In the late 1980s, Dr. Peter Van Houten, a physician and who lives at Ananda Village, found himself managing a huge medical practice single-handed.
The clinic that he started near the Village in 1982 serves more than 7,000 patients in rural Nevada County. As the sole physician, his pager would ring anytime day or night, including weekends.
Whenever he would try to take time off to rest and recover, Swami Kriyananda would have a health crisis, and Peter would have to respond.
At a point when he was feeling completely worn out from his labors, the county announced that the clinic buildings were sub-standard and would have to be vacated. No other property was available in the area, and the clinic didn’t have a penny to spare.
Peter wrote to Swamiji, explaining how tired and discouraged he was, and that he didn’t know what to do.
Swamiji lovingly encouraged him to try to balance his life, to look for another physician to join him, and to have faith that God would help him find a way to continue to serve. Toward the end of their conversation, Swamiji said, “True courage comes from perfect humility.”
It’s a very interesting remark in the context of the spiritual life, and well worth looking at more closely, since humility is a cornerstone of the path.
People’s mental images of humility generally revolve around self-abasement – if you’re humble, you’re supposed to go around with downcast eyes and speak softly.
Swamiji described an example of that kind of humility that he observed at a holy shrine in Europe. A nun was leading a tour of the site, and everything she said was spoken, as Swamiji recalled, in tones of breathless sanctity. “and here is where the nuns sing, and here is the chapel where we worship the baby Jesus.” And Swami wasn’t at all impressed by her devotion.
At one point, another nun came walking briskly by with a box of candy, and the tour leader immediately dropped her pious pose and exclaimed, “oh, chocolates!”
Swamiji said he was much more inspired by her spontaneous outburst of enthusiasm than her affectation of devotion.
The point is, we can’t get rid of the ego by pretending that we’re different than we are. God responds most reliably to our prayers when we’re completely open and natural with Him.
There’s a scene in the Bhagavad Gita where Arjuna and Krishna are discussing how the devotee can become free of his desires. And Krishna says, “Of what avails mere suppression?”
As Swamiji often said, if you try to suppress your desires, “they’ll just pop out in some weird way, and you’ll really accomplish nothing. You’ll just add to all the confusion.”
Master said that humility means having an honest sense of what is true – in other words, being able to see ourselves exactly as we are. And any other image we may hold of ourselves will be born of the ego.
To think that we’re worthy of special attention and respect because we can sing beautifully, or because we can speak well, or we’re particularly handsome, and that the world therefore owes us extra attention and favor, is surely to put ourselves on the side of ego.
But it’s equally egotistical to think “I am nothing. I’m hopeless. I’ll never succeed. I’m a terrible person.” Because then you’re just defining yourself as a separate entity again, divorced from your true nature which is one with God.
A very proud and egotistical devotee came to Sri Ramakrishna, a great saint who lived in the 1800s. The devotee began telling Ramakrishna about the large amounts of money he donated to good works, and how he helped the widows and the poor. And Ramakrishna, in childlike humility, free of any hint of sarcasm, said, “Oh, my, I wonder how God got along before you were born?”
The force of delusion tempts us with the hideously invasive thought – “I am the center of everything. Everything revolves around me.”
True humility means to recognize that if we have a special talent, that talent is simply a fact, and it isn’t humility to try to hide or suppress it. Nor is it egotism to be aware of our talents and exercise them with confidence, so long as the focus is on helping, and not on the thought that our abilities define us and set us apart from others.
Nayaswami Haridas said it beautifully, “something inspiring happened, and I got to be there.”
It’s a marvelous attitude to have – that we were blessed to be present when something wonderful happened.
Years ago, Swamiji had open heart surgery to replace a heart valve, and at the same time they performed a coronary bypass and put in a pacemaker.
After the surgery, the doctor said, “you must do nothing but rest for the next year.”
It was the busiest year of Swamiji’s life! He wrote books and traveled thousands of miles to inspire others, and he was actively involved in a lawsuit in which the opposition’s viciously aggressive lawyers deposed him for eighty hours.
