I’ve been on an eight-week writing retreat, in a remote area of northern Washington state, very near to the Canadian border.
It’s been a longer seclusion than I’ve ever taken, and because I was so far from my usual surroundings, I found myself sinking into another world.
It raised some interesting questions, about whether it’s actually possible to change our view of the world.
The first thing that struck me is that when you’re in another reality, the person who’s there with you is the same old, familiar you. It was striking how being alone in unfamiliar surroundings put me face to face with my old habits – how it was a little annoying not to be able to remember where things were in the kitchen, and how the sink was a little deeper than I was used to, and how it all felt a bit strange and disorienting.
When we live in one place for an extended period, the subconscious takes over, to an extent that when you find yourself suddenly in a new reality, you feel a bit out of sorts. The ego is so determined to define its world and make everything familiar and comfortable, and small things like having to reach a little farther into the sink created a tiny dissonance in my consciousness.
The nearest neighbor was a very nice lady who lived about a mile away. Her husband had been a horse breeder, and at the time of his passing, they had about eighty horses. The widow sold all of them except for a few older mares and a gelding, to keep them from being taken to the cannery.
Looking out my window at the horses, I thought they looked like a flock of old nuns and their priest. Watching them amble placidly, munching on grass, I would think about how far they still had to go in their spiritual evolution.
The horses were obviously more evolved in their consciousness than the cattle, and one of the horses was clearly the leader of the herd. She was a palomino, and when I met her she made it clear that she considered herself much classier than the others.
I said to the neighbor, “Who’s the head of the herd?” She said, “Oh, the palomino, of course!”
She talked about how the gelding would occasionally try to show up the palomino, without the slightest success. And it occurred to me that we could have been talking about the Ananda communities where I’ve lived for so many years. In a hundred lifetimes, those souls will still be together, and the palomino will still be trying to lord it over the others, whatever physical form they might be inhabiting.
When you’re taken out of your usual circumstances, it’s fascinating to see how much of yourself you’re carrying with you, and how the mind will try to find ways to cling to its old, familiar realities. And the stark reality is that the only thing we ever really carry with us is simply ourselves and God.
I went into seclusion because I’m working on a book about my life with Swami Kriyananda. I had forty years of notes to sort through, in fifteen big boxes. I would work on putting them in order, and then I would write another section. So I was fully engaged with Swamiji’s life, and my life with him. And from my perspective they’re essentially the same, because my life has been defined by his, and the flow of his life experience was essentially mine.
I met Swamiji in 1969, and I moved to Ananda Village in 1971, and from the beginning I was around him to an unusual degree. Within the first year I was working as his secretary, and although the dates are a little blurry, my life has always been, and still is totally defined by his.
I had my seventieth birthday recently, and it seems like such a fixed, solid number. But as Swami said, “Age is just so trivial.” He said that of all the things that define us, it’s the most trivial of all. And those of us who are “chronologically developed” know something that you who are chronologically challenged don’t know, which is that the longer the mind stays with us, the longer it stays the same.
I’m at an age when my death would not be premature. I remember my father joking about realizing that the people in the obituaries were all younger than he was. And maybe it means that this cycle has nearly run its course. But in essence nothing really changes.
I know that I’ve had incarnations of madness. And I can feel where madness comes from. It became clear to me during my seclusion, where I was alone, with no telephone, no Internet, and nobody to talk to except for the sweet neighbor. But she had her own life, and we didn’t really know each other. So I was alone, and the air was so full of my consciousness that I became aware that nothing was ever going to make my consciousness stop. I could feel that it would be very easy to slip into a kind of metaphysical madness, in a panicky attempt to try to escape from what I am. Because it’s something that Swami said people will sometimes do, when they feel they can no longer face the journey.
I can understand where the urge would come from, because we’ve tried in many ways to change our consciousness and make our experience better, including suicide, drugs, alcohol, crime, and madness. And it’s only when we run out of options that we finally begin to think, “I’ve got to fix this.” Because the only thing we can actually ever change is our consciousness.
A friend of ours, Jamal, took a year-long seclusion. And I say, more power to him, because I couldn’t do it. But he said that the fun of it was that he got to practice all of the yoga techniques and see what effect they had on his consciousness.
While I was in seclusion, I thought, “What will I be able to try this time, that I haven’t tried before?” And one of things I thought of was a statement of Master’s: “Never go to sleep at night without convincing yourself that this world is a dream.”
