I’ve been teaching a class based on Swami Kriyananda’s book Conversations with Yogananda, which is a wildly varied and fascinating collection of Yogananda’s sayings that Swamiji recorded in the three and a half years he lived with his Guru, from 1948 to 1952.
It covers an amazing range of topics, from UFOs, to the nature of creation, and the ultimate purpose of life, and we’ve had lots of fun with it in our classes.
At a recent class, someone asked a question that I suspect many of us have had: whether it’s possible to make this world perfect, and our role in helping create it.
It’s an especially poignant question now, with the world in such turmoil. For several years now, I’ve made it a practice not to read the news, because I find that it just agitates me. I become more and more upset over the idiocy of the people in charge, and I don’t know where to go with my frustration. But I’ve realized that I don’t actually need to know the details, because I’m bound to learn about them by a kind of cultural osmosis.
So of course I know about what’s happening in the Middle East, and the refugee problem, and the attacks in Paris, and they’re all very upsetting realities. And it’s a very serious question for people who’ve dedicated their lives to God, to know how we should participate in this world.
What does God expect of us? Are these negative happenings a sign that God has abandoned the planet to its fate? Or is He still looking out for us? And how should we try to help put things right?
It’s a confusing question, and we need to appreciate that the right spiritual answer might actually be a lot more complex than we may have imagined.
Paramhansa Yogananda’s guru’s guru, Lahiri Mahasaya, was meditating in his home in Varanasi with a group of disciples, when he suddenly cried out, “I’m drowning in the bodies of hundreds of people off the coast of Japan!” The next day, the news came that a ferry boat had sunk, and many people had died.
Lahiri didn’t read the news, but his consciousness was expanded so that he was as much in the bodies of those people who were drowning as his own.
There was a cook who worked in the temple where Sri Ramakrishna lived. The cook was annoyed by a cat that kept coming in and disrupting his work. So he took a spoon and beat the cat several times to keep it out of the kitchen.
Later, when he came to Ramakrishna, he noticed that the master had welts on his back. The man, being a tough sort, said, “Master, tell me who did this to you, and I will take revenge!”
Ramakrishna quietly looked at him and said, “You did.” And of course the man was horrified. But the master explained, “When you struck the cat.”
Jesus said, “When I was hungry, you fed me. When I was in prison, you visited me. When I was thirsty, you gave me water.” And the disciples said, “When did we do this?” because they couldn’t remember having done any such thing. And he said, “Whenever you do this to the least of them, you do it unto me.”
We sometimes conclude quite wrongly that the best way to deal with the ills of the world is to harden our hearts. Or we’ll try to hold them at arm’s length with philosophy. “Well, you know, it’s all in God’s hands, and anyway, it’s their karma.”
It’s one reason why people reject the idea of karma, because it seems so brutal if you look at it that way. You see terrible suffering, and it’s completely unconscionable to coldly dismiss it, “Well, too bad, but it’s their karma.” As if the law of karma gives us an excuse, as some people imagine, to wash our hands of the sufferings of others.
And then we hear of a Ramakrishna who suffered actual physical welts when someone mistreated a cat. And how can we balance the impersonal operation of the karmic law, and the divine qualities of kindness and compassion?
Paramhansa Yogananda talked about the karma of nations. He said that, by and large, the karma of America is very good. He spoke of the difficulties that will come to the world, and he said that America will have to go through its share of difficulties, but that we will emerge victorious because of our good karma.
He said that the greatest karmic debt we will have to pay is for our treatment of the American Indians. He said that this karma hasn’t been fully expiated, and I suspect that because it’s a karma of greed, it will have to be repaid in the form of economic suffering.
In fact, Master said that America will endure a depression that will be much worse than the Great Depression of the 1920s and ’30s, because of the greed that has become so rampant in this country. On the other hand, he said, Americans have very generous hearts. And so we need to balance one karma against the other, because he said that America will be saved because of its heart quality.
To return to our original question – can we make this planet perfect? The promise of the masters is that we have within us the consciousness of an “ever-existing, ever-conscious, ever-new joy,” as Yogananda translated the Sanskrit term satchidananda.
We have eternity in us, but we’ve wandered away from that consciousness and find ourselves living in a world of duality that is forever rising up and being destroyed.
We are each of us on an extremely long journey to ultimate perfection. And this is a perspective that can help us understand the meaning our existence, and our divine duty in this world.
The purpose of the journey is to learn by our own experiences, until we reach a point where we long to understand the deeper meaning of life. And the more we understand, the more we realize that the only thing we ever actually experience is our own consciousness.
