When I was in high school, I had a classmate who was extremely gifted in various aspects of the theater. He became a very well-known set designer in New York and Hollywood.
My friend created a series of beautiful marionettes that he would use to perform for children. For a time I helped him work the puppets. We would walk in public places clad in black clothes and act out our roles through the puppets.
When he took me out the first time, I said, “John, this is ridiculous. People won’t look at the puppets, they’ll just be looking at us.”
He said, “No, you’ll see.”
He was right. The puppets were beautiful and interesting, and nobody paid us the slightest attention. We would move here and there with the marionettes, working their arms and legs and speaking for them, and people would watch the marionettes as if they were alive. They willingly accepted a reality that had nothing to do with what was actually going on.
Before Sunday service in our temple, we were talking in the ministers’ room, and Helen pulled out a little bag of knitted finger puppets. She had collected them for the preschool teacher, who is very demanding in her tastes, so they were very artistically done. They included a pony, a duck, a fairy, and a butterfly.
While Gary was trying to have a serious conversation with me, I put on the puppets and pretended they were answering him. It caused a big problem, because I had identified with the puppets, and their answers tended to be rather cheeky. Although it was my fingers and voice, the puppets had taken on a life of their own.
This is why we use puppets to entertain children, because you can say things you wouldn’t ordinarily say as an adult. It’s why they’ll sometimes use puppets in therapy with children, because the children may not want to talk to the therapist, but they’ll talk to the puppet, even though the adult is sitting right there.
Now, in our relationship with God, we’re very much like the audience watching the puppets. We’re entirely focused on the outward appearance of things, and we don’t notice that we’re actually an inseparable part of God, and that we’re nothing but a pure expression of the Divine. And, how is it that we can fail to notice it for such a long time?
It can take a very long time before we’re ready to begin to turn our attention away from the outward play of the world. It can take thousands of lives. And by the time we ready to walk into this temple, we’ve had at least an inkling that there’s something fishy going on in the world, and that there’s a deeper reality behind the scenes. This is the point where we’ve grown tired of believing the lie, and we’re eager to look behind the scenes and see what’s really happening.
Swami Kriyananda said, “The idea arose in the mind of the Infinite to create you. And then that idea became a causal vibration. And then more energy was added to it and it became an astral vibration, and then finally it became a material body.”
It’s a wonderful way of telling us where we came from. But it doesn’t satisfy our hearts, because it isn’t the level of understanding we’re seeking. It’s a scientific description, but it isn’t giving us an experience.
Now, if I were fully God-realized, I would know that my reality is that I’m like a puppet on God’s finger, because my outward appearance is merely an extension of my true being which is God.
It would be wonderful if I could remember who I am always, and where I came from. The reason we lose track of where we’ve come from is that our puppet self becomes familiar and attractive to us. And just as children and adults will choose to indulge in the fantasy of the puppet and ignore the puppeteer, we become engrossed in the part of God’s creation that isn’t our truest self.
If we stand back a bit, it’s obvious that the person behind the puppet is the one who’s giving it life. But it’s lots of fun to engage in the fantasy.
We become fascinated by the world that’s always spinning its story outside and all around us, and we lose track of the real story. Through a long series of existences, we’ve allowed ourselves to become identified with a false reality.
In our Sunday service, we trace the saga of the little bird who starts its existence knowing itself as a manifestation of God. But it begins to define its reality in terms of its outward experiences, and finally in its prideful separateness it exclaims, “How foolish I would be not to keep what is mine for myself!”
Swami Kriyananda talked about his memories of having been a writer in past lives. He recalled how those memories were with him as a young child. When he was six, he wrote some stories, and in the manner of children, he tied the sentences together with the word “and.” “And I went to school. And I played with my friends.”
His mother read the stories and said, “Honey, they’re very nice, but maybe you don’t need to put in all these ‘ands.’” And Swamiji remembered how, at age six, he was very indignant with his mother. “And who are you to tell me how to write?!” Because the memory of being a writer was deeply embedded in his consciousness.
The little bird in the Festival says, “Who are you to tell me how to live my life? My life feels wonderful and right and true.” And the Festival reminds us that we were created to experience ourselves as part of a much greater reality. But as we begin to experience ourselves as a separate reality, we enjoy those experiences that make us feel big and important. We lose interest in our connection with a wider reality, and we assert, “This is where my happiness comes from.” And the Festival describes how we cling to this idea, “even though repeatedly we lost everything we had.”
The Festival entreats us, “Pray for the grace to share with others even as you have received, for you are a part of all that is.” For our true nature is to know ourselves as one with all.
