When Swami Kriyananda wrote the Festival of Light, some thirty years ago, it was with a wish to formalize Ananda a little bit beyond what we were used to at the time.
Those of us who came up through the ranks, so to speak, and were there at the beginning, had become accustomed to an informal style of worship service where the focus, at least outwardly, was the speaker’s unique inspiration. But Swamiji wanted to create an experience that would have a more consistent power, regardless of who was speaking. And the form it took was the divinely inspired ritual that we now know as the Festival of Light.
The Festival tells the story of the soul’s journey. As we experience the ritual week by week, it helps us absorb the tale of our own spiritual search ever more deeply.
This is the power of divinely inspired ritual. A ritual that is God-inspired isn’t much more than a set of words that please the emotions but fail to uplift us. The rituals that God gives to the world through His enlightened saints have a power to inspire and transform our lives.
Swamiji created the Festival for a second reason as well – he wanted us, in a certain sense, to take ourselves more seriously. That is, he wanted us to understand that the path we’re following is part of a deep and hallowed tradition that has been around for a very long time, and that we are participating in a great new dispensation that God has given to the world through the masters of this path.
The ritual also lends a touch of formality and dignity to our relationship as disciples, by underscoring the idea that we are doing something very serious – we aren’t just sitting around, listening to someone give a pleasant spiritually tinged talk with the flavor of a social event – the nice Sunday sermon, followed by bagels and conversation on the patio.
Also, there’s a dignity about the Festival that is entirely appropriate, because it reminds us of the serious inner work that we’re engaging in to transform our consciousness.
Earlier this morning, I laughed as I remembered the Sunday when we put on our robes as Lightbearers for the first time. The parents of one of our ministers, Uma MacFarland, happened to be visiting from England, and they went home and showed their relatives photos of “Annie in her nightie that she wears when she’s working.”
Our reading today is about light and darkness, and about how we come into the light, and the tendency that we all have, to want to hide our weaknesses and shortcomings from the light.
It’s an extremely important point on the path – our need to find the humility to open ourselves completely to the Divine in every circumstance.
If we can find a way to stand before God in complete openness no matter what happens, we’ll discover that we’ve overcome one of the greatest obstacles that keep us apart from Him.
Swamiji talked about how people will often lament that weren’t able to know Master, and to live with him and receive his personal teaching. And it sounds wonderful, but Swamiji said that when he lived at Mt. Washington, in many ways it was still the hotel that it had formerly been, because people were constantly checking in and checking out.
Swamiji said that when you live in the presence of someone who’s filled with the great light of God, your consciousness has to rise to meet him on that level, and you can’t hide or drag along in your usual sleepy way.
One of the reasons I absolutely loved being with Swami Kriyananda was that it required us to be always “awake and ready.” You could never drift along in your usual half-awake state. He was always wide awake, and it required the same of us, and I just loved that about him.
Swamiji said that when you were around Master, his presence was so anchored in truth that the slightest inner weakness or aberration of thought or feeling on your part would be inwardly revealed to you in stark detail. And most people didn’t want to see themselves that clearly.
The reason people checked in and out of Mt. Washington with such astonishing regularity was just that simple – because it’s a lot more comfortable to tell ourselves that we’re okay, and that we don’t need to change.
On the one hand, it’s perfectly all right to say that we’re okay, because, after all, we are God’s children, faults and all. We are children of the Light, and we have nothing to fear, because God will never abandon us no matter how many times we stumble and fall. As Master said, we should pray to the Divine Mother: “Naughty or good, I am Your child.”
On the other hand, in terms of our progress toward Self-realization, we are very far from okay. And if we’re even the slightest bit self-aware, we know it. We’re restless when we meditate, we wake up in the middle of the night consumed by worries, and we have all manner of aches and pains and unfilled desires. We know that we need to change and become more than we are, because God has given us glimpses of our innate perfection, and we know that nothing less can ever satisfy us.
In the presence of a master, we become starkly aware of what our vibrations are really doing. And Swamiji said that most of the people who came to Master didn’t want to know. So they would find fault with the guru, as an excuse to leave, because it was too challenging.
One of the hardest spiritual qualities to develop is humility. Master defined humility in a way that’s very useful: he said that it is perfect self-honesty. In other words, it means being able to see ourselves exactly as we are, and to accept it fully.
We’ve been at this business of being a human being for a long time, as we inch our way toward the light. We’ve had countless experiences during many lives, and in this fast-paced age we get the opportunity to have lots of experiences in a single life, because it isn’t one of those placid ages where you’re born and die on the farm, and your kids and grandkids will be born and die on the farm.
Many of us have switched cultures and careers and jobs and relationships multiple times. It’s an unprecedented phenomenon in recorded history, and it’s a great advantage, because we can try lots of things, and through our successes and failures we can gradually begin to understand what works.
During the twelve years when Ananda was engaged in the lawsuit that Self-Realization Fellowship imposed on us, I spent lots of time working on the legal situation with friends, including Naidhruva, who was one of Ananda’s attorneys.
