The Seeker’s Choice: to Become a Hermit, or Live Spiritually Where We Are

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The Bhagavad Gita gives us a beautiful description of the life of the aspiring yogi:

Sequestered should he sit,
Steadfastly meditating, solitary,
His thoughts controlled, his passions laid away,
Quit of belongings. In a fair, still spot
Having his fixed abode, – not too much raised,
Nor yet too low, – let him abide, his goods
A cloth, a deerskin, and the Kusa-grass.
There, setting hard his mind upon The One,
Restraining heart and senses, silent, calm,
Let him accomplish Yoga, and achieve
Pureness of soul, holding immovable
Body and neck and head, his gaze absorbed
Upon his nose-end, rapt from all around,
Tranquil in spirit, free of fear, intent
Upon his Brahmacharya vow, devout,
Musing on Me, lost in the thought of Me.
That Yogin, so devoted, so controlled,
Comes to the peace beyond, – My peace, the peace
Of high Nirvana!

It’s an image that I suspect holds a deep appeal for many of us.

Swami Kriyananda said that the rather puzzling words, “his gaze absorbed upon his nose-end” are a mistranslation. As he explained, the yogi’s life is singular enough without having to go about it cross-eyed! What’s actually meant is that we should gaze at the point between the eyebrows, just above where the nose joins the forehead.

At any rate, I’m sure that many of us have felt, at one time or another, a wistful longing for the life of a yogi, wandering carefree in the Himalayas, unfettered by worldly ties.

In fact, it’s a beautiful and very valid image of the life of a spiritual seeker. And it’s a path that I suspect many of us have taken at some point in the past, or that we will take in the future. Because we must all sooner or later find out where we fit within the universal scheme of things, separate and apart from the concerns of worldly life: the relationships, possessions, friendships, and all the outward things that can distract us from our search.

There’s a part of us that yearns to know how our existence fits in the grand scheme of God’s creation. But the path of Self-realization is often less simple and straightforward than we would wish for, with our dreams of a life of solitary meditation.

We must be careful not to delude ourselves into thinking that our destiny is calling us to that kind of life. Because it’s spiritually dangerous to think that we know our karma better than we do. Given the lessons that we may still need to learn, we may not yet be karmically free to lead the life of a world-renouncing yogi.

Paramhansa Yogananda explained that there are times on this planet when human consciousness as a whole is too unrefined to be able to understand the higher truths of the spiritual path. At those times, he said, those truths need to be kept hidden from average mortals, lest they misunderstand or misuse them – for example, if they were to seize upon the Gita’s admonition to leave all worldly duties behind, as an excuse to avoid their God-appointed karmic responsibilities.

It can be confusing to read the Gita’s appealing images of a life of solitary meditation, and then to find our karma drawing us into circumstances that would make such a complete renunciation impossible.

We give birth to children, and those children have to be raised, shelter has to be provided, care has to be given, and we can’t live only for ourselves. And it’s good to remember that it is God himself who arranges our karma in such a way as to help us expand our consciousness, and discover a happiness beyond the confines of our narrow ego-attachments.

We read: “Sequestered should he sit, steadfastly meditating, solitary.” And it can create confusion – should we fulfill our karmic duties in this world, while trying to live in a spiritual way, or should we renounce all and go to the Himalayas?

A great world teacher and his chief disciple: Paramhansa Yogananda with Rajarsi Janakananda.

A great world teacher and his chief disciple: Paramhansa Yogananda with Rajarsi Janakananda.

The way God alleviates our confusion is by sending us a living teacher to show us the way. In the Christian tradition, as it’s practiced today, we get the impression that Jesus came out of nowhere and lived among us as the only Son of God, and then he went away. And if you didn’t have the opportunity to live in that time, it’s unfortunate for you, because you won’t have a living example who can give you the answers you need, free of the misinterpretations that have crept into the teachings over the centuries.

Paramhansa Yogananda explained that the “only son of God” that the Bible refers to is the Spirit just behind this creation. And the Gita tells us that God repeatedly incarnates in this world as the Son, in the form of one of the great Self-realized masters who come on earth to guide mankind.

The truth is that Krishna, Buddha, Yogananda, and Jesus all had attained the same state of complete oneness with God, and that many other great incarnations of God, or avatars, have come, and that they come always for a very specific reason: because we have lost our way.

