Many of you have asked about my response to last week’s presidential election.
My initial response was to fall off my bicycle. Although it wasn’t related to the election, it was related to the fact that the voters passed a rent-control measure that I spoke of last week.
It was amusing to me, because after the election I began to think of all the reasons rent control is terrible public policy, and all the negative repercussions, although I happened to be very much in favor of this particular measure, as I explained last week, because I have a lot of respect for the people who were behind it, and I wanted them to succeed.
So I was tooling down the road on my bicycle, mentally composing a letter of congratulations to the people who had done so well to get the measure passed, and I simply forgot that I was riding my bicycle, which was kind of a dumb thing to do, and I drove into another bicyclist, fortunately in such a way that it didn’t knock her off her bike, but it knocked me off my bike.
So there I lay on the pavement, admiring how effective bicycle helmets are, because my head bounced very comfortably. And then I realized that three people were staring down with expressions of great concern at this woman lying on the sidewalk, so I popped up and said, “I’m fine. I’m fine.”
I’ve been told that my body responded perfectly, because it was bruised and misaligned instead of snapping into several pieces. So I’m pleased, but it was the morning after the election, and I forgot what I was doing, riding along like an airhead, and Divine mother apparently decided to wake me up gently instead of letting me smash into a truck.
When people ask me about the election, my response is, “Why do you think God would do what you want?” In politics, whatever side we’re on, we think we alone have the right answer. It’s a very common human tendency, and it puts me in mind of a song of Swamiji’s:
A sailor from England remarked to a foe,
“The reason we win is we pray as we go.”
“Ah, but we pray as well, and just look at our dead!”
“Ah, but we pray in English,” the Englishman said.
And there you have it in a nutshell. The refrain goes: “I, my, me, mine, I, my, me, mine.” And it’s a very accurate way of describing how we’re all going along, merrily thinking our point of view is the right one.
Swamiji once remarked, marvelously, that everybody thinks they should marry someone exactly like them, because then they’ll have perfect harmony. But he said that if you do that, it just increases the delusion that your way is right, and the equally delusive belief that it’s possible to have a perfect relationship in this world.
We think, “Yes, but isn’t that the point? This is my way. And why shouldn’t I do it as best I can?
Our reading this morning mentions the term “moral vigor,” which is a concept I love. The reading defines it as having the power within yourself to stand by what you believe, and not be moved.
In our communities, where harmony and cooperation are so highly prized, and we’re encouraged to support other people and learn how to get along with them, at the same time Swamiji would often tell us, “If you believe you are right, don’t give up.”
There’s something we all have to find out for ourselves, and that we can only find inside ourselves, and that is the capacity to have the right relationship to truth. Our desire for truth can get fuddled up with our opinions and desires and thoughts and emotions, and we can very easily become deeply confused about what’s right. And then it can be quite difficult to find out what’s true.
My first years at Ananda, until about 1990, were a lark from start to finish. I remember everything about that time as being loads of fun. Even the obstacles were fun, including the outright catastrophes. When a forest fire burned twenty-one of our twenty-two homes in the community, it was fun because we were disciples of a great master, helping Swami Kriyananda do a wonderful work, and we got to live up in the mountains where it was beautiful and isolated, and we were among our own kind all the time.
We lived an ashram life that was quite wonderful. There are two ways to live the spiritual life. One is the missionary way, which is what we have in our Ananda colonies, where we live in society and offer the teachings to all those who are interested.
The other, equally valid way is where you enter the spiritual path and say, “I’m done with that world out there,” and you go off and enter an ashram or monastery.
Different ways work for different people at different times. When I lived in the ashram environment of Ananda Village, I would travel a little to share the teachings, but mostly I had this wonderfully consistent, homogeneous existence, and it was tremendously exciting and fun to be building the foundation for what Ananda has become today.
Then, in 1990, we were sued by our own gurubhais. We were sued by the “first” church of Self-realization, which is sort of the story of religion in America. There’s a first church that enjoys a monopoly for a while, and then there’s a split, and sooner or later the first church notices that they don’t have a monopoly anymore, and then the first and second churches find themselves in the awkward position of going to war over their differences.
Centuries ago, if you tried to pull out of the first church and do something different, they would haul you off to a dungeon and crucify you. So it was tougher, but now they just sue you, because we’re more civilized. They hire someone to prosecute you, and this is what happened to us.
Quite apart from the rest of the story, which John Persons tells wonderfully in his book A Fight for Religious Freedom, what happened, from my perspective, is that I suddenly found out that it wasn’t enough just to be a nice person living an idyllic life in a little community out in the woods, because the world isn’t always going to accommodate your wish to live that way.
