What Does “Obedience” Mean in Yogananda’s Teachings?

On the spiritual path, we tend to think of progress in a linear way – that you start here and go there. It’s the way the mind works, especially in our rational, logical western culture.

The truth is that spiritual progress proceeds as a spiral moving toward the divine light. Thus we find ourselves returning to the same questions over and over, on deeper levels.

In the West, we feel more comfortable with images of life that are linear — youth, adulthood, success; cities laid out in grids; rational formulas for spiritual progress. In truth, though, life resists being packaged in rational forms. (Image source: Rennett Stowe, Wikimedia Commons)
In the West, we feel more comfortable with images of life that are linear — youth, adulthood, success; cities laid out in grids; rational formulas for spiritual progress. In truth, though, life resists being packaged in rational forms. (Image source: Rennett Stowe, Wikimedia Commons)

I’ve studied these teachings since I was eighteen, and it’s astonishing to me how often I’ll have an insight that seems entirely new, even though I’ve read about it many times, and I’ve even taught it in classes.

When I met Swami Kriyananda, I bought a set of his printed lessons. I put them in three-ringed notebooks, and I still have that set of blue binders. Over the years, I’ve opened them and read them many times. And as I browse through my notes and underlinings, I nearly always find things that I’m absolutely certain weren’t there four or five years earlier.

Of course, they were there, but I wasn’t ready to see them – I hadn’t attuned my vibrations so that I could understand them at this level.

All of our experiences in life are concerned with attuning our vibrations to the people, places, events, and things around us. People say, “We’re on the same wavelength.” Or “I felt very in tune with her.”

When we talk about harmonizing our vibrations, we’re really talking about the OM vibration that creates and permeates creation. OM is always manifesting through us and merging with other expressions of OM.

It’s what happens when you fall in love, and when your baby is born and you love it as your own. It’s what happens when you find your spiritual path, and when you find a place to live where the vibrations are harmonious with yours. If the vibrations are discordant, there isn’t the same connection.

We are all manifestations of God. None of us can be more a part of God than anyone else. We may be more or less aware that we are waves of God, but we are all one in God regardless – which is to say, we are one in the vibration of OM. And because we have this understanding in our Ananda Sangha, there’s a great deal of openness about involving people at whatever vibrational level they are on.

Audience before talk at Ananda Village, Swami Kriyananda Memorial Weekend.
In the Sangha’s house there are many mansions. Anandaprem greets a friend at the memorial weekend for Swami Kriyananda, Ananda Village, 2013. (Click to enlarge.)

We aren’t big on complex systems at Ananda, but we do have a certain amount of it. We have the greater Sangha – the fellowship that embraces everyone who wants to be involved. People who are new can join the Sangha, which is a relatively light commitment. And then they can become a member of the Sadhaka Order, the lay order where people continue with their lives more or less as they have been, but they’re making a commitment that this is the central point of their spiritual life. And within the Sadhaka Order, they can join the Sevaka Order, which is for people who are monastics and more deeply dedicated to Yogananda’s path.

The guiding principles for these orders are stated in a little booklet that Swami Kriyananda wrote, which he called simply Guidelines. (You can obtain it from the Sangha.) And within the guidelines, there are vows. And within the vows, we find the term “cooperative obedience.”

“As a means of attaining Self-realization, I pledge my cooperative obedience and loyalty to Ananda, to those members who are responsible for guiding the community in its various aspects, and, above all, to the living representative of the Ananda line of gurus: the Spiritual Director of the Ananda Sevaka Order.”

In the Guidelines, Swamiji writes:

Cooperative obedience, finally, means intelligent, creative participation in whatever one is asked to do, as opposed to that kind of obedience which asks, and is allowed to ask, no questions.”

Now, this is all a long, roundabout way of introducing a question that someone asked me the other night: “How much obedience is enough?”

I replied, “That’s not a question to ask me. That’s a question to ask yourself.”

First of all, because the guidelines speak of cooperative obedience, which is a two-way street. It’s not as if someone is imposing their authority on you. It’s you who are making the decision that you want to cooperate with a certain reality. And in trying to figure out your degree of commitment, it helps to ask a few simple questions:

How much do you want to cooperate with God’s will, as it may be expressed through the people you know, and not just through your?

To what degree are you able to receive God’s guidance flawlessly, through your own intuition?

Is there someone in your life whose wisdom you know and trust?

By asking these kinds of questions, you can know the truth about your ability, and your willingness, to accept the spiritual need for cooperative obedience.

Later, I laughed as I reflected on the question – “How much obedience?” Because I remembered how Swamiji would respond. He said that once you start laying out rules for what it takes to be saved, people immediately start asking, “How bad can I be, and still get away with it?”

It’s the problem with approaching salvation by laying out a set of “rules.” We end up building artificial boundaries around something that can’t be conveniently contained in a box. If you feel a spontaneous, magnetic yearning for the divine, you aren’t going to be saying “How much can I get away with?” You’ll be asking “How can I embrace this with my whole heart?”

But if you’re only wanting to do the bare minimum to avoid going to hell, of course the relationship will be very different.

In fact, this is how religions become dogmatic. People want to know how much obedience is enough, and then someone tells them: “Everything that has to do with food, you must do as we say. But when it comes to music you can figure it out for yourself.”

It’s a slippery slope. It’s why we’re surrounded by religions that are based on someone’s fairly idiosyncratic answers to the question. At some point, someone asked “How much to I have to give to God?” And someone answered them, with the best intentions but without any real inner guidance.

