Throughout the many years I was closely associated with Swami Kriyananda, I found it a tremendous challenge to understand how to relate to him appropriately.
At first, I reasoned that if I could understand him more deeply, it would help me respond to him in the right way. So I felt that it was important to understand what he was experiencing.
A wonderful benefit of being in Swamiji’s company was that it always demanded that we meet him at his level. And what I personally found most exhilarating was the requirement for absolute alertness.
An example that will probably seem rather silly and trivial is how he would always correct my grammar. If I hadn’t said precisely what I intended, he would edit my sentences unfailingly.
It became quite a joke between us. We would punctuate these episodes by exclaiming as if with one voice: “The editor never sleeps!” But no matter how trivial the grammatical error, he would always insist that I fix it.
I had a particularly hard time with “I” and “me.” (I must have been absent the day they taught it at school.)
I remember traveling to Los Angeles with Swamiji when he was invited to appear on a major radio show. The hostess thought it would be interesting to have a second guest who knew him well, so I came along.
At one point in the broadcast, she asked me a question, and I was in the middle of my answer when I happened to use “I” or “me” incorrectly. And, on live radio, Swami interrupted and corrected my grammar, which caused us both to burst out laughing.
The poor hostess was utterly bewildered, but we were able to quickly recover and carry on.
If your job is writing or speaking, grammar is a good thing to know, and it’s wonderful to be able to speak clearly. But, of course, God accepts us even if our grammar is very far from perfect, because it really isn’t the point.
In fact, Swami’s correcting my grammar was an outgrowth of his insistence that every moment counted where my consciousness was concerned. And this is equally true for us all – that we need to be intensely aware of what we’re saying, and what we’re thinking, and how we’re responding.
Swami would never let anything slide. For years, I couldn’t understand why he was so insistent on correcting these seemingly quite trivial errors. Because, if a soul is constantly aware of the Divine and knows that this world is an expression of God’s blissful nature, why would he bother?
But Swami wasn’t correcting me for the sake of upholding the rules of good grammar. I’ve long since realized that what he really wanted was to help me raise my energy and consciousness.
Very often, the lives of the saints become rather flat and one-dimensional, as their words are interpreted and re-interpreted over the centuries, and set down in books by their less-enlightened disciples.
Very few people know how to relate to a master, so they scribble down his words and interpret them according to their own limited understanding. And as a result, the image we have of a Jesus or Buddha or Krishna becomes rather mythical and stilted, and we don’t get a very realistic picture of what it was actually like to walk and talk and live with him.
But Swamiji was with us for a long time, and we have lots of firsthand accounts of him. Yet, even after decades of working very closely with him, I could never quite understand the reality in which he lived.
I’ve mentioned how I always had a feeling that his consciousness was unbounded. I felt that it was impossible for the human mind to grasp it. And the reason I’m telling you this, is to help you understand that the nature of a person who knows God cannot be captured in words.
If I happened to behave toward him as if his heart wasn’t tender, and as if he was completely above the storm and stress of this world, he would invariably correct me. But if, on the other hand, I behaved as if everything was a total catastrophe, reacting emotionally from my own tender heart, he would also correct me.
I eventually decided that from my little perspective it simply didn’t matter to try to understand his reality, because I couldn’t do it in any case, and because it was much more important to understand what he was trying to help me learn.
Whenever he insisted on correcting my grammar, I had a sense that something else was involved, beyond simply getting the words in the proper order. And I came to understand that it was something we’re all trying to get right, which is our inner attunement. Because I realized that Swami was trying to make me more receptive and open to receive my own divine inner guidance.
In a class that I taught yesterday, someone asked a question that I’m pretty sure we’ve all had. “If we’re here in this world to grow, and we find ourselves in difficult circumstances, how can we tell if we should stick it out, or if it’s all right say, ‘This is more than I can handle,’ and just walk away?”
In a very real sense, it’s the central question of the spiritual path. Because how can we keep moving forward, if we aren’t willing to face our challenges? And it’s useless to try to start from any other point than where we are.
This is a big problem in religion – not spirituality, but religion: when it insists that we conform to a picture of what we’re supposed to look like. For too long, people have insisted, “This is what you’re supposed to act like if you love Jesus Christ, or if you love any of the great saints.” And it’s all based on an assumption that the outward appearance of things matters greatly.
We end up wanting to take ourselves away from where we are and squeeze ourselves into a mold of how we imagine we should be. And then we work very hard to keep ourselves tucked into that mold.
