Around the time Swami Kriyananda moved to Italy in 1997, he made an interesting comment about the differences in the cultures of the world.
He said that cultures are created to provide environments where souls can act out their destiny – that it isn’t the cultures that create the personalities of the people who live there, but that souls are born in the setting where they’ll have opportunities to develop the qualities that will help them grow.
A soul might need to learn by being impoverished and oppressed. Sometimes the soul will need to be born in a wealthy global superpower like America, or in a culture with lots of heart quality, or lots of logic and reason, or will power.
The diverse cultures of the world are vortices of like-minded souls. And once in a while we find that a certain number of cuckoos will be dropped into the culture for reasons that God alone knows, and who are there for some other reason.
I’m sure that many of us have felt like cuckoos who were never fully at home in the culture that we were dropped into, and we couldn’t imagine why we were born there.
A friend of mine is a professional ballet dancer with the San Francisco Opera. He was born the youngest of twelve children on a cattle ranch in Texas, where they didn’t have much of a context for him.
When Swamiji gave a talk here several months ago, I had lots of fun watching the people from various cultures as they came up to greet him afterwards. They represented perhaps five or six nationalities, and Swami was able to speak to them in their native languages. When he perceived where they were from, his vibration would subtly shift, and it was lots of fun to watch.
When the Italians came up, they would immediately start laughing – I could understand enough Italian to know that they were saying essentially the same things as the Americans, but the mood was very different.
I could see that when Swami talked with the Italians his consciousness would shift into his heart. And I could sense what they were feeling. “Oh, I’m so happy, and you’re so happy, and we’re so happy, and our hearts are all so happy.” Outwardly, they were saying the same things as the Americans, but there was a very different feeling.
Later, Swamiji remarked, “In America, you have to spend a lot of time convincing people.”
In America, people don’t want to feel that they’re being tricked or taken advantage of, and they want to be sure that what you’re offering them will satisfy their rational minds. So they’re waiting to see if you’re who you say you are, and if what you’re offering them will be reasonable and practical.
He said that In England you have to work a lot harder to bring them up from minus to zero, because they’re very rational, and they’re not so much in their hearts. But in America you can usually get to plus one, because Americans are a bit less rational, and more in their hearts.
He wasn’t talking about devotees, because we tend to be more or less the same everywhere, in the way we relate to the world. But he said that in America, you can give people a certain amount, but in Italy you can give them a lot more, and in India you can give them everything, because they aren’t going to challenge you.
In India, they know that sainthood and God-consciousness are the true reality, and they’re eager to see what it looks like, and to be in that vibration.
In our efforts to build Ananda in America, we faced a tremendous challenge in trying to get past people’s resistance and prove that we weren’t some terrible cult. But in Italy there’s a direct response from the heart, and in India they’re terrifically eager, and there’s an immediate understanding.
In India, there’s a universal sense that God alone is real. And it’s why, when Swamiji talks in India, he’ll often say that India is the guru of the world.
India’s culture has always understood that Spirit is the essence of everything, and that matter comes a distant second. And even during the long centuries when people could only conceive that the ultimate reality of creation is matter, India was able to maintain the thought that Spirit is the underlying essence of cosmic creation.
(You can read about the cycles of human history in a very interesting book by two Ananda members, The Yugas: Keys to Understanding Our Hidden Past, Emerging Energy Age, and Enlightened Future.)
It’s ironic that in the centuries when people were focused on matter as the ultimate reality, India lost the capacity to relate to the material side of life.
India became desperately impoverished, because it had lost the ability to balance the spiritual and material aspects of this life. And then America appeared on the world scene, at the start of a new energy-aware age, and became outwardly very wealthy and successful, but utterly confused about the inner spiritual reality that underlies everything.
And then Paramhansa Yogananda came to bring the two together, and to bring each culture back into balance. And this is what we’re doing at Ananda, helping people in both cultures understand how to live a balanced life, as Master taught.
Today’s scripture reading raises an interesting question: did God create us, or did God become us?
In other words, are we living wholly outside of God, and just hoping to break through the gates and get back into the divine reality? Or, even as we’re moving about in our daily lives, have we never been separate from God?
Swamiji is seventy-eight years old, and the litany of his health problems is impressive. But he absolutely refuses to identify his consciousness with his body.
