When my father was in his eighties, he took to his bed and refused all food and medication. He was living in a care facility in Southern California, and the caretakers called me because they felt he wouldn’t last long in that state.
My siblings and I had agreed that we wouldn’t force him to remain in his body when he was ready to leave. So we sat for twenty hours with this man, who’d once been so young and vigorous, until he breathed his last.
I had had the honor of sitting with other people at their passing, and I’d noticed that the breath is an important marker for the way life ends.
When a person dies, at first there’s a slight struggle to breathe – their breathing is loud, as if the life force is trying to hold itself in the body. And then the breath becomes more evenly balanced between inhalation and exhalation. And finally all of the person’s energy turns to pushing the breath out of the body, and only reluctantly taking it back in.
At the point when the final shift happened, I called my sister and said, “you’d better come, because he’s trying to get out instead of staying in.”
I had seen how a dying person will stop breathing for a while, and then just when you think he’s gone he’ll take another loud breath, as if the soul is making a last attempt to stay. And then it decides, “I don’t need to breathe anymore. It’s okay.” And that’s when they give up and leave.
And then you’re left with the empty form which is so obviously useless. It’s been a big something for so long, and now it’s a big nothing.
When my father left his body, I felt completely joyful. He was a sweet man, especially at the end, and many of the people who’d cared for him were distressed and were weeping.
Finally, my sister jabbed me in the elbow and said, “you’ve got to stop smiling!” She wasn’t upset with me, but she was concerned for how the others would feel if they saw me.
I said, “But I feel very happy, and I’m not good at being insincere.”
She said, “well, at least respect the feelings of the others.”
I said, “Okay.” So I drew back and let them come in and suffer because he wouldn’t be with them anymore. But I couldn’t feel anything but joyful inside.
Now, all religious traditions make an enormous point of death, because it’s the one tremendous fact that gives the lie to our attachment to this life. The promise of this life that people cling to is undermined by the simple fact that sooner or later it will all fall to pieces.
I haven’t given birth, but I’ve been present when babies were born. They’re so dear, but there’s an enormous anxiety for them to take their first breath, because it’s the only way you can be sure they’ll stay. Until they inhale for the first time, they’re just an inert form. As Paramhansa Yogananda explained, the baby cries when it takes its first breath because it realizes, “Oh, my God, here we go again.”
The baby starts to breathe, and it knows it will be inhaling and exhaling for a very long time, until the moment when it can exhale and get out of the body.
Now, it’s not as if leaving the body changes anything. The physical form confines us to a degree, but we’re much more confined by our ego-identifications. And those identifications stay with us when we die.
Yogananda defined the ego as “the soul, identified with the body.” But the physical body is just one of the bodies we identify with.
We also have a body of astral energy that’s built up around the spinal chakras where our karma is stored. And the astral body is every bit as limiting as the physical body. In fact, the physical body is a tool that the astral body uses to work out our karma.
So merely getting rid of the body doesn’t free us from the karma that binds us. It just shifts our awareness to a more subtle reality for a while.
In his commentary on Yogananda’s interpretations of the Bhagavad Gita, Swami Kriyananda writes: “when you’re in the material body, you’re only very dimly aware of your inner reality, and your life seems to be externally oriented.”
The physical body is so strongly attached to this world that unless we’re sensitive enough – and most people aren’t – there may be no awareness of the inner reality at all.
If you’re meditating regularly and you’ve developed a certain level of intuition, you begin to feel that the source of your life is inside, and that your happiness depends on how you react to the circumstances of your life from within.
Until we come on the path, we think, “If I can just control my outer environment, I’ll be able to control my life, and I’ll be safe and happy.”
It’s why people become power-hungry and anxious to control others, intent on acquiring money, and committed to an endless series of outward hopes.
There’s a point where we begin to sense that our happiness has more to do with how we feel inside. And as we cultivate that inner reality, we begin to understand that it isn’t our outer circumstances that determine our happiness, but how we respond to them. We begin to realize that if we can control our inner responses, we can control our happiness.
Looking around us, we see people who appear to have their lives perfectly arranged in outward terms, but who are unhappy. They have wealth and power, but they turn to drugs and alcohol to dull their pain. Or they commit suicide from a sense of hopelessness and despair. Or they have children who disappoint them.
