The Difficult Path of Opening Our Hearts to God

David and I recently gave a Sunday service at the tiny Ananda center in Boulder Creek, in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

The church is a fraction the size of our temple here in Palo Alto. The members are a close-knit spiritual family, and the intimate size of the center lends it a lovely informality.

Chartres Cathedral
Large, heavy spiritual spaces, even those as beautiful as the Cathedral at Chartres, reflect a human need, characteristic of an earlier age, to express devotion through material forms. (Click to enlarge; source: MathKnight, Wikimedia Commons)

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

Later, as I reflected on the intimate and friendly feeling, the thought occurred that as Ananda grows, we need to be very careful to avoid becoming too formal in our worship.

Ananda’s way has always been friendly and informal, but with the larger temples we have now, there’s a danger that we’ll be tempted to be less relaxed.

Years ago, the Ananda center leaders in Portland were looking for a building for their church. A real estate agent showed them a former convalescent hospital where two hundred people could easily have lived.

It was a jaw-dropping prospect, especially for those of us who’d lived at Ananda Village in the early years.

It’s difficult for people to imagine how simply we lived. If you ask those who were there, they’ll tell you, with a certain fondness, that the Village was essentially nothing. I don’t mean it was sparsely populated, it was literally nothing. The only building on the property was a run-down, century-old farmhouse.

When people visit the Village today, they may be tempted to think, “Hm, that house isn’t designed very well.” And we old-timers just shake our heads.

“you have no idea,” we reply. “There was nothing here in the beginning, only the land. We had to build everything from scratch, and we had very little money, so we had to cut corners to survive.”

At any rate, we were feeling a certain excitement at the prospect of acquiring this enormous building in Portland, because it seemed it might open possibilities for developing a residential community and sharing the teachings in a more dynamic way.

We invited Swami Kriyananda to come take a look at the building. And the moment he saw it, he said, “no – absolutely not.”

Interior, Leicester Cathedral
Interior, Leicester Cathedral. There is a crossing point beyond which formality in religion is no longer useful but merely binds our hearts in pride. “This is the way we’ve always done it. This is the way it will always be done.” (Click to enlarge; source: Wikimedia Commons.)

He explained, “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. Merely to communicate from one end to another, a certain formality would have to be developed. People living in those long halls would begin to think in a certain way.”

Of course, we dropped the project like a hot potato.

The Ananda center in Boulder Creek is tiny – I could literally reach out and almost touch everyone in the room. After the service, we chatted as friends, and it reminded me of what Swami said in Portland.

It would be a disaster for us, if we were to fall into a formality that would turn around and impose itself on us. At Ananda, we’re always walking a fine line between the inner practices of our path, and the need to create a structure to communicate what we have. And it’s vital that we keep the right balance.

Sharing Ananda requires a certain organization. But we never want to become so obsessed with systems that we lose our spirit, because it’s what defines us. We need to remember that it will have to be a special kind of organization, which will be less formal than the rigid structures you find in other organizations.

Paramhansa Yogananda loved the idea of a handful of seekers getting together to meditate and worship. At the same time, he was charged by God with a mission that was destined to change the world.

The world-changing aspect of his teachings is larger than five or six people meditating together. And our challenge is to retain the spirit of informality and friendship as we share the teachings ever more widely.

Crystal Hermitage Chapel
The Chapel at Crystal Hermitage, modeled on the little church that St. Francis built at the start of his mission, reflects the informal way of worship that Yogananda loved. (Click to enlarge.)

At a certain point, about twenty years ago, we had to face the fact – with a heartfelt sigh – that if we wanted to share Yogananda’s teachings, we would have to put a structure around what we were doing. Since then, Ananda has changed considerably, and fortunately we’ve been able to grow in ways that reflect our spirit.

A good example is our Sunday services, which were quite different just twenty years ago. The ceremony of the Festival of Light is a fairly new development. When Swami Kriyananda gave us the Festival in the mid-1980s, many of us privately wondered if Ananda was headed down the road of formal rituals and a rigid church structure. But we needn’t have worried.

Swamiji was the last person on earth who would ever want a top-heavy organization. He called church organizations “a necessary evil” – necessary, because they enable people to receive the teachings. But evil, because if we start to think of the organization as important for its own sake, it can make us narrow and contractive.

