On the Spiritual Path, How Can We Work With Our Feelings?

The masters tell us that we should respond impersonally to life’s positive and negative experiences.

And, well, isn’t that confusing? How can we respond impersonally to experiences that may be very upsetting, without becoming cold-hearted, and perhaps even indifferent to the sufferings of others?

Woman praying
The greatest “tools” on the spiritual path, Yogananda said, are devotion and deep sincerity. How can we work with feelings that may conflict with our spiritual ideals? (Click to enlarge.)

We can’t act as if we don’t have feelings. How can we know when it’s all right to be real with our feelings – express our true personality – and when we need to work on being more impersonal and detached?

Paramhansa Yogananda said that we can never find God until we can have an intimate, personal relationship with Him. And that means a relationship where there’s deep, sincere feeling.

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

Again, he said, “You must be hard as steel against sensitivity.”

Swami Kriyananda set a wonderful example of what it’s like to be impersonal yet feel deeply, with empathy and compassion for others. On one hand, he was very impersonal with himself. On the other hand, it was that impersonal attitude that enabled him to set himself aside and extend compassionate understanding to others.

I remember a telling incident that happened in India. Swamiji was in a taxi on the way to the airport.

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

Swamiji replied in a very childlike manner, “I don’t know.”

Swamiji had left a hotel where he’d stayed for several days, and was on the way 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 wouldn’t identify himself with his outward role. When people praised him for his accomplishments, he would say, very simply, “Master did it all through me.”

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

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

Yogananda was fully identified with Spirit. He was Spirit. He said, “I killed Yogananda long ago. No one dwells in this temple now but God.”

He was completely detached from the little human body and personality that he had to wear in order to serve people.

The Gita says, “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 an ordinary life. He had a wife and children and worked as an accountant for the railroad.

Yogananda’s uncle attended a dinner where he sat near Lahiri Mahasaya. The uncle was curious to see if Lahiri would eat the fish that was served. Would he observe his customary vegetarian diet?

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

Fathomless depths of love for God lie hidden in the human heart, waiting to be uncovered by the Guru’s liberating discipline. (Click to enlarge.)

A master’s outward humanity masks his inner greatness. In The Path, Swamiji describes how, as a young monk, he struggled to reconcile his Guru’s humanity with his vast consciousness.

One day, knowing what Swamiji was going through, Yogananda smiled and handed him an apple. He wanted his young disciple to interact with his simple humanity, and not try to comprehend his vast consciousness before he was ready.

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

It’s important to 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 so clearly in them expresses also through us. The difference is that they have freed themselves from maya, the veil of delusion, while we are still trying to be free.

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

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 love, bliss, wisdom and power – touches us profoundly. The master’s blessing feels like a very personal experience. Yet, for them, there’s nothing personal about it. They are always identified with the ocean. They clothe themselves in maya for a while to serve as channels of God’s blessings. But there is no deluded self 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 talk that way would prove that the speaker was identified with his ego, not the eternal spirit.

Master lamented how people suffer by taking everything personally. He urged his disciples very strictly not to be like those over-sensitive people who are 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!

Swamiji 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 where you 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 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. You’re trying to do the right thing by withholding a certain level of sympathy, but you want to be sure you aren’t being cold-hearted, or that you’re simply unable to feel compassion for them.

Master’s training was very different from the usual “caring” approach. The masters feel our suffering, perhaps more than we do. But their goal is to free us from all suffering. Swami recalled that very few of those who came to live with Master understood how little ego-comfort he would offer 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. 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 mean 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 careful line. If a child feels that you’re not responding to their basic needs, it will only create insecurity and fear in them. The best way to teach the right kind of inner strength is by example. You have to act in a way that says “We’re 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 routinely 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 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 on the bark. The other boys were horrified to see him 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 fixing every little thing that happens to us. The dogma is that you must make sure you get to express yourself, make sure you’re heard, make sure you can state your needs, and make sure everyone knows what you need. 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 thin 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 even have the courage to express who they are. And it’s a very necessary first step.

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 that we have less ego; it just 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.

Orthodox monk
We need to view our feelings with a certain distance and compassion, as expressions of our personality, not our true Self, which we will identify with increasingly as we follow the path of the Masters. (Photo by Swami Kriyananda; click to enlarge.)

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 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 what Master called “one-horsepower energy.”

Of course, it doesn’t mean 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. Your 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 that 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 tells us, is in us also. Live in that light. Let the light express through your personality however 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 at 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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