Churches Small and Large — Where Hearts Seek God

David and I gave Sunday service recently at a small Ananda center in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

The church in Boulder Creek is a fraction of the size of our temple in Palo Alto. The members are a close-knit spiritual family, and the intimate size and informality lend the center a lovely spirit.

During the service, Doug, the center leader, read the announcements, and someone raised her hand and corrected a fact. A short discussion followed, and then we went

Hiroshige, Naruto Whirlpools
Habitual thoughts create whirlpools of energy in our spine, making it easy to slip back into the same thoughts later. Image: Hiroshige, Naruto Whirlpools, ca. 1853. (Click to enlarge.)

back to the service.

Later, I reflected that we need to be very careful to avoid becoming too formal in our worship. Ananda’s way has always been friendly and informal, and now that we have larger temples, there’s a tendency to be a bit less relaxed. The service in Boulder Creek reminded me of how important it is to resist that trend.

Years ago, our center leaders in Portland were looking for a church. A real estate agent showed them a huge building. It was a former a convalescent hospital, and it was enormous – two hundred people could have lived there easily.

It was a jaw-dropping prospect, especially for those of us who had lived at Ananda Village in the early years, and had led very simple lives.

It’s hard for people to imagine just how simple our lives were. Those of us who were there will tell you, with a certain fondness, that the Village was essentially nothing. I don’t mean it was less than it is today – it was, quite literally, nothing.

When people visit the Village nowadays, they may look around and be tempted to think, “Hmm, that’s not designed very well.” And we old-timers shake our heads. “you have no idea. There was nothing here when we started, just the land. We had to build everything from scratch, from the ground up. We had very few options, because there was so little money.” Ananda Village is a miracle, created by the joyful work of many people, over a long time.

In Portland, we had the prospect of acquiring this huge building, and there was a certain amount of excitement, because it seemed it would open up many new possibilities for us to share the teachings.

When Swamiji saw the property, he said, “No. Absolutely not.”

He explaind, “Our consciousness could never survive in this building. This building would take us over. We would become like this building. We would become a heavy institution in no time at all. Merely by existing within this structure, the force of it would overwhelm our light-hearted, casual way of doing things. Even to communicate from one end to another, a certain formality would have to be developed. People living down long halls would begin to think in a certain way.”

And so we dropped the project like a hot potato.

The temple in Boulder Creek is tiny – I could literally reach out and almost touch everyone in the room. We were chatting like friends, and it reminded me of the lesson that Swamiji gave us in Portland.

We never want to fall into a formality that will turn around and impose itself on us. At Ananda, we’re always walking a fine line between the inner practice of our path, and the need to communicate it to others who haven’t yet understood. Sharing Ananda requires a certain organization, but we don’t want to ever lose our spirit. We need to remember that it requires a different kind of organization than the rigid, formal structure you find in some traditional churches.

Ananda has changed a great deal in the last twenty years. A good example is the Sunday services, which were quite different when we were smaller. Our larger temples and the Festival of Light are fairly recent developments. It only became possible for Ananda to grow after we decided, with a heartfelt sigh, that if we wanted to represent Yogananda’s work, we would have to put a certain structure around what we were doing.

Chapel at Crystal Hermitage
The chapel at Crystal Hermitage pretty much defines “small groups of truthseekers, gathering to seek God.” (Click to enlarge.)

Yogananda loved the idea of small groups of seekers getting together informally to seek God. Yet he was empowered by God with a mission that was destined to change an entire civilization. The world-mission aspect of his teachings is larger than just five or six people meeting in a small center. Our challenge is to retain our informal spirit as we reach out to share the teachings with the world.

When Swami Kriyananda wrote the Festival of Light, in the mid-1980s, many of us wondered if Ananda was headed down the path of traditional religion, with formal services and a rigid church organization. But we need to understand what the Festival is for. Swamiji was the last person on earth to want to create a big, top-heavy church. He believed that church organizations are a “necessary evil.” Necessary, because they allow many people to receive the teachings. And evil, because if people start to think of the organization as important for its own sake, it can make them narrow and contractive.

