There’s a longstanding tradition in the teachings of India that the highest spiritual truths should not be revealed to people until they’ve reached a certain level of refinement. There’s a good reason for the tradition, because until we’re able to understand the need to become free of self-interest, we will very likely interpret the teachings in a way that supports our ego, instead of lessening its hold on us and helping us move toward liberation.
I’ve mentioned a man that I met in the 1960s, who decided that because the spiritual teachings say that the universe is a manifestation of God, it’s all right to steal from others. Because, if it’s all just a part of God anyway, what difference does it make if it’s in my hands or yours?
Of course, there’s an enormous flaw in that argument, because our happiness depends entirely on the extent to which we can expand our awareness to embrace other people’s realities as our own. And it’s very revealing that the saints take a completely opposite stance to the man I met in the Sixties. Those highly advanced souls who’ve united their consciousness with God would not dream of taking from another, because they know that we are all part of the same one fabric of God’s consciousness, and that its essence is love.
When he was a boy, Paramhansa Yogananda was miraculously healed from Asiatic cholera, a usually fatal disease, through the intercession of his mother’s prayers. And it’s very touching to read about the reverence he showed to his mother after he was healed. In fact, it was his mother’s guru, Lahiri Mahasaya, whose light cured him in response to her prayers. Yet in Autobiography of a Yogi he tells how he turned to his mother “as soon as I was able,” as he says, “and I touched her feet in reverence for her great faith.”
Sometime in the 1990s, we visited the city of Sienna, in Italy, with Swamiji, and our tour guide made a great point of telling us how some horrible person had stolen the holy wafers from the main church, which were considered to be the body of Christ. For the townspeople, it was almost as if Jesus himself had been kidnapped, and they were terribly distraught. So they all prayed, and as our tour guide told the story, the sacred hosts were returned in some miraculous manner, in answer to the people’s prayers.
Swami’s comment was interesting. He turned to us and said, “There must have been a saint among those who were praying.” He explained that no matter how many people had prayed, their sheer numbers could not have created such a power, because each person’s prayers would only vibrate on the level that they were capable of. And even if many of them were praying together, they would all still be vibrating at their own level. But a saint can pray with the power to attract a miracle from God.
In the story of his childhood illness, Yogananda is telling us that his mother had a depth of Self-realization that enabled her to attract the unlimited power of her guru. And Master bowed to her in recognition that the healing power had come through her intercession, because she was a saint, and her prayers had the power to draw a miraculous healing.
I’m reminded of a time, years ago, when Swamiji gave a radio interview. The reporter asked him lots of questions about Ananda, and at one point, he said, “What have you done in a practical way to make Ananda succeed?” And without hesitation Swamiji said, “Faith in God is the most practical thing of all.”
It wasn’t an affirmation, as if he were simply repeating some formula that he had read in the Bible. He knew from his own experience that it was true. And he went on to say that if you truly want to help yourself, you must put your consciousness in tune with the vibration of God, because that divine power is always available to us.
It’s not as if our prayers suddenly turn on the spigot of God’s grace. It’s not as if God is on holiday, and when somebody starts praying He says, “Oh, let me put on My omnipresence and give them a bit of My power.”
As Master explained, the nature of creation is satchidananda – ever-existing, ever-conscious, ever-new bliss. And if we aren’t aware of that seamless, ever-existing bliss, it’s simply because we are attuned to a lower level of consciousness, owing to our self-concerns, our desires and fears, and our sense of ourselves as separate from God. And this is why, when we want to accomplish something with our ordinary human consciousness, we turn to the resources we’re familiar with, and we try to rely on our rational intelligence and our will power.
But if we could know that just behind everything is the vast, ever-blissful power of the divine, we would have a very different understanding of where our ability to accomplish comes from.
Paramhansa Yogananda’s wonderful book Whispers from Eternity consists of “realized prayers” through which he tells us, over and over, about the divine reality behind creation. Many of the prayers include phrases like “just behind,” and “help me to see within,” and “help me to see behind,” and “help me to feel Thy presence.” The book is filled with “prayer-demands,” as he called them, that God help us to look behind the veil of this unreal world and perceive what is actually there.
Our ability to be aware of the divine, even as we go about our lives in this world, depends entirely on the level on which our consciousness is vibrating. And the scriptures tell us that God greatly rewards those who make the undaunted effort to align their consciousness with that reality.
