hold hands to clear a path for him so that he could walk forward, because otherwise the people would be falling at his feet. They would be clasping his feet and holding out their babies so that he could touch them, and so on.
It was similar to the Bible story where Jesus walks through a large crowd of people who are all wanting to touch him and receive a blessing. And in the midst of that crowd Jesus suddenly says, “Someone has touched me. Who touched me?”
His disciples looked at him in surprise, “But, Master, everybody has touched you.”
He said, “No. Someone touched me.” And then he said, “Power has gone out of me.”
Everyone had touched him, but only one was able to draw that power. It was a woman who was instantly healed by that touch of severe hemorrhaging that she had endured for twelve years. Finally, she confessed that it was she who had touched him. He hadn’t seen her, but he was able to pick her out of the crowd of all those who were merely wanting worldly boons and ego-gratification. The woman was able to touch him on the level of humility and love that was his own, and in his consciousness he was able to give her his vibrations and heal her.
The Bible story tells us that we can’t receive the touch of God until we have purified ourselves and made ourselves receptive.
Do you see the difference? This is why, when Swamiji introduced the superconscious living course, he said, “This is not shaktipat.” Because he wanted to make it clear that you can’t expect to come and simply be touched and changed.
He said, “This is a method by which, step by step, we can transform ourselves and receive an ever-increasing awareness of the divine presence.”
In the classes that I’ve taught over the years, there are two questions that someone will invariably ask. One is whether we have free will, and the other is “Isn’t there an easier way?”
The second question comes in a thousand disguises. “Do I really have to try so hard?” But if you look behind the disguise, it’s always asking if there’s an alternative to the work of spiritual transformation.
It would be lovely to think that we could change by simply declaring that we “believe.” But there are fundamental realities that we can’t ignore in the spiritual path. And the first is the need for humility.
Humility, Yogananda said, is simply self-honesty. Humility is knowing who we are. This is why divine awareness comes to the humble – those who can come before God exactly as they are, without pretense, and open their hearts to receive the truth.
People like to latch onto the tidbits of truth that please their egos. A good example is how they make almost a religion of affirmation.
Affirmation is a very valid spiritual practice, rightly understood. But there’s a class of spiritual aspirants who believe that if they simply declare a higher reality often enough, they’ll be changed without having to do any heavy lifting.
“I am one with perfect truth.” “I have perfect health within me.” “I am a child of the infinite.”
Often, the truth-affirmers will say, “There’s nothing wrong with you, because you’re perfect the way you are.”
And you can see that it’s based on a deep truth, because we are, indeed, inherently divine. But the danger is that if we’re just affirming it, we’ll be putting off the hard work of Self-realization.
Years ago, Swami Kriyananda spoke at an event where he shared the podium with several other teachers. At one point, one of the teachers got up and said, “You should love yourself completely the way you are.” And then he instructed the audience to give themselves a hug.
We need to understand that self-acceptance is absolutely necessary on the path, but it’s only a first step toward the kind of complete self-forgetfulness and humility that open our hearts to receive God. Thus for some people it might be a step in a positive direction. But Swamiji stood up and said, “Why should you love yourself just as you are? There’s so much about you that’s unlovable.”
“Can’t I simply declare myself lovable? After all, I’m a child of God, so why can’t I call whatever I am divine?”
Well, you can call it divine, but it doesn’t define the entirety of your being. There are many levels of vibrations in us, and not all of them are godly. Deepening our awareness of the Divine that dwells within us takes tremendous commitment and hard work, because before we can know God we must separate ourselves from everything else. And that isn’t something we can accomplish merely by affirming it.
This morning, we sang “I want only Thee, Lord.” I love that chant, but I feel a bit uncomfortable when it’s sung in public, because I wonder how many of us can actually say that we want only God?
When we were in New Zealand, I asked Dambara, who led the music, not to sing “I Want Only Thee” in our classes for newcomers. Because the fact is, they don’t want only God. Nor can many of them even imagine such a single-minded aspiration. In fact, they want many other things.
There’s a time and place for that chant. For those of us who’ve had a taste of the all-satisfying love of God, we can honestly sing: “Lord, in every circumstance I know that You alone can fulfill every longing of my heart. I want only You!”
But we need to be very careful not to hold out a level of aspiration to those who won’t be able to affirm it sincerely, because they haven’t had that experience. It will only create confusion in their minds, and it won’t tell them that this path is about taking one small step at a time in the right direction, and that we need to start exactly where we are.
The ultimate practice of the spiritual path is to have complete faith that God is with us and that no matter how many mistakes we’ve made or how unworthy we feel, He is always holding our hand and eager to lead us forward. There’s a point in our spiritual evolution where we must develop an unshakeable relationship with Him.
But until then, we need to acknowledge that many desires and unspiritual feelings are still rolling around in us, and that our job is to simply put one foot in front of the other, working steadily, day by day. And then, oddly enough, the path seems to take no time at all, because each step toward self-expansion brings us great joy.
