The Meaning of Life Is Simpler Than We Imagine

Mother Teresa won worldwide recognition for her extraordinary capacity to do good works.

A journalist asked her why she, a woman born in the West, dressed in the plain cotton saris of the Indian people.

She said, “Find me something cheaper, and I’ll wear it.”

Mother Teresa
Mother Teresa. (Click to enlarge. Image source: Wikimedia Commons.)

Another reporter remarked, “It must be gratifying for you to serve the poor.”

She was straightforward and unpretentious. She said, “I’m not serving the poor. I’m doing what Jesus asked me to do.”

In her mind, it didn’t matter what she did outwardly. What mattered was her inner communion with Christ. This was what he had asked her to do, and if he asked her to live in a golden palace, she would have done it just as gladly, with equal indifference.

When we love others for what they can give us, we’re bound to be disappointed. But when we love only God, we can love others in the most powerful way, without regard for how they treat us, giving them God’s love.

Years ago, a young man visited Ananda Village. After Sunday service, he approached Swami Kriyananda. He said, “I’ve only been here a couple of days. You don’t know me at all. Yet I feel more love from you, and the people here, than I’ve received from my own family.”

He said, “How is that possible?”

Swami said, “I don’t know you as your family knows you, as a personality and an ego. I’m not familiar with your preferences, and your likes and dislikes. But when I look at you, I see within you the presence of God whom I already love. No effort is required to learn to love you, because it’s God that I see.”

At the time Jesus was born, people had lost sight of the truth that all creation is made of spirit. Their worship had taken an outward turn – they prayed to lesser gods for material things. They had forgotten that happiness and fulfillment come by communing in silence with the God who lives within us.

Many of the Jewish people longed to have that kind of relationship with God again. And it was in answer to that longing that Jesus was drawn to them.

Jesus came to peel away the outward rituals and prayers that were obscuring the true teachings. People believed that God would give them material boons if they washed their hands in exactly the right ritual way. The essential truths of Judaism had been covered up by a vast system of rules.

Jesus burst on the scene with the tremendous power of his inner communion with God, and the understanding that God lives in each of us and is our common Father.

Will God reject us if we fail to observe the rules and rituals?

Jesus said, “If a son asks his father for a loaf of bread, will he give him a stone?”

Will God say, “I know you’re starving, son, but that’s too not my concern. You haven’t followed the rules exactly.”

That isn’t how divine love behaves. God doesn’t respond to our observance of the rules; He responds to our love.

This is made clear by a Bible passage that is so beautiful, I’ll quote it in full here:

And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment. And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these. And the scribe said unto him, Well, Master, thou hast said the truth: for there is one God; and there is none other but he: And to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the soul, and with all the strength, and to love his neighbor as himself, is more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices. And when Jesus saw that he answered discreetly, he said unto him, Thou art not far from the kingdom of God. And no man after that durst ask him any question. (Matthew 22:34-40.)

Like Christ, Yogananda came to revive the inner truth of religion. He didn’t come to unite believers under a new set of rules. His mission wasn’t to create a new religious institution, with priests arguing about whether the altar pictures should face left or right. These things mean absolutely nothing in the end. What matters, as Jesus and Yogananda came to show us, is the power to commune inwardly with God.

A simple life, close to the land. From left, Haanel Cassidy, Ananta, Swamiji, Govinda, Shivani, James Robinson, Maria. (Click to enlarge.)
A simple life, close to the land, close to God. Ananda Village garden, 1976. From left, Haanel Cassidy, Ananta, Swami Kriyananda, Govinda, Shivani, James, Maria. (Click to enlarge.)

Yogananda came with a special message for the West. The teachings of Christ had become rule-bound and materialistic. Outward rituals and dogmas are appropriate during an age when mankind can only envision matter as the ultimate reality. Now that science has shown that matter is only an expression of energy, people are realizing that they can never make material forms permanent and enduring, as religion tried to do in the past.

Swami Kriyananda said, “People devote themselves to building their homes, relationships, and careers, and hoarding money for retirement, all in the hope of stifling their ever-present subconscious concern that life is inherently unstable.”

We look for a corner of our lives where we can stabilize reality. We don’t understand that the only place we can find true stability is within. When we try to make our religion too outwardly stable, our relationship with God can all too easily become a pact between merchant and consumer.

Priests and ministers promise that if we perform this or that ritual, we’ll get a reward. But what happens, when people don’t get the expected reward? If the baby dies, or the marriage fails, they lose faith.

A friend of mine said, “I used to be Catholic, until I had four babies in five years. I decided that God didn’t really want me to live that way.” She began to question – why this rule? Why this dogma?

Sooner or later, if you continue to question, you discover the truth. The truth isn’t the exclusive property of an institution. Truth is owned by human beings who open their hearts and know the divinity that dwells within them. Yogananda put spiritual responsibility in the only place it can ever be, in the heart of the individual seeker.