In their longing to find happiness outside, they can do terrible things. And these are the people the world holds up to us as successful. But because of their false idea of where happiness comes from, they’re never able to find the complete fulfillment they’re seeking.
Swami Kriyananda said that we’re more aware of the inner reality in the astral world. If you’re basically a harmonious person, you’ll go to a part of the astral world that is much more beautiful and harmonious than this world, but if you’re a horrible person, you’ll end up in an astral region that’s much more horrible than this world.
Many people die and never wake up in the astral world at all, because their consciousness is so outward that they just go to sleep there. As Master described it, their time between incarnations is like a gray dream.
And then they wake up in a physical body, and they start eating and drinking and grasping and experiencing, and they think, “This is my real life! Now I know where I am.”
The power that creates us, and makes us breathe, is a mysterious force that we have no control over, even though it’s the essence of our being. It’s the source of which St. John speaks in the Bible: “In him was life, and that life was light, and that light was the light of the world.”
John is telling us that the power that was in Christ was the infinite light of God. It’s the same light that illuminates every one of us from within. And if we could know ourselves, we would be aware of that great light.
In his Gita commentary, Yogananda tells us that this life is like a movie. We see forms moving about on the screen, and some are beautiful, some are hideous, some are kind, and some are evil. And they all appear to be moving about separately. But if you turn around and look at the beam of light shining out of the projection booth, you realize that that single beam has divided itself into many separate forms.
We are all projected by a single beam of light. And what made Christ different from us was that he knew himself as a projection of the divine light. That’s why he was able to relate to his physical body impersonally, as we would relate to a set of clothes.
We need a body in order to work in this world. And we need to work because it’s how we learn to come into the Light.
We long for many experiences in this world. And the reason we long for them is because we imagine they will give us happiness and freedom.
Now, it isn’t wrong to want to be active in this world. It’s not wrong for the carpenter to pick up his tools and fulfill his dream of building a beautiful home. But it becomes wrong, Swamiji said, if we expect that it will give us perfect happiness. It’s wrong if we fall for the false promise of happiness in outward things.
In the Gita, Krishna tells his beloved disciple Arjuna, “you will never find satisfaction until you give up all of your other desires and desire God alone.”
And Arjuna says, “but many people seem to be happy. How can this be true?”
That’s how we think, isn’t it? “Looking around me, I see people who appear to be happy. My own life is painful, and their life seems much better.”
But as Swamiji once said to me, “if you think that other people have their lives together, it’s just because you don’t know them very well.”
I said, “My, that’s a cynical remark, sir.”
He said, “well, it’s based on experience.”
It was a simple observation, with no judgment attached to it – it’s simply the human condition. And until we give our lives to God, we’ll continue to have difficulties, and we’ll run smack against the limitations of this world, time after time.
But then Swamiji said, “what you see in people mostly is not the actual state of happiness in the present moment, but a hope for it in some future circumstance.”
In Yogananda’s poem, Samadhi, he writes: “past, present, and future no more for me, but ever-present, all-flowing I, I, everywhere.”
We divide our consciousness in countless ways. And when we finally merge in cosmic consciousness, we realize that it was all taking place in a single moment, in the eternal now.
How often, in our limited consciousness, are we ever fully present in each moment?
This afternoon, I’ll drive to Ananda Village, and all morning I’ve been thinking about my trip to the Village. Minutes ago, I read the Gita commentary, and now I’m giving a sermon, and yet a piece of my mind is thinking of where I’ll be in a few hours. I’m contemplating how I’ll see old friends, and I’m wondering if I should take a heavy jacket.
And do I really need to be thinking of these things? Why should I try to get pleasure from dwelling on what I’ll be doing in a few hours? It seems that the bliss of this moment isn’t sufficient to me, and I’m hoping I’ll have a better experience later, when I’m doing something else.
Extrapolate that tendency to countless moments of countless lives. And then add how we try to find happiness by distracting ourselves from the present moment, watching movies and television, taking drugs, having a glass of wine before dinner, and going on vacation.