The beauty of the Festival is that it captures our teachings in a simple and beautiful way. It gives us an opportunity to meditate on the teachings dressed in beautiful words and music, and bring them deeper into our hearts, without mental strain.

Absorbed in the beauty and inspiration of the ceremony, we don’t have to scratch our heads – “Let me see, the basic principles of Ananda are…”Affirming these truths every Sunday helps make them part of our nature.

The Festival is a very deepening practice for our spiritual lives. And it’s a wonderful way for newcomers to absorb the teachings in an inspiring, beautiful, and enjoyable way.

And that’s the point, isn’t it? What’s important isn’t the formal ritual – the standing, sitting, and repeating prayers. What’s important is that the Festival helps us remember why we’re here.

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

Whenever I walk into the temple, I thank God for giving us this beautiful space, where we can help people in so many ways. We have wonderful services here, as well as concerts and classes and plays. But none of it would mean anything at all, if it didn’t help us deepen our relationship with God.

Walking into the temple won’t change us. We can enter and leave a thousand times and remain just as we are. We won’t change unless there’s a genuine receptivity – a deep willingness to bring everything into God’s pure light so that He can purify us.

What is the process of purification by which we find our freedom in God?

Yogananda said that to a large extent it’s about keeping good company. It’s satsang – “fellowship with truth and other truth-seekers.” That’s one way we’re helped when we come into a place where the spiritual atmosphere is strong. Christ says, “For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.” (Matthew 18:20)

This morning, I meditated in the temple in our Ananda Community. It’s a beautiful sanctuary, created by our Ananda carpenters and volunteers. As I sat alone before the altar meditating, I became aware that I was in a sacred space. And I realized that having been in sacred spaces many times helped me open my heart to receive that sacred reality.

The spiritual vibrations that permeate sacred spaces are very real. Where people gather to express their love for God and receive his love and bliss, it creates a power that uplifts and helps everyone who comes there.

Courtyard, Ananda Sangha
Courtyard, Ananda Sangha, Palo Alto. Despite its size, the church has maintained a friendly, informal atmosphere. (Click to enlarge.)

There’s a spiritual power that comes into a space when we install holy pictures and treat the atmosphere in a holy way. And we don’t need to be stiff and formal about it.

There’s a happy, uplifting spirit in our temple that’s tangibly real and alive. The temple has absorbed thousands of people’s prayers and meditations, and when you bring your consciousness there, you find it’s easier to rise into God’s presence.

It’s important to realize that we need to open our hearts fully to God. As Rajarsi Janakananda put it, “I have come to realize that one hundred percent of the spiritual path is receptivity.” And one of the biggest obstacles to that complete self-offering is shame.

Swami Kriyananda said, “When you make an error of any kind, there’s a tendency to want to hug it to yourself.” We want to run away and hide our faults from the all-seeing eyes of the Divine Mother.

When we do something that goes against our conscience, we want to cover it with our sighs and regrets. There may even be a wish to pretend it didn’t happen. “I didn’t do that. Here’s what I actually did.” Or, “It wasn’t so bad. After all, it’s because of how my parents raised me.”

In The Holy Science, Sri Yukteswar reveals eight attitudes that block our spiritual progress. He calls them “the meannesses of the heart.”

One of the meannesses is shame. When we realize we’re less than we aspire to be, there’s a desire to hide our weaknesses from God, and at the same time to cling to them with sighs and worries and regrets.

And that’s unfortunate, because the more you cling to a state of consciousness, the more powerfully you’re drawn to stay there. As Swami said, “Every state of consciousness has its own attractive power.” If you lose your temper and invest energy in shame and regrets, it will be that much easier to lose your temper next time.

The yogis tell us that our habitual thoughts create whirlpools of energy. Those whirlpools are stored in our spine, and when we repeat a particular thought or action, the whirlpool gets stronger, so that when the circumstances are right we’re more easily sucked in. You’re in a situation that triggers your anger, and your consciousness gets sucked back into the whirlpool.

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

We cling to our habitual thoughts and feelings because they’re familiar to us, even if they’re unpleasant. I think of it as “the preference for the known misery.” No matter how miserable we are, at least we know exactly how miserable we’ll be if we stay here, instead of venturing into the unknown.

