A friend of mine, who’s come to the brink of death on more than one occasion, told a mutual friend about the last time he thought he was going to die.
It had been a wonderful day – his grown children had visited him, and they had spent a joyful, loving time together. And then he was suddenly stricken with a very serious illness that took him to the brink.
He thought he might actually be leaving the body this time. And he recalled how he reviewed the events of his life, many of which had been tumultuous and heartbreaking. He had led a successful life, but there had been dizzying heights and deep valleys.
When we pass through difficult times – when a cherished desire goes unfulfilled, a loved one is lost, or the people we’ve depended on fail to stand by us – it’s no use pretending that these things don’t affect us.
In my early years with Swami Kriyananda, there was a tendency to imagine that he didn’t feel things the way the rest of us did, because he was always so inwardly centered and free. But he told us that he did feel things deeply, with the difference that he didn’t identify himself with those feelings. He didn’t allow them to become him. And it didn’t mean that he didn’t feel the joys and sorrows of this life, but that he had become aware of how very small those events are, compared with infinity.
It’s not as if we need to pretend that these things have no reality for us. But if we could see them in their true perspective, we would understand that their significance is very small, in relation to a reality that is so much larger.
The mother of a friend of mine raised four children, and after decades of marriage, she discovered that her husband was having an affair. The marriage broke apart, and the woman was baffled that such a thing could happen. For years, no one was allowed to say the man’s name in her presence. But when she grew older and was living in a care facility, my friend visited her and was shocked to see a photo of her father on the shelf along with the others.
Her mother explained, “With all these kids, there had to be a father.” And it was a way of reminding herself that this life is just an endless series of scenes coming and going.
Swamiji would sometimes talk about the awful things that had happened to him – for example, how his gurubhais, the very people with whom he had shared the closest bonds, had turned against him, and how they never relented. People of psychic vision told him that after those people died, they were still going after him. So there was not the slightest reconciliation, and it was a terrible experience.
Swami described several of his past lives that he’d been told about by the Bhrigu pundits in India and people of reputed psychic vision. They said that in a former life he had abandoned his wife to go off and seek God, and how he eventually realized what a terrible mistake he had made. When he tried to go back and make it up to her, he found that she had died of a broken heart, and then he died of a broken heart.
When he was King Henry I of England, the son of William the Conqueror, he trained a young man to carry on the work that he had started. But when the young noblemen of the kingdom were crossing the Channel in a ship, they very foolishly gave wine to the crew, whereupon the boat ran onto the rocks and they were drowned.
For Henry, it was a terrible loss, and I’ve shared how, when I first heard the story, I wrote him a note of condolence. I had a strong feeling that I was there, and it was intensely painful to contemplate. So I wrote, “I’m so sorry.” And he said that while he appreciated my feelings, “You see, Asha, it was such a long time ago.”
Swami told us about a life when he had attained samadhi, and how he had argued with his guru and left the ashram, dividing the master’s work. He didn’t tell us about the moment when he realized what a serious mistake he had made, and how he had to gather all of his shame and humiliation and despair and face what he had done, and not give up or become discouraged, but keep striving, and not merely repent, but rise again.
I’m sure that many of you have had this experience that I’ve had, where a great grief will come, and you feel, “I’m not just weeping for this.” You don’t know exactly what you’re crying about, but you seem to be weeping for the tragic experiences of many lives.
And then the scriptures come along and give us an entirely different picture of our experiences. They tell us that the only reality is the pure divine light of God, and that it is we who have lost sight of that light and become confused.
They use the word “pure.” And “purity” is an interesting word.
Not long after Swamiji created the formal program for our Sunday services, I remember hearing someone come forward during the Purification Ceremony and say, “I seek verification by the grace of God.”
And in the Festival of Light, where it says, “Replenish us in body, mind, and soul,” I remember one of our lightbearers saying, “Refurbish us…” And that word has stuck in my mind as a very interesting image.
