Many years ago, Swami Kriyananda returned from a long trip to India – it was 1977 or 1978 – with a number of pieces of beautifully carved furniture from Kashmir.
In the early years at Ananda Village, we lived in rough quarters. Most of us lived in rustic wooden houses