Finding God in All Simplicity

When I first met Swami Kriyananda, in 1969, he was in his early forties. When he died, he was eighty-six, so I was able to watch the cycle of his spiritual expression for nearly half his life. And I noticed that, toward the end of that long and extremely productive life, there was a certain simplicity that came into the way he presented the spiritual teachings.

Swami Kriyananda with Nayaswami Asha
Asha with Swami Kriyananda, late 1980s. (Click to enlarge.)

When I met Swamiji, I was very intellectually oriented, and I loved his intelligence. He was just so darn smart! He was highly educated, and knowledgeable about a great many things. But over the years I realized that he had an ability to access knowledge in a very unusual way.

Swamiji spoke of how Yogananda knew many things without having to look them up in books. Swamiji explained that when you live at the heart of reality, you can access everything that’s there.

He described how Master could talk about the details of people’s professions – he could talk comfortably with doctors about medicine, with artists about art, and with businessmen about business. And it wasn’t just that he was a good conversationalist – that he knew how to ask good questions and be a good listener, and so on. He could contribute creative insights in fields that it had taken people years to master, and that he had never studied.

Swamiji had that kind of intelligence, and it was a quality of his that always startled me – that’s the only word that comes to mind. The intelligence that I’d been trained in came from reading books, and thinking about ideas and applying my mind to see how they all fit together. But I was startled by the way Swamiji could travel through so many subjects and realities with ease, as if it wasn’t necessary to think about them painstakingly at all.

He’d grown up in Europe, and he’d been raised speaking four languages. He had traveled all over the world, so he had a broad background. Yet his way of knowing was unique. You would wonder, “How does he know that?” It seemed unlikely that he’d simply vacuumed an enormous collection of facts into his brain.

I spent a lot of time meditating on this, because I wanted to be intelligent the way he was, so I wanted to know what made him so intelligent. And when the answer finally came, it took me years to even begin to understand it, because it seemed so strange. It was a realization that his intelligence came from his heart.

Nayaswami Asha with Swami Kriyananda
Asha with Swami Kriyananda in later years (2006). (Click to enlarge.)

When Yogananda started his school in India, he drew up a “psychological chart” as a guide to the various qualities of human nature. He drew little pictures of people that reflected their consciousness. He drew people with big stomachs and tiny heads, and people whose bodies were dominated by a big brain. He said that if you could see people’s astral bodies, you would see that they actually looked like these little pictures.

I’ve always imagined my own astral picture as a mouth – just a pair of Minnie-Mouse shoes and a big mouth. The shoes carry me around, and then I talk.

We were talking with friends who wanted to start an Ananda center in Los Angeles. And my first thought was that all you need to start a center is a microphone. You don’t need a place, you just need to be able to talk about how to build a community and what it will take to make it work.

But as I contemplated Swamiji, I sensed that his knowledge was intuitive, and that it came from his heart.

I read recently that researchers have discovered a physical similarity between the heart and the brain. They’ve found that the heart has a “miniature brain” with roughly 40,000 brain-like synapses, and that the heart’s mini-brain can take over certain vital functions if the brain areas that control the heart become damaged.

I like to imagine it means that people can think with their hearts. It would be fascinating, if it’s true, because in fact it reflects a true spiritual principle. The yogis tell us that spiritual growth comes by harmonizing and expanding the feelings of our hearts, far more than by working with the mind.

If you look at photographs of Swamiji when he was young, you can see that his posture was the same as when he was older. Seeing him in profile, you notice that his heart is a little bit out in front, a bit forward of his head. It wasn’t because he was fat; he was quite slender in those days. But it looks as if he was moving out into the world from his heart – that what he wanted to bring first was his acceptance and love of the world around him.

The first thing he wanted was that connectedness. Because once you have that heart connection, the ability to understand everything follows.

I’ve written two books that include many stories of people’s spiritual experiences. The first is a collection of peoples’ experiences with Swami Kriyananda, called Swami Kriyananda – As We Have Known Him.

People’s interactions with Swamiji would very often become pivotal points in their lives. And because I needed to gather hundreds of stories for the book, I probably talked with several hundred people by the end of the project.

