I remember as a young child riding in the car with my father and discovering that he had the magical power to turn the traffic lights green. It made such an impression on me – we would pull up to a light, and sometimes he could change it in a moment, but other times he had to perform a longer spell.
I remember sitting in the back seat with my brother and sister discussing this. “How does he do it?!” We were so excited, and when my brother finally figured it out, he had the good taste not to tell us until we understood it on our own.
It reminds me of how we “grow up” in the spiritual life. We speak of God as Father and a Mother, and it may seem a very simplified view of God. But it’s no mere sentiment. In fact, it’s a great metaphysical truth, because there are profound reasons why we think of God as male and female. Just as discovering how the traffic lights work, a higher truth is involved.
Why would we think of God as Mother and Father? Why not just think of Him/Her as “God”? Why would there be two genders? Why would there be male and female? Because, as Swami Kriyananda explained, in order to create a physical cosmos God had to vibrate his being outwardly. So duality is a built-in feature of every created thing.
At the human level, we experience duality as a perfectly normal and permanent part of our lives. But, on the other hand, we instinctively long for a happiness that lies beyond the dualities of this world. And when we’re sufficiently fed up with the endless interplay of earthly satisfactions and disappointments, we begin to look for a more permanent happiness. And not until we’ve experienced sufficient suffering are we able to grasp that there’s a happiness that is a hidden part of our own nature.
For a very long time, it isn’t obvious to us that there might be a soul-satisfying happiness within, completely apart from the glittering baubles of this world. God made the world in such a way that we can spend a very long time playing with duality, before we become able to discern which experiences give us true happiness.
We get to practice in endless ways, until we learn that our earthly experiences aren’t an end in themselves.
Consider the reality of a child, and how its view of life changes as the child grows up. Little boys have their Teddy bears, and little girls have their baby dolls. And the Teddy and the dolly are very much a part of the child’s reality.
There was a little boy in our congregation who had a stuffed monkey that he carried with him wherever he would go. And when he came up for the blessing on Sunday morning, he would bring the stuffed monkey. I remember how Swami Kriyananda would solemnly bless the child and then solemnly bless the monkey. Because from the child’s perspective, it would have been unthinkable for him not to bless the monkey. And Swami went along with the little boy’s viewpoint, because he was learning lessons of love and kindness. So Swamiji honored the child’s experience on its own level.
Through all our incarnations, we’re in the same relationship with our Heavenly Father and Divine Mother. And there’s a time for playing with toys, and there’s a time to relate to the world on a more mature level. In the long stream of incarnations, there are lives when the Divine Mother will give us everything we want, and there are lives when She will treat us more strictly.
In The New Path, Swami tells how Master introduced one of his disciples: “He is my baby. I am babying him.” And the disciple was a grown man. Master said, “You don’t mind my saying that, do you?” And the man said, “No, Sir, I don’t mind.” But it wasn’t intended to soothe him. It was an admonition: “I’m babying you, because you aren’t ready for anything stronger.” And he was still enough of a baby to want to rest in that state, instead of stiffening his spine and starting to grow up.
So we go through many phases, and God gives us what will help us grow at each stage. And then people are tempted to define God by how He is treating them. “God answers my prayers. God gave me a beautiful home. God found me a good parking spot.” And if it’s all we’re content to know of God, we won’t receive anything higher, because we aren’t looking for it.
Sri Ramakrishna was a great saint who lived near Calcutta in the 1800s. He was born completely free, and his first experience of transcending his physical body came at the age of six. It was the monsoon season, and there were dark clouds in the sky, and as he looked up, he saw a large white bird flying across the clouds. And the contrast between the white bird and the dark clouds reminded him of the duality of God’s creation, and he fell down in samadhi. They found his lifeless body and brought him back to the village, where he gradually emerged from that state. But wherever he looked, he saw God’s complete participation in this world.
Swami Kriyananda’s life was filled with trials and tribulations, considered from our perspective. But whenever someone would remark about the troubles in his life, he would look puzzled. “Has it been difficult?”
There was a woman who was determined to get Swami to feel sorry for himself. She made a long list of the difficulties he’d experienced in just the short month that she’d known him.
“Oh,” he said with surprise. Because it never crossed his mind to think of his life as difficult.
In my book about Swamiji, I describe how he was at the doctor’s, and I was helping him fill out a medical form. I was checking off the illnesses on the list, and at that point in he had diabetes, blood sugar issues, arthritis in both hips, lung problems, and many other issues. I was checking off the boxes, answering “Yes, yes, yes.” And at the bottom it said, “How do you rate your overall health?” And Swami said, “Excellent, just excellent.”
