Yogananda and “Tough Love”

Paramhansa Yogananda said that we can never find God until we can enjoy an intimate, personal relationship with Him.

Yet God and the masters are very impersonal in their love for us, and in the way they train us.

The masters tell us to be impersonal in the way we respond to life’s positive and negative experiences. For some seekers, this creates confusion. How can we be personal, yet impersonal at the same time?

Anandamoy Ma
Great saints like Anandamoy Ma may not always express love in ways we identify as “personal.” Yet the overwhelming love we may feel in their presence is incomparably greater than any everyday human love. (Click to enlarge.)

We can’t hide the fact that we have feelings. How can we know when it’s all right to “be real” with our feelings – express our personality – and when we need to be more impersonal?

Perhaps your personality is a strong one. Will it stand in the way of your spiritual progress? You feel things strongly, and you’ve heard that it’s harmful to repress our emotions. Is there a way to turn the personality into an ally on the spiritual path?

There’s no denying that the masters urge us not to react emotionally to every little thing that happens to us. “Situations are always neutral,” as Yogananda said. “They seem to be positive or negative, according to the sad or happy attitudes of the mind.”

He also said, “You must be hard as steel against over-sensitivity.” Yet we can’t gloss over our feelings, or pretend that we aren’t having those feelings in the first place.

Swami Kriyananda was very impersonal with himself. I remember an incident that happened several years ago in India. Swamiji was riding in a taxi on the way to the airport.

The taxi driver asked him, “Where do you live?”

Swamiji answered, “I don’t know.” His answer was very childlike. Swamiji was traveling from a hotel where he’d spent several days, to a house he’d never seen. His answer was simple and impersonal: “I don’t know where I live.”

The driver asked, “Well, what do you do?”

Swamiji said, “I’m not sure what I do.”

Swamiji never identified himself with his outward work. He was detached from his many accomplishments. “Master did it through me,” was the simple explanation he gave.

Most people define themselves by their thoughts, feelings, and actions. When we do the same job for a long time, it begins to seem like a defining part of us. “I’m a writer. I’m a mother. I’m a teacher. I’m an architect. I’m a champion athlete.”

Yogananda explained that it is the ocean of spirit that creates and sustains us. The ocean is our true self. Our little outward self-definitions are waves that rise up out of the ocean and separate us from our true self.

By our many self-definitions, we build our little wave higher and higher, until we can no longer remember that we are part of the mighty ocean.

When a master lives among us, we see him going about his life in normal human ways – talking, eating, and relating. Watching him behave in these ordinary ways, we can easily forget his true reality, which is his oneness with the spirit beyond the material world.

Swamiji said, “In many ways, it’s easier for you whodidn’t live with Yogananda, because you aren’t confused by the humanity of his outward expression.”

Master was fully identified with spirit – he was spirit. As he stated, “I killed Yogananda long ago. No one dwells in this temple now but God.” He was completely detached from the human body and personality that he had to put on, in order to serve people in this world.

As the Gita states: “I am the Infinite. I assume the garb of maya.” In the saints, spirit assumes the garb of delusion in order to live for a while in this world and help us become free.

Yogananda’s paramguru, Lahiri Mahasaya, lived outwardly in an ordinary way – he had a wife and children, and he worked for many years as an accountant for the railroad.

Yogananda’s uncle once attended a dinner where Lahiri Mahasaya was present. The uncle was curious to see if Lahiri would eat the fish that was served. As a vegetarian, how strictly would he observe his customary dietary rules?

When the dish arrived, Lahiri leaned over to Yogananda’s uncle and said, “See – I’m leaving the fish.” He sensed that the man was watching to see what he would do.

A master’s outward humanity masks his inner greatness. In The Path, Swamiji describes his struggles, as a young monk, to reconcile these two aspects of his Guru: his humanity, and his vast consciousness. One day, knowing what Swamiji was going through, Yogananda handed him an apple. He wanted Swamiji to see his simple humanity, and to help him understand that it wasn’t possible at that point, for Swamiji to comprehend his full divine consciousness.

We expect a master to speak in awe-inspiring tones about cosmic matters. And here he is, eating his dinner, smiling and talking informally with the disciples.

It’s very important that we understand the human reality that the masters express. They are human, just as we are. And we are divine just as they are. The divinity that manifests in them, also expresses through us. We are clothed in varying degrees of maya, just as the masters are – the difference being that they have freed themselves from maya, while we are trying to be free.

How should we work with our illusory human nature, so that we can transcend it and become one with spirit, as they have done?

Swami Kriyananda said, “When the masters incarnate, it’s deeply personal, in that it has a deep, personal effect on each of us.”

A master’s spiritual magnetism – his great love, his bliss, his wisdom and power – touches us profoundly. The master’s blessing feels like a very personal experience. Yet, for them, there is nothing personal about it. They are always identified with the ocean. They clothe themselves in maya, to serve as channels of God’s blessings. But there is no deluded self remaining that wants to grasp a little part of the mayic dream and identify with it – “Look at me, I am a God-realized master!” To say such a thing would prove that the speaker was identified with his ego, not spirit.

Master lamented that people make their lives so difficult by taking everything personally. He urged his disciples, very strictly, not to be like those people who are over-sensitive, always getting their feelings hurt. Because what happens then? You get your feelings hurt, and you get them hurt again because no one notices. Then you feel isolated because no one seems to care about you. And the simple truth is, there is no “you” to care about!

Swami remarked that although many people have sympathy for everyone’s little sufferings, it isn’t always the most helpful way to relate. The typical approach is to try to draw them out. “Poor you! How did you feel when they did that to you? Now, tell me more about how you felt.”

Swamiji told those of us whom he’d asked to counsel others, “Don’t be too sympathetic when people have the wrong attitude, even if you see them suffering. Too much sympathy will only encourage them in that wrong attitude.”