Master was very frank in the way he spoke. When people asked him about the value of confession, and the priestly absolution of sins, he said, “Go to the priest with a stomach ache. See if he can take it away.”

Many people find inspiration in religious rituals. But it’s from within their soul that the inspiration in the ritual comes.

Every person comes to religion seeking what they need individually. I would rather people follow a narrow, rigid religion, if that’s what they need, than that they follow no religion at all.

I’ve often commented on the joy it gives me to see Jewish people on Saturday morning walking to the conservative synagogue nearby. They walk because they aren’t allowed to use machines on the Sabbath. When I see those people walking to their service, I wish that the streets were filled with people doing the same. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if every religious group was out there walking on the streets every weekend?

When we moved to our temple, we decided that the occasion was too joyful to simply load everything in crates and haul it over. We decided we would gather the spiritual objects in the old building and walk them in procession to the new temple.

Ananda procession through Palo Alto. Devotees carry altar pictures and candles to the new temple.
Devotees chant while they carry altar pictures and candles to the new temple. California Avenue, Palo Alto, 1994. (Click to enlarge; then click the X at upper right for a close-up view.)

A few people quickly scampered out the back door. But I said, “Look, if we were in India or South America, it would be very common to see a religious procession going down the street.”

We have parades all the time, but you don’t see people celebrating God. It’s not our culture, unfortunately.

So the hardy souls gathered the pictures and candles, and David and I wore our robes, and we trooped down the street, walking and singing, and we entered the doors of the new building and brought the spiritual things up to the altar.

It was thrilling to be who we were, with great enthusiasm. And who cares what people think? Swamiji said, “most people are wrong in what they think anyway.”

Swamiji was so dear. No matter what you did, he always had a way of expanding it.

I said, “Oh, Swamiji, we had a lovely procession from California Avenue to our temple.”

He said, “Next time, ask the police to close the street.”

Why not? Why not make a joyful noise unto the Lord? Most people are just suppressing that thought. It isn’t as if they don’t have a longing in their hearts for spiritual things.

Spiritual realization is given to those who seek it. I love to think of Lahiri Mahasaya working as a humble government accountant.

Whenever I think of the dull, boring jobs that people are trapped in, I think of Lahiri doing the books for the British government in India. His life set the example for a new kind of spirituality that doesn’t require us to turn our backs on the lives we know, and where we can bring God into what we’re doing.

Yogananda said, “Americans are practical. They want to know how it works.” He admired the American can-do spirit. It doesn’t occur to us that knowing God is difficult. In India, they’ve been told for so long how difficult it is that they think, “Well, I’ll seek God in a distant future incarnation.”

Master loved the fact that in America we say, “Eventually? Eventually? Why not now?!!”

In fact, nothing prevents us from knowing God but our own unwillingness to throw ourselves wholeheartedly into the spiritual work.

Master came with a mission to help the West rediscover its religious roots. He didn’t bring Hinduism or Indian culture. He rarely chanted the Indian chants, and he didn’t do mantras or pujas.

He taught a scientific approach to religion that people can test for themselves. He gave us methods to enter the inner silence, where we can set aside the ego for a time and commune with the bliss of Christ Consciousness.

The religion of the new scientific age will not be about ritual hand washing. This is a time for casting aside dogmas, rituals, and superstitions about how we can “please God.” God is most pleased when we seek Him with love, within.

Everything we seek, we seek because we believe it will ease our fears, assuage our pain, and give us happiness. Think about anything you do – job, relationships, exercise, diet – and you’ll see that it’s all about getting away from suffering and finding joy.

The masters remind us that everything in our outward life is uncertain. There is no path that will fulfill us, except the path that helps us commune with the God who is present inside us.

When we fear the spiritual life, hedging our bets by planting one foot on the path and the other in old habits and desires, we keep ourselves from knowing God.

Many of those who came to Ananda in the early years are now in their sixties or older. It’s natural to wonder what will happen to us when we’re too old to work. How will we be protected?

If we follow that thought, the next suggestion is that Ananda should have a retirement plan for those who’ve given their lives to this work.

It makes perfect sense. In fact, several years ago at Ananda Village we had a conversation on this topic. The people at the meeting said intelligent, practical things about how we might find the funds for such a retirement program. And, of course, it was all completely unrealistic, because who has the money at Ananda to put into a retirement account?

We’ve been a pioneering work. At the start, we built an amazing, inspiring community literally from scratch. And then we built seven or eight other communities. When we began, there was nothing on the first property but a broken-down, hundred-year-old farmhouse.

We’ve had to scratch along, living hand-to-mouth. Until very recently, we had a $2 million debt in legal fees from fighting SRF for the right to call ourselves Yogananda’s disciples.

A retirement account sounds like a good idea on paper. But the downside is that it can start a train of thought that God owes us something, and that Ananda as God’s instrument ought to take care of us.

It’s sensible, and if there were millions in the pot, who would argue?