Before he left Italy to go and live in India in 2003, he told us how Satan tried to get hold of him.
For days, he walked around with the thought, “I’m too old to do this.” The thought kept trying to press itself upon him: “Poor Swami Kriyananda, he’s worked so hard his whole life.”
And you can just hear Satan whispering: “Poor Swami Kriyananda! You don’t have to do this hard thing anymore. You can just rest in your nice little house in Italy, and you don’t have to go to India and face that terrible climate and start building the foundations of a great work for God and Guru.”
It’s the satanic voice that is always trying to persuade us to drop our spiritual guard and let ourselves coast along with low energy.
Master said, “Satan insinuates himself into our mind, using the means of our own false reasoning.” And it does sound so very reasonable, doesn’t it – because, poor Swami Kriyananda, he really has worked so hard!
In Autobiography of a Yogi, Master tells how he helped Sri Yukteswar cook a meal for hundreds of guests who’d come to the ashram for one of the festivals that he would hold at the solstices and equinoxes.
They worked hard all day preparing the food, and when it was time to sleep, Yogananda thought, “Oh, I’ve done so much for God, and I’m very tired. Surely I don’t need to meditate, and God will understand.” So he started to lie down without meditating, but then he stood up and said, “No! This is the voice of Satan, saying ‘Poor boy, you’ve done so much, you don’t have to do any more.’” And he sat and meditated and banished all sense of fatigue, by the power of his will.
And whereas Yogananda’s teachings are very strong on showing us how to stay healthy and live a balanced life, Swamiji’s sense of his body is that it has no other purpose than to be a tool for serving God, and for Self-realization. He has very little concern for preserving his body, because his only desire is to use it in God’s service.
We devote so much of our energy and attention to preserving what we have, or what we think we have. And I really don’t know what we’re saving it for, because it’s all going to end up in one of those pine boxes, or in a furnace.
At some point it will be completely done. And this is why Swamiji says that it’s very good, when you’re taking a shower or washing your hands, to realize: “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” and to think that this thing that I’m taking such good care of will be less than nothing before very long, and every one of its atoms will be returned to the earth.
My father died in September, and my sister and brother and I watched him breathe his last. He was in his eighties, and that old machine hadn’t been working very well for some time. But there came a moment when the breath went out of him and it didn’t come back in. And then it was over, and that body was used-up and discarded like a paper towel.
A dead body has no use – it’s just over. And as the spirit left my father’s body, I felt an ascending current of joy, and I believe it was the joy of his inner freedom, as he realized that he could shed that broken-down machine and go back to the place where he had come from.
And, why wait for our last breath? Why confine ourselves to the false notion that we must wait until we shed this body to find our true home?
Paramhansa Yogananda put it in an interesting way: “The nerves are bent toward the senses, and therefore we are bent toward looking outward.”
We’re inclined from our first breath to look outward. And Master said that the practice of Kriya Yoga bends the nerves back toward Spirit.
We teach people to meditate, and we talk about concentrating at the spiritual eye. And what it means is that we’re aspiring to draw our energy and awareness up the spine and return our consciousness through the spiritual eye to our eternal home in God.
We withdraw the energy from the chakras and straighten the nerve channels in the spine so that the energy can sweep upward and carry our karma and offer it into the Spirit. And the net result is that our energy is no longer bending toward the lower chakras and outward to the world.
We’re reversing the currents of the energy in the senses, as Yogananda put it, and we’re directing all our energy to the spiritual eye, which is the portal through which we can pass our consciousness and return to our home in divine freedom.
And then we can engage with this world with the awareness of who we are – nothing but an expression of the divine Spirit.
Paramhansa Yogananda envisioned communities where householders could lead a normal life, with jobs and families and children, and where they could live and work together creatively, in ways that would be consistent with their spiritual ideals.
So it isn’t a question of removing our energy from the normal flow of this life. Rather, you aspire to stop looking outside yourself for something that you’ll only ever be able to find at the source of your being. And Kriya Yoga enables us to commune with that inner fountain of happiness.
As a rule, I wouldn’t think that dentistry would be an appropriate topic for a sermon, but I had an interesting experience recently with my teeth, and, really, everything in this world is symbolic of the Divine.
There are people who can read your fate in the lines of your palms, or in your irises, or in your horoscope. And I bet they could read your eyebrows, if they could figure out the method, because everything that you are is a manifestation of your consciousness.