Psychologists have found that when people start taking antidepressants and suddenly 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.”

Paramhansa Yogananda explained that we’re not only pulled in by the whirlpools of energy we create with our own thoughts. He said there are vibrations of consciousness floating in the causal plane that may be angelic or demonic, and that have a power to draw us in, if we let ourselves be attracted by their qualities.

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

Swami Kriyananda blesses the ground where the first building of the Expanding Light retreat will be constructed at Ananda Village, late 1970s. (Click to enlarge.)
Swami Kriyananda blesses the ground where the first building of the Expanding Light retreat will be constructed at Ananda Village, late 1970s. (Click to enlarge.)

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

Imagine you’re a person who spends a lot of time thinking of all the things that are wrong with you. If you were to simply turn away from your self-concern and start being more concerned for others, serving them and finding meaning through what you can give rather than what you can receive, you’d be swimming rapidly away from the whirlpool of self-involvement that has brought you so much anguish and pain.

And when we can lift our consciousness into an even higher state where we feel our oneness with God, our faults simply cease to be important. 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 that 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 fulfilling than my human faults that they don’t matter anymore.

Swamiji told a story from when he was a young monk in Yogananda’s ashram. Someone needed to take a bottle of water to Master’s study, and Swamiji appropriated the job. He carried the bottle upstairs and put it in the kitchen. Master was in the next room dictating letters, and Swamiji desperately wanted to be noticed by him, so he made as much noise as he decently could, making sure that Master knew he was there and 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 how Master loved everyone, 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 decided he’d better fight against the downward spiral of his thinking. He went to his meditation room and held his consciousness powerfully at the point between the eyebrows for five minutes. And in The New Path, he tells how it completely broke the suction of that state of consciousness.

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

Mrinalini Mata said that Master would often work with the disciples in ways that defied reason. He wouldn’t discuss their psychological issues, or have long conversations about their faults and what they could do about them. He knew their consciousness, and he saw that their faults were simply obstructions to the pure flow of God’s love.

People’s faults didn’t matter to him at all. And in time we realize that they don’t matter to us. When we get ourselves into misunderstandings, the only thing that matters is to get out. Because once you’re out, the problem no longer exists.

The qualities we’ve mistakenly allowed to define us can actually be helpful to us. For example, let’s say we’ve been unkind to a friend. We can use this trait to help us expand our consciousness. We can see how our unkindness has alienated us from others and made us lonely and unhappy. And we can begin to offer them our sympathy and compassion, and inspire ourselves with an urge to serve them and give them whatever we have of positive energy.

The sensitivity we feel for the suffering of others is a great gift from God, if we don’t let it make us feel helpless and overwhelmed but say, “I don’t want to feel that way, and I don’t want others to feel that way. I want to help them move into the light.”

Family photo, Ananda Sangha, Palo Alto.
Family photo, Ananda Sangha, Palo Alto. (Click to enlarge.)

What is it that allows us to move into the light? It isn’t by using our reason. We begin to move toward the light when the ego realizes, “I can’t do this by myself. In my ego and personality, I can only go around in circles. But when I allow the grace of God to enter my consciousness and lift it into the light, I find that the light can remove all of the shadows.”

When we hold our errors close to our hearts in shame, we suffer. But it only keeps the light from penetrating our hearts. We need to have the courage to say, “it doesn’t matter. I’m not going to protect myself. I’m only interested in coming into the light. Whatever I am doesn’t matter. I need to cultivate faith with every ounce of my energy, even if it means I’ll be completely exposed.”

A friend of ours was struck on the head in an accident. He  lost consciousness and began to rise into a tunnel of light, where he found himself enveloped by the presence of a divine being. And he said there wasn’t so much a sense of being forgiven for the wrong things he’d done, but that all thought of his errors was wiped away by the light. Beyond forgiveness, his mistakes simply didn’t exist. Now, that is the reality of God’s forgiveness, and it’s there at every moment for each 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.”

The Gita continues: And if that’s too high for you to aspire, then worship Me. 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, bring me your failures.”

(From Asha’s talk at Sunday service on April 22, 2007.)

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