I can imagine how we might be changed by being “refurbished in body, mind and soul.” But the correct word is “purified.” Because, you see, as we become increasingly free, it’s not as if anything is being added to us; rather, that which doesn’t belong to us is taken away, and what’s left is the pure gold of Spirit.
When you purify the raw ore of your being, what you’re left with is the gold that was always there. And when we’re seeking freedom, we’re simply removing that which isn’t God in us, so that that only the pure divine gold remains.
The spiritual life is a process of purification. And it’s no use asking lots of questions about it that are essentially unanswerable – such as how we got into this mess in the first place, or what made God think it was a good idea to put us here. In the cosmic view of things, what we need to understand is that nothing has ever actually happened to us. And that’s what my friend was saying, as he lay dying.
Swamiji used to say, “Sooner or later, you have to hand in your dinner pail.” And it sounds like a comic line from a P.G. Wodehouse story. But it’s a lighthearted way of talking about death. Because sooner or later we’ll all have to hand in our lunch pail. And the question will be, how will we go?
My friend said that at the moment of death he could see that all of these lives are part of one seamless life that’s rising and falling, over and over. And although the moment of death seems so important to us, as he put it, “I was never touched, because what was being taken away from me was the ‘not-me.’”
Swami said, “That which is being taken away from us is that which causes us suffering.” And it’s strange that, even as it’s being taken away, we think we’re losing everything that will give us happiness, and we fear that its loss will bring us only pain and suffering.
We are so confused. Somewhere along the line, we’ve gotten terribly mixed up, and the whole of the spiritual life is a process of helping us get straightened out again. And as we struggle to straighten ourselves out, the yamas and niyamas – the “do’s and don’ts” of the spiritual path – are the first steps we need to take, because they are the foundation on which we can build our spiritual striving.
Sri Yukteswar offered his disciples the simple counsel: “Learn to behave.” In our community, we’re building a shrine to Sri Yukteswar, and I thought it would be a good idea to put “Learn to behave” on a plaque in the shrine. But then I imagined how people might wander in with no context for that pithy saying and be thoroughly perplexed. “Learn to behave? What am I supposed to do – remember to say thank you, and to pick up the right fork?”
Nevertheless, it’s an important principle, because we need to learn to behave according to our divine nature, and to reflect in all that we do the enduring reality of who we really are, and not just keep defining ourselves according to our confusion and our false sense of identity.
The yamas and niyamas aren’t actually the first steps on the spiritual path. Before we reach the point where we actually want to know God, there’s a great deal of questioning about the nature of this world. And it’s only as we begin to suspect that there might be a greater reality, that we realize we need to start taking practical steps to reclaim our true identity. And once we’ve made a firm commitment to become free, the do’s and don’ts are the solid foundation for all our future efforts.
Patanjali says that the first step toward Self-realization is to stop doing the wrong things – stop telling untruths, stop coveting things that are not ours, and stop imagining ourselves to be something we’re not.
You don’t have to achieve anything; you just have to stop doing the things that aren’t you. And the primary thing we’re doing that doesn’t define is that we suffer.
In a terrible sort of way, it’s amusing that the most regrettable thing we’re doing that isn’t us is that we suffer. We suffer because we’ve set up so many conditions on our happiness – convincing ourselves that we need to fulfill all of these desires, or else we will suffer.
Master said, “Spirit is center everywhere, circumference nowhere.” And Swami added, “People are very uncomfortable without boundaries.”
We’re very uncomfortable not knowing exactly who we are and where we belong, and what we’re supposed to be doing, and what’s expected of us.
When I first traveled abroad, it made me very nervous not to know how to do many simple things, like paying for a cup of coffee. Now that I’ve travelled in many countries, it all seems very easy and natural, but spent all my life in America, every little change was unsettling, until I realized that it needn’t be.
We’re so intent on setting our boundaries, even though we are infinite beings, present as much in the farthest star as in our own bodies. We are as much each other as we are that which we call ourselves.