Sri Ramakrishna once asked a disciple take off all his clothes. He walked around and peered at the man’s body, and then he said, “The signs are good for God realization.”
Master did a similar thing with one of his disciples. He looked at the form of the body and concluded that the signs were very good for Self-realization. Because if you’re inclined toward divine consciousness, it will show in every aspect of your being.
At any rate, I had a toothache that kept coming back, so I went to the dentist, but they couldn’t find anything. Then while I was in India it got worse, and when I came home I was eating lunch one day when one of my teeth fell out.
It was startling, because you expect things to stay where they’ve always been. But the surprising thing is that it wasn’t that particular tooth that was hurting. In fact, the pain was quite a distance from the tooth. So I called the dentist and we went through the whole cycle again, and he put in a crown. But what struck me is that the tooth had never hurt, but it had been putting pressure on certain nerves, and I felt the pain somewhere else.
It turned out that we’d been trying to solve a problem that was somewhere else. And that’s a good image for the spiritual life, isn’t it? We spend a great deal of time trying to solve our problems, when the cause is somewhere else. And the ultimate cause of all our problems is the false sense that we aren’t made of Spirit. And even if we’re devotees, we tend to hold that simple thought at arm’s length, because we aren’t yet fully aware of the true reality.
We’re forever approaching God as beggars, hoping that He’ll consider us worthy of His love, and worrying that we might not be good enough. And all along, the truth was beautifully expressed by a French saint, St. Jean Vianney, who was known as the Curé d’Ars, “the village priest of Ars.”
He said, “If you knew how much God loves you, you would die for joy!” And, how amazing is that? He didn’t say, “If you weren’t such a terrible sinner.” Or, “If you could win God’s love.” Or, “If you were worthy.”
He was talking about every moment of our lives, and how much God loves us exactly as we are. And our only problem is that we have no idea of the magnitude of His love.
We may begin to feel that God created us, and that our potential is divine. But we don’t understand that God has become us, that He is us, and that even as we’re moving around in this world, as a beautiful passage in the Gita puts it, “The essence of everything is the Divine. And the essence of who we are is the Divine.”
All of the troubles we face in this life have one sole cause: that we don’t know who we are.
Maybe we don’t have a job. Maybe we don’t have a place to live. Maybe we don’t have loving relationships. Maybe our children have disappointed us. Maybe we’re feeling ill-used and mistreated. Maybe we’ve never been able to accomplish anything.
All of these things can happen. But the deeper truth is that they are merely symptoms. Our problems are not the source of our suffering. They are symptoms of the real problem, which is somewhere else.
We’ve allowed our experiences to convince us that we are no longer worthy of God, and no longer part of His being, and that God must be very far away. And because we no longer love ourselves, we imagine that He doesn’t love us.
What a travesty! What a tragedy!
This life is not easy – there are many hard experiences that can come to us. And among the cultures that God has set up for people to have the experiences they need, quite a few of them are set up for truly demonic things to happen.
Suffering is an unavoidable feature of this world, but suffering is not eternal, and suffering is not our reality.
God did not put suffering in our lives to torture us, or to make us judge ourselves, but to teach us to bend our nerve currents away from this world and back to the omnipresent Spirit within.
And what a joy it is! What a thrill it is! And who cares how great the effort may be?
We care so much, but then we will ultimately learn not to care at all, because we’ll realize that God’s presence in us is animating everything.
Look to that source. Don’t look, as Master puts it, to the movie on the screen of this life, but look to the beam that is creating the movie.
Everything is just a mood of the divine play. It’s all just part of the play of light and shadow that God is projecting.
Master said, “This world is a movie. Learn to get out of this world of pain and suffering and get back into the beam.”
Whatever ails you, learn to merge back into the beam that is creating and sustaining this life. Don’t be fooled by your experiences of pain and pleasure. Get back into the inner Self.
Learn to redirect your energies by Kriya Yoga and meditation and prayer and right living. Learn to orient yourself to look first to God, and then everything else will follow.
Seek ye first the kingdom of God. And then in the most astonishing ways you’ll see that you won’t care about anything else, because you’ll understand that it is all part of God’s remarkable way.
(From Asha’s talk during Sunday service at Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto, California on January 11, 2004.)