In fact, it’s all very well-intentioned, and there’s nothing terribly wrong with it spiritually. Because we obviously want to live in the best part of ourselves. But, just as obviously, we can’t simply take an image of what it means to be a good person and paste it onto ourselves and call ourselves good, much less Self-realized. So we need to figure out how to be real, even as we’re struggling to take the next step toward our own perfection.
I had a delightful conversation recently with a man who came up with a plan for how he could achieve enlightenment. He realized that many saints become Self-realized around the age of thirty-three, and he gave several examples, including Lahiri Mahashaya, who met his guru, Babaji, at that age. This man was thirty-one, and I could see that he was thinking that if he could just hang on for another couple of years the great enlightenment would come. I asked him, as gently as I could, if he had a back‑up plan, in case thirty-three would roll around without the great liberation.
We get these weird ideas in our heads about how the spiritual path is supposed to work, and it can be hard to shake them, and adjust ourselves to how things really are.
I remember, when I first came on the path, reading a book that mentioned how certain saints had achieved enlightenment in their sleep. They fell sleep in delusion and woke up the next morning enlightened. And I certainly cast my vote for that system. But as far as I can tell God wasn’t listening, because I haven’t gotten out of bed and found that I’d become a jivanmukta overnight.
Our brains have this strange ability to feed us lovely ideas that are completely divorced from our reality. And it’s not a major spiritual error. It’s just something we need to correct so that we can keep moving on.
Those of us who follow a great master have come to the point of understanding that our spiritual potential is a state of consciousness that transcends all suffering. So it’s natural to become impatient and want to be better than we are, and farther along. But it doesn’t help, and we aren’t going to be able to get there until we can accept ourselves as we are.
I was born with an absolutely intense determination to be happy. It was odd, because I was a happy child, and I had a pleasant life. I was a cheerful kid, and things came my way fairly easily, and nothing traumatic ever happened. But my absolute first value was that I had to understand where happiness comes from, and I absolutely had to get my hands on those keys.
I was avid on this point, and when I met Swamiji, I remember telling him, “Sir, this is so peculiar to me, that it’s been such an intense desire with me, because I’ve never really suffered.”
It’s a fact that most people come on the spiritual path as a result of suffering, and they’re desperately seeking something better. But Swami answered me very simply. He said, “Past lives.”
Our spiritual lessons come to us over many lifetimes, and in this life we make decisions based on those prior experiences, even though we may have forgotten them. And in my life, an essential part of my inner spiritual work has been to overcome my fears about the things I’ve experienced in other lives.
Suffering has many ways of holding onto us. You experience pain in your body, or you have a terrible pain in your heart, or you have the pain of a guilty conscience. And there it is, and you find that your life is forcing you to deal with it. You go through six months of chemotherapy, or you have a botched operation, and in countless ways our bodies and minds and hearts can hurt us. It isn’t pleasant, but it comes and goes in the natural order of things.
Yogananda said that pleasure is a point of rest between two pains, and pain is a point between two pleasures. The alternating dualities of pleasure and pain go on endlessly, and the only certainty in our lives is change.
When the suffering stops, one of the ways we try to cope just ends up making us suffer all over again. We decide that we were treated unfairly, or that it was someone else’s fault. And of course, people will harm us, because they are just as messed-up as we are.
Someone does something to you, and you cling to the belief that they were the source of your suffering. So your suffering grows into a big complex about who did what to whom, and the injustice of it all. And the thought naturally arises that our suffering would be less if somebody would just apologize.
We fear that the suffering will return, and our fear becomes more enduring than the suffering itself, because the event will pass, but not if we keep wrapping ourselves in our fears.
Now, from a positive perspective, suffering is a tremendous incentive. This is why I was extremely avid, even at a young age, to find a way to be happy that would really work. And as Swami said, that urge was due to my strong memories of having suffered in past lives.
Last year, we presented a wonderful play by Kristy Andrews, “Meeting the Masters.” I played the part of Yogananda’s most advanced woman disciple, Sister Gyanamata. At one point, Gyanamata describes how her father died when she was four and left the family in difficult circumstances. She says, “My mother confided in me completely.” And her mother was wise enough to know what a great soul she had in her four-year-old child. Because even at that young age, Sister was able to say, “I saw many tears, and I learned early to deal with suffering.” And then she says, “I resolved to base my life on eternal truth.”
And even though she was just four, she was able to recall, “My steady progress to the Master I feel began at that point, because what do we do with the suffering? Do we fear it? Do we blame someone and wait for them to fix it? Or do we let it be a catalyst for where we are going to go next, and what we are going to do?”