I love that statement, but I have to admit that I’m frankly more or less invested in this world. It’s not so much that I’m attached to it, but I don’t devote a lot of thought to how I can get out of it, because it just creates more stress than I can handle.
So I’m living very much in this world, and I found that it wasn’t easy to persuade myself that it was all just a dream. But I could remember that I’m going to die, and it reminded me that whether this world is real or not, at some point I’ll be leaving it behind.
It’s one of the thoughts that brought me to the spiritual path. When I was nineteen, I realized that no matter what happened to me outwardly, there would be a moment when nothing that I had accumulated, and nobody who loved me, would make any difference at all, because I would be absolutely alone.
I’m sure it was part of my karmic memory of having been a yogi in other lives. But I remember lying there at night, trying to find an alternative, and realizing that there wasn’t one. And it was a powerful incentive to look for answers. From that point, I would often pretend that I was dying, and think about what it meant for the way I should try to live my life.
Many of you know that our friend Tushti died a little over a year ago. I was with her in Portland while she slowly let go of her body, and I have vivid memories of the process, and how her consciousness gradually shifted. And while I was in seclusion, far away from anywhere, I would lie there at night and imagine how I’ll be dying before long. I could see my gaunt little face, with all my friends around me, whispering amongst themselves, with Swami’s Aum tape playing quietly in the background, and someone reading aloud from Whispers From Eternity.
I’m lying there, and in my mind I’m saying to Swamiji, “If you don’t come, you’d better send somebody I recognize, and it better be clear to me that they’re coming to get me for you!”
When Vairagi was dying, years ago, I went to visit her and found her sleeping. And when she woke up, she said, “Oh, it’s you.”
I said, “You were hoping you’d see Master, weren’t you?” She said, “Yeah.” Because whenever she went to sleep, she’d be hoping to wake up in that other world.
There’s an interesting book called Graceful Exits, by a woman who collected stories of the ways people have died. It includes a very unusual story about a Tibetan Buddhist teacher who was sitting with his monks gathered around him, and it was time for him to die. So he started chanting, and then he stopped breathing and he was gone. All of the monks began to wail, and the old monk came back to life and exclaimed, “I’m so ashamed of you!”
He ordered the monks to cook a “stupidity meal.” He spent a week trying to get them to understand his death in the proper way. And then they gathered around him again and he died.
The point is that what we’re doing with our lives is completely and entirely about working with our consciousness. We aren’t doing any of these outward things for their own sake, but for no other reason than to train our consciousness.
The life that Swamiji lived, and the amazing things he accomplished, and the legacy that he left us are absolutely breathtaking – the music, the books, the instruction, and the guidance. But what he finally gave us – and Swami said this many times – is the power to become the sons of God.
“As many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God.” And this is the power that we’re seeking.
Swami said so many subtle things, and from the start I always was paying extremely close attention. I was always listening, always reading, and always on his email list, and whenever he would go somewhere or do something, I made sure that I was notified, and that I got a copy of the latest manuscript, and the latest letter.
So I wasn’t asleep at the switch. I was incredibly involved with Swami Kriyananda as a living person, and I was always engaged with his fascinating personality, and his enormous creative output. Some people have misunderstood my devotion to him, but I’ve always thought of it in the same way that Swamiji talked about his devotion to Master: that what he saw in him was a transparent window onto God.
The veil of delusion is so thick that when you try to convince yourself that it’s a dream you find that your elbow is hurting, or your head will itch, and then it’s a little too cold, and you try to remember if you turned the stove off. And where is the dream? Because it all seems so real.
It’s very difficult to pierce the veil, and the self-awareness that’s churning inside us isn’t something that we can simply turn off and step away from. So there has to be some sort of a break – a force that will come and show you what’s on the other side. And that force is the guru. And the power that enables us to receive the guru is our devotion. Because, “To them who received him, to them gave he the power to become the sons of God.” And when the divine power comes, it looks very different from our normal experience.
You’re going along, looking at your life in the same old way, living in the same old consciousness, and after eight weeks of seclusion you come out pretty much the same. Maybe you’re feeling a little brighter and a little more attuned. But Asha is still there, and the problem with seclusion is that you bring yourself with you.
I can never do a short seclusion, because Asha will hang around with too much intensity for three or four days, and if I come out too soon it doesn’t work, because it takes at least that long for Asha to shut up.
