When Swami Kriyananda wrote the Festival of Light, the ritual we follow as part of our Sunday services at Ananda, he had just come out of a period of seclusion in Italy, in the early 1980s.
He felt the inspiration to bring our teachings to a modestly ritualistic focus – not to institutionalize or ritualize them in a way that would risk sacrificing their spontaneity, but as a means of presenting the essence of the teachings through beautiful words and music.
The need for ritual in the spiritual life is based on a simple fact of human nature. The influences we absorb from the outside world are stored in our subconscious mind, where they feed back into our daily lives whatever inspiration we’ve taken in.
This is why we need to nurture our subconscious with positive, elevating influences, so that our inner gaze will be turned toward the light. And a very powerful way of doing this is by participating in uplifting rituals where we can relax the intellect, stop analyzing, and simply absorb inspiration in our heart.
This is why for several decades we’ve repeated the ritual of the Festival of Light at our Sunday services. And naturally some people have expressed that they get tired of performing the same ritual. But others – and I’m definitely in their camp – continue to discover fresh inspiration flowing from that divinely blessed source.
What is the source of artistic creativity? When Swamiji wrote the Festival, he said, “People make a mistake when they think, ‘I’m going to write a poem. I’m going to write a story. I’m going to write a song.’”
He said that if we want to create with true inspiration, we need to focus our attention very clearly on what we want to create, and then lift our consciousness up to God. And then the right inspiration can flow to us easily and naturally.
When he created the Festival, Swamiji meditated until he had a clear feeling of the kind of inspiration the ritual should give people, and then he offered that image up and asked God to tell him what to write.
By offering our creative purpose and offering it to God, we can attune ourselves to a particular ray of His consciousness. This is the highest secret of creativity.
At one point while Swamiji was composing the Festival, he found himself writing, “A fledgling bird flew out from its nest…”
The words were very unexpected, and his initial thought was, “What’s that bird doing in there?”
In a humorous story by P. G. Wodehouse, “Honeysuckle Cottage,” a young man who writes hardboiled detective stories inherits a cottage from his aunt, who achieved fame as the author of a series of horribly sentimental romance novels. In her will, she specifies that in order to inherit the cottage her nephew must live there. So he moves into Honeysuckle Cottage, and when he sits down to write his usual hardboiled murder mysteries, he finds pathetic little female heroines inserting themselves in the plot, because of his aunt’s lingering vibrations in the cottage.
Swamiji said that when he wrote the Festival, he felt a bit like that author, because the little bird kept inserting itself in the “plot.” But he trusted the flow of divine inspiration, and he quickly realized that it was a wonderful symbol.
A particularly striking part of the story is where God tells the little bird that he must share his gifts with all. But because of the ego that God has implanted in him, the little bird clings to his gifts and tries to keep them for himself.
And so the divine law begins, patiently and impersonally, to instruct the little bird, until he realizes that the path of ego isn’t working, and that whenever he tries to cling to his gifts, he ends up losing everything and suffering.
It isn’t that God condemns us when we follow our own desires. It’s simply the working of His natural law. If we put our hand in fire, our hand will be burned, not by God’s command but by the working of the impersonal divine law.
If you try to live on hamburgers and soda, you’ll become unhealthy. And it doesn’t matter that you’d like to imagine you can invent your own laws, because God’s laws are unyielding, and you’re bound to get sick.
If you’re selfish and unkind, and if you try to control others and force them to do your will, you’ll find yourself isolated and lonely. And it isn’t God who punishes you, but the working of His law, which is intended to expand our awareness and set us free.
It’s uncanny how the false notion enters our minds that we can rebel against the law and get away with it. But sooner or later, it begins to dawn on us that it doesn’t work, and that we need to learn to relate to the world as God made it. And the most extraordinarily difficult part of the process is to gain the all-pervading humility to be able to accept the limits of our own understanding.
The story of the little bird tells us that we must develop our own will, but offer it lovingly to do what God asks of us.
And God doesn’t make it easy. The natural law is designed to teach us to expand our hearts until we know with every fiber of our being that we want nothing else but to be one with the Infinite.
It’s not enough to say, “I’ve had it with this world. I surrender!” We can’t just give up, because we must be active in our surrender. As Swamiji put it, we must practice “dynamic self-offering” – gradually learning to offer every thought, feeling, and action to God.
The purpose of our lives isn’t to build a secure nest on this earth. It is to realize that we are one with the Infinite Father. He has perfectly arranged our lives to teach each of us how to come back to our home in Him. And in the process, all of our desires must be transmuted into a single all-embracing longing for Him.
When God brought forth His creation, He created two separate and distinct forces – a divine power that continually tries to bring us back to Him, and a counter-force of delusion, or maya, or Satan that does its best to keep us bound to this world.
The expansive power of the Divine continually fights against the contractive force of maya in our hearts until we can identify wholly with the power of light and be free.
Until then, we struggle and suffer. We’re repeatedly disappointed and heartbroken. And then we begin occasionally and increasingly to get glimpses of our divine nature.
