In the New Testament, St. Paul in his epistle to the Galatians presents us with a stern challenge: “Be not deceived: God is not mocked; for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.” (Galatians 6:7)
Paul is warning us to be very careful of our thoughts and actions, that we take great care to harmonize them with God’s inner guidance. And that is not such a simple or easy thing to do.
It would be a lot easier if someone would lay out the rules for us, so that in every circumstance of our lives we would know exactly what to do, and what we should strictly avoid.
If that’s a definition of the spiritual path that you can live with, it will surely be a comfort and convenient for you, because it will make it more difficult for you to fall away from the path, since you’ll fear that the church authorities who’ve laid out the rules will condemn you to hell if you break them.
Looking at the endless expressions of religion that people have come up with, it can be difficult to know which one is right. And it may even be worth considering whether everyone in the world is on a completely different and unique spiritual path.
Swami Kriyananda lived his life his own way. He was directed at all times by the inward presence of his guru. He paid no attention to the fleeting cultural trends and fashions of the moment, because he had no faith in the power of the multitude to set the right direction.
He defined himself only as a disciple of a God-realized master who had commissioned him to help set the direction for an entire age, and not merely to attune himself to what was happening around him.
Years ago, the teenagers at Ananda Village discovered that Swamiji had never heard of Michael Jackson. Michael Jackson was at the height of his popularity at the time, and they felt it was a serious defect in Swami’s education. So they presented him with some samples of what they considered his best music, and Swami dutifully listened to it.
It was offered sincerely, and he felt it was only fair to give it a chance. I don’t think he had to listen to very much of it. But he commented afterward that Michael Jackson was a superlative artist in his own right. As Swami expressed it, he knew exactly what he wanted to say, and he said it perfectly.
He was perfectly in tune with the times. The vibration of his consciousness, and his sense of what people wanted, were perfectly attuned to the consciousness of the age. He completely understood it, and it’s why he was able to speak to the whole world in such a powerful way.
And then Swamiji said, “He reinforces what I have always known, that I am completely out of tune with this planet.” But he admired the artistry of it, even if he didn’t like the consciousness behind it.
Michael Jackson’s life was a mixed bag, with extremes of joy and sorrow. But to find a talent within himself, and to discipline himself to do exactly what he set out to do, was something for which Swamiji felt he deserved to be admired.
A week or so ago, a group of us went to a dance concert in San Francisco. The woman who serves as our school’s choreographer was performing, and out of respect and appreciation, four of us went to see her dance.
It was part of a week-long series of performances by local choreographers, with five acts presented each night. So we would see five random performances, and as we sat waiting, I began to have the uneasy feeling that we might not have known what we were getting ourselves into.
Not too long ago, I watched a performance by the daughter of a good friend. The daughter is a very good actress, and the play was very good – in fact, it was almost too good, because somewhere in the middle the players began to express emotions of extreme anguish. And as I sat in the front row watching these extremely talented actors gushing forth a powerful vibration of anguish from the stage, I realized what a mistake I’d made to sit so close, where I couldn’t simply close my eyes and cover my ears, as I normally would have done.
I had to endure the anguish that they were projecting, even though it wasn’t something I felt I needed. And I realized that it was a good spiritual practice to try to pull my consciousness inside and let it all happen, without letting myself be affected by it.
In the early years at Ananda Village, before there were videos and DVDs, if we wanted some entertainment we would have to go to the local theater in Grass Valley. We would troupe into town with Swamiji, and every so often, we would hit a really bad movie. And then we would see him fold his arms, and we would hear him take a deep breath, and he would sit quietly for a while, and then it usually wouldn’t be very long before we would all get up and leave.
We walked out of a lot of movies. I vividly remember going to one in particular that was horrible, to an extent that it haunts me to this day. It was violent and sadistic – it was everything that I couldn’t bear, although it was very well done, with very good actors. I kept waiting for Swami to take us out of the theater, but he didn’t. And afterward, he commented that it’s sometimes good to sit through these things and see if you can remain inwardly detached. I’m afraid I failed the test, and to this day the thought of that movie makes me cringe, because it was so well done.
At any rate, there we were at the dance concert in San Francisco, and the first act that came on featured loud hip-hop music. Four or five women came out in various stages of undress, and the dance was by any standard very coarse, however kindly you might try to put it.