It’s very important to understand that the more we identify with our unique and separate reality, the more lonely and incomplete we feel, because in our self-identification we separate ourselves from our oneness with the God who is all.
Swamiji said that the delusion of separation is an expression of rajo guna – the restless energy that impels us to look outside ourselves for ways to feel fulfilled and complete. And the little corner of our world where we are living here in Silicon Valley is perfectly suited to tempt us to look to the latest shiny gadgets to complete us.
I’ll dye my hair. I’ll change the shape of my nose. I’ll get an expensive car. I’ll build a big house, and everyone will see that I’m terribly important. And I’ll keep buying stuff until I’m perfectly satisfied and complete within myself.
At Spiritual Renewal Week, Atman Goering, the community manager at Ananda Village, who’s highly educated in community planning and resource management, told us that the fastest-growing sector of the real estate industry in America is self-storage units. And what does that say?
Our houses and closets and garages are getting bigger, even as our families are getting smaller, and still we don’t have enough room. A smaller number of people are running out of room in their ever-bigger houses. And what is wrong with this picture?
The Gita describes our situation beautifully. It doesn’t speak of storage units, but it traces our restlessness and dissatisfaction to its original source, in our separation from our true nature, which leads us to feel incomplete, unfulfilled, and insecure.
“Incomplete” is a word that’s rich with meaning. Men say they can’t feel complete without a woman, and women say they can’t feel complete without a man. People say they can’t feel complete without a family, and that they won’t feel complete until they can buy a nice home.
All of these impulses come from a single source, in the universal desire to be whole, and to know that we aren’t separate from the greater reality that we intuitively know is where we most deeply want to be.
We want to try it all. And in the chaos and confusion of our restlessness, the whispered voice of Spirit recedes, as we bury it beneath a mountain of stuff.
I’m not familiar with Feng Shui, the oriental art of arranging things in space, but I’m familiar with the idea that physical objects hold energy, and that they can disrupt the harmonious flow of energy in our lives. When a friend tried to teach me the basics of Feng Shui, she said, “Hold your physical possessions in your hand, one at a time, and see if they give you energy or if they take it away.”
You can stuff your house with objects that make you feel ambiguous when you touch them. “These clothes are too small, but maybe I’ll lose weight. I have a bum knee, but I’ll keep my running gear in case it gets better.”
“My Aunt Ethel, the one I never liked, gave me this vase that I don’t like, but my mother would be very upset if I gave it away.”
Where is the subtle voice of Spirit that whispers, “Who am I? Where does my happiness come from? What do I want in this life?”
The Gita tells us that we aren’t enslaved by our possessions until our emotions enter the picture. Swami Kriyananda explained the process with a metaphor. Our senses perceive a horse, and the mind says, “This is my horse.” And up until that point we still aren’t trapped. But then the emotions enter in and we say, “I like my horse.” And that’s when delusion captures us.
It’s why Patanjali describes the goal of yoga as chitta nirodh – “stilling the restless feelings of the heart.”
Jesus said, “Those who came before me are thieves and robbers.” He wasn’t speaking of the saints who lived before him. The “thieves and robbers” are the desires that we place ahead of the Christ consciousness in us.
They are the desires that separate us from the completeness of our own deepest inner nature. They are the desires that make us forget the Divine. “All those who came before me,” which is to say, “in front of,” and that steal from us, are the things that we put ahead of our complete Self in Spirit.
What do they steal? They steal our happiness and the wholeness that we are longing for. And this is why we’re driven to keep seeking.
Paramhansa Yogananda told the parable of the musk deer, which emits a powerful scent that the deer finds intoxicating, to the extent that it will run everywhere looking for its source, and may even crash into a tree or jump over a cliff.
We live in a dangerous age, where the objects of desire have multiplied, thanks to the new awareness of energy that has created a million shiny things.
I made a pious pilgrimage recently to the Container Store. I adored it, because it’s full of containers that you can put your stuff in, and it’s so much easier to track it all when you can see it in these carefully coordinated jars and boxes. It’s a natural outgrowth of the culture of desire, and it’s very creative. In fact, it’s part of the tremendous spirit of creativity and innovation that has been our greatness as a country. And I absolutely love it. But in the end, what are we really looking for?
I watched the little newborn daughter of a friend of ours when she was just four minutes old, and how little Leah reached up and grasped her father’s hand. It was heartrendingly beautiful, and tears were running down our faces because it was so sweet. But with another part of my mind, I was thinking, “Look at that, she’s just minutes old and already she’s reaching out.”
We come alone into this world, and as Yogananda said, the baby cries when it’s born, not because it needs to breathe, but because when it takes its first breath it realizes that it’s trapped again, and it wails.