Years ago, I was caught in a strange dilemma, where I wanted to accomplish something, but all of the reasonable avenues of action seemed to be closed to me. Several other people were involved, and I knew that I could never persuade them to act in ways that they weren’t inclined to. So I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do. And I finally realized that all of the energy that I was trying to use in a rational, practical way to resolve the problem wasn’t accomplishing anything. So I took all of that energy and I tried to hold myself in a calm state of inner peace, and simply allow whatever was trying to happen. And it took far more effort to do nothing than it would have taken to actively step through the options that were running through my mind.
Now, that “nothing” was not a paralysis of fear, or a passive state of inaction. It was a very dynamic effort to hold myself in a stillness where the restless mind and emotions wouldn’t block whatever was trying to happen.
Paramhansa Yogananda’s mother saw her little eight-year-old boy lying in bed with a fatal disease. And above the bed there hung a photo of her guru, Lahiri Mahashaya, about which Lahiri had told her, “If you consider the photo a protection, it will be so; but otherwise it’s just a photograph.” And because she had such complete faith, free of rational doubts and impatience, she prayed to Lahiri in the photo, and he was able to cure her son.
This is what we are working toward. In the spiritual life, we are working to shift our consciousness from a superficial level of rational understanding, to a state of true inner knowing. And we will not be able to make that shift at the very last moment, when we suddenly discover that our son is dying. Yogananda’s mother didn’t suddenly see the photograph as a protection. Every day since Lahiri accepted her as his disciple, she had turned her attention to the guru, and she had lived in his protective presence. And now, in her moment of intense need, she was able to focus her entire being on him, and draw a blazing light that cured her son. Because, as Yogananda repeatedly tells us, no darkness can dwell in the presence of the light.
This is the story of our progress on the spiritual path. And it explains why the higher we rise in Self-realization, the simpler our thinking becomes. Swamiji said that Paramhansa Yogananda’s most advanced male disciple, Rajarsi Janakananda, had hardly any small talk, and that when he spoke he would mostly just say, “Om Guru.” He was a brilliant, highly successful western businessman who had made his fortune in the insurance business. But the more he understood about what was happening behind this creation, the more he saw only the radiant light of God shining through his guru. And so it behooves us to bow in reverence to the holy ones, and align ourselves with the tremendous light and energy of God that they want to give to us. And then everything else will follow.
The Bhagavad Gita says, “The all-wise Infinite One cares not at all about our sins and virtues.” Swamiji explained that when we are finally liberated, we realize that it was the divine light acting through us that that did all of these things. In other words, we discover that it wasn’t really the ego that acted out our countless lives, but it was God who did it all.
And this is why it’s extremely helpful to have holy images that remind us of the true reality. Because even the idea of the Divine Mother is just a reflected image of that reality. And meditating on the image of the Mother can help us remember the reality that dwells within us, “in the farthest depths of being,” as the Festival of Light tells us, and bring ourselves into ever closer attunement with that reality.
I was swimming at the Y the other day, and at one end of the pool they were holding a swimming class for children. I watched a mother who had brought her little girl, who was about three, and it was clear that it was the mother’s wish that the child would learn to swim, but that the child really wasn’t all that interested. So, even though she was decked out in her swimming costume, she was not about to go near the pool. She lay curled up in her mother’s lap, and by the time I left she still hadn’t entered the water, but she had moved off of her mother’s lap and was sitting next to her while they contemplated the pool. And it reminded me how Master urges us to take refuge on the lap of the Divine Mother. Here was this little child, facing something that she really didn’t want to do, and she took refuge on the lap of the Divine Mother. And it was a powerful image of our progress through incarnations, and how we curl up for a time on the Mother’s lap, and then the Mother says, “Honey, you really do have to get in the pool.”
“Okay! I’ll get in the pool.” And we throw ourselves in the pool and splash around, and bump into the other children, and throw things, and break things, and when we’re done we crawl into Her arms again, and we rest for a while, and then She sends us out again.
And all of the experiences that seem so big and overwhelming to us are just an interlude between our taking refuge in the arms of the Divine Mother. And the Mother doesn’t care at all about our sins and virtues. She doesn’t really care what happens, because She only cares that in the end we will return to Her arms forever. And until we are done with going out and splashing in the pool of Her creation, She will wait patiently for the time when we will never leave Her arms again.
Where there is light, no darkness can dwell. And let us help ourselves to live in that light, by always holding to that everlasting truth.
(From Asha’s talk at Sunday service on June 26, 2016 at Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto, California.)