I was so sure it ought to continue like that. After all, I’m so sweet and sincere, and I’m praying in English, and why isn’t God responding in kind? And it was all the more upsetting and chaotic to find that we were being sued by our own gurubhais. We were being sued by people who shared our fundamental teachings.
I know it isn’t politically correct to say so, but Jesus was crucified by the Jews, even though he was a Jew, and all his followers were Jews. It was a fight between people who shared the same basic beliefs, and meanwhile the people all around them couldn’t have cared less.
More correctly, it was a fight between a corrupt priesthood whose religion didn’t really count for very much because they were living very worldly lives, and Jesus, who was against the way they were presenting the religion of the Jews. But they were all of the same religious persuasion.
So there we found ourselves, with SRF suing us, confronted by a powerfully committed alternative point of view. And it’s easy to pretend that you would know how to behave in such a situation, but it’s quite another thing when, day after day, you’re having your idyllic picture of the world torn apart. And even Swamiji was bewildered at times by how his own gurubhais could do that to him.
We were opposed by extremely intelligent, very creative people who had very dubious scruples when it came to defending their moral position, and they were completely firm in their views.
I remember coming into Swami’s room one night when he was staying in our house. I had come in to make the bed, and I found him sitting in the darkened room, not meditating but just sitting and staring at the wall. He said, “I don’t understand why Divine Mother would use unscrupulous people to destroy me.”
He said, “If She wants to take my life’s work away from me and tear it to pieces, that’s Hers, because I never did for myself. But why would She use unscrupulous people?”
Several days later, he came down to breakfast and said quite cheerfully, “I asked Babaji about it, and I heard his answer: ‘They are all my children.’”
It reflected a thought that Swamiji had put in the Festival of Light years earlier: that God loves us all equally, not only Jesus Christ or Krishna or Babaji, but even those who’ve sinned most greatly.
And I’m hoping you won’t project this onto the election, and conclude that everybody who voted for the other guy had sinned greatly. But the point is that this world was not created to live up to our human expectations.
We are sent here with an assignment that has nothing at all to do with what’s going on outside us, but exactly the opposite. What’s going on outside is created for us to learn lessons inside.
The situations we find ourselves in are intended to teach us the lessons we need. This life is not a question of deciding who behaved unfairly to whom, or who’s right, or who ought to be in power. None of that; it’s about “Oh my, see how easily I get upset, and how fear can enter my heart so quickly, and how I imagine the voters are in charge of America’s destiny.”
Do we really imagine that these petty-minded bureaucrats are actually in charge of our destiny? Because it’s a scary thought.
Someone said, and I think very aptly, “I’m happy that at least one of them will lose.” Because we aren’t going to find Self-realized beings running for office in this age. We find strong-willed people working out their karma, and if we happen to be caught in the backwash, it’s because when we were in the astral world we looked at the cosmic map, which is a lot bigger than Earth, and out of all the planets where we could choose to be born, we chose this one.
When someone asked Master if we always return to the same planet, he said, “Oh, no, there are many planets to go to.”
I’ve told you about a dream that Swami had, of beings who came to him in his sleep and wanted him to be the savior of their planet.
He said, “They were so sincerely sort of scanning the cosmos.” It must have been during the lawsuit, because Swami wasn’t much appreciated at the time, and they probably guessed they could make him a better offer. But they wanted him to come, and they promised to give him everything he needed. He said that they were so sincere that he was seriously thinking about going with them. But what stopped him was the thought, “Oh, no – one more language!” And then another culture that he would have to get used to, and learning everything all over again. So he graciously declined.
Would he have been living simultaneously on two planets? I don’t remember if I had the presence of mind to ask, and if I did, he didn’t answer. But to my mind it was an interesting possibility.
When we were in the astral world, we looked at all of the choices and decided that this earth was the right one for us, like putting on an old, comfortable sweater that we wouldn’t have to break in.
This is the right world for us, where the right karmic forces have gathered to help us find out what we don’t already know. And what we don’t know, and need to know, has nothing whatever to do with who’s in charge of the government.
Whether they are fools or knaves or generous-hearted people with lots of common sense, and whether their policies are valid or invalid, and whether the country will collapse or go to war, what matters is the reaction it provokes in us.
It will give us exactly the lessons we need. And the lessons will always be about how much we fear and how much we’re able to love.
That’s what we’re working on, regardless of our outward circumstances. “How much do I fear, and how much can I love?” And when you follow that roadmap to the end, you find that whether you’re rooting for the republicans or the democrats, none of them are actually in charge, because this world and everything in it is in God’s hands.