It’s a fine line to walk, because you’re trying to do the right thing by withholding a certain level of sympathy, but you need to be sure you aren’t just being cold-hearted, or that you’re unable to feel compassion.

Master’s training was very different from the typical “caring” approach. The masters feel our suffering, perhaps more than we do. But their goal is to free us from every suffering. Swami recalled that very few of those who came to live with Master understood how little ego comfort he would give them. Many left because he wouldn’t pamper their egos.

People are always asking, “But what about me?” Master counseled his disciples, “You need to be tough with yourself.”

“In raising children,” he said, “don’t coddle them too much.” He said, “When it’s cold, don’t always put a sweater on them. When they’re hungry, don’t always feed them.”

By no means did he intend that you should torture them. But he said, “Don’t train them to think that every time they have some little discomfort, it should be taken care of.”

Again, we need to draw a fine line. If a child feels that you aren’t responding to their basic needs, it will just create insecurity and fear in them. The only way you can teach the right kind of inner strength is by example. You have to act in a way that says “We are strong! We can do it!”

If we aren’t able to eat right now, it’s all right – we’ll survive! If it’s a little cold, and we forgot our sweaters, we don’t have to suffer. We can be strong!

Master urged us, “Be tough!” As an example, he told the story of a boy whose mother was very harsh with him. She would often punish him by spanking or hitting him.

People today have a horror of physical punishment. Nevertheless, Master wrote about this boy and his mother impersonally, as a true story with a useful moral.

Master tells how the boy was climbing a tree one day and slipped and tore his shirt, cutting his chest against the bark. The other boys were horrified to see him dirty and bleeding, but the boy was unfazed. He said, “My mother’s going to be so mad! Quick, clean me up before she sees!”

Master said, “That’s what I mean by being tough.” I suspect many of us would say, “I don’t want to be that tough!” But what happens if we go too far in the opposite direction?

We’re so concerned nowadays with every little thing that happens to us. The dogma is that you must make sure you get to express yourself, make sure you are heard, make sure you can express your needs, and make sure everyone knows what your needs are. Now, there’s a point at which this is healthy, and there’s a point beyond which you’ve done enough.

Following the spiritual path is like walking a chalk line. How can you transcend the ego, if you don’t have the courage to have an ego in the first place? If you have a strong ego, at least you’ll know who you are, and what you have to work with. Then you can take steps to transcend the ego and offer yourself to God.

But some people don’t have the courage to express their ego. And it’s a very necessary first step.

Tibetan man
“If you want to get through life, you must be tough!” Yogananda said. He didn’t mean that we should be obstreperous or obnoxious, but that we should develop a certain “spinal fortitude.” (Click to enlarge. Photo credit: Now And Everywhere, Wikimedia Commons)

Years ago, there was a woman at Ananda who was deeply insecure. Someone remarked that she didn’t have enough confidence to express herself. Swami said, “Oh, thank God. The only thing that makes her bearable is that she represses that personality.”

He could see that behind the sweetness there was a great deal of selfishness and self-interest, and a complete lack of concern for others. The only thing that made it possible to be around her was that she was too shy to be as nasty as she really was.

Now, if we’re repressing, it doesn’t mean we have less ego, it means we don’t have enough courage and energy to express who we are.

Sometimes, a bandit is more advanced than someone who, as Swami put it, hasn’t yet gained the nerve to sin, or doesn’t have enough energy to sin. What helps us make spiritual progress isn’t how well or badly we behave, but how honest and authentic we are.

A person who makes lots of mistakes, but has the impersonal detachment to let the mistakes come and go, is much freer than a person who’s afraid to do anything, for fear he might do something wrong or embarrassing. There’s more egoic involvement in that kind of fear, than in having the courage to be yourself and work with the consequences.

In that vein, Swamiji said, “It’s far better to be much too emotional, than to be so self-censoring that you never express yourself.”

The spiritual path isn’t a question of being nice. The spiritual path is about being honest and becoming free. Sometimes we need to have the courage to make a complete fool of ourselves, or even to be a bad person, if that’s what needs to come out, so that we can work with it and grow. We need to live it, look at it, learn from it, and overcome it and be free.

Swamiji said it’s always better to express high energy than mediocrity. High energy, even if it comes out in negative ways, is preferable to one-horsepower energy. Of course, it doesn’t mean that you have to go around expressing your negative energy toward everyone, on principle. Sometimes it’s better to kick the wall and go for a long walk or meditate until you can cool down and address the situation with calm understanding.

But the main thing is to be impersonal. Do what your nature impels you to do. Then look at the result, and have no regrets about it. Your personality is bound to play itself out sooner or later. The karma is bound to emerge.

If you tried to hide your true self from Swamiji, he was never deceived. But if you were sincere and behaved honestly and openly, he would help you work with your qualities, so you could learn your lessons and be free.

We need to identify more with our true nature, in God – our oneness with his ocean of spirit – and let the little waves of our personality have their day.

The light which was in the masters, as the Bible says, is in us. Live in that light. Let the light express through your personality as it will. But identify ever more deeply with the light, and you will find that the waves, too, will calm down.

The way to be free of the faults that seem so terrible and horrifyingly embarrassing in you is not by repressing them or fearing them, but by identifying with something else, something deeper and truer and liberating in your nature. Then you will watch with wonder how the waves will automatically calm down.

The reason our little wave is turbulent, isolated, and insecure is that we spend so much time thinking about our little self. With the powerful tools of devotion, meditation, and service, learn to forget the little self and identify with your true self, which is inseparable from spirit.

Identify with the masters. Be the light that came into the world, which Christ and the great ones expressed. That’s where freedom lies.

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