Many years ago, Swami Kriyananda visited a well-known temple in India. After sitting for a long time in meditation and prayer, he stood up, and the temple priest approached him. Having watched this American swami meditating deeply, the priest was curious. He asked Swami what he’d been doing, and Swami replied that he’d been meditating and praying to be able to please God, and to serve God in all that he did.
The priest expressed surprise. “So many people come here and pray – they pray for the son to pass his exams, they pray for a healthy baby, they pray to find a husband for the daughter, they pray for success in business.” He said, “But almost no one comes here and prays to be able to please God.”
A friend of mind who’d worked for many years with a healing prayer ministry was feeling discouraged. She said, “All I ever get is people saying, ‘I want this, I want that, I need this, I need that, give me this, give me that.’ After a while, you feel like Amazon.com, filling people’s orders on a 24-hour delivery schedule. And it makes me question the value of what we’re doing.”
In Autobiography of a Yogi, Paramhansa Yogananda speaks of “the thwarting cross currents of ego” that prevent us from realizing what’s truly important in our lives, and what our priorities should be. And elsewhere, he speaks of the complex karma that we create by our ego-motivated desires.
Karma is a tremendously important concept on the spiritual path, because it explains all of the experiences that come to us. There are actions that lead to greater happiness, and actions that lead to suffering. And we all come to understand, in time, how to discriminate between these actions. But until we’ve learned through our own experiences that our ego-driven desires can never fulfill us, we will continue to be identified with a narrow and limiting part of ourselves. And this is the source of our suffering. Because we can never know true happiness and freedom until we unite our consciousness with our soul-nature, by expanding our awareness beyond the limited little ego-self.
Paramhansa Yogananda said that it’s a great mistake to feel that everything that happens to us concerns us personally. I’ve pondered that statement for years, starting with the obvious question, how can what happens to us not concern us personally?
Think of the clothes you wear. You might say that we have a certain personal relationship to our clothes. But we don’t feel defined by them. I wear a particular robe on Sundays, and it has a certain vibratory reality for me that none of my other clothes have. I don’t wear it to go out to lunch, but only when I’m going to be giving service. So it has a very real and uniquely positive meaning for me. But if it got stained and I had to throw it away, it would be a nuisance, but there would be no part of me that would be injured, even though we have a close, ongoing relationship.
It’s very much like the relationship we have with the body, except that we find it much harder to loosen our attachment to our body.
Paramhansa Yogananda defined ego as “the soul, identified with the body.” Over many lives, we’ve woven a close relationship with the body, even though we’re aware that sooner or later something catastrophic is going to happen to it.
I remember sitting next to a woman who was eating greasy food, and in her affection she started putting her hands all over me. I sat there watching the grease being transferred, and it was one of those moments where, if you can manage to stay calm, you can ponder with a level of bemused detachment, “Is anything actually happening to me?”
And, no, nothing is happening to me. This woman is transferring grease all over my clothes, and it’s just impersonally happening, but it isn’t happening to me.
It’s inevitable that we will die, and we will have to leave our body behind. And the question is, how much of the energy we’ve invested in living in this unique body are we going to hold onto? Because, even long before we die, catastrophic things can happen to this body that we’ve identified ourselves with. Civilizations will fall, wars will rage, economic depressions will come. And there may be a large part of our self-identity that will have to change.
I get a newsletter from a group called The Voice of the Martyrs. It was started by Richard and Sabina Wurmbrand, two great saints who followed a very traditional kind of Christianity. They were imprisoned for their Christian faith by the communist regime in Rumania. And when they were finally ransomed out of the country, they started a work to help other people who were imprisoned for their faith. In the newsletter, there are pictures of peoples’ bombed-out homes – people who were happily going to school, working as doctors and lawyers, and now it’s all just a mess. The reality of their lives has been ruined, and they can no longer keep the same self-definition. And this is the working of karma.
Karma is a force that is trying to break our identification with anything that is limiting to our spirit. As Master put it, our tests are not given to us to crush our spirits, but to awaken in us a realization of how much power we have to overcome our tests and be free.
Now, it doesn’t mean that if we just pray hard enough, the baby’s life will be spared, or that if we pray hard enough the bomb won’t fall on our house.
What we have to overcome is the powerful delusion that I need my life to be a certain way, because this is who I am. And this is what I must have, or else some fundamental part of me will cease to exist.