The process of interviewing so many people about their spiritual experiences was marvelous. They would look into my eyes and tell me about these pivotal experiences in their lives, and because I can type without looking, I was able to keep eye contact and take notes while they talked. And the more they talked, the more their eyes would become windows into their soul. The superficial costume of the physical body would fall away, and beams of soul consciousness would stream from their eyes.

When I wrote the second book, Loved and Protected: Stories of Miracles and Answered Prayers, I had a similar experience. Swamiji assigned me to write that book. He initiated the project, but then he lost interest and handed it over to me. “Here, Asha. You should write this book. “

Swami Kriyananda in the final years of his life. The photo was taken in the room where Paramhansa Yogananda had a life-changing vision of the Divine Mother as a young boy, in his home on Gurpar Road in Calcutta. (Click to enlarge.)
Swami Kriyananda in the final years of his life. The photo was taken in the room where Paramhansa Yogananda had a life-changing vision of the Divine Mother as a young boy, in that attic of his home on Gurpar Road in Calcutta. (Click to enlarge.)

I would never in a million years have chosen to write that book. I didn’t think that way at all – I didn’t go around thinking about miracles and healings. In any case, I had just written a book of stories, and I assumed I was done. But Swamiji knew what he was doing, because the experience of interviewing those people helped me understand how you can think with your heart.

When people give you their soul, as I had the unique opportunity of having many people do, you realize that all of the external ways we define ourselves are superficial. They are the edge of the wheel. And as we approach the center, we find that we’re standing in the same reality, and that that central unity is where true understanding is found, because we are manifestations of the same one reality of God.

The main meditation practice we do at Ananda is called Kriya Yoga. “Kriya Yoga” is also the name for our path. But on another level, it’s a breathing exercise that helps bring our awareness into the core of ourselves, where we can experience our divine reality. And in trying to explain Kriya Yoga to students, I’ve realized that the whole of the spiritual path comes down to the breath.

Yogananda said, “You cannot find God unless you can master the mortal breath. Breath ties the mind to the sense plane. As your breath becomes calm, your mind goes within. Breathlessness is the way to God. Practice pranayama [energy-control through the breathing exercises of Kriya Yoga] and you will know how to meditate – how to perceive God and be one with Him.”

Swami Sri Yukteswar, Yogananda’s guru, loved a chant called “Desire, My Great Enemy.” In the last verses, the Lord speaks to the devotee:

“Pranayam be thy religion,
Pranayam will give thee salvation,
Pranayam is the Wishing Tree,

“Pranayam is Beloved God,
Pranayam is Creator Lord,
Pranayam is the Cosmic World.

“Control the little pranayam,
Become all-pervading pranayam,
You won’t have to fear anything anymore,
You won’t have to fear anything anymore.”

Over time, we come to think that the physical body defines us. We describe our lives in terms of what we do with our bodies and brains – we are homemakers, accountants, or doctors. But we don’t often think first with the heart.

We don’t think about others first with the heart, and perceive the soul of God streaming from their eyes. And we don’t think of ourselves first with the heart. We think about the external conditions that limit us and make us anxious, and we forget to think about the realities that make us free. Not a little free, but perfectly free. And these realities have more to do with the heart than the mind, or outward things. When the heartbeat ceases through deep Kriya Yoga breathing, we enter the “Cosmic World.”

After a person has meditated for a while, he begins to define his life in relation to his attunement with the great souls whose consciousness is infinite and free. As we move inward from the edge of the wheel, we gradually come closer to the center, where we find the blissful, unchanging Now. It’s the part of us that is ever the same, even as the external reality spins around us.

The mother of a friend of ours was a devout Catholic. She had a special love for Mary, and as she lay dying, she suddenly sat up, seeing something the others couldn’t see, and she began saying in a childlike voice, “Hi, Mary. Hi, Mary.”

That was thinking from the heart. There was no fear and awe – “Oh! This the Holy Mother.” It was simply that Mary had always been her mother, and when Mary came she was thrilled to see her.

Swamiji would often greet us, “Hello, great souls!” I used to think how nice it was that he would affirm that we poor morons had a spiritual chance. But when I wrote the book of miracles and answered prayers, I saw that everyone is a great soul.

