A very great aid to our spiritual life is keeping the company of others who love God.
My Guru, Paramhansa Yogananda, used to say, “Environment is stronger than will power.”
When I first read that statement, I was a very proud eighteen-year-old.
I said, indignantly, “Environment is not stronger than my will power!”
I was convinced that we must seek God on our own. The last thing I wanted was to get tangled up with other people’s lives.
When Swami Kriyananda started Ananda Village, in 1969, we fancied ourselves a community of hermits. We had agreed to live together – very reluctantly! The unspoken rule was that no home should be within sight or sound of another.
But from a spiritual viewpoint, we were very wrong. And Divine mother sent us a big lesson, with a forest fire that burned twenty-two of our twenty-three homes. A month later, a large tree fell on the last home, demolishing it.
When we re-built our spiritual community, we approached it differently. We built attractive little clusters of houses or apartments, some with shared facilities, so that we could learn what it meant to be a real community. Rebuilding forced us to work together, and we found great joy in helping each other.
When we enter the spiritual path, we do need to be very careful of the company we keep.
The saints are so strong in their spiritual magnetism that they can mingle with all sorts of people, spiritual or unspiritual, high-minded or low-minded, and change them by their mere presence.
But most of us need to be more careful of the type of people we spend time with. The people we allow into our lives have a powerful influence on our consciousness. If you constantly handle onions, as one saint put it, you won’t be able to easily get rid of the odor.
In the early years of Ananda, there was one man who decided he didn’t want to be around people anymore.
For weeks, he avoided all spiritual gatherings. Then, more or less by accident, he found himself in a group at Swami Kriyananda’s home.
Afterward, he told me: “I thought I was doing fine. I thought I could know what it feels like to be in tune with God and guru. But now that I’ve been in touch with real spiritual energy again, I see how far I had drifted away.”
When we lose the consciousness of Spirit, we can easily forget what it is like. We cannot advance spiritually without putting forth effort, but without satsang we often end up just keeping the company of the ego.
One of the most helpful things we can do is to meditate together with others. In that atmosphere, you find that you are able to generate much more devotional feeling than you can on your own.
Meditating together also has a strange power to teach us to love in a divine way. In meditation, you find a place inside your heart where you are one with everyone. And the memory of that experience makes you feel close to all.
I remember visiting Disneyland with Swami years ago. It was in the early days of Ananda, in the early 1970s. Swamiji has always loved Disneyland, at least when it was still childlike and magical.
He would take us there, because, he said, “These are karma yogis. Look at how well they do everything.”
So he would take us to Disneyland to show us how things are done well. And one year, for some reason, we went in our Indian clothes. Swami was dressed in his orange robes, and we all wore saris, and I have this memory of being dressed in our Indian outfits and roaming around Disneyland together.
At the time, Swami was very strong, and he walked very fast. He was twenty years older than most of us, maybe in his fifties or sixties, but we had to scramble to keep up, like ducklings running after their mother through Disneyland.
At the end of our visit we decided to line up and watch the famous Disneyland Electric Parade. We wanted a good view, so we arrived early and stood on the sidewalk. And then a tremendous sense of otherworldliness came across Swamiji’s face. He very slowly looked out at the hundreds of people, and then he turned to us and said, “It’s not enough just to love these people. You must understand that you are every one of them.” And all of a sudden, right there in Disneyland, this completely transcendent mood came, and we all sat down on the sidewalk and meditated. Just waiting for the Disneyland parade to start.
It was nearly half an hour of total silence. And then the parade started, and we came out of our meditation with all these people standing around. I don’t know what they thought, but that was the mood we had, and in America you can do things like that.
I am sure that I could not get anywhere spiritually without my friends. Although the power of God comes from the Guru, my many spiritual friends over the years have served as a check of my attunement.
When I came to Ananda Village, I chose a handful of people as my “tuning forks.” I would check how I felt around them. I would say, “This is what I think,” and they would correct me. But, for the most part, I would feel their attunement and try to attune myself to that “ray” of Spirit.
If I felt a disharmony with the people I admired, I would remind myself: “If I’m not in harmony with those who are in tune with God, I must change myself until I am.”
God lives in us, but we must learn to live in God. We can do this with the help of loving friendships, and by caring for others. In the forty-five years that I’ve lived in the Ananda communities, I’ve seen that satsang is a very powerful force that helps us grow.