There was no pretense about it. It was as though he was answering a larger question: “How do you rate the way God has taken care of you?” And his natural response regardless of the difficulties God had given him was, “Excellent, just excellent.”
When we’re ready for that level of transcendence, God begins to treat us very differently. And preparing ourselves to ascend that steep final ladder to freedom requires that we train our hearts and minds to adopt what Swami called the attitude of a disciple.
It means not believing that God is sending us our tests for the malicious delight of seeing us suffer, but as a great blessing. God is the compassionate physician who gives us bitter medicine in order to help us get over our illness.
Too often, we have an attitude of wanting to be rescued. And it’s one of the great dangers in the spiritual path, to let ourselves fall into an attitude of waiting for God, or someone, to rescue us, instead of dealing with what God has placed before us.
For a long time, my personal image of my life as a disciple was that I would start many communities. It didn’t matter to me, but it was how I thought my life would turn out. And then Swami said, “No, I don’t think so. You’re where you should be, and you’re going to stay there.”
So I’m guessing that my astral ascension ceremony will happen in our Palo Alto temple. And it’s the oddest thing, because my first thought when Swami told me that was of the problems I would have to face if I couldn’t simply run away.
I thought of the spot in the garden where plants won’t grow, and the closet that I would have to clean out, and the people I had thought I could move away from, instead of learning to get along with them.
I assumed I wouldn’t have to resolve my karma here, and that I could run away from it. And it was very embarrassing – appalling, really – because I realized I was waiting to be rescued.
Looking at it from a cosmic perspective, how can we ever expect to be rescued? Because, as the saying goes, wherever we go, there we are.
For a long time, I would take seclusion once every year or two. Seclusion is a time when you can be by yourself and go within. It’s a time for meditation and silence, and it’s wonderful. Some people can seclude for a weekend, but I can’t, because “Asha” hangs around for three or four days until she finally begins to die off. And if I return to my normal life too soon, I don’t get the benefit of seclusion. So I have to give myself enough time to get rid of Asha.
Seclusion teaches us that there’s always an “Asha” or a “Tom” or a “Mary” inside us, with their special preferences for how they want their life to be.
We imagine, “I would feel God’s presence more deeply if…” And we insert a long list: “If my body felt better. If I didn’t have these headaches. If my blood sugar were more stable. If I didn’t have this weight problem. If I didn’t have this awful person who’s upset with me.”
In The New Path, Swami tells about a man who didn’t remain with Master, but who was a monk for quite a few years. Master took them to a concert at Hollywood Bowl, and this man, who had a rather bossy nature, decided that he would show Master how he could take charge. So he began to boss Swamiji around, saying, “Walter, would you please get a blanket for Master?” “I believe Master needs a glass of water. Would you kindly get it for him?”
And Swami didn’t care in the slightest, because he saw it as an opportunity to be helpful to his guru. And Master, seeing how the man was behaving, began to play along. He began bossing Swami around, “Yes, I believe I do need that. Could you please fetch it for me?”
Swamiji said that you might think a master would contradict people. When someone acts wrongly, our first impulse is to rush in and correct them. But people don’t learn that way, and it’s why Master would often push the disciples in the direction of their delusions. He would reflect to you whatever attitude you were showing, so that you could see it clearly and start to change it.
So this monk was being high-handed and bossy, thinking it was the way to demonstrate his competence. And Master started being high-handed and bossy. Swami said that the more Master bossed him around, and the more the monk bossed him around, the happier he felt. And at one point there a look flashed between Master and Swami, with the sweetness that they were sharing. And the more Master pretended to bully him, the more the sweetness expanded between them. Because Swami understood that it was God blessing him behind the play.
Now, when is this not true? When is the hand of God not blessing us? When is the guru not ordering our life for the good? It’s a wonderful thought to contemplate.
There was a time when certain painful events were happening around me, and I was feeling very stressed and upset by them. And then a voice in my mind said, “Do you think this is happening outside the will of God?”
We often don’t like our spiritual path. And I was annoyed when I had that thought, because I was committed to being upset.
People say, “I need a good cry,” believing that if they can sit down and sob for a while, they’ll feel better. There’s a perverse pleasure in collapsing into the emotion, so you don’t have to be brave and transcend it. But it’s exhausting, and it distracts you from getting busy and solving the problem. There are many things you can do that will accomplish some real good. And if you just cry, you may feel you’re accomplishing something, but nothing has actually changed.
So I was caught up in that energy, when that thought came, and it stopped me dead in my tracks: “If this is happening by the will of God, why am I behaving this way?”
It wasn’t as if I could snap out of it, because the vortices of karma can hold us tightly. They’re whirling in your spine like a tornado, and with part of your mind you may understand that these unpleasant events are happening by God’s will, but you’re also trapped in your customary reactions.