If you start with the assumption that God is in charge, and you follow that line of understanding with total faith and courage, you realize that the only question that matters is whether you have a relationship with the Divine Mother.
“Does Divine Mother love me? Is She taking care of me?” And then you find that all the other questions – “Will I suffer? Will I get what I want?” – are not the questions on the table.
The questions that matter are very simple: “How much faith and courage can I muster in the face of my life’s challenges? And how much am I able to love?”
You may not be able to love completely at this stage of your soul’s journey. And when I ponder what happened to us in the lawsuit, I find that it was rich with learning.
We were being attacked by our own gurubhais and their hired guns, with the sole intention of destroying our ability to represent ourselves as disciples of Paramhansa Yogananda, and to offer his teachings to others. And the attorneys they hired to destroy us were some of the most super-unlovable people we could imagine encountering.
I remember sitting at the table with Naidhruva and our attorney while these people grilled us about Swamiji and Ananda. Naidhruva was the first black woman to graduate from Harvard Law School, so she’s a powerful person, and many of her peers at Harvard have become nationally known figures. She is friends with many people who are nationally or internationally prominent, and it was her destiny to be part of that circle, but she came to Ananda instead.
Both of us had an interest in prejudice, since I grew up in the Jewish world, and Naidhruva had litigated anti-segregation cases as part of the civil rights movement. She worked for Martin Luther King, so she had an intimate connection with the racial struggles of the time. And when we sat down with these two lawyers to have our depositions taken, I could feel how completely those attorneys had identified us as “the other.”
That was the phrase that came clearly to my mind. The lead attorney saw us as not as human beings like them, but as a kind of inferior species, and they did all kinds of utterly petty and truly mean-spirited things to try to intimidate and shake us.
I looked at them and thought, “Oh, now I understand Nazism.” It’s a state of mind where you look at someone who is, in fact, just like you, and you decide that they are not. You decide that they are so completely “other” that you can treat them however you want, and it doesn’t have anything to do with you.
I really felt that they had made that decision, and that those attorneys would have cheerfully shot us, and that they would have done it without the slightest compunction, aside from worrying about getting blood on their suits. But I also realized that it was their problem and not mine. I felt repulsed, and intensely inconvenienced, and irate – I felt all of these things, but I realized that it was nothing compared to what they were feeling. Because I knew that we were not “the other.”
I’ve been small-minded enough occasionally to know what it feels like to withdraw our sympathies from others when we’re feeling hurt or ill-treated by them. I know what it does to your heart, and what it does to your spirit. And perhaps because I’ve sown enough of those karmas and reaped the results, I’ve realized that when people treat you despicably, you do not have to do anything in return, but you can simply step back and let it happen.
Master said that America is a noble country. It’s a very pleasant and hope-giving statement to hear. He would often say, “America’s karma is very good.” However, he said that America has some negative karma that will need to be worked out, and he explained that it’s for the mistreatment of the Native Americans and the blacks.
People have this strange capacity to feel justified in behaving in the most awful ways. Now, I like to think that I wasn’t part of these things, so why should I have to get the karma of them? I’m sure it’s because when I was in the astral world my soul decided, “The karma of America’s treatment of the Native Americans and blacks is coming due, and maybe we should go down there and be a part of that.”
But, overall, Master repeatedly said that America has very good karma, even though we have some negative karma to pay off, and we’ll need to go through some difficult experiences.
Do we want to try to avoid having to pay off our negative karma? Do we imagine that we can enjoy the temporary bubble of extraordinary wealth that we’re witnessing in this country today, without having to see how nature will balance the karmic scales? And do we imagine that we will never have to balance the karma that we’ve set in motion in our own lives?
We can look at politics and get very upset, thinking, “This makes me so afraid, and this makes me so angry.” But if we assume that the only real issue in our lives is how much we have loved, then whose problem is it, really?
When Obama was running for president the first time, Swami said on several occasions, “He is such a nice man, and he is going to try so hard to help, but his policies will destroy this country.”
Swamiji was very much not in favor of big government, and government interference in people’s lives, and approaching our country’s problems with the assumption that government is the answer. I’m not going to go into his politics, but they were seldom what you might expect, because he saw this world in a very, very independent and spiritually expansive way.
He was always watching the outward scene of this world from the perspective of centuries, and in terms of the progress of souls and the cosmic destiny of the planet. But then Swami also said, “What makes you think America needs a good leader?”
“Well, because I want one.”
And that’s ultimately what it comes down to, isn’t it? “Because I want it.”