Change is frightening. And yet our unlearned lessons keep pushing us out of our comfortable self-definitions. And every time we make a decision that says “I will choose limitation over infinity,” the universe pushes back against that decision, to show us a better way.
We make endless self-limiting decisions. We’re forever investing energy in directions that are limiting to our awareness. And it’s a pendulum of energy that can only swing so far, before it has to come crashing back again.
The year before Swami died, he made a series of videos called “Ask Me About Truth.” They were free-form conversations with Nirmala and Dharmadas. In one video, Dharmadas asks, “Swamiji, how much choice do we have about the things that happen to us?” And, without hesitating, Swami says, “Oh, none at all.”
People get confused when they hear that we don’t really have free will. They say, “If it’s true, why am I working so hard, if it’s all just going to play out in the predestined way?”
I won’t try to talk about the intricacies of free will, because it’s a labyrinth. But I had an insight that I’ll share with you.
It’s good to remember that we don’t even begin to think about karma and free will for many, many lives. And until we reach that point, we go along merrily assuming that we have free will and can do whatever we like. You see people all around who haven’t the foggiest notion of cause and effect, and who believe they can do pretty much whatever they desire and get away with it.
When we moved into our Ananda community in Mountain View, there were only a few of us, and it was not a high-class place. Most of the tenants were people living on the stark edge, and the police would visit several times a week.
I remember a Saturday morning at 7 a.m. when some man parked his car outside the apartment where I was living and turned on his radio full blast while he worked on his car. So everybody on that side of the apartment complex was treated to his serenade, and you could tell that there was absolutely no point in talking to the guy. “Hey, have you thought about us?” Because quite clearly he hadn’t, and it would probably have shocked him to realize that there was any other reality than his own.
Many, many people are living in a reality that’s shrunk down to their own little bubble. And they go on like this for many lives, until their inability to find true happiness begins to get their attention. And it takes an enormous amount of grinding, over a very long period of time, until it happens. And then the sheer volume of suffering and monotony finally begins to grab us, and we start to want to understand what this life is really about.
And then our first job is to have the best attitude we can, while we work to change our consciousness. And then we need to also, as far as possible, stop adding fuel to the fire.
But it’s not as if we can be passive while we let our karma run down. Because we’ve built up a tremendous inclination to jump in and try to improve things. And it’s not an inclination that we should suppress. But we have to learn that our happiness comes by jumping in and living in the right way. And the right way includes breaking the thought that we can only find happiness by having our desires fulfilled.
When Swamiji was going through the extremely difficult karma of SRF’s lawsuit against Ananda, he gave us a wonderful example of the right way to live.
It was a karma that started when his gurubhais turned against him and threw him out of SRF. He was thirty-six at the time, and for the rest of his life, in the fifty-one years until he died at eighty-seven, they never relented in their extremely negative appraisal of him.
He had to live virtually his whole adult life knowing that the people with whom he’d once felt closest had utterly rejected him. And it never stopped. Not once did they ever have the thought, “Enough. Let’s stop harping on Kriyananda and do something more constructive instead.”
So he had to go through many, many circumstances that forced him to question, “What am I supposed to learn from this? What is the lesson?” And what he took from it all was very simple, though it isn’t easy to practice: “If God sends it to me, why would I not open my heart to it completely?”
Now, it’s easy to say – “Why wouldn’t I accept it?” And the answer is clear: “Because of the thwarting cross-currents of ego.”
There’s the pure truth of what we know we should do, and then there’s the sheer weight of the endless counter-forces we’ve set in motion, starting a very long time ago. And when we say, “I’d rather have my coffee a little hotter,” or, “Why is the traffic so bad today?” we’re setting another little current of ego-identification in motion. And this is not even to speak of the impossibly difficult heartbreaks that come to us and bind us more tightly to our ego-self.
We live on two levels. On one level, the mind says, “Of course I’ll do whatever God wants.” And on the other, we shrink in horror – “Oh, Lord, anything but this!”
Swamiji told us that the answer is always to neutralize the cross-currents of our desires. And when various kinds of karma come to us, the answer isn’t to just open ourselves like a sieve and let the karma pour through us. We need to learn to face our karma dynamically, with great energy. Because we’re bound to react to it one way or another – making excuses, or running away, or trying to find a way to slip around it. And this is the power of all the energy we’ve invested over many lives in identifying with our own reality.