Master said that there are many ugly things in this world, but why would you want to dwell on the sewers and drains? Ramakrishna said essentially the same thing, that you can enter a building many ways, and you can even come in by the sewer, but why would you want to?
So there were these women, and one of them was considerably heavier than the others, and because they weren’t wearing a lot, her whole body was basically on display. But she was so happy that you couldn’t take your eyes off her. And even though the other women were more conventionally attractive, you just didn’t care, because this woman was dancing so well, with so much enthusiasm, and such a sense of joyful abandon, that although I had to close my eyes every so often, I have to say that for much of it I had a really good time watching her.
I just had to say, “Well done!” I felt it was well worth her while to be dancing that way, because she was being exactly who she was meant to be, and she was doing it so well. You could feel that she knew it, and that the fact that her body was heavier, and that she wasn’t conventionally beautiful didn’t matter to her at all.
She was absolutely terrific. She reminded me of the reality that we’re always dealing with on the spiritual path, that we really have to do our own dharma, whatever it is, and not try to be something we’re not.
I don’t know what karmic tendencies that woman was trying to balance in herself by doing that style of dancing, or what fears or inhibitions she was releasing, or what suppression she was trying to overcome. But I had a strong feeling that she was very clearly knew what she was supposed to be doing, and that she was fully committed to doing it.
I knew a woman who had strong memories of having been a mother superior in a convent in more than one of her past lives. She’d been very judgmental about the faults and weaknesses of others, and in this life she was enormously heavy, and she indulged in many of the excesses that she had formerly criticized in them. She was a complex and interesting character – she ran some kind of shop that was devoted to sexuality and sensuality, and she confided to me that she’d had so many incarnations as an extremely judgmental nun and priest and pastor that the most important thing for her in this life was to learn to let it all happen without judging it, and to become free of those judgmental attitudes.
In our play about the life of Paramhansa Yogananda, Kshama played the role of Kamala Silva, one of Master’s closest disciples. Kamala met Master when she was just thirteen years old. She was a beautiful soul, and she was very serious on the spiritual path. At Ananda Village when we were younger, we would talk about how Kamala had prayed that all of her karma come to her in this lifetime. We would challenge each other – did we have the courage to make that kind of prayer?
In a monologue that Kshama recited in her role as Kamala, she said, “I prayed, and maybe I asked over-much, and maybe this was not the wisest thing to have done.”
She said she wanted to pay off all her karmic debts. And that phrase has been very interesting and helpful to me. Because we have to come to the stage on the path where we realize that there’s an “inescapable divine law,” as Master called it. And we have to acknowledge that we have no need for a judgmental God who’s always frowning at us and insisting that we live our lives according to a set of very precise and rigid rules. Nor do we need a priest or a church to lay out all the rules and dogmas we need to obey.
The divine law is very simply concerned with the way we’re made. It’s the way God has set up His creation, in order to teach us how we can work with our own nature in the ways that will most effectively bring us to the highest happiness.
We cannot put our hands in fire and not be burned, and we cannot take a knife and slice our wrist and expect to live. You cannot scream at people in anger all the time, and expect them to want to be around you. And finding happiness is simply a question of adjusting ourselves to the divine law.
In time, we begin to understand that the spiritual path isn’t about following a set of rigid rules that we must blindly conform to. The saints and sages of all ages have discovered the eternal truths of God’s divine law by having the same experiences that we are having.
The saints are people like us who began to pay attention and to inquire very scientifically what works in this life, and what doesn’t. Like us, they began to ask the most basic questions of all: “Where does suffering come from?” And, “How can I find true happiness?” And in a spirit of scientific inquiry, they discovered the divine law.
Master said that the spiritual teachings are scientific, because they answer those simple questions in very practical ways: “What is it that causes us to suffer? And what is it that increases our happiness?”
Like the saints, we are conducting the great experiment, by trying everything. As Master said, we literally try it all. And if there’s anything that you’re absolutely convinced will not bring you happiness, you can be sure that it’s because you’ve tried it and found it wanting.
Our friend Jairam has been falsely imprisoned for more than thirty years. The first time I visited him, he was in the San Mateo County Jail, at the start of his thirty-year prison saga. I had never been inside a jail, and it looked to my eyes just like a movie set, with all barred cells where the prisoners were held, and an aisle running down the middle.