The Festival of Light serves an important purpose, especially for the newcomers. It encapsulates the teachings of our path in a simple, inspiring way. It gives us a chance to bring these truths deep into our hearts without intellectual strain. Absorbed in the beauty and inspiration of the ceremony, we don’t have to think, painstakingly – “Let me see, the basic principles of Ananda are…”Affirming these truths every Sunday helps them become part of our nature. It’s a very deepening practice for our spiritual lives.

And that’s the whole point. What’s important isn’t the ritual, or the formal order of service – the standing and sitting and repeating prayers. It’s remembering why we’re here.

We’re here to remember that the purpose of our lives is one thing only: to experience the inner freedom that comes from communing with God.

I thank God every time I come into this temple, for giving us a beautiful space where we can help people in so many ways. We have wonderful services here, as well as inspiring concerts and classes and plays. But none of it means anything at all, unless we’re deepening the relationship with God in our hearts.

Walking into the temple doesn’t change us. We can come in here and go out a thousand times and remain exactly the same, unless there’s genuine receptivity – which means, a willingness to bring everything in us that isn’t pure light into God’s light so that He can purify it.

What is the process of Self-realization? Paramhansa Yogananda said that, to a large extent, it’s about keeping good company. It’s satsang – “fellowship with truth and truth-seekers.” That’s one way we’re helped when we come to a place like this, where the spiritual atmosphere is strong.

I sat in our Ananda Community temple this morning. It’s a beautiful little temple that our community carpenters and volunteers built in a space that was formerly a garage attached to our home. As I sat before the altar meditating alone, I became aware that I was in a sacred space. I could sense that it was a sacred space because I had opened myself to that reality. And I was aware that being many times in sacred spaces had helped me open my heart to that reality.

The spiritual vibrations of sacred spaces are very real. When people come together in the consciousness of the divine, it creates an uplifting power that’s helpful to everyone.

It happens when we install holy pictures and treat the atmosphere in a holy way. We don’t need to be stiff and formal about it. Our children use our temple for many things that couldn’t remotely be called formal worship – for classes, concerts, and plays. But there’s a certain happy, uplifted atmosphere here, and those vibrations are enduring. The walls have absorbed the spiritual vibrations of thousands of prayers and aspiring calls to God, so that when you bring your consciousness into this space it’s easier to receive those blessings and rise.

It’s very important to understand that we need to open our hearts fully to God. And one of the biggest obstacles to our self-offering is shame – the wish to hide our faults from the all-seeing eyes of the compassionate Divine Mother.

Swami Kriyananda said, “When you make an error of any kind, there’s a tendency to hug it to yourself.”

When we do something that goes against our conscience, we want to hug it and cover it over with our sighs and regrets. There may even be a wish to pretend that it didn’t happen.

“No, I didn’t do that – it was something less shameful that I did.” Or, “It wasn’t so bad – and, after all, it’s because of how I was raised.”

In The Holy Science, Sri Yukteswar lists eight qualities that block our spiritual progress, by binding our hearts to contractive attitudes. He calls them the “meannesses of the heart.” One of the meannesses is shame. When we’re revealed to be less than we imagined, there’s a natural desire to hide the fault from God, and at the same time to cling to it.

That’s unfortunate, because as Swami said: “Every state of consciousness has its own attractive power.” The longer you cling to a state of consciousness, the more powerfully you’ll be drawn to stay there. If you lose your temper and invest a lot of energy in fretting over that fault, it will be easier to lose your temper the next time.

The yogis tell us that our habitual thoughts and actions gather in our spinal centers as magnetic whirlpools of energy. Those whirlpools get stronger as we repeat a particular thought or action, so that our consciousness is more easily sucked in, the next time the circumstances are right. You’re in a situation that triggers your habitual anger, and your consciousness gets sucked down into the whirlpool again.