This is why Jesus wrestled with Satan. Satan tried to get Jesus to use his divine power to perform miracles and become a great king and win worldly gifts. And Jesus demonstrated how we can win the battle, when he commanded the Devil, “Get thee behind me!”
God has arranged this planet to teach us just one lesson only: that we are His own, and that He is our true Father and Mother. We are children of a loving, benign, infinitely joyous, intelligent God. And our greatest happiness comes when we accept this reality and repudiate all others.
When we die, we will take with us all our unfulfilled dreams of worldly happiness. “If only I could have been richer. If only I could been more successful. If only I had spent more time with my children when they were young.”
I once asked Swamiji to tell me how much of the spiritual maturity that I felt I had gained at that point in my life was the result of Self-realization, and how much was due to the simple fact that I had lived through forty years of normal life experiences.
Swamiji’s answer was subtle. He said, “You can tell where the karma still holds you, if you think of it with either longing or with regret.”
If you haven’t experienced the fulfillment of marriage, parenthood, or success, and you regret it, it’s guaranteed that you’ll have to fulfill that desire, sooner or later. You’ll have to satisfy it in some life, or you’ll have to overcome it some other way, for example by transmuting it in deep meditation.
I said, “Well, sir, I think of how much fun we had in the first ten years of Ananda, and I would really enjoy going back to that.”
He said, “That’s different. It’s not that you long for it and regret that it’s past, it’s merely that it was a joyous experience that you would happily relive.”
I said, “Yes, Sir, I can see the difference.”
Some of us will die with longings and regrets. Those energies will be stored in our spinal chakras and our subconscious mind. We’ll go to an astral world and enjoy a respite from the struggle for a while. And at first we’ll be relieved, because the physical body is tiresome. But then, insofar as our chakras still hold these longings and regrets, we’ll slowly become discontented with the astral world. And then we’ll find ourselves in a little baby’s body, having our diapers changed, learning to walk and talk, so that we can start to work out our longings and regrets again.
Paramhansa Yogananda said that this is the power of maya, the force of Satan that compels us to reincarnate, when we die with the thought that we’d be happier if certain things would happen.
Maya says, “Oh, you’re a little bit happy, but you’d be so much happier if…” And so we come back and try again. And Satan isn’t merely the kind of dark force that tempts us to commit horrible acts such as murder. Satan is in what we’re doing right now.
I had a conversation with a woman who’d been a prison chaplain all her life. She said, “I was put there.” Meaning that she felt God had sent her to do that work.
She said, “Many of the violent criminals who’ve done horrible things have no memory of having done them. They just remember the point where something overcame them.”
Afterwards, they realized what happened. And – what was the force that came over them? It was the satanic power – the force of darkness.
The ego had a desire for power and domination, and it put them in tune with a force that could take over their consciousness and do those acts through them. And now they were living with the consequences.
Most of us will never go into a murderous rage. But how many times have we looked back on something we’ve done and thought, “What was I thinking? What came over me?”
Well, what came over you was the devil. I love that phrase: “The devil made me do it!” Because it was self-evidently a very stupid thing to do, and so it must be the devil who made me do it.
A child in our kindergarten was behaving very badly. Finally the teacher took her aside and said, “What is wrong with you today?”
The little girl said, “Well, on my right shoulder there’s a good angel telling me to do good things, and on my left shoulder there’s a bad angel telling me to do bad things, and today I’m listening to the bad angel.”
Whether we can see our good and bad angels, Master said that this is exactly what happens. And the difficulty is that the good angel whispers, and the bad angel usually shouts. He makes so much noise that he persuades us, “This is a perfectly normal way to act – everybody feels just as I do.”
It can be amusing to watch how people fall into self-justifying attitudes. They’ll say, “Well, everybody feels this way.” And as soon as you hear that phrase coming out of your own mouth, you would be wise to think, “Wow, why am I saying that?”
The solution is to cling to truth with all our might. You don’t have to fight to prove that the truth is right. You don’t have to be afraid that it won’t win. It will win. Truth always wins in the end. As Swamiji often said, “Truth speaks for itself.”
In the book that I wrote, Swami Kriyananda – As We Have Known Him, a member of Ananda describes how he got into a great deal of trouble when his judgment became clouded and he decided to take some actions that were very unwise. Swami Kriyananda phoned him and said, “Before you make any decisions, maybe you should talk to me.”
The man said, “All right. But you have to understand that the situation is very complicated, and it will take me at least a half hour to explain it to you.”
Swami said, “You can have as much time as you need.”
After he put down the phone, Swamiji turned to me and said, “Truth can be spoken in a moment. Self-justification, that’s what takes a long time.”
As much as we would like the world to be different, our mere wishing is not going to have the slightest effect. You can stand in the rain and shout, “Stop raining!” And you can stand by the rose bush and shout, “Bloom!” You can tell the sun to rise in the West, and it’s not going to happen. You can tell your body, “Stop aging!” And it will never respond.