He had barely a moment to spare. And at the end of the year, he celebrated by drawing up a list of all the things he had accomplished. At first glance, you might think that it was an egotistical recitation of his achievements. But it wasn’t ego that he was expressing. He was simply making an observation about a series of events at which he’d been blessed to be present.
“Look at the wonderful things that God has been able to accomplish through this body, which was supposed to rest this year!” He did it to show us that God can accomplish amazing things when we turn our lives over to Him in humility and with full, dynamic willingness.
I’ve been writing a book about Swamiji. It’s a collection of stories of the many interesting things that have happened in his life. I’m about halfway through, and when I was in India recently I shared the manuscript with Swamiji.
The events described in the stories range from the merely unusual to the miraculous, and they paint a picture of a most unusual man. I wasn’t sure how much of it he would allow me to include. But he let it all go through, very impersonally. And when he was reading the manuscript and would come across a story that was unusual, his comment was: “hmm, how interesting.”
When he finished, he said, “this isn’t a story about me. This is a story of something interesting that happened.”
Now, the reason he was able to be so impersonal about his life and accomplishments is because of the way he understands his ego. In Swamiji, there is no personal identification with the ego to which the sense of “me” can attach itself, apart from his awareness of himself as an expression of God.
He knows himself as a wave on the ocean of God’s consciousness, and because of that simple awareness, God is able to do remarkable things through him. And he is fully aware that it is the power of the ocean that is expressing itself through the little wave.
The extent to which we allow God’s consciousness to move through us, is the extent to which we can accomplish wonderful and beautiful things.
Now, where is the dividing line between the wave and the ocean? At what point can we claim that God is not responsible for our achievements? The conclusion that we arrive at from observing Swamiji’s life is that there is no dividing line. God is the source of all our great accomplishments. And allowing ourselves to identify with the little ego reflects a distorted understanding of who we are.
In Conversations with Yogananda, Swamiji describes a meeting between Paramhansa Yogananda and a college professor. At one point, the professor asked Master, “what is the difference between you and your disciples?”
If Yogananda had identified with his ego, he might have puffed out his chest and replied, “Well, now – I can go into Samadhi! I can stop my heartbeat!”
But his answer was humble, “we are all waves on the ocean, but some waves are farther away from the ocean, and some ride on the surface of the ocean.”
A mind drenched in egotism might say, “well then, you must be a really tall wave!”
But Master’s meaning was the opposite. “This self is a wave that is no longer distinguishable from the ocean. The disciples are not yet fully merged in the ocean, but we are part of the same reality.”
A brother disciple of Swamiji’s in SRF wrote him a letter in which he presumed to scold him for his alleged transgressions.
Swami’s response was surprising in its frankness. He has never been boastful, but he chose to speak plainly to teach the disciple a lesson in humility. He said, “You have accomplished nothing in your life, and look at how much I have accomplished.”
Again, you might think that it was self-congratulatory. But it was the opposite – he simply wanted to help a brother disciple find the humility to start serving God more dynamically and stop casting stones at his fellow disciples.
In Paramhansa Yogananda: A Biography, Swamiji describes an incident that took place in the hermitage of Yogananda’s guru, Sri Yukteswar.
Sri Yukteswar was training the young monk Yogananda to be indifferent to other people’s opinions, and to draw his sense of self-worth solely from his inner oneness with God.
At a gathering of several hundred people, Sri Yukteswar asked Yogananda to bring him a glass of water.
Yogananda fetched the water, and as he was returning with the glass he stumbled slightly on the carpet.
In the full hearing of the large audience, Sri Yukteswar said very loudly, “you clumsy oaf!” And everyone laughed.
Yogananda calmly looked out at the crowd and thought, “not one of you has what I have!”
It was not pride. It was the plain truth. And it demonstrated an important attitude for the devotee, which is to always live in truth.