I contemplated this while I was in seclusion – how the karma of our situation follows us around. I was writing about my spiritual teacher, but the horses and the people around me were doing something else. Lots of people in that remote area are struggling. And it reminded me of our friend Jairam who’s been wrongly imprisoned for over thirty years. When I went to visit Jairam, I remember walking down the corridor with cells on either side, and how I could feel that as soon as the prisoners got out, they would rush to do exactly what had gotten them there, and that the real imprisonment was the franticness of their own minds.
Now, it may seem grim to ponder how deeply we’re trapped by our karma and our consciousness. But it isn’t grim at all if we look at it from the perspective of truth. Because the keys to the prison are in our hands. And that’s what I realized by being alone with myself for a long time: “Oh, it’s really up to me.”
The events of my life that are making me nervous and afraid are actually good news, because they’re telling me that I’m experiencing exactly what I’ve chosen to experience. And the revelation of truth that the guru has brought us is telling me that God knows it all. God knows the vast ocean of habits and nasty memories spinning in our astral spines and eating at our consciousness. But there’s another force at work in our lives. There is a power of truth that is very simple, and a teaching that is very simple. And the simplicity is tricky to realize, because we keep thinking it has to be harder than it is.
Kriya Yoga and Hong-Sau and the Aum technique operate very directly to change and uplift our consciousness. And when you’re in that vibration, you realize that there’s a new and wonderful reality that goes along with it.
The prisoners are living at a level of consciousness where all of us have been, including Paramhansa Yogananda and Jesus Christ. And this is why the masters are able to be so compassionate: because they’ve experienced it all. Wherever you are, they’ve been there. They would have to have been there, because we’re all climbing the same mountain.
The mentally unstable person at the checkout counter in the grocery store is surfing on a vibration of consciousness that says, “This is bringing me pain, and that will bring me happiness.” And when I see them, I think, “Let’s see how that works, laddie. Go for it, and find out how it’s working for you.”
We reach a point where we admit that we don’t actually know where our happiness comes from. And then we begin to want to open our hearts and listen.
After many years, I’ve been able to pinpoint the demographic of Ananda, and the insight that has brought us together. We’ve realized that the problem isn’t outside of us, but inside. It doesn’t mean that we’re suddenly no longer blaming others. But we’ve begun to wake up and realize that while they may be wrong, there’s something inside me that’s wrong, too.
As terrifying as it is to realize how much power there is in the consciousness that you’re carrying with you, and to know that you really don’t want to be this way – it’s a tremendous relief and great good karma when the master comes along and says, “Okay, let’s do something about it.”
And from that point, our suffering is of the ego that’s being shaken loose from its delusions. When the guru starts doing something about the suffering of our ignorance, we feel the pain of the ego being pried loose from its cherished delusions. “Oh, anything but that! I was serious, but not about that!” Or we plead, “But I can still have that, can’t I?”
Sister Gyanamata, Paramhansa Yogananda’s most advanced woman disciple, said, “I realized that I had to give up everything.” And I love the words that follow: “Even those things that were mine by right, and that harmed no one.”
Everything that isn’t eternal will have to go away. You’ll be on your deathbed, and you’ll be going farther and farther from the life you knew in this world, and there will be a moment when you’ll have to decide: Who do I want to be? Not that you’ll have many options.
My seclusion took away a lot of my options – I couldn’t peruse the Internet or pick up the phone and call a friend. And I didn’t mind. We have so many options nowadays, but what if you had none? Because the day will come when you won’t have any at all.
Will we have a graceful exit, or will we have to eat a stupidity meal before we’re allowed to die? Master said that we should contemplate the unreality of this world every day, and the reality of our eventual passing.
St. Paul said, “I protest by your rejoicing which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die daily.” (1 Corinthians 15:31) He was referring to his experience of samadhi. He knew the other reality, and when he came back into this world he worked extremely hard. He did everything he possibly could, and when death came he said, “I fought the good fight. I kept the faith. I finished the race.” He knew that they would cut off his head. But what an exit line!
This is where we want to be able to stand. We need to finish the race, and we need to be able to say that we’ve been true, and that we did our best. Because in the end nothing else will make the slightest difference – it will all go away, and we’ll be alone with who we really are. God bless you.
(From Asha’s talk during Sunday service at Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto, California on August 6, 2017.)