We would talk about the lawsuit daily, and those of us who weren’t lawyers were always trying to second-guess what we could do. We would propose this and that action, based on what we thought were sound, logical reasons. And Naidhruva finally had to make it very clear to us that, as she put it, the law is not logical, and the law is not intuitive. The law, in this country, at this time, is purely political – it’s a competition, and it’s not about finding the truth, but about winning, and you have to adapt yourself to that reality, or you’ll simply go under.
But the divine law is entirely about truth, and the only way to understand it is by using our intuition to discern the truth. The divine law may not seem logical or even fair as it unfolds, because it isn’t the least bit interested in satisfying our desire to understand it with our minds. It’s strictly about getting a result, regardless of whether we understand the process. The divine law is always challenging us to change in ways that will bring us happiness and freedom.
Also, the divine law is not for the short run, because it takes a long time for us to begin to understand the truth. As Master said, “Teach me to know that the ways of vice, though sweet at the beginning, are bitter at the end, and the ways of virtue, though difficult at the beginning, are pure sweetness at the end.”
We go to a party and have a grand time drinking and carousing, but in the morning the regrets set in, along with a hangover and deep embarrassment, and we realize that it didn’t give us what we were looking for. And in this way, we slowly and gradually come to understand the one truth that can free us from suffering and give us perfect happiness forever.
The path is not about understanding this life with our minds. It’s about trying many things and discovering for ourselves what works. And this is why the Festival of Light is so effective, because it gives us an actual experience of the divine truth. Through the contact with a divine vibration, it powerfully persuades us of the right way to live that will give us what we’re seeking.
It’s a very good practice to review our lives and study the results of the experiments we’ve been conducting, and decide if they’ve worked. And if we’re wide awake, with humility and receptivity, we’ll learn to avoid the ways of vice that never work in the end, and embrace the ways of virtue.
Humility is not about affirming that we’re terrible and worthless. To be humble is to get rid of the ego-impulses that are urging us to concentrate on our own reality. “Poor little me!” In truth, the self-denigrating tendency is every bit as ego-centric as the feeling that we’re terribly important, because in both cases we’re just focusing on ourselves.
A friend of mine had a job that required her to travel to her spiritual teacher’s centers around the world. She didn’t actually have a home, because she spent all her time flying around. At one point, we met in a city where our paths happened to cross, and we had a wonderful visit. We were talking happily, when I suddenly realized that her program was about to begin. I said, “Do you need to get ready?” She looked at me with a wry smile, completely relaxed, and said, “Too late! What you see is what you’ll get.” She added, “If I’m not ready now, I won’t be in thirty minutes from now.”
Later, her teacher assigned her a job that was way beyond her skills. She was utterly baffled about how to fulfill her duties, and she was stumbling along, by her own admission, doing a rather terrible job. Finally, she became so distressed that she sat and meditated and prayed to her master, “If you want this job done well, you’ll have to get somebody else to do it. If you want, I’m willing to keep doing it. But you put me in this position, and this is the best I can do. And if you want it done better, you’ll have to get someone else, or you’ll have to make me into someone else.”
God will very often push us beyond our ability to do a good job. And, thank God, He’ll keep pushing, because it’s the whole point of the path.
I spent a brief time lifting weights at the gym, and really, it was my definition of hell. I know that people enjoy it, but I got so bored that I couldn’t stand it any longer, and I quit. But I was there long enough to realize that if you lift small weights, you aren’t going to get strong. You need to lift a weight that makes you really pull, or you’ll just be wasting your time.
Why spend a lifetime avoiding anything that might stretch us? Where will that take us? The more we can push and pull, the closer we’ll be to the happiness we’re seeking.
And then, what’s the first thing that happens? The weights get heavier.
A woman found the Sunday talks that we’ve been posting on the Internet, and she wrote to me and talked about her life. Bless her, she had some fairly big issues that culminated in a long period of illness. I said to her, “Well, it looks like you’ve chosen a life where you’ll get to make lots of progress.” And she said, “Nobody ever congratulated me for having such a mess of a life, and I found it strangely soothing.”
When we lift a weight “until failure,” as they’ll sometimes recommend at the gym, do we really consider it a failure? No, because it’s a natural part of getting stronger.
I’ve been working with Marcel Hernandez’s theater group. We’re putting on a play that Marcel adapted for the stage, based on Swami Kriyananda’s story, The Land of Golden Sunshine. Rammurti and I are the narrators, and it requires a lot of artistic interpretation with our voices. Rammurti and I read fairly well, but Marcel is much better, and he’s really been putting us through our paces. People tell us we’re pretty good, but we both know it’s far from being the kind of “good” that it needs to be.
It’s interesting to watch our reactions when we’re challenged to do something we aren’t very good at. The first impulse is to say, “I could do it better, but I have a tummy ache.” Or, “Just wait till the performance. I’ll be really good then.”
We’re tempted to dive into the shade so that the light won’t keep shining on our shortcomings and exposing them, and we can just keep cruising without having to change.