If something wonderful happens through you, you don’t have to issue a disclaimer or pretend that what happened wasn’t wonderful. You can look at it with eyes wide open and celebrate the brilliant thing that God was able to do through you.
It does no good to say, “oh, no, I played badly. Oh, no, my poetry isn’t any good.” This attitude only gets you focused on your ego once again, separate from the ocean of Spirit. At worst, it obligates everyone to gather around and reassure you, “yes, it is wonderful! Yes, it is!” with the result that it draws everyone’s attention to you and reinforces your ego.
“God is the doer,” as Yogananda said when people praised him. And why would we want to be a separate wave, vainly trying to lift itself above the ocean of God’s infinite bliss? Isn’t it better to move as one with the ocean of Spirit?
To return to what Swamiji said to Dr. Peter Van Houten, “Courage comes from perfect humility.”
Why do we lose courage and become paralyzed by fear? Fear is the result of our attachment to the little ego, and the dread that it might be denigrated or lost.
Why are we afraid? Because we want things to be a certain way, and we fear that if they don’t go exactly as we wish, the whole of our security and identity may be lost.
Those of us who have grown older must confront the reality that we have changed. There was a time when I could lift fifty pounds with ease, and I could carry a hundred pounds with a little effort. In my twenties, I worked in the kitchen at the meditation retreat, and I regularly hauled big sacks of potatoes up from the cellar. Once a week, I drove the truck to town and filled it with the next week’s groceries. I did everybody’s laundry and I hauled heavy objects, and I was no bigger than I am now. But I had a lot of strength. And, sadly, it’s no longer true. Now, it’s, “Can you please move that heavy chair for me?”
My back isn’t what it used to be, and my eyes aren’t as sharp as they once were. The other day, I was thinking, “The next quadrant of my life will be the years from sixty to eighty.” And by any standard, I’m no longer young.
I’ve entered the stage of my life when people will generously describe me as “surprisingly well-preserved for her age,” and “still wonderfully youthful in her attitude.”
When old age comes, we lose many of the things we’ve been attached to, and by which we’ve defined ourselves. Most people fear this stage of life. They fear the loss of youth, beauty, strength, independence, and vanity. And what is it that makes them afraid? It’s a simple misunderstanding – “I have something, and I must not lose it or I’ll be terribly diminished.”
We have no control over the aging process. And what does it mean to “grow old gracefully”? It means to have the humility to acknowledge, “I am part of the ocean. I am not an independent wave. I am not in charge. I can wave my little fists at the universe, but each day brings me closer to eighty than twenty-five, and my protests make no difference. The little cells of my body are inexorably mutating, and only God knows what will happen to me.”
What is it that causes us to resist reality and resist merging in the ocean of God’s consciousness that sustains us? It’s a lack of courage, born of a lack of humility. “What if I try and fail? What will happen to my self-esteem? What will people think of me? What if people think me foolish? What if life gives me more than I can handle?”
The fears go on and on – an endless, self-generated cycle of insecurity, born of our attachments and the resulting dread of loss. And it’s all because we don’t understand the central truth of our existence: that we are much less than we ever imagined, and we’re much more, because we are part of the great ocean of Spirit.
We are sustained at every moment by that ocean. And, just imagine how you would feel if you knew this truth with every cell of your being, and how little you would fear, and how courageous you would be.
If we want to be free of fear, we must derive our sense of ourselves entirely from knowing that we belong to God, and that the events of our life, and of many lives, will end in that complete awareness.
A friend of mine told me about a great fear that she’d been facing. She was very afraid of this thing, and finally she went to Swami Kriyananda to ask for his help. She described her great fear to him, and Swamiji said, “have you no faith? Don’t you understand that your life is in God’s hands?”
This is what allows us to find the humility to escape our fears – the simple knowing, born of constant meditation, devotion, and service, that we belong only to God.