These are clues that there are limits to our power, and that the way the world is made has reasons that we don’t immediately understand. And one of the most obvious things in the world is that we need to accommodate ourselves to the way God made it.
When we come into the astral world, we are born in places and among people where the vibrations are compatible with our own. And this is one reason why the astral world is so restful and comfortably familiar. If you have dark vibrations, you’ll be born in a lower astral plane. And if you have lighter vibrations, you’ll go to a lighter place. You can choose to be born on a lower plane to help others, but you cannot go higher than your nature allows.
When I came to Ananda in 1971, it felt like heaven. For the first time in my life, I felt that I was in a vibration that resonated with my own.
I’m sure that many of you have had the same experience. And I’m sure that many of you have felt like strangers in this world. I’ve often described how, when I was ten, I looked out our front window and thought, “What is going on out there?” Because the world seemed wrong to me. And when I got to Ananda, it felt right.
But this planet is a very mixed bag, which is to say that we are sharing the planet with a great many people who are not our own. They may be murderers, or people who dream of having fanatical power over others, or whose religious views are completely incomprehensible to us.
And yet we’re sharing this planet. And we may not want to be around them, or we may wish that they would simply go away, but this is how the Lord has arranged the world, and we must work with it as we find it.
We have to go beyond rebelling against what is, and become seekers who want to understand in our deepest hearts why God made things the way He did.
And if God made the world this way, we need to ask, how is it meant to help us? What can we do to understand the true purpose of our life – Self-realization? How can we learn to live not just for our own comfort, but to do God’s will.
I’ve told how my first job at Ananda was cooking in the kitchen at the Seclusion Retreat. I had a little group of assistants, and it was essential that they cooperate with me, especially when we would prepare a banquet for hundreds of people. There was a girl on the kitchen staff who was a wonderful person, but very feisty by temperament. Swami used called her “my little bantam rooster,” because it was her nature to fight all the time. Whenever I would suggest, “Please cut it like that,” she would make a counter-suggestion. “I don’t want to cut it this way…I don’t want to mix it that way…why don’t we do it this way?…this is too much work!”
Finally, I put my down my tools and said, “I can cook or I can fight with you. I don’t mind fighting with you, but I can’t cook and fight, so you’re going to have to make a choice.”
I said, “What would you like to do?”
I was being playful, and to her credit she laughed. Because she understood that we couldn’t make dinner if she was going to be arguing all the time.
Now then, we want God to give us His all-satisfying happiness, and we say we want to be Self-realized. But we have a clear choice: we can either work hard to be receptive so that God can uplift our consciousness, or we can choose to argue with Him. And when we argue, we go against a cardinal principle of the spiritual path, which Jesus declared with these words: “But as many as received him, to them gave He power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on His name:” (John 1:12)
We can argue with what God, in His love, wants to give us. We can want it to be different. But this life is a continual struggle to accommodate ourselves to the truth. It’s an endless battle between the power of darkness in our nature and the inner power of the divine light.
And it’s not a big, external fight. It’s the small, everyday battle where the ego wants to have its way. It’s a battle with the all-pervasive, sneaky ego that masquerades as wisdom: “Oh, in this case you’re completely justified in being mean.”
But if you study the consequences, you see the murderers who find themselves imprisoned for following that line. And what could they have been thinking?
Swami said to me, “Whenever your ego gets involved, you make terrible decisions.”
It’s a simple statement, and I can’t count the times I’ve watched it play out exactly as he said it. When the ego gets involved, we make the worst possible decisions.
And I don’t mean the great big, strutting, self-important kind of ego, but the little, puny self that whispers, “Oh, but what about me? What about my importance? What about everybody noticing how smart I am? What about me being the cause of this? What about me being the one who’s right?”
These are the tiny ways that Satan influences us.
A friend told me that I have the “habit of authority.” And I just have to laugh at myself. Because this quality is certainly in me, perhaps from lives when I’ve been in positions of authority and people had to listen to me.
We all have our delusions, and it’s amazing how they creep in and affect our thoughts and behavior. And they come with an entire, broad, convincing, almost inescapable world-view. Because Satan is no dummy. “You’re just a little wave,” he tells you. “And you’ll be so much happier if you can be big and important. Why don’t you separate your little wave from the great cosmic ocean and see how big you can make it?”
These little whispers of thought are so simple. And yet they are everything on the spiritual path. Because humility is everything.
The masters live close to the vast ocean; they are one with the ocean, just a tiny bubble floating in the cosmic sea. That’s what the masters are like. And the ocean is Infinity, and that’s who we are, just tiny bubbles, as Yogananda put it in his beautiful poem Samadhi – “A tiny bubble of laughter, I am become the sea of mirth itself.”
There’s a recording where Master says, “A tiny bubble of laughter, I have become the sea of mirth itself,” and then he urges his audience, over and over: “Say it again!”
And what is there to say, but, “God, give me that.”
(From Asha’s talk at Sunday service on October 13, 2006.)