For the first ten years after I came to Ananda, I lived with a little group of nuns in a convent at Ananda Village. It was a very simple convent, just a little plot of land where the nuns lived, with no big stone buildings, or daily rituals, or elaborate habits with wimples.
Every morning we would meditate in our little temple, which was a simple canvas teepee, and we meditated so long and so regularly that I often had the weird idea that we might switch bodies, and that after meditating you would get up and find yourself walking out in someone else’s body. It puzzled me sometimes that it didn’t happen, and that we didn’t just shift. And it’s because we have these little boundaries by which we’ve defined ourselves. But then, you see, Master could do that – he could be in any body he wanted.
I’ve told how a group of us went to Disneyland with Swamiji in the early 1970s, and how we lined up at the end of the day to watch the Electric Parade. And as Swamiji looked out over the hundreds of people, he suddenly went into a deep spiritual bhav, a spiritual mood, and I’ll never forget the transformed expression that came into his eyes.
Those people weren’t Ananda devotees – God knows who they were – but he said, “Imagine not merely loving all these people, but being equally every one of them.”
He said that this was Master’s consciousness. Master was center everywhere, without any circumference, and he could be in the center of any reality. When I remember that scene, I always think of a Japanese woman who was pushing her babies in a stroller, because she seemed the least likely person I could be one with at the time. But Master could have stood in her reality. It’s an amazing thing to contemplate, to be at the center of everything. And in that Japanese woman he would have known it to be every bit as much a center of divinity as where his own body was standing.
That’s the state of consciousness in which true love and compassion become possible, and true understanding and forgiveness. It doesn’t come from affirming with our minds – “I’m standing here, and I recognize that you meant well, and I forgive you.” It’s moving out from the deepest center of our being to this other center, and then there is perfect understanding.
Mother Teresa of Calcutta said, “To truly forgive is simply to forget. As long as you remember, you haven’t yet forgiven.”
Isn’t that beautiful? I’ve always been a little leery of forgiving. If there’s still a me to be magnanimous toward you, it seems all too easy for “me” to suddenly forget about forgiving, depending on my mood. But to simply forget, and to take down the boundaries so that there is no “I” to forgive you, and there’s no “you” to offend me, because I know myself as the Spirit that is center everywhere – that is true Self-realization.
It was such a beautiful moment when Swamiji said those words at Disneyland. It was at the end of an extremely enjoyable and joyful day that we had spent together, and we were all swept into his bhav. Then he inhaled deeply, and we all sat down on the sidewalk and meditated. We meditated for about a half hour, and when we opened our eyes the fairies were standing in front of us, and there was a crowd of people around us. I don’t know what they were thinking, but we stood up and went back to what we were doing, and we were never quite the same again.
That’s the divine reality. Swamiji said that for those who love God, any place in creation is the same as heaven.
I hear people say, “I’m looking forward to the day when I can let it all go.” We think, “I can’t wait to get out of here.” And it’s not as if we need to dread being where we are, but we need to know what a waste of time it is to imagine that any kind of freedom will come to us that we don’t have already.
We do get tired of this world. Swami Kriyananda certainly got tired of this world. But at the end he said, over and over, “It’s just all bliss. It doesn’t make any difference. It’s just all bliss.”
We’re always in our own consciousness. And maybe it’s a little nicer in the astral world, where we can manifest mangoes with our mind. And maybe it seems like fun, but in the end it’s just mangoes, until you have that higher freedom.
That’s the purity we’re after, and it’s why the Gita talks about “those who seek God with impure motive.” It’s describing those who don’t understand that if we want to know God we have to release whatever we’re clinging to. And if there’s still a separate “I” that’s trying to grasp that freedom for itself, that thought will create a barrier that will prevent us from having it.
Now, this is very extreme philosophy, but it’s the most practical teaching there is, because whenever we have difficulties, it’s always because we’ve set up a distance between ourselves and what we truly are.