This is what most people call being happy – to find a way of lifting themselves out of the present moment. It’s living in a misty dream of some far-off perfect future. But if we look closer, we realize that it’s because we can’t stand to be alone in our own mind.
Compared to the experience of true freedom, of being completely fulfilled and fully conscious in the ever-present, infinite blissful moment, it’s the very definition of hell. There’s no other word for it. It is hell.
We enjoy the ease with which we can live in this familiar reality. But the true teachings of all ages tell us that the inner reality comes first, because it’s the source of the greatest happiness we can know.
And then the masters tell us, “go ahead and live your life.”
We have the example of Swami Kriyananda, and of Yogananda and Christ. And a fundamental lesson of their lives is that they were extraordinarily active in this world.
The masters are not passive or disengaged. They are fully present. And for those of us who knew him, Swami Kriyananda was the supreme example. Consider the creative work he accomplished – the 140 books and 400 pieces of music. And then add the tremendous spiritual responsibility he accepted for others and for Yogananda’s work, and how he carried it out masterfully. His life was beyond ordinary comprehension for its sheer energy and volume of service.
It’s very far from the image most people have of the saints – “I’m floating in bliss and I no longer have to do anything.”
If we want to understand how the masters can live so dynamically, we need to understand how life works.
What is life? What is consciousness? Where does it come from?
As we discover the answer, we realize how the masters can accomplish so much, while remaining always centered in the divine Light.
We can only know that light with inner awareness, born of steadfast meditation and attunement with the consciousness of God and the masters. And then all the understanding we need comes naturally. But we must realize that we’re on a particular personal trajectory toward the light, and that even God can’t change the arc of our journey.
We’ve set in motion a certain arc of karma, and it isn’t as though we can choose whether we want to live through it. It’s a question of how we can live successfully and find more freedom and happiness at each step of the way.
“And whereas in the past, suffering and sorrow were the coin of man’s redemption,” as it says in the Festival of Light, “for us now that payment has been exchanged for calm acceptance and joy.”
We who are gathered here today are destined to live dynamic lives. We’ve chosen to seek truth in Silicon Valley, a vastly energetic, constantly changing, demanding and dynamic place. This is the karma we’ve set in motion, and God Himself can’t stop it.
Many things are destined to happen to us, and many of them will pose challenges. We’ll experience illness, disappointment, the death of loved ones, and old age. And we’ll have to struggle to overcome our tests.
To our outward challenges, we can add the sheer inability to be comfortable in our own skin, and the constant dissatisfaction with our life, and the longing for something better – all of which keeps us from finding the bliss hidden at the center of our being.
But we needn’t be dissatisfied if we will simply get busy and start doing the work for which we’ve come here – to improve our consciousness.
Every aspect of our life is a tool to expand our awareness. Our artistic ability, our responsibility for our family, our love for our children and our spouse and friends – these are the tools we’ve been given to expand our consciousness and find joy.
Our karma is a pattern that we’ve been weaving for many lives. And in order to get from where we are to where we want to be, we need to work with the pattern as we’ve created it, because there’s no other way to get there. And yet we waste a great deal of time protesting, “Why? Why?”
Our complaining doesn’t help, because the pattern is set, and the only thing that can alter our experience of the journey is the consciousness with which we choose to live, and that we’re cultivating in our hearts.
If we live in the AUM and the light, it will have a powerful influence on how we experience our life.
Jesus says, “I am the life and the light.” And if we live in darkness, we cannot see the light. If we think that the external facts of our life will fulfill us, and that we’re victims of our outward circumstances, we’ll remain stuck in a static pattern that doesn’t change. But if we tune in to the light, we’ll begin to understand what this life is asking of us, and where our karma is headed, and where our happiness lies. And we’ll ultimately know that we’re living in the light that is creating and sustaining the pattern.
That’s the message of the masters. It’s quite simple: “What I am, thou art. What I have done, ye shall do even greater things. Ye are my own. Be still and know that I am God.”
That’s what this life is asking of us. And all the rest is beyond our control. “Whatever comes of itself,” as they say in India, “let it come.” But how we receive it inside will determine if we will find mastery, freedom, and God’s undying love.
(From Asha’s talk at Sunday service on January 8, 2006.)