This is why, as people get older, their faces tend to reflect the dominant attitudes of their lives. With the years, our bodies begin to reflect the patterns of energy we’ve created by our thoughts.

Paramhansa Yogananda said that it isn’t only the energy you generate on your own that pulls you into its orbit. He said there are vibrations of consciousness floating in the cosmos that are angelic or demonic, and that have their own attracting power. As we develop positive or negative magnetism, we can easily be drawn into these universal currents of consciousness and energy.

Our habitual thoughts and feelings are attractive to us because they seem comfortably familiar, so we tend to cling to them, even if they’re unpleasant. I think of it as our preference for the “known misery.” No matter how miserable we are, at least we know exactly how miserable we’ll be if we stay there, instead of facing the fear of venturing into unknown territory.

Psychologists have discovered that when a person who’s depressed starts taking an antidepressant medication such as Prozac, and they find themselves no longer feeling depressed, they may grieve for their former depressed self.

Isn’t that insane? But, you know, it isn’t terribly surprising. “I was used to my depression. It was my friend, and now I’m different, and I don’t know how to behave.”

Swamiji said it’s one of the greatest delusions to think that we have to relate to our delusions. It’s the false notion that we can’t simply turn our backs on them, but we have to mull them over and unravel them, and that the more deeply we get involved with them, the better we’ll understand them and be able to overcome them.

But what happens is that we’re swimming dangerously close to the whirlpool, and its attracting power can capture us and hold us to that level of consciousness. Often, the reality is that we could leave that delusion by just swimming away.

Imagine that we’re so self-concerned that all we can think of are all things that are wrong with us. If we simply turn around and lift ourselves enough to be concerned for others, and begin to serve them and find meaning through what we can give rather than what we

Palo Alto Ananda Sangha temple
Will we keep our spirit, as Ananda grows? Palo Alto Ananda Sangha. (Click to enlarge.)

can get, we’ll be swimming rapidly away from the whirlpool of self-concern that has brought us so much pain.

When we can lift our consciousness even higher, into a state where we feel our oneness with God, our faults cease to be important to us. Yes, I’m insecure. Yes, I have abandonment issues. Yes, I have body-image problems. All of these are features of my personality. But in the higher awareness, they’re suddenly irrelevant.

When I “lift my eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help,” I feel God’s presence, which is so much more attractive than my human faults, and so they don’t matter to me anymore.

I saw a comic strip of a conversation between a husband and wife. The wife says, “You know, I’m sick of the fact that women are so conscious of their body image. I’m a mature woman, and I don’t want to spend all my time trying to look like a teenage girl. It’s shameful how we dress our daughters to look so much older. We should let them be what they are.”

The husband says, “thank you, dear, for sharing this. Could you tell me what brought it on?”

She says, “I’m about to eat your doughnut.”

Swamiji told a story that happened when he was a young monk in Yogananda’s ashram. A bottle of water needed to be carried up to Master’s study. Swamiji took the bottle upstairs and put it in the kitchen. Master was in the other room dictating letters, and Swamiji desperately wanted to be noticed by him. So he made as much noise as he could, making sure that Master knew he was there, hoping for some kind of personal interaction.

When it was clear that Master wasn’t going to respond, Swami left. And then he fell into a mood, thinking of how full of love Master was, and how he loved everyone else, but just not him. He thought, “After all, I’m such a worthless disciple, I’m sure he thought, ‘Quick, let me dictate a letter so I don’t have to relate to him.’”

After a while, Swamiji rebelled against the downward spiral of his thinking. He went to his meditation room and held his consciousness intensely at the point between the eyebrows for five minutes. In The Path, he tells how it completely broke the suction of that state of consciousness.

He realized, “of course he loves me. He can’t be constantly reassuring me. How would he have time to help others?”

