I visited Nayaswami Seva recently, not long after her 80th birthday. Seva was one of the first members of Ananda Village. She met Swamiji before Ananda existed, while he was still living and teaching in San Francisco. Seva is an amazing person, a very humble woman who has served Master’s work wonderfully throughout her life.
Swami originally thought to give her the name Shunya, but he didn’t feel, forty or fifty years ago, that it would be appropriate. Shunya means “emptiness,” or “nothingness,” indicating a person who’s emptied herself completely of any sense of ego. Nevertheless, it was a joke between Swamiji and Seva that she could tell people her name was “Zero.”
Instead, Swamiji called her Seva, which means “service.” But her lifelong ambition was always to become shunya, empty of all sense of having any separate self apart from God.
In fact, there was a swami called Shunyabhai, which literally means “Brother Zero.” His name was given to him by the great master Ramana Maharshi. Toward the end of his life, Shunyabhai lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, and at one point he came to Ananda Village to give a talk at the Expanding Light. He was 93, and when it was time for him to speak, he playfully ran up on the stage like a little child. His spiritual presence was magnificent – he radiated a tremendous power of divine joy, the result of having emptied himself of ego so that God could fill him with His bliss.
I was reminded of Seva’s desire to be called Shunya while I was teaching a class on Swamiji’s book Conversations with Yogananda. It’s a collection of Master’s words that Swamiji collected while he was a young monk. It includes a discussion of the historical ages through which the world passes, in ascending and descending 12,000-year cycles. In the ancient lore, the ages were known as Yugas. They’re the subject of a fascinating book called The Yugas, by two Ananda members, Purushottama Selbie and Byasa Steinmetz.
Around the year 1900, our world entered an ascending age called Dwapara Yuga, which will last approximately 2,400 years, and will be characterized by people’s growing awareness that the underlying reality of this material creation is energy.
Paramhansa Yogananda spoke of how different planets, solar systems, and even galaxies have their own unique vibrations. He said that our galaxy is very rajasic. Rajas means intense activity, and the nature of our galaxy and planet is to be very outwardly active.
In this world, we aren’t sitting around meditating; we’re constantly busy, and at this point in early Dwapara Yuga, the values of the planet revolve around putting forth tremendous energy toward accomplishing and acquiring.
At our Thanksgiving banquet, I sat with the Casino family and talked with their daughters, Asia and Alia, who are now grown women. I asked them, “How has your culture affected you?” I was curious, because I grew up in a Jewish family, and although it didn’t affect me in spiritual terms, it had a definite effect on me culturally. As a child, I didn’t realize that our Jewishness was different, because I was surrounded by it and didn’t know anything else. And I was interested to see how their Hawaiian-Filipino heritage had affected the Casino girls.
In the same way as our culture tends to influence us, the restless vibrations of our planet, our galaxy, and the age in which we’re living tend to define us also. And because we’re living in a world of intense activity, we often don’t realize that it isn’t the only possible reality there could be.
There may, in fact, be galaxies that are entirely tamasic, where the consciousness is very low and listless. And there are very likely galaxies that are sattwic in nature – sattwic means spiritually uplifting – and that are populated by beings of high spiritual consciousness. But for those of us who’ve come on the spiritual path, we’re trying to shed all of the outward influences that are imposed on us by our environment, and we’re trying to find our way back to our point of origin in Spirit.
Paramhansa Yogananda said that the irreducible self at the core of each individual is uniquely and individually our own. He said, “Every atom of creation is dowered with individuality.” It’s fascinating to contemplate that no created soul is the same as any other, and that every atom has its own individual dance, as do we.
Swamiji often talked about how people speak of creativity and originality as if they are a question of rejecting what’s already been done. But Swamiji said that true creativity is a matter of finding our own unique expression.
We see many artists today who want to break with tradition at all costs. If art is supposed to be beautiful, we’ll make art that’s ugly. And if art is supposed to be uplifting, let’s be original and make it degrading.
But there’s nothing original or creative about it, as long as it’s only reacting to something else. To be truly creative and original means to come from your point of origin. And then no matter what you do, it will be uniquely your own.
As a person who works with words and tries not to be boring, I’ll sometimes try to be clever, from a desire to hold the reader’s interest. But good writing isn’t about being clever; it’s about being original, which can only happen if we write or paint or think what’s truly our own, and not something that we’ve either thoughtlessly assumed from the world, or that we’ve set ourselves against just because it’s already been done that way.
In the early days of my spiritual journey, I read in some book that enlightenment can come to us in various ways, and that one way it can come is in sleep – you would go to bed at night and wake up enlightened. It was certainly a path that I could endorse! I thought it would be lovely to have enlightenment simply dropped on you overnight.
But – no such luck! We move forward on our spiritual journey one small step at a time. And right from the start, it’s a question of trying to separate ourselves from the arbitrary definitions that have been imprinted on us by our culture, our planet, and our galaxy. And, at the same time, there has to be a conscious effort to cultivate the kinds of influences that we feel will lead us where we want to go.
In Swami Kriyananda’s autobiography, The New Path: My Life with Paramhansa Yogananda, he talks about his pioneer ancestors, and his parents and grandparents. And then he says, “I came into this world fully myself.”
Although Swamiji was writing about himself, this is a goal that we can all aspire to: to be completely ourselves. Swamiji said, “I came into this world fully myself. I am describing these things to tell you of the influences that I chose to associate myself with.”