The masters urge us to pause in the midst of our experiences and feel what it’s like to be “in the world but not of it.” To pause in the midst of every experience, whether happy or tragic, and ask, “What is it that am I really experiencing?” And the answer will inevitably be: “I am experiencing nothing but my own consciousness.”
If my consciousness is permeated with negativity and low energy, my world view will be dark. And if I feel uplifted, I’ll see that the world is beautiful. But all that I’m actually ever experiencing is my consciousness.
When we begin to understand this truth, we can start to loosen our attachment to our outward experiences and escape the endless roller coaster of outward elation and suffering.
We realize that if we want to escape the monotonous wheel of happiness and sorrow, what we need is self-mastery, because controlling our consciousness is the key to finding the ever-present bliss within.
Some people hold grand hopes of finding happiness in this world, while others have more modest expectations. Some people respond to suffering by trying to make their world very small, so that they can escape the struggle and not be disappointed. But no matter how much we try to make the world give us what we want, it will always be a cycle of temporary happiness and temporary suffering, until we begin to yearn for the truth and follow the wise guidance of the masters.
The good news is that the masters tell us there’s a happy ending. The happy ending comes when we achieve complete freedom of consciousness. And this is where reincarnation plays an important role in our journey, because there’s never a point where we don’t get a second chance, where we can’t pick ourselves up and start all over again.
So it’s not as if this planet can ever become perfect, because no part of the material plane is eternal. This physical planet is ever-changing, because it is subject to the law of duality. But the soul within all living beings is eternally blissful and unchanging.
In the long cyclical passage of the ages, the planet passes through four ascending and descending periods. We recently entered a period that the ancients called ascending dwapara yuga. It’s an age of energy-awareness that began around the year 1900.
Energy plays an enormous role of our lives today, with all of the discoveries and inventions based on energy. But our sense of morality hasn’t caught up, and so we’re at a point where we’ve got more energy than good sense. We have more energy than enlightenment, and as a result we’re using energy in appalling ways.
In later ages, we’ll be more refined in our consciousness. As Sri Yukteswar says in his book The Holy Science, mankind in future ages will have abilities that it’s no use even to try to talk about now, because in our present state of consciousness we aren’t capable of understanding them.
Not even in the highest age of Satya Yuga will we find perfection on this planet. And as long as we’re devoting all our attention to trying to adjust the world to fulfill our desires, we’ll never be satisfied. And while some changes are obviously excellent and good, we need to watch our motives. It’s very spiritually expansive, for example, to help the poor and the sick by material means. But trying to make the world fulfill our selfish desires just builds up the ego and never brings us lasting fulfillment. “I feel bad, so YOU must change.” The only change that will give us lasting happiness is a change in our consciousness.
The terrible things that are happening in the world today are an expression of a very real battle of consciousness. It’s a great war between light and darkness. And while the negative forces of this world appear to have great power, in fact the spiritual forces are always greater, because spiritual force is eternal, whereas material force flares like a match and then dies. The people responsible for creating misery on this planet will be drawn down into suffering by their own actions, and then their suffering will, in time, lead them to enlightenment.
The light always overcomes the darkness. And when you read about people being driven from their homes, and nightclubs being blown up, the stories are horrific, and we cannot remain untouched. But the reason we are here is to attune ourselves to a power of light that is greater than any darkness. And not in order to save the planet, but to become free for all eternity in our souls, and to help others achieve that freedom.
Two Ananda members, Purushottama Selbie and Byasa Steinmetz, wrote a wonderful book about the historical ages of the world. It’s called The Yugas, and it gives us a grand vision of the world’s progress through ascending and descending cycles of expanding and contracting consciousness. Reading it, it’s amazing to realize how many civilizations have risen to great worldly power, only to disappear beneath the sands of time forever. And through it all, only one reality has endured. Great masters like Christ, Buddha, and Krishna repeatedly bring the eternal teachings that can lead us to enduring happiness. Everything else will come and go, but only that which is eternal endures.
And this is our true spiritual duty. To the degree to that we can be aware of the darkness, and not let it pull our consciousness down, but use it as an incentive to rise toward the light, we are living in this world as God intended.
God didn’t put us here to suffer, or to feel that we are helpless before the weight of the darkness, or to believe that the responsibility for changing the world rests on our shoulders.
Our tests are given to awaken us to God’s infinite power within. We are exactly where we were meant to be, and we are experiencing exactly what we were meant to experience. And it’s up to us to choose the light in every circumstance.
“Oh, children of light, forsake the darkness!” – as the voice of God urges us in the Festival of Light. Children of darkness, embrace the light! For that light is who you are.
God bless you.