It’s why the Bible scolds us for hiding from the light “lest our deeds be exposed.” There’s a powerful impulse to run away from the light, instead of humbly admitting, “Whoah, I’m really not very good at this. Marcel’s a lot better. And hey, maybe he can teach me something.”
That’s self-honesty. It’s standing where you are, so that the teacher can show you something.
Life is more complicated than just speaking our lines in a play. In real life, we’re going along pleasantly, thinking that we’re a fairly nice person and that we’ve got our scene together. And then a big semi truck comes along and drives through our garden. And, “Oh – did I crash into your dream? Sorry!” You’re suddenly holding a weight that seems much too heavy, and what are you going to do about it? Will you be able to face it, or are you going to follow the powerful urge to run away and hide?
It’s very common to want to run away. And one of the many ways it’s marvelous to live in a community like ours is that you can’t run away and hide.
Years ago at Ananda Village, there was a man who made a series of deeply embarrassing mistakes. He naturally felt like hiding them, so that no one in the community would know. And when he asked me what he should do, I said, “You just walk out your front door and lift your chin and look everyone in the eye and don’t flinch.” I said, “Two days from now no one will be thinking about it, because we’re all in the same boat together here in the community.”
People may gloat over our failures, but who cares. Everyone gets their karma, and you don’t have to worry about what other people are thinking, because their turn will come. As Swamiji once said, “Other people’s opinions frankly don’t mean a damn thing.” But for ourselves, we need to have the humility and self-honesty to say, “Wow, look at this. This is a really big lesson that I didn’t know I needed to learn. I guess there’s a part of me that I didn’t know was there, and what can I do about it, Lord?”
There was a period when I struggled for years with an unusually difficult karma that a woman in the community and I had together. And then I began to feel that I’d started to make progress toward healing the relationship. But it turned out that it was just a temporary respite, and when the karma started up again I realized that I was nowhere near to being done with it. God gave me a break, and then I woke up and wham! there it was again, and I was right back in the middle of it.
I was riding in the car with Swami, and I was hunched over in the passenger seat weeping. Swamiji said, calmly but firmly, “Well, you thought you were over it, so you weren’t putting out any energy to get better.” “No,” I said. And he continued, “And now you know.”
Meaning, now you can get back to work, and where’s the big tragedy in that?
The “tragedy” was that I thought I had clear sailing, but I wasn’t done. And the good news was that I could get back to work. But it was a huge reversal to find that I had to turn myself around and face the karma again with courage. And it required a great deal of humility, and a humble acceptance of who I was and what I had to do, to be free enough to go back into the battle with a hopeful, positive, receptive, humble attitude.
There’s a very interesting book called Of the Imitation of Christ that Yogananda recommended highly. The author, Thomas à Kempis (1380-1471), was a German soldier who eventually entered a monastery and became a fervent devotee of Christ. And there’s a constant theme in the book that he returns to again and again, that God will repeatedly cause us to fail.
God will cause you to fail so that you will learn to stay alert and ready to turn to Him in all humility, and understand that it’s only His grace that can save you.
Master said, “God loves the one who is courageous in the face of defeat.”
Isn’t that an interesting statement? We think that God loves us the most when we’re sailing along and looking good and feeling in control. But when is our character truly revealed and tested and strengthened? When our life is no longer simple and easy, and nothing seems to be going right, and we feel that we’ve completely lost control. That’s why Thomas à Kempis said, “God loves to keep us a little off balance, because that’s when we find out who we are.”
It’s easy to be strong and steady when you’re lifting small weights. But when your life piles a big weight on you, that’s when your spine has a chance to get strong.
I want to read one of the most beautiful verses in the Bhagavad Gita. Master said that this verse reveals to us the sweetness of God.
The travail is for whoso bend their minds
To reach th’ Unmanifest. That viewless path
Shall scarce be trod by man bearing his flesh!
But whereso any doeth all his deeds,
Renouncing self in Me, full of Me, fixed
To serve only the Highest, night and day
Musing on Me—him will I swiftly lift
Forth from life’s ocean of distress and death
Whose soul clings fast to Me. Cling thou to Me!
Clasp Me with heart and mind! so shalt thou dwell
Surely with Me on high. But if thy thought
Droops from such height; if thou be’st weak to set
Body and soul upon Me constantly,
Despair not! give Me lower service! seek
To read Me, worshipping with steadfast will;
And, if thou canst not worship steadfastly,
Work for Me, toil in works pleasing to Me!
For he that laboreth right for love of Me
Shall finally attain! But, if in this
Thy faint heart fails, bring Me thy failure! find
Refuge in Me! let fruits of labor go,
Renouncing all for Me, with lowliest heart,
So shalt thou come; for, though to know is more
Than diligence, yet worship better is
Than knowing, and renouncing better still
Near to renunciation—very near—
Dwelleth Eternal Peace!
This is the heart of the spiritual path. We need to remember, as Krishna says so beautifully: “But if in this thy faint heart fails, bring Me thy failure!”
(From a talk by Asha during Sunday service at Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto on April 17, 2016.)