As we begin to develop an orientation toward our life that’s more inward, through our meditation and devotional aspiration, we find that we’re gradually joining forces with a power that pulls our awareness into the spine and lifts our consciousness into higher realms. The process of meditation is designed to draw us closer to our point of origin, so that we can understand what it’s like. Because the closer we come to our own deepest point of origin, the closer we are to God.
We may not realize, at first, that we’re trying to come closer to God. Perhaps we just want to get closer to who we were meant to be, or to understand our special mission in life. But as we progress spiritually we find that our origin point is very different from that which we’ve known up until now, including our limiting self-definitions.
As we grow spiritually, we become more and more comfortable with our true self, and more and more spontaneous in responding from that which is absolutely authentic in us.
It’s startling to see the change in ourselves and how we relate to the world, as we begin to know our true selves. And as we come closer to our deepest inner self, we realize that this new way of being is very close to where we’ve always wanted to be.
Once we discover that we can loosen our hold on external influences, we find there’s no limit to how much we can engage with the uplifting inner influences, and, in time, with the infinite consciousness of God.
Swamiji often said that the key to meditation is deep relaxation, and that relaxation is the key to all spiritual life.
Because I’ve always been drawn to activity and accomplishment, I’ve been very interested in that statement over the years. Swamiji was the most active person imaginable, in the sense of being always creatively engaged. Even when he appeared to be silent and still, his consciousness was creatively active in very powerful ways.
What we’re relaxing from isn’t activity per se, but the tremendous energy that we’re continually putting out to maintain our separate identity. We’ve been so tense with the effort for so long that we’ve come to accept it as our normal state. But there comes a time when we realize that we can be completely comfortable living in the inner world, and that we no longer need to be always striving to conform to the world around us.
When I visited Seva shortly after her 80th birthday, we laughed about the name Shunya that Swami originally wanted to give her. And we talked about how hard it is to wrap our minds around the notion of having our ego reduced to nothing.
It has always struck me how attractive it would be to be both nothing and infinite in our consciousness. It’s one of the paradoxes of Self-realization, that you become identified with the infinite immensity, yet at the same time you’re zero, with no separate identity of your own; you’re just nothing at all.
All of us are longing for a way to escape this world of sorrow and find true happiness. But we aren’t seeking to escape into subconsciousness. We’re seeking an escape from the paralyzing fear and endless tension of holding ourselves in our separate individuality. And little by little, the voice of God is calling to us through the voice of AUM which we can hear in meditation, to return to the inner world where we can finally relax and be that which we are and have always been.
When the saints urge us to surrender our ego-self to God, we resist mightily, because we imagine that if we surrender we’ll be losing something central to our existence, and perhaps we might even cease to exist. But when we actually surrender, we find that the only thing we’ve lost is the unbearable tension of always having to hold ourselves separate. And when we’re able to stop fighting to defend the little ego, we realize that we can rest comfortably in God.
On one level, Swamiji was intensely active, yet he was always utterly relaxed. It showed in simple ways. For example, when he was a young monk, Master told him to eat three meals a day. Swamiji had stopped eating dinner so that he could meditate longer. But Master told him, “No, you have to eat three times a day, even if you only eat a little.”
Swami was 23 at the time, and Master said, “You’re young now, and it won’t make any difference, but it will matter, and you need to do this.”
So Swamiji always ate three meals a day, and he always sat down to eat, and he always placed things in front of him carefully, and he always ate very politely, no matter how late we were, no matter how hurried we were, and no matter where we had to be.
He never allowed circumstances to push him out of his center. And even if he was only going to eat something small, or if he only had thirty seconds, he always put his whole self where he needed to be. He relaxed completely and did what he needed to do, before he moved on to the next reality.
As I reflect on the state of shunya, where the ego is reduced to zero, I realize that it isn’t going to come to us any faster if we spend all our time tightening up and worrying about it. In fact, it happens when we give up that tension and let the Divine be a part of us. It means being intensely active for God, but no longer being tense with self-definitions, so that we can simply forget ourselves.
That’s when we’re able to look at our life and see that everything is exactly as it should be. What makes us feel that our life is somehow not what it should be is the habit of setting ourselves apart from life in order to protect our self-definitions and attachments.
Swamiji gave us this simple advice: “Rest in the heart.” The heart is where likes and dislikes arise. It’s where the ego takes hold. When we imagine that we can only be happy by fulfilling a set of outward conditions, those desires will keep us separate in our hearts from what God is trying to do with us.
I’ve meditated on that simple advice of Swamiji’s for decades – to “rest in the heart.” And I believe it’s what shunya is about: instead of pulling away and sustaining the unbearable tension of being separate, we surrender that effort and find rest in the heart.
When you meditate regularly you’ll discover that place in your heart where you can rest in the experience of God’s love. And then everything else will follow.
It’s Thanksgiving Day, and I’m sure that many of us are trying to affirm gratitude. But with Swamiji I saw, over the years, that he was unfailingly grateful for the least little thing. He received every circumstance as a gift from God. And I realized that what I originally thought of as Swamiji’s grateful attitude wasn’t an attitude at all, but simply part of his consciousness. It was the consciousness in which he lived, and he was incapable of perceiving the world any other way.
That’s where we want to be – to grow from endlessly affirming good attitudes, to knowing a reality in which we are one with that expanded consciousness.
We want to rest in God’s infinite love and bliss – to be one with His infinite love, and to be shunya, be zero, be infinite in nothing, and be free.
God bless you.
(From a talk by Asha after the Thanksgiving banquet on November 26, 2015 at Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto.)