Whether the difficulty is with a problem that we don’t know how to solve, or a person that we can’t get along with, or somebody who’s done something to us that we didn’t like, or somebody who’s doing something to themselves that we wish they would stop doing – the real difficulty is that we’ve set up our center in one place, and we’ve set a narrow circumference around us, and then somebody or something outside that circle comes along and threatens to pierce our boundary.
It’s a marvelous exercise to look at our problems that way, and to begin to understand the need to dissolve those boundaries, and how we can begin to do it.
Swami asked someone at Ananda to be in a play. The man resisted, saying, “I don’t like pretending to be someone other than myself.” When I mentioned it to Swamiji, he said, “Oh, it would be very good for him to be someone other than himself.” He wasn’t making a big spiritual point about our need to become actors – but why not imagine what it’s like to be someone else? What is there about me that’s so worth protecting?
Richard Bach, the author of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, which was a very popular book for a time, made a wonderful statement: “If you defend your limitations – guess what? You get to keep them.”
That’s pretty much what we spend our lives doing. We fight to defend our limitations. “I want to stay in my own point of view.”
And the fruit of it is that we get to keep it. But, more seriously, it’s the impurity that keeps us from knowing God. And as soon as we let go of it, whether in death or amid great tribulations, the circle dissolves and we find our center everywhere. And then life becomes so dear.
There’s that beautiful line in the Festival of Light that speaks of redemption. Redemption is where you get traded in for something better. Here you are, living your life, and you get to trade it in for the life that is really yours.
We get to be purified and redeemed. And the thought has been that it’s going to be really, really hard, and that a big price will have to be paid.
A tremendous amount of Christian theology has been devoted to dwelling on how Jesus paid such a terrible price by allowing himself to be nailed to the cross, and how he suffered as nobody had ever suffered before. And through the centuries the church authorities and the artists and filmmakers have been obsessed with this hideous suffering, because we want to believe that the price has to be big and awful, and that Jesus was the only one who could pay it.
But there’s something that people nearly always overlook about the crucifixion: the redemption, and that the crucifixion is spiritually very beautiful and true. The crucifixion is telling us a great spiritual truth: that the guru will finally dissolve all our suffering and give us the freedom we’ve been longing for.
In our minds we carry the heavy thought of what a terrible price we’ll have to pay, and that our purification will hurt terribly, and that everything that gives us happiness will be taken away.
We’re so confused, because we don’t understand that what’s being taken away is that which is making us suffer.
So we say in the Festival of Light, “Whereas in the past the coin of man’s redemption was sorrow and suffering, for us now the payment has been exchanged for calm acceptance and joy.”
People sometimes question why we repeat the Festival every Sunday. And the answer is that it’s because we’re slow learners, and we forget, and we need to be reminded of the divine promise, over and over.
Every time we begin to sink into an agonizing sense of our need to suffer, it’s because delusion has become strong in us. “Something has happened in my life, and now I need to suffer.” And if I suffer and cry and am miserable, and if I’m ashamed and disappointed and downcast, it will somehow be my ticket to freedom.
I was reading something that Swamiji wrote, years ago, about a difficult situation that he went through, which actually turned into a public humiliation. It wasn’t the lawsuits. He had announced that certain things would happen, and then the circumstances changed and they didn’t happen.
I remember how someone asked him, “Do you wish it were different?” He said, “Oh – whatever Divine Mother wants is what I want.” Then he said, “I think Master is very pleased that I feel so free.”
I thought, “Well, now, that’s something worth contemplating.” I’ve run that response through my mind many times. Because Master doesn’t actually mind whether we did the right thing or the wrong thing, or if we’re ashamed, or this or that – but he is very pleased that I feel so free, because I understand that my greatest happiness comes by merging my consciousness with God, by calm acceptance and joy.
God bless you.
(From Asha’s talk during Sunday service at Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto, California on March 22, 2015.)