We don’t become humble and fearless by suppressing our ego, or by becoming good at something so that we can feel strong in ourselves. We become humble and fearless when we’re aware of ourselves as a tiny wave on the bosom of the great ocean of God.
Swamiji wrote: “those who succeed are not necessarily those even with the most energy and talent. Those who succeed are those who are most attuned to the flow of life that permeates everything.”
Those who are successful are the ones who’ve learned to act with the power of the ocean behind them. When you’re completely merged with the Creator, what is there in the entire cosmos that could possibly frighten you?
The Bible says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.”
Swamiji explains that the Word is the vibration of Aum. The vibration of Aum is the substance of creation. It is God actively creating and sustaining the cosmos with His power of sound and light. And we are of that substance. So where is there room in that simple awareness for pride or false humility?
If we say, “I am the best,” it simply doesn’t make any sense. If the entire universe is sustaining us, what do we have to be afraid of? This is the simple truth. And while it isn’t easy to realize that truth, it isn’t complex. And that’s what we need to work hard to realize for ourselves.
A former teacher in our Living Wisdom School in Palo Alto told me how she had posted inspiring words in her classroom, and how Swamiji visited the class and looked at the words.
She had written positive words like Happiness, Joy, and Love. And finally she had written “Trust.”
Swami expressed his admiration for the classroom, but when he came to trust, he said, “why do you have that word there?”
Trust is a trendy buzzword now. People write articles about how we should trust life, and how we should trust that everything will be okay.
But Swamiji said, “nothing in life can be trusted, least of all ourselves, and certainly not one another.”
He said, “You look at yourself, and you see that before breakfast you’ve made six or seven resolutions and you don’t keep them.”
Isn’t it true? We promise ourselves, “I’ll get up at six and I’ll do yoga postures before I meditate.”
Or maybe not.
We confront the people in our lives, and we demand, “you must promise never to leave me, never to hurt me, and never to betray my trust in you.”
And they naively answer, “I promise.”
But as Master said, “God laughs.” Because we have no basis for trusting, if it’s just coming from the ego.
Everything changes, and no matter how much we love each other, one of us will ultimately die.
People get very angry when their partners die. There’s tremendous rage, and they have a hard time working through their anger. It’s not a joke, because in some way we trusted that they would stay with us, even though there was no chance of them keeping their promise not to desert us.
Only the masters can make that promise, because they are one with the ocean of God that will never let us down.
Master said, “God sees the lovers pledging their eternal troth, and their bleached bones give the lie to their promise.”
Swamiji recalled how Master was talking with him one day after lunch, and how he said, “Divine Mother eats people,” with suitable gestures of cramming food into his mouth.
We have an enormous sentimental attachment to this little body – this darling little form that we’re encased in. And God couldn’t care less. It’s like a grain of rice to Him – whoops – gone! body after body! But the consciousness in that lifeless shell is eternally one with the ocean. And that’s what is eternally dear, and what we can trust.
It’s the only thing we can trust, and it’s a profound thing to learn to trust it. The only thing that you can trust is that the ocean will endure, and that we are one with the ocean. The ocean is a compassionate, loving consciousness to which each of us is infinitely precious.
This is finally something that we can trust. What form that love will take isn’t ours to decide. But if we have perfect humility, what will we lack, and what do we need to fear?
What a beautiful promise it is. If we will simply have the humility and courage to embrace that promise and give ourselves to the Light, it will take away all of the uncertainty of this smallness to which we cling so anxiously.
The more we place our hopes in the world, the more it disappoints us. And as soon as we stop clinging, we find a delicious inner freedom.
As someone said, “you don’t have to grip tightly to keep your head on your shoulders.”
You don’t have to hold tightly to your place in the world. The tighter your grip, the less chance that you’ll know true freedom. But if you can relax your grip and allow the great wave of Spirit to receive you, you will find the bliss and power of God growing in you, and you will finally know who and what you really are. And then there will be nothing to hold on to, because you are one with all there is.
(From Asha’s talk at Sunday service on January 1, 2006.)