The spiritual life is not linear – it’s not a question of following a series of signposts that will lead us from here to there. There is nothing going on in the spiritual life except the refinement of our own nature, so that our vibrations will gradually begin to synchronize less with the separate consciousness of the ego, and more with the expansive consciousness of the Infinite. And it’s not a linear process. It is highly individual, and at times, a bit messy.

Our images of obedience come from the old monastic tradition, where the needs of the individual were subordinated to a set of outward forms and rules. To understand how obedience works today, in an age that emphasizes the needs of the individual, and a more flowing picture of spiritual development, it’s good to look at the true meaning of the need for obedience. And then we find that it’s more useful to think not so much of obedience, in the old monastic form, but of attunement.

Jacqueline du Pré
Jacqueline du Pré

Many years ago, Swami had a 78 LP record player that ran on batteries. He had a recording of a cello piece played by Jacqueline du Pré. And often in the evenings we would listen to that piece because it was so gorgeous. Many of you may know that she became afflicted with multiple sclerosis at age twenty-eight and that she died at forty-two, so her career was very short. But she was an exceptional person, as you can sense from her music.

When a reporter asked her how she coped with the tragedy of no longer being able to play, she looked a little surprised. She said, “No, the music is still inside me.”

The music had to be born of something inside her, or her hands would not have been able to offer it to the world. She had made her vibration one with the consciousness of the music.

When Paramhansa Yogananda was a young monk, his Guru, Sri Yukteswar, urged him to learn to hear the unspoken meaning behind “people’s verbiage.” He told him to develop his intuition so that he could know their consciousness and their vibrations, because that was their true reality.

When one of his disciples left the path, Yogananda said, “It needn’t have happened, if he had tried to be more in tune.” That is, if he had been willing to attune his consciousness to the guru’s.

It’s easier for most people to think of attunement than obedience. Yet even when I talk about attunement, I find that people often  feel threatened by it, even though it’s something that could help them greatly.

In a little pamphlet that Swamiji wrote, called The New Dispensation, he said:

“After many years of observing people on the spiritual path, I have seen that even those who dedicate long hours to meditation do not progress as quickly as they would if they made a corresponding effort to be in tune.”

People feel protective about their own reality. And the idea of attunement to another reality makes them afraid: anxious that they’ll have to give up something comfortable and familiar. The problem is that people very often don’t understand where their best interests lie.

I remember a period when I was feeling very inspired by what I was doing, even though it turned out to be completely wrong. Later, I realized that I was feeling inspired because I had cut off external influences and had walled myself in my own ego.

I was moving along, thinking I was fine. And it was one of those classic moments where Swami walked up to me and said, “How are you, Asha?” There was something in the way he said it that made me nervous. So I replied, “I don’t know, Sir. How am I?”

He said, “I’m concerned about you.”

In that instant, the little show that I’d been putting on was penetrated. It was penetrated by his loving concern for me. When I allowed his vibration to enter me, it was dissonant with my ego. And because, thank God, I’m a sincere devotee, I suddenly saw the ego that had felt so comfortable to me for what it was.

It was very out of tune. It wasn’t out of tune in a dogmatic, “You’ll go to hell!” way. But it was out of tune with the other place in me where the soul simply knows. It was out of tune with the vibration of Swamiji, which was the vibration of Master, which was the vibration that my heart longed for, because it was so much more attractive than this little whirlpool of ego that tries to suck me in and convince me it’s where I want to be.

I’ve often taken seclusions over the years. I’m not very good at short seclusions. People sometimes take three or four days, but it doesn’t work for me. It takes me a minimum of three days to get rid of myself. For the first three days, it’s just me, and it’s awful. You’re there by yourself, and you’re not talking, you’re not entertaining yourself, you’re just there. And then at a certain point Asha gives up – she goes away. And then for six or ten days it’s blissful, because there’s no person there in the same way. The vibration of Asha, the ego, is cast off.

Swamiji talked about how he was very dynamic and promising as a young man. His singing teacher dreamed of the day when he would be a famous singer. When he was a playwright, the people he worked with thought he would be a leading light in the American theater. The poet W. H. Auden, who was one of his teachers in college, thought he could have a great future as a poet. These were a few areas he touched on, where he had reason to be confident in his potential.

But when he met Master, he saw the happiness that he was seeking. Swamiji had read the Autobiography of a Yogi and had felt the qualities of kindness and humility in Master. And then he saw them in Master’s person.

I had a different experience the first time I read the Autobiography. I didn’t finish. I hardly read any of it, because it didn’t go anywhere for me. And for a time I went in another direction. But the instant I saw Swami Kriyananda – I saw him literally as he walked in the door, at a distance of fifty or sixty feet – I recognized my own vibration. And then I was able to pick up the Autobiography and understand, “this is terrific! Why didn’t I like this before?” Something had to crack in me before I could make that connection.

Swamiji said, “I never believed I would say these words to another human being,” but the first words he spoke to Master were, “I want to be your disciple.”

He saw that whatever it was that Master had, which he expressed by his very being, that’s what Swamiji wanted. But he had to seek it in his own way, and not by feigning to be someone else. Because our ego is the product of our own unique vibration. And attunement is what underlies that. Attunement with the guru, with God, puts us in touch with who we truly are. It’s why to become in tune doesn’t make you any less yourself. When you become in tune with the deeper vibrations of your own self, they manifest through you, as you.

Swamiji said, “I merged my interests with those of my guru.” He merged himself with his guru’s vibration and allowed it to express through him.

If we allow that to happen, the Master can change us. And that’s why we say “Attunement is the grace of God.”

It’s why the scriptures say, “We cannot realize God without the intercession of the guru.” Because the guru harmonizes our vibration with the eternal Spirit.

(From Asha’s talk at Sunday service on October 1, 2006.)

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