The point is to get to a level where, like Swami Kriyananda, we can unresistingly embrace the reality that God places before us.
Jesus tells us that if someone strikes us on the right cheek, we should turn the other cheek to them also. He wasn’t counseling cowardice or passivity. He was saying that when something comes to you that you don’t like, the attitude of a disciple is to accept it with humility as God’s will.
What do we normally do when something unpleasant happens? We hunker down and hope it will pass. But when we understand that this, too, is the will of God, instead of stepping back, we step forward. And if someone strikes us on one side, we ask to be hit on the other; not because we want to be hit, but why would we want to be rescued? Why would we run away? If God is giving us an opportunity to face something, why would we not want to learn how to face it?
Many years ago, Swami asked me to take on a project, and after a time, when I still hadn’t got busy and started it, he said, “Why aren’t you doing this? Are you lazy? Are you afraid? Are you too busy? Do you have a lack of concentration?”
I said, “All of the above, Sir.”
Every one of those reasons was why I wasn’t doing it. And why lie? There’s a tamasic energy in me that wants to hunker down and wait for the tornado to blow over.
Tamasic energy is the tendency that wants to pull our energy down into passivity and a kind of stuporous, smoldering darkness. “Instead of meditating, I’ll see what’s on TV.”
The real danger is that there’s a certain low pleasure in it. And it’s a battle that we’re fighting all the time. The reason we want to hunker down and wait to be rescued is basically that it’s just too much trouble to solve the problem.
I’m teaching a class series based on a pamphlet that Swamiji wrote years ago, 26 Keys to Higher Awareness. And the first premise is to meet life’s experiences with energy.
It’s nice to meet your experiences with calm energy, and it’s nice to meet them with happy energy. But, at the very least, we need to meet them with some kind of energy. Because the instinct to shrink back and wait for the wave to wash over us is a complete delusion. The wave will pass, but we’ll be trapped in the habit of hunkering down. And it won’t bring us any happiness at all.
When you’re surfing, there’s a moment when you have to decide if you’ll ride the wave or if you’ll go under and wait for another. And maybe something very much worse will happen if you try to catch the wave, because you could be wiped-out. So there’s always the doubt, “Do I have the energy to face it? Or will I let it pass?”
I was standing at the point where the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi Rivers meet in Devprayag, India. It’s a spectacular place, where two gigantic rivers come crashing together. You walk down into a canyon until you reach this sacred spot. And it’s not like America, where a barrier would keep you at a safe distance. You get to stand on a narrow promontory with two iron chains that you can hold onto as you step down, because it’s considered a very holy spot to bathe.
You’re only in water up to your ankles, but these two great rivers are crashing all around you with tremendous power. The Indian scriptures tell us that one of the eight ways God manifests to us is as power. And we often want to hide from that power, because we fear it will make us feel exposed and insecure and vulnerable.
It was an interesting paradox to stand where those two powerful rivers come together. Because, on the one hand, it’s a very holy spot, and it’s probably been considered holy since the two rivers first joined, India being as ancient as it is. And you can feel why it is considered holy, because you can feel God manifesting as His power there. And we are so tiny by comparison.
We were on pilgrimage, about thirty of us, and we had packed and assembled our shoes and our carry-on luggage with great care, and the river couldn’t have cared less about anything that mattered to us. And there was a strange inclination to step into the water and let it carry you away, even though you knew that if you stepped off, you were over. I knew it would be the end of my physical body, and in a certain way I didn’t care. But I knew that it would create a lot of trouble for myself. So I turned away from the impulse.
I thought of the river of kundalini that runs through us, and the power of God that’s being offered to us, and what it means to step into that immensely powerful current. Everything in this world is a symbol of God. And if God’s power to obliterate everything that I call myself is a hair’s breadth away, it can give rise to a very healthy meditation, to imagine what it would be like for the ego to be washed away.
Swami Kriyananda talked, from his own experience, of the moment of final freedom, where you merge into the light. He said that there’s a moment of intense loneliness, when you realize that there is only one reality, and that you are entirely alone with that reality and nothing else. And all the reaching out of endless lives, and all the seeking happiness from external sources, simply vanishes as the last delusions are swept away.
You realize that all you are and all you have ever been is that one reality, and all of the reaching and striving and trying to fill ourselves from the outside has been nothing at all, a big fat zero. “Long we feared to face Your love, lest our emptiness it prove,” as we sing in the Festival of Light. And Swami said that in that moment, there is an intense loneliness.
And then, he said, in the matter of a moment it’s replaced with an all-consuming bliss, and you realize that this solitary reality is the joy that all people have ever been seeking.
God bless you.
(From Asha’s talk at Sunday service on August 9, 2015 at Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto, California.)