I could feel that it was exceedingly boring for the men to be there, and that someone walking down the hallway was more entertaining than nothing. So they were all standing at their cell doors, and you could feel their consciousness pressing to get out. So I walked as close to the center of the aisle as I could, and I could feel their auras pushing at me. It was very stark, because you could feel that whatever they had done to get there, they were absolutely going to start doing it again the moment they got out.
The momentum of their consciousness was dead set on doing exactly the same things, and it had just been momentarily stopped by their confinement. The moment they were released, they were going to rush out and go back to taking drugs and stealing, and so on. I could feel the consciousness that was trying to move out and grab and take. And what struck me was that there was no point of rest in it.
In Italy years ago, someone filed a lawsuit claiming that Ananda was enslaving people and abusing them, and so on. And under the Italian legal system, which is largely set up to combat the Mafia, they were able to prosecute our community on the basis of this man’s false claims under the criminal law, and not the civil law.
The end of the story is that seven years later we were declared completely innocent, and the lawsuit was thrown out – in fact, the judge ruled that there had never been the slightest basis for the case at all.
It was a game that God wanted to play with us, and it was a dramatic story. At five in the morning, forty armed officers came and arrested nine of the leaders of our community. They were people that most of you know – Shivani, Kirtani, Anand, and others, and they were all taken to jail.
Shivani is a powerful person who’s had many incarnations as a revolutionary, and she took the whole thing in her completely unique way. She said that she was discussing with the woman who was arresting her how long she might be in jail. She took the woman upstairs to her closet and asked her which of her clothes she would need, and if she would be there long enough to need to shampoo her hair.
Shivani later said, “I figured it was the only time I’d get to go to jail, and I wanted to do it right.” There’s a marvelous picture of her being escorted into the jail. The woman who greeted her had visited our Ananda center, and as they walked into the jail she was pronaming them.
As a result of that experience, there was someone they met in prison who became a serious disciple of Master. They were only there eight days, but it was enough. In the picture of Shivani coming into the jail, she’s being escorted by the police, but she’s totally accepting it, and it looks like she’s leading a parade. Because it’s really all written in your magnetism, and that’s what’s really going on.
Shivani insisted on being called “Madame Lucki,” because her last name is Lucki, and she wouldn’t answer to a jail number, or to a first name. I suspect Shivani had been in that kind of situation many times before. And it takes considerable courage to be able to say, as Shivani did, okay, I’m going to jail again, and I’m just calmly watching these people who are violating the divine law.
As I walked down the hallway of the San Mateo jail, I could feel the energy of my own consciousness, pushing against the bars of its confinement and wishing that I could get out to do this and that, but with the difference of knowing that I was imprisoned by my own ideas and experiences, because of the inescapability of the divine law.
The divine law simply has to be followed, if we want to find true happiness. And, of course, God in his wisdom has made it easy for us to transgress against the law. We do it all the time, and the only thing that happens is that we get the lawful consequences. And if they don’t come to us in this life, they’re bound to come in another.
There have been times when I wanted something, and I was able to take it, and maybe it didn’t serve others for me to take it. Or I wanted to say something, and it wasn’t the nicest thing to say. Just this morning, something came up while we were talking in the minister’s room, and I interjected my opinion. And then I thought to myself, “Where did that come from?” That constant push that wants to get my way and make the world the way I want it, instead of resting in the heart.
We may not be confined in jail this time around, but so many of our lives in the past haven’t worked out the way we had hoped, because of the karmic debts we had to pay. And that’s the truth of it, that we’re just paying off old debts. Something happens that I don’t like, and I think, “Oh my, I got away with it sometime, and now it’s coming back to haunt me.”
I remember a time when I was falsely accused. A lot of karmic blows were raining down on my head, yet it didn’t offend me – not because of any particular sense of ego-detachment on my part, but because I knew I was being punished for something I’d done before, and I had thought I could get away with it. I’d had a really good time doing it, and did I think I wasn’t going to have to pay the debt? Did I think I could violate the divine law and sort of slide by? Did I imagine I could take what I wanted, without regard for how it might affect others, and never have to pay that debt?
Of course we have to pay. All of the fluctuations of our karma, positive and negative, must be balanced out and ultimately reduced to zero. We must balance our karma until we are totally at peace at the center of our being.