Mrinilini Mata came to Yogananda when she was thirteen. She was twenty when he died, so all her training was as a young girl. She said that Master would often work with the disciples in ways that defied reason. He wouldn’t discuss your psychological issues with you, or have long conversations about your faults, and what you could do about them. He knew your consciousness, and he saw that your faults were simply obstructions to the pure flow of God’s love.

Congregation, Ananda Sangha, Palo Alto
So far, so good. Congregation photo, Ananda Sangha, Palo Alto. (Click to enlarge.)

People’s faults didn’t matter to him at all. In time, we realize that they don’t matter to us, either. Whenever we get ourselves into misunderstandings, the only thing that matters is to get out. Because once you’re out, it doesn’t exist.

The experiences we’ve mistakenly allowed to define us can be very helpful to us. For example, if we’ve been unkind, we can use that trait to help us expand our consciousness. We can see how unkindness has made us unhappy, and we can begin to offer our sympathies and our compassion to others, and inspire ourselves with a powerful urge to serve them and give them whatever we have of uplifting realities.

That’s a tremendous incentive. The sensitivity we feel for others’ suffering is a great gift from God, if we use it not to feel helpless and overwhelmed, but to say, “I don’t want to feel that way, and I don’t want anyone else to feel that way. I want to help others move into the light.”

What is it that allows us to move into the light? It’s not figuring it out with reason. It’s the ego realizing, “I can’t do this by myself. In my ego and personality, all I can ever do is go around in circles. But when I allow the grace of God to come into me and lift my consciousness into the light, I know that the light can remove all shadows, and nothing more is required.

Mrinalini told how Master would sometimes scold them out of all proportion, and how he would feel their resistance. That’s all he was concerned about, whether they resisted him. He would say, “go to your room.” She said, “when your guru tells you to leave his presence, where can you go?” Then she said, “to Divine Mother in your heart. There’s no other place to go.”

And, of course, that’s what he wanted. He didn’t want them to feel that they had to cling to his feet, and be always in his presence. He knew that what he really was, was so far beyond that little physical self that if they didn’t make the inner connection they would fall out of tune.

Once a soul merges his consciousness with Divine Mother, he becomes the Divine Mother. And then he can help us by serving as Her pure instrument. But as long as our devotion is outward, we won’t be able to receive fully.

Master was so beautiful, so attractive – Swamiji said that in a certain way it was confusing. On the one hand, you knew that he was the Infinite Spirit that lives in your own heart. On the other hand, he was in the room next door having lunch.

He said that, in a way, it’s easier not to have that physical body to distract us. Mrinilini said that as soon as she surrendered any resistance she felt to what he was pushing on her, a great freedom would come. She said that she rarely even had a clue of what the resistance was. It wasn’t necessary to know. It was only necessary to resist the attracting pull of whatever is keeping us away from the light.

There’s a tendency to hold our errors close to our hearts in shame. But it means that the light can’t penetrate our hearts. We need to have the courage to say, “it doesn’t matter. I’m not going to let myself be attracted to the consciousness that makes me want to protect myself. I’m interested only in coming into the light. Whatever I am doesn’t matter, because I know I need to cultivate faith with every ounce of energy I have.”

A friend of ours was hit on the head in an accident and  lost consciousness. He started going into the tunnel of light, where he found himself enveloped by the presence of a divine being. He said he wasn’t so much forgiven for the wrong things he’d done, but that any thoughts of his errors were evaporated by the light. Beyond forgiveness, they simply ceased to exist. Now, that is the reality of God’s forgiveness, and it’s there for all of us.

The Bhagavad Gita says, “Devote every moment of your waking consciousness to God. Think of nothing else. Let there be no other reality in your life except God.”

If that’s a little too high for you to aim, all right. Then, the Gita says, worship Me as much as you can. Let everything in your life be an act of worship. But if you can’t do even that much, then do good works for My sake. And, “If even in this thy faint heart fails, then bring me your failures.”

 (From Asha’s talk at Sunday service,

April 22, 2007.)

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