Anandamoy Ma was a great saint who left her body in 1982. She told how she was fully conscious during the process of gestation and birth, and how she never lost the awareness of who she was, because she wasn’t identified with her limited physical being. She could animate the body that she’d been given by God, but she never identified with it. She never allowed restless desires to come between her and the Christ Consciousness.
She never cried when she was born, and she didn’t reach out. She was completely serene and lay there perfectly still. She said, “I was looking out the window at the beautiful trees.” As an infant, just minutes old, she was complete within herself. She never allowed the event of her birth to create a sense of separateness in her consciousness.
That’s the state that we’re trying to accomplish. People sometimes twist spirituality, believing they’ll be more detached from the world if they rebel against it, or if they refuse to learn, or if they refuse to put out energy.
But it’s a misguided thought. We’re here for one reason: to recover the awareness that we are one with all, and to be instruments for the Divine in all that we do.
What is God’s nature like? It’s complete self-offering, unconditional love, and divine acceptance. It’s why the masters come to live among us, to show us what God is like. It’s what Swami Kriyananda was like, and it’s what Paramhansa Yogananda was like.
The Festival of Light tells us why the masters are born in this world. “Here, then, is the fourth and last stage of the soul’s long journey away from its home in God: the redemption.” It tells us that the saints come to sacrifice every personal inclination in order to serve as God’s instruments to help suffering souls.
When you reach that point of Self-realization, you understand that it’s no sacrifice to give everything to God, because it’s the way we are made. “Pray, then, for the grace to share with all, even as you have received, for you are a part of all that is.”
In the lives of the masters, we find this constant thought: “How can I give? How can I help? How can I be an instrument for God’s light to radiate into people’s lives? How can I support them? How can I help them grow in divine understanding?”
The senses try to persuade us that our reality lies in seeking pleasure through the body, and in getting whatever we want. And our restless hearts tells us that it can never be enough.
There’s a Steve Martin movie where he plays an egotistical movie director who desperately wants to be famous. There’s a scene where he’s trying to get his team to rally around and help him. He’s promising them that they’ll be rich and famous. And then he smirks and says, “And when I say ‘we,’ I actually mean me.”
It’s an exaggerated view of what’s happening inside us all the time. The mind constantly wants to know, “What’s in it for me?” And even though we repeatedly lose everything we have, we hold onto the thought “What’s in it for me?” until the agony of our incompleteness drives us to penetrate the delusion of our restless heart and reject the false understanding that the world is constantly trying to feed us.
I don’t have a college degree. I went to a year of college, but in the first week I realized that nobody there was looking for the truth, and that it was all just about intellectual entertainment. It was something I was very good at – what this person said about this, and what this other person said about it, and how do you reconcile the two? And I’d had enough of it. I thought, “You’ve got to be kidding!” So I went to parties and had fun and flunked out. Because I wanted to know, “Why are we here? Who are we? And what is really going to make us happy?”
I wasn’t against the intellect, because we can use the mind to serve others. Swami Kriyananda was the most intelligent, highly cultured person I’ve known. But everything he knew, he turned toward the Divine. As he put it, his life was an event for which he was responsible. He would keep up with current events, and he would study economic trends and watch politics. Because, as he said, “I’m the leader of a large organization, and many people rely on me. I can’t afford to be ignorant. I need to know what’s going on so that I can make intelligent decisions for the sake of serving others.”
And that’s a hint at how we can begin to turn ourselves around and discover who and what we really are. Swami Kriyananda said that the greatest way to overcome the ego is through selfless service, and it’s also the simplest and most effective way, because it continually unites our self-interest and our energy and our time and money with the interests of all. When we give of our energy and time and money to a spiritual cause, our energy is dedicated to enlightening others. As Paramhansa Yogananda said, the next-best art to the art of knowing God is to work honestly and industriously to support His work.
The prayer of Ananda is, “May the Divine Light awaken and purify my heart and bring enlightenment to all beings.”
And what impurity is the Divine Light purifying my heart from? This is the impurity: a commitment to separateness, to being incomplete, to rushing restlessly in all directions in a fruitless attempt to become whole.
May the Divine Light awaken and purify my heart and bring enlightenment to all beings. Isn’t it simple? Let us weigh our every thought, our every action, and our every decision against that simple standard. Will this help me attune myself more closely to the Divine Light, and awaken and purify my heart? And how can I help the Divine Light to enlighten all beings?
When we embrace that reality, the agonizing longing that drives us away from God will finally begin to be fulfilled.
(From Asha’s talk during Sunday service at Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto, California on August 30, 2015.)