When the masters come and live among us, those who recognize them are deeply inspired, and society as a whole is uplifted by a renewed understanding of spiritual truth. And for the first few generations, the image of the master and his teachings remains fresh and clear. But as time passes, the followers begin to lose track, and through their well-meaning but misguided efforts to explain the teachings, the great revelation becomes diluted, and we become confused and conflicted about what it all means.

In his commentaries on the New Testament, Yogananda makes it clear that Christ’s teachings have been diluted by lesser minds – that the pearl of truth is still hidden in the scriptures, but it has become tarnished, and its true meaning is difficult to discern.

Today, we’re still only a generation removed from Paramhansa Yogananda’s life, and a handful of years from the life of Swami Kriyananda. And it was Swamiji who came to clarify Yogananda’s teachings, and to forestall any misinterpretations.

Yogananda spent a great deal of time with Swamiji, revealing the inner truth of his teachings, because it would be his destined role to keep the teachings pure, and to show us how those pearls of truth had already begun to be tarnished by the misinterpretations of the leaders of his own organization.

Swami Kriyananda speaks at Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto, California.

Swami Kriyananda speaks at Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto, California.

Swamiji was the most considerate friend, the most engaging companion, and the most interested and receptive to anything and everything that was going on around him. And whether he was being sued in the law courts, or whether he was having joyous experiences of friendship, he was always the same. He never allowed anything to touch his inner happiness, which was the true world in which he lived – “rapt from all around, tranquil in spirit.”  

Whenever Swami would give a satsang in this church, the room would be packed. We couldn’t really advertise his talks, because we couldn’t expand the walls, so we would tell the members that he was coming, and the word would spread to a few others.

I remember a blissful evening when he gave an inspired talk, and how he sat with us afterward, buried in our love and appreciation. We decided that we would bless him, because his health was shaky, and we wanted to support him in his travels. So we all sat or stood around him, and I began to lead a prayer: “Now, visualize Swamiji …”

Swamiji piped up and said, “You don’t have to visualize me – I’m right here in front of you!”

It was so typical! There was never any pretense – no great, weighty feeling that here I am, the direct disciple of Paramhansa Yogananda, and you must all bow down before me. Just nothing at all. He saw the joke, and he said it regardless of the serious mood we were wanting to create. So I started over, “Picture Swamiji surrounded by light.”

And that is the real relationship, the very natural and simple relationship with the teacher. But a great difficulty is that many things in this world are either very attractive or very horrible to us, and it tempts us to get all confused in our minds, and forget the essential simplicity of it all.

We’re deeply attracted to the kindness of other people – their dignity, their nobility, and their capacity for self-sacrifice, and the sheer beauty and loveliness of their souls. Because you can look into a person’s eyes and see so much goodness. And we all hold at least a deep wish to be good, and to be more expansive, and to live in God’s light. But then our desires and our fears and worries take hold and start to confuse us.

Swamiji asked me to write a book called Loved and Protected: Stories of Miracles and Answered Prayers. I collected almost all of the stories by interviewing people. Because you can send an email and ask people to give you their stories, and with all due respect, they’ll tell you so little that you can’t do anything with it.

loved-and-protectedSo I had to talk with perhaps a hundred and fifty people in person, so that I could look in their eyes while they told me their stories, and I could ask them questions.

Master said that the eyes are the windows of the soul. And I’m sure that Swamiji gave me that assignment because my understanding of God’s relationship with us needed to expand, and I needed to see how God had touched many people’s lives at Ananda. And the experience of hearing so many good people tell their stories opened my eyes and inspired me.

A friend said to me recently, “I look at this one, and they have so much devotion to God, and I look at that one, and they have so much love. I look at that one, and they’re so deep in their meditation.” And the unspoken thought is, “And I’m not.”

We often think that way: “This one has such a happy relationship, this one has such beautiful children, that one has such good money karma, this one doesn’t have a weight problem.” And then we imagine it has something to do with how much God loves us, and how far we’ve fallen short of being worthy of His love.

All of the people I talked to were connected with Ananda. Some of them had had great disappointments in their lives, and many had accomplished relatively little, from a worldly point of view. But every single one of them had been touched by God, and for every one of them, it was the complete definition of their life. And everything else that might have happened – what did it matter? It matters terribly while it’s happening, and that’s the strange thing. We can rebel against our fate as much as we like, but in the end it doesn’t really matter at all. Because all that matters is that God has touched us.

God bless you.

(From Asha’s talk during Sunday service at Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto, California on May 31, 2015.)

 

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