Gyanamata’s response to the suffering she observed at such an early age was to say, “I am going to base my life on eternal realities.”
Now, our commitment to live by the highest truth doesn’t suddenly erase all our memories of having suffered; nor does it ensure that nothing bad will ever happen again.
Sister Gyanamata was at the very least a jivanmukta, a liberated soul who still had a little karma to work out. Master said that she was fully liberated when she left her body. At her funeral, he said, “I saw her enter the watchful state beyond creation.”
In the play, she tells about a letter of thanks that she wrote to Master in 1941, in which she listed all the things she was grateful for. And she ended the note, “I offer you reverence, gratitude, devotion, and love.” And one of the things she thanked him for was that when her husband died and she had no place to go, Master brought her to Mt. Washington and made her a nun, even though she was in her sixties. She offered him her gratitude, “For holding me to the path when, bewildered by an agony of pain, I knew not which turn to take.”
Mind you, this is a person who was already liberated and would be fully freed at the moment of her death. Yet in her humility she describes herself as bewildered by an agony of pain. So the state of liberation in which she lived is not as simple as we might imagine – that after we’re liberated we won’t feel what’s happening to us, or that we’ll be able to suppress it by our spiritual power.
Thinking of how Swami was, and how he felt things deeply in his human nature, I realize that it’s all right, and even very important, to be able to feel everything that I might be afraid of feeling, but to realize that my sadhana is to learn not to be afraid of it anymore.
It doesn’t mean that we should enjoy our suffering. But Master explained that the ego is “the soul, identified with the body.” The ego is the faculty that lets us know that this is the body for which we are responsible.
Babies go through stages of psychological development, as they gradually figure out that they are inside this body. It’s amusing how babies can be frightened by their own hands, because their bodies are completely out of their control, and their hand may flash in front of their face, and they have no idea where it came from or what it is, and it will startle them. But they gradually begin to understand.
Little children feel themselves to be part of everything, but there comes an important point in their psychological development when they realize that they are separate from everything else. It can be quite traumatic for the child, and it needs to be integrated in the right way, so that they realize that there are boundaries to their reality, even though, compared to feeling part of all that is, it can be quite scary. But it’s necessary, because they are not actually free and one with everything – they are just ignorant of their place in the greater reality, because their consciousness isn’t expanded.
As children recognize that this is the body for which they’re responsible, it’s the beginning of their soul’s identification with the body – to put it another way, it’s the start of their identification with the ego.
Yet even that, in itself, is not bondage. It’s just a fact of life. Even Master, when he incarnated in a physical body, had to be responsible for that body.
It was his body, and sometimes he would relate to it in amusing ways. Near the end of his life, when his outward mission in this world was nearly done, he was walking with Swami Kriyananda one day. Swamiji was holding him upright, helping him walk, when he stumbled a little. He explained, “I am in so many bodies, I forget sometimes which one I’m responsible for.” Another time, he remarked that he had to ask people whether he had eaten, because his consciousness was everywhere.
At the end of his life, Swamiji was very much that way as well, as he grew increasingly detached from his outward form. But throughout the earlier years when he was fully engaged with completing the work that Master had given him to do, he would say, “I am responsible for the event that is Swami Kriyananda.”
He described the ego as a point of reference for knowing where we are. When you’re in a group of people, the ego tells you which body you’re responsible for moving. And when there’s food on the table, which body do I feed? And when I relate to people, which of these people is the one that I am responsible for?
Maybe something needs to be done, and I may have a wonderful idea for doing it, but I need to have a reference point. Is this mine to do? Is this what God is asking of me? Just because I know how to do it, I still need to ask first if it’s mine to do.
And having acknowledged that this is the reference point that we call our ego, Swami said that the ego can choose to turn back on itself in contractive ways. It can start thinking “What about me?” But on the other hand, we can gradually start to expand our awareness from that reference point to include everyone, and to receive God. There’s still that sense of connectedness with the ego, but the reference has enlarged.
Many times, Swamiji said to me that his heart was no less tender for being expanded, but far more so, because he could feel even the smallest nuances of other people’s lives. We can become so interested in what we’re doing that we don’t see the consequences for other people. And I hope I’ve gotten better at this, but I was very, very bad at it when I was younger.
Swami understood me very well. And it wasn’t as if I was trying to injure anyone, or take from them. I was simply unconscious of having injured them because I was so focused on where I was going. Which is even worse, because I was toodling along more or less unconsciously. And renouncing the wish to do harm takes tremendous awareness and strength of consciousness, to rid ourselves of any desire to harm another, even in reaction to a great harm that they might have done to us.