I watched Swamiji for so many years, and I’ve said this before, but I never saw him rattled. I never saw him agitated by the circumstances of his life. He could feel things very deeply, and he could be deeply hurt and touched by the things that happened. He could weep for the sufferings of others, but he was never agitated by it. It would come and go, and he didn’t push against it. He was able to live the life that God had given him, with total energy and perfect commitment, without fear or restraint or reluctance.
People are tremendously anxious to find their role in life, and I’m not sure it’s all that helpful. We’re always looking for our place. And when I think of that woman dancing so joyfully, it’s not something I would consider doing, but it was very evidently working for her and serving her in some way. So I’m not going to judge that things are either right or wrong, but only that it depends entirely on where you’re standing.
Wherever you’re standing in relation to the center, your only concern should be that you’re moving in the right direction. And this is why people can appear to be going in opposite directions while they’re both actually moving toward the center.
We’re all moving toward the same center, which we call by various names – inner peace, attunement with God, liberation, and so on. And we’re all riding the waves of our karma as it comes and goes, bringing us sickness or health, disappointment or fulfillment.
And it’s not at all that it has to be a constant misery. Sometimes death may be the necessary payment against our karma, or we may be owed a really good time, or a life of great happiness.
Swamiji said that when we see people for whom everything seems to be going perfectly, we need to remember that we aren’t aware of all the incarnations they’ve put out the energy to earn that kind of life.
It’s why some people are able to make money almost effortlessly, because they have the right magnetism, and it’s owed to them because of their generosity and hard work in the past, or whatever it might be. Others can work just as hard, yet it never seems to come together for them, because of the countless tendrils of their karma that are still struggling to be balanced.
And this is why the Gita says it’s far better to fail in your own dharma than to try to take on the dharma of another. And, for our part, what are we to do? Should we just keep piling up more karmic debts?
Through the events of countless lives, we’re given the single, very interesting project of trying to understand who we are. Why was I born? Where am I going?
And yes, it’s true that we have these strange individual destinies, and that we may have a particular talent that others can’t match, and what’s extremely attractive to me isn’t at all attractive to another.
While I was doing a bit of sewing this morning, I remembered how my mother had me sew as a child. I remembered learning to embroider when I was very small, making little hand towels. I don’t think those hand towels even exist anymore, with stencils of flowers and donkeys and things. But as I sat enjoyably sewing, the thought came of all the lives I might have been one of those women who weren’t allowed to do anything but sew, like the nuns making altar cloths and outfits for the priests.
Why did I have to learn to embroider in this life? Who learns to embroider anymore? But it was given to me because it was part of who I am, and sewing has been an integral part of my life. It’s just something I can do. But these little pieces of karma are trivial compared to the single uppermost purpose of our lives. People torture themselves looking for their purpose, yet the purpose of this life is very simple – to experience God, to love God, and to share God’s joy with others. And we can only measure the value of the little pieces by how well they’re supporting us in fulfilling that fundamental commission.
We are here for one purpose only, to accept the inescapability of the divine law, and to conform to the law and recognize that it is the source of all our joy.
Swamiji had a name for of all the other stuff in our lives – he called it “our petty enthusiasms.” You need to do something while you’re learning to love God – you have to raise children, build a business, learn to dance, whatever it might be. But it’s all for just one purpose, to move your energy and give you experiences that will help you learn to love God.
How can we receive God in our hearts? How can we love Him? How can we share the fruits of the spiritual life with others? Ask those questions first. If you ask vaguely, “What am I supposed to be doing?” – it’s a very difficult question to answer. You don’t even have to ask that question – just ask, “How can I love You more? Show me the way to love You better.”
That’s the only dharma we have. As Lahiri Mahasaya said, “The only duty that has been given to man is to listen to the inner sounds.” In other words, to learn to commune inwardly with God, and then act from that center.
And if God says “Go out and do as the dancer did – let your body get heavy, and dance with joy, and have the courage to do it,” or if He says, “No, no, my Dear, that’s something you needed before, but in this life you need something different,” then be ready to do it with courage. And know that there are only two questions you need to always be asking: “Where does my happiness come from?” And “What makes me suffer?”
And there is only one answer: “The secret of finding ever-increasing happiness and freedom from suffering is to follow the divine law that brings us into harmony with the joy and love of God.”
(From Asha’s talk during Sunday service at Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto, California on September 25, 2016)