In fact, the desire to push our karma aside merely deflects its energy for a while. This is why our karma doesn’t come back to us immediately. In fact, “instant karma” is very good karma, because you get the lesson right away, while you can remember the cause, so you can take action to avoid creating the same kind of karma all over again.
When I was in Israel last year, we visited the site called Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. Our guide took us on a trail that led along some high cliffs. And I have intermittent vertigo, and sometimes I’m fine, but other times I absolutely panic.
I was walking at the front of the group, because I didn’t want to be with people. I was feeling completely fed up with something that was happening, and I was thinking critical thoughts, feeling crabby and resentful. And then all of a sudden the trail turned right, and it looked as if there was nothing in front of me but a very large amount of air with a long, sheer drop to the rocks far below. And I had a moment of total panic. I turned around abruptly and went racing back, saying, “I can’t do this!”
I noticed that everyone was wondering what was up, and it got my attention. I said, “No, it’s not dangerous, it’s just me.” Then the guide grabbed my hand, and he had so much confidence that it steadied my nerves. And as soon as he touched me, I exhaled and held his hand, and he took me back around the corner.
Afterward, when I was meditating about it, I remembered what I’d been doing just before I panicked. I was sending out a lot of negative energy. And, surprise, surprise – it came back and hit me. It was instant karma, where I could see the cause and start to work on my thoughts. I had put myself out of tune with the universe, and the universe had kicked me back in the right direction.
Now, unfortunately, most of the time when the universe kicks us, a lot of water has passed under the bridge and we can’t remember ever kicking the universe in the first place. And that’s why we have these karmas that seem to come out of nowhere and hit us. And they really challenge us to give up our ego and self-will, instead of blindly resisting, or running away. If we have a lot of will power, we can kick the karma away for a while, until it finds an opening that it can sneak through and grab us. But it will always come back, by divine law.
And if God is sending our karma to us for our own welfare, why would we want it to be any other way?
People think that we can’t influence our karma, because it’s a flood that has been set in motion, and all we can do is ride it out. And to a certain extent, it’s true. But there’s a power that we can develop that will help us deal with any kind of karma that may come. And that is the willpower to hold ourselves absolutely still. Because it’s the ego that wants to run around raising a ruckus and trying to make something happen, and thinking how it can escape. But when we can be completely still inwardly, we are free, even as the karmic storms are howling around us.
Swamiji loved to tell the story of how he arrived in Kolkata expecting to be met by friends. But they got caught in traffic, and so he was left by himself. And he remarked that the first thing people usually do in a situation like that, especially if they have a smartphone, is to start jabbing the keys, bing, bing, bing. Because you think, “I’ve got to do something about this!” But he recalled how, instead of reacting emotionally, he pulled himself into his center and prayed, “Well, Divine Mother, what do you have in mind?”
And then a man that he’d never met walked up to him and said, in the Indian fashion, “What is your good name?” Swami told him, and the man said, “Oh, I thought you must be he, because my friend, Dr. Mishra, showed me your photograph.”
Swami said, “Dr. Mishra! I’ve been longing to see him, but I don’t have his address. Can you tell me where he is?”
“Oh, he happens to be in town right now. I’ll take you to him.” So everything worked out beautifully.
Swami said that if he’d rushed to the telephone, he might have made things worse. And the point is that if we can learn to say, “If God sends this to me, why would I not want it?” we’ve found the answer to handling every possible karma.
This is the right way to deal with our karma – to cooperate with God, who is only trying to bring us back to His satchidananda – His perfect, all-satisfying bliss.
Someone says something unkind to you, or you miss an appointment, or you don’t get the job, or your health goes bad, or you lose your wallet.
But what would happen if we used all our willpower to keep ourselves from feeling separate from the divinely ordained perfection of the moment? “Divine Mother, what are You trying to do with me today?”
You can say it softly, or with great power, as a loving demand, “Divine Mother, what are you trying to do with me today?” Because it requires every ounce of our strength to remain still. And in that stillness we discover that it’s where true freedom lies.
It’s a wonderful experiment that you can try anywhere, anytime. Because, why not? What’s the alternative” “You have to live anyway,” as Paramhansa Yogananda said, “so why not live in the right way?” And as Swamiji often said, we’re going to get it right in a million years or so, and why waste all that time? And he added, “Let’s begin now.”
God bless you.
(From Asha’s talk during Sunday service at Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto, California on November 29, 2015.)