But if we’re simply unconscious and unaware of the harm we’re doing, it means that our reference point hasn’t expanded. And the purest definition of the spiritual path is that we are working to expand our awareness to include a larger and larger reality, because this is what will ultimately unite us with God’s omnipresent bliss.
Swamiji was never unconscious of whatever was happening. His reference point was so broad that he knew the implications of our actions, and he knew when he needed to correct us, and why.
It wasn’t as if he was an automaton, a kind of God-powered robot. Decisions would have to be made, and corrections given, but he felt it all, extremely deeply. Much more so, in fact, because he didn’t have the usual self-protective shields that people put up around themselves to protect their egos. He didn’t feel that people were being unfair, nor was he afraid. So, no matter what experiences came, he was able to let them sweep through him completely.
Many extremely difficult and sad things happened to him in his life. As you know, his closest spiritual brothers and sisters repudiated him, and they never ceased to vilify him, to the end of his life. It was a tremendous betrayal, and a fact that he had to live with. And it was no less of an experience for him because he was highly advanced and inwardly detached from this world. But he was aware of it in its true context, from an expanded point of reference in which he lived only to do God’s will.
Above all, his reference point was the simple thought, “I am a disciple.”
There is an ego, a soul identified with a particular body, that is living this particular life. But my reference point is not that ego. My reference point is, “I am a disciple.” And as a disciple, some hard experiences are bound to come to this ego.
If I were to make my reference point the little ego, I know that my world would become very small. But if my reference point is that I am a disciple, and that I am living for God, the same things can happen, but they will appear very differently.
Swami made an interesting comment, at a point when something happened in his life that was completely out of the normal flow. It required a great deal of courage to face it and overcome it. It demanded courage also on the part of a few others, and when Swami saw that the others were dragging their feet, and reluctant to accept what was happening and deal with it, his comment was very simple. He said, “I am entirely accustomed to following my heart.”
By following the stream of love and the sure and certain intuition that these events were his to deal with, he was able to keep his heart open to the life and the experiences and the inner guidance that his Guru would give him. Speaking of the others, he said, “They are not as used to doing it as I am.”
It was harder for them to face the present reality, so they were only able to drag along, with a lack of clarity and faith and willingness.
Swami saw the situation much more simply – he saw that it was his to do, and he would accept the flow of events that his life was handing him, and go along with it.
Even so, it’s a mistake to think that suffering is a sign of spirituality. Having left behind us the matter-bound age of Kali Yuga, we’re not so much attracted to that way of thinking anymore. But we may still have a tendency to cling to that older thought, believing that there’s a rigidly prescribed way we should behave.
There is no “This is how I ought to behave.” And we need to turn away from defining our life by how we think it should unfold, and instead make our single reference point the inner presence of God in our lives.
Our reference point needs to come from deep inside us, and always be anchored in the thought, and the truth, of being a disciple. Then we will be much more free to accept whatever comes. As a disciple, I can think more impersonally: “Wow, look at what’s happening to me now, and what God is doing to this particular soul.”
Let’s face it, the degree to which we are afraid of our experiences is the degree to which we’ll be bound to them for the indefinite future. This world is a mixed bag, and the bliss that it’s possible to find in this life doesn’t come from fixing our outer situation so that it will work nicely.
We have lots of karmic debts to pay, and nobody is doing anything to us that we didn’t ask for. We paid it forward in former lives, and now it’s coming back to us. And it’s absolutely fatal in the spiritual life to think that we’re being treated unfairly. Nobody is doing anything to us. And if we understand our lives objectively and dispassionately, we can see that our karma is simply being balanced, and that the only way to find true understanding and consolation is to make our constant reference point the thought, “I am a disciple of the Divine.”
Sister Gyanamata, in her wonderful monologue, says, “I knew that I needed a guru.” She had this thought long before she met Master. She said, “Because I knew that I couldn’t really grow spiritually unless I had one. But until I found one, the right one, I would take life itself as my guru. I would take every experience with the attitude of a disciple, and every circumstance as a direct lesson from my master.”
She said, “But I still wanted a guru.” And then he came.
Once you have your master, what will you do? You must ask the master to transform you, and whether or not you know your master in a living form, you can be a disciple of life, and say, “Transform me!”
It’s been a good run for all of us, but this is not the perfect bliss that each of us is destined to attain. And until we get there, let us ask God to transform us, because as St. Augustine said, “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.”
God bless you.
(From Asha’s talk during Sunday service at Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto, California on April 10, 2016.)