When the final tally is taken of what matters in our lives, it won’t be our stock portfolio, or the size of our house, or the fact that our children went to Harvard. It’s fine to do our duty in this world. As Swamiji once remarked to me, we can’t get out of karma by doing things badly.

But in the end, what matters is whether we can answer a simple question: “How much have you loved?”

How many conditions have you placed on your love? “This one loves me, so I’ll love him back. This one can contribute to my career. That one is popular. So I’ll love them, too.”

Or do we love because it’s what we’re made for? When we lead from our hearts, we begin to see that all people are on the same journey.

A friend of ours from India visited America for the first time. We drove him across the Golden Gate Bridge and parked at a scenic lookout. And when we got out of the car, our Indian friend said, “Where are all the people?” In India, wherever you go there are thousands of people.

It was rush hour and the bridge was full of traffic. I said, “They’re neatly inside the cars zipping by. They’re all folded up inside those cars.”

In India, you may see lots of cars, but you’ll also see an endless stream of people walking and riding bicycles, motorcycles, and rickshaws.

Indian traffic
India – city traffic, Charkaman. (Photo: McKay Savage, Wikimedia Commons)

Here, you notice that everything is very tidy. America is so clean! It’s very orderly and square. But then, every once in a while something breaks. I saw a man pushing a bicycle loaded with his worldly goods. He was obviously not functioning in a way the world would consider successful, and as he pushed his bicycle his posture was depressed. I wondered, “How did you end up like that? What does it feel like to be you?”

We all live in our own reality, and our reality makes perfect sense to us. It’s the most amazing thing, how even the most irrational person, who’s completely out of touch with objective reality, finds that it makes perfect sense. There may even be a fascinating logic to their reality, if you start with the same premise.

Years ago, I was delirious with a high fever. I had to lie in bed in a fetal position, because I was convinced that if I stretched my body, it would break into four pieces. My hands and feet would fall away, and I would break into four pieces. I was conscious enough to realize that I didn’t want that to happen, so I stayed curled up. And as the fever receded, it occurred to me that there hadn’t been many times when I’d broken into four pieces. So I very gingerly began experimenting with stretching.

Reflecting on the experience, I realized how easy it is to fall into loony ideas. If I had engaged that man on the street in conversation, I imagine he’d have had ideas that I would consider loony and completely disconnected from the real world.

But, really, is our fear of death any less loony? Are our anxieties and feelings of being lonely and unloved, and our desperate need to dull our consciousness with drugs and food and television any less loony?

Think of the many thoughts you’ve had that were based on rational analysis – that if you didn’t take such-and-such steps, who would take care of you? And compare that fearful, fragmented reality to the sense of wholeness we have when we lead from the heart.

In the Bible, we read that Jesus asked Peter, “Who am I?” And it’s clear that Peter could answer, “Thou art the Christ,” because he knew. He could have made a list of reasons – “You raised the dead, so you must be the Christ.” But it wouldn’t have been persuasive, because it didn’t come from the heart.

When we’re heart-to-heart with truth, we simply know. And it’s a knowledge that can’t be taken from us. We know – “This is real. This is my reality.”

Jesus had touched Peter on a level that so far transcended the outer edge of the wheel that there was no other place for him to go. Later, when many of the disciples were deserting Jesus, he turned to Peter and said, “Will you leave me?” And Peter said, “Where could I go?” He didn’t say, “I’ve worked it out logically, and these are the ten reasons I must stay.” He said, “Where can I go?”

When you stand at the center, were else can you go? There is no other way – there is only the one reality.

I mentioned earlier how Swamiji simplified the teachings toward the end of his life. In the early years, he spent a great deal of time talking about Yogananda’s teachings in great detail. But toward the end of his life, he was in God. He had always lived at the center of the wheel, but now he relaxed more and more into the center.

He would talk about his relationship with Paramhansa Yogananda. He told us, over and over, how he found the Autobiography and was initiated as a disciple. And in telling the story he would weep sooner and sooner. It used to be that there was a point where his voice would break. But by the end, all he had to do was mention Master’s name or his relationship as a disciple, and it was enough. He had come to the center, heart-first, until he was living at that center, and nothing else mattered.

God bless you.

(From Asha’s talk at Sunday service on March 16, 2014.)

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