But Nitai, one of the early Ananda members who were at the meeting, objected.

He said, “I didn’t do this for Ananda. This was not a bargain. I didn’t strike a contract – ‘I’ll give you my youth, and you’ll have to take care of me in my old age.’”

He said, “I gave my life to God. I did this for God, and I did it through Ananda.”

Nitai started our school system. It’s been his life’s work. It was a major undertaking, which has been very successful, and he’s still serving that way.

He said, “If I had to live my life under a bridge, that’s between me and God. Nobody owes me anything.”

Now, not everyone is capable of saying something like that. In fact, it wouldn’t be right for everyone to try to live that way. We have to be true to our own reality. Not everybody is inwardly free enough in themselves to be able to say something like that.

Someone asked Swami Kriyananda, “What is the difference between a renunciate and those who have householder responsibilities?”

Swamiji answered in a roundabout way. He talked about the period in his life after he was expelled from SRF.

Nuns and Nitai, 1976.
The joy of living for God. Nuns Asha, Anandi, (Mother Superior) Seva, Parvati, and (head of the monks) Nitai, on the way home from Sunday service at the Meditation Retreat to the monastery at Ayodhya, Ananda Village, 1976.

He was no longer part of a monastery. He was out on his own, and he was forced to live with his parents for a while, because he was penniless. But he gradually began to teach, and so he started to earn a little income.

His parents lived in Atherton, on the San Francisco Peninsula. Swamiji would drive hundreds of miles, teaching as far away as Santa Rosa and Sacramento. His parents let him use one of their cars, and finally they offered to give it to him.

Swamiji told us, with tears in his eyes, “I don’t know if you can understand how intensely painful it was for me even to think about owning something like a car. I had given up everything. I was a monk. There was nothing that I wanted. And now, to have to put my name on this car, and think that it would be mine, was painful. I know it won’t make sense to you.”

He paused, and then he said, “It wouldn’t be right for you to try to live that way.”

We have to live at the level we understand. But let’s not mistake the anthill we’re standing on for the mountain we’re trying to climb. It’s perfectly all right to be only as far up the mountainside as we’ve climbed. We can’t force ourselves to be more spiritual. It doesn’t work, because we haven’t developed the spiritual strength to support it, and we’ll fall.

You have to stand where you are, and say, “This is my truth. I love God with all my heart, all my mind, and all my soul. And I’m putting a little bit aside every month in a retirement account.”

If that’s where we are, then God won’t expect us to be somewhere else. We have our life to live. But let’s not mistake it for where we’re going.

Jesus said, “Even the foxes have holes to call their own. But I, the son of Man, have no place to lay my head.” it was the level of renunciation that Swamiji had attained, or was very close to attaining.

Jyotish is extremely impersonal in his outlook. It showed in his reaction when the forest fire tore through Ananda Village in 1976.

In a matter of hours, the fire burned 21 of the community’s 22 homes. We had 950 acres, and 450 acres were burned to the ground.

The morning after the fire, I tried to walk from my home at the monastery, over the hill to the community, and I got lost. I had walked the path hundreds of times, but it was covered with fallen trees and ashes, and I couldn’t find my way.

The day after the fire, Durga phoned her mother and said, “Mom, the house burned down.”

Her mother said, “Well, surely you got the baby’s clothes out.”

“No, Mother, we didn’t.”

Durga and Vidura’s house the day after the big Ananda fire.
Durga and Vidura’s house the day after the big Ananda fire. (Click to enlarge.)

“Well, surely you got the photographs.”

“No, I didn’t.”

Surely you got some of the furniture.”

“No, we didn’t. Mother, what we have is ashes.”

As the fire was approaching rapidly, Jyotish walked into his house. Someone had urged him, “take only what’s important.” It was completely the wrong thing to say to a philosopher like Jyotish. He and Devi had just cleaned the altar, and they’d put the sacred things in a box. So he picked up the box – it was all he wanted. Fortunately, someone came along with a truck and took a load of their belongings.

There comes a time when you have to say, “I don’t care. I’ve given my life to God. And it’s not a bargain.”

When you love someone as a bargain, you can say, “you didn’t take out the garbage – I want a divorce.”

The Ananda fire begins.
The Ananda fire begins. The fire would race up this neighboring meadow and sweep through Ananda Village, burning 21 homes. God clearly had a plan. The spirit of the community changed dramatically after the fire, with everyone working together instead of only seeking spiritual seclusion for themselves. (Click to enlarge.)

You make a deal. If you take care of me, I’ll take care of you. But that isn’t love. That’s being a merchant.

Do we love God because He’ll give us things that please us? Or do we love Him because He is divinely sweet, and our hearts can’t help but love Him?

That’s what it means to be a devotee. That’s what Jesus was saying.  It’s what Paramhansa Yogananda was saying, when he said, “the time for knowing God has come.”

(From Asha’s talk at Sunday service, February 26, 2006.)

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