A good leader means whatever side of the political spectrum you happen to be standing on. And God will naturally want what I want, because I’m praying in English.
It’s why Swami wrote that song. How many times have we heard it performed and laughed heartily. But then all of a sudden we realize that we’re assuming we’re praying in English and the democrats or republicans are praying in German. And why isn’t God listening to my side, which is obviously the right one?
This world was made to make us free. This world was not made to make us ever more comfortable. During the election this time around, I paid more attention because it was so dramatic. And it didn’t hurt Swami to pay attention to these matters, because he was completely detached and able to observe them without becoming emotionally upset.
We can have our opinions, and we can feel them very strongly, and that’s no problem. Just go out and express them and fight for them in the right way.
I remember how, in the 1970s, there was a nuclear initiative on the ballot in California, and the supporters came to Swamiji, wanting him to put Ananda behind it. They made an extremely well-conceived presentation that was very intelligent, with big charts that showed what would happen if a nuclear missile struck Los Angeles, and concentric circles that showed the degree of destruction as you moved outward from ground zero.
It was all very impressive and scientific, and then, after we had sat and watched it, Swami said, “You know, in a hundred years from now, almost no one who lives on this planet is still going to be on the planet. Whether we dribble out slowly a few at a time or we all go to the astral world at the same time, it won’t make any difference.”
Swami was always so far out of the box in the way he viewed this life and the world. And our immediate reaction was, “What?” Because we are so busy protecting this little body.
I’m reminded of a joke about a teacher who asks the students in his classroom, “After the Black Plague arrived in Europe, how many people died?” And one bright young student pipes up, “All of them, eventually.”
We think it matters so much, and it does matter how you die, and whether you die with courage or in abject fear, and whether you have love in your heart, or anger, or forgiveness. These things matter enormously. But whether you die? The masters see these lives as beads strung together on a necklace, and no bead is particularly more important than any of the others.
Swami complimented them because they had worked so hard. But then he said that if you’re fighting for peace, it’s better not to use fear to try to get people on your side.
And that just about says it, doesn’t it? Because fear is a powerful motivator, but then what do you end up with, when you’ve created lots of fear? What kind of consciousness are you generating? Are you giving something valid and uplifting to the world?
Politics come and go – here today, gone tomorrow. Atop the heap today, at the bottom tomorrow. Promising such-and-such today and doing something else tomorrow. And it doesn’t matter if you’re the leader of the greatest country on earth, because God is always in charge.
God is in charge, and we are merely actors in His drama. We must play our parts well, and we must play them sincerely. Swami would say to people, “If you believe in politics, then go out there and do it as well as you can, with the right consciousness, to the best of your ability, because that’s what you were born to do.”
When a group of young men in India came to Master and asked him to lead them in a revolution against the British, he refused, but he told them to go ahead without him. Eventually, they were all arrested and executed. Years later, someone asked Master why he hadn’t tried to stop them, and he said, “It was their karma.”
It was what they were supposed to do because they needed those experiences to learn certain lessons. And the fact that they died trying might actually have been a great victory for them, and far more important than the fact that they died.
Swami told us that we have to look to ourselves with moral vigor and find the answers for ourselves, and never give up when we believe we are right. But then we should always remember who the boss is that we’re really working for.
In the little town where my family lived there was a home for retired missionaries. Once a year, they would come out on the sidewalk and put up displays from the countries where they had worked. It was a very nice program, and my father liked to go and chat with them. Although it rarely rained in Southern California, one year it rained all day. And my father, being somewhat cheeky, said to one of the missionaries, “After all you’ve done for God, you’d think He would give you good weather for a day.” And without missing a beat, the missionary said, “Oh, that’s management. I’m in sales.”
That’s the spirit. We do our bit with sincerity and courage, knowing that, as the Gita says, the results are always in God’s hands.
I found a letter in my files that Swami wrote in 2002, when he re-edited The Land of Golden Sunshine. He gave us all a printed copy of the play as a Christmas present, with a letter where he talked about how much he liked the story. And then he said that the mood of the play “expresses my lifelong desire to leave forever this limited earth’s existence. With advancing years, however, I find that my disillusionment with earth is actually diminishing, and being replaced by a desire simply to be wherever God wants me, and to do whatever He wants of me. From early childhood I have always felt that heaven was my true home. More and more, however, I am coming to realize that this world is, for one who wholeheartedly embraces God’s will, no less heaven than anywhere else. Praise and calumny, success and failure, love and heartbreak – all these come to us as divine blessings. God alone matters. All else is a dream.”
(From Asha’s talk during Sunday service at Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto, California on November 13, 2016.)