Of course, every step takes all the energy and sincerity we can muster. We need to get our spiritual life firmly grounded in daily meditation, in self-discipline, and self-honesty.
We may have failed, in the past, to live up to our aspirations. But as Sri Yukteswar said, “Forget the past. The past lives of all men are dark with many shame. But all things in future will improve if you are making the right spiritual effort now.”
Making a connection with God begins with having the humility and courage to come before Him while standing in our own reality. “This is who I am. It may not who I hope to be, but I am Your child.”
When Swami Kriyananda was a young monk, Yogananda asked him to grow a beard so that he would look more mature when he gave public talks. In Los Angeles at the time, few men had beards, and Swamiji attracted the attention of a fraternal group whose leaders thought he would be a good choice to play the role of Christ in a tableau of the Garden of Gethsemane.
Afterwards, when Yogananda asked him how it went, Swamiji said, “It was fine, Sir, but I’d rather be like Jesus than look like him.” And Swamiji recalled how, in a perfectly matter-of-fact manner, Master said, “That will come.”
He didn’t say, “You are that already.” But he said, “That will come.”
“That will come.” Instead of feeling that we must paste some grandiose “spiritual” way of being on ourselves that isn’t our actual reality, we need to seek the divine presence exactly as we are, and ask it to guide us. Offer yourself to God as you are, feel His presence, and then let yourself be drawn increasingly into that vibration.
And then, of course, the big question becomes, “How, in this moment, just as I am, can I offer myself to God and start to find His presence within me?”
When we returned from our tour to New Zealand, Atmajyoti remarked on how lovely it is to be picked up out of our normal life and put down where none of our usual habits apply.
You can’t go to your kitchen and make your usual breakfast and have your usual cup of tea. Your food, diet, and schedule are taken away, and in this way travel can be very expansive, if you’re open to letting everything go.
It’s lovely to realize that your life can be just as expansive when you return home. Why do we need to have our usual cup of tea in our usual spot? Paramhansa Yogananda said, “You should change your habits often.”
Arrange your life differently from time to time, so that you don’t fall into the trap of thinking, “This is what I am, and this is what I must have.”
Make each moment new. In places where you’ve never been, meeting people for the first time, it’s easier to say, “Divine Mother, what do You want from me in this situation? How can I help these people? What is the need of this moment??
What difference does it make if you wake up in your own house or somewhere else? Falling into ruts of habit destroys our joy in life – “Oh, there you are again, this is what you do, this is what I do.”
Yesterday is gone forever. Everything that I accomplished yesterday has been burned up by the fire of time. This is a new and wonderful moment.
This is how the saints live. When I worked for Swami Kriyananda, he knew that the service I offered to him was the only thing that mattered to me. My unvarying routine was to show up at his house at a certain time and type the manuscript he’d been working on, then cook his dinner. And every day when I arrived he would look at me with surprise and welcome me. “Oh, there you are!”
He knew that I would show up, but he never took it for granted. He never allowed the thought of my coming to become a routine. It was always an event: “Oh, what a pleasant surprise, here you are!” Every moment was new. And that’s what it’s like when we’re aware of the Divine.
When Yogananda had his school in Bengal, he would take the boys on outings to a nearby waterfall. It was dangerous to walk across the top of the waterfall, but he would cry out, “Do you believe in God?!” And they would shout, “Yes!” And in that spirit he was able to take them safely across.
Years later, another teacher took some boys to the falls, and like Yogananda he challenged them, “Do you believe in God?” They answered back enthusiastically, “Yes!” But one of the boys slipped and fell over the falls and died.
When Master told the story to Swamiji, he said that it was because the teacher lacked the spiritual power to guarantee the children’s safety. The point of the story is that we have to be realistic. The teacher thought, “If he can do it, so can I.” But, no. We have to be perfectly honest. “What is the truth in this moment? What is my actual contact with the Divine?”
I once asked Swamiji, “In a moment of crisis, how can I know what I should do?”
He said, “You have to have been practicing all the time. You have to have always been asking that question.”
Many people have the idea, “I’ll be practical and take care of myself, and I won’t bother God until I get in trouble.” But then they find that when they get in trouble they haven’t created that open channel.
We must be completely real with God. We must always be truthful. “What is my spiritual vibration? Am I at least reaching out and trying to touch the hem of Christ’s robe? And if I touch it, will my vibrations be sufficiently humble and sincere that he will notice? Or will my vibrations be so different from his that he won’t be able to help me?
Even if the guru touches you, his blessing can only enter you and transform you to the extent that you’ve lifted your heart up to him. And this is something we can practice all the time, or in a moment of crisis it won’t be enough. And, after all, is there anything more important that we should be doing with our time? What should we fill our minds with, if not the thought of God? What kind of vibrations do we want to define us?
The keys to the path are already in our hands – by working steadily, with respect for our own nature, we can gradually open ourselves to be increasingly filled with the Divine.
God bless you.
(From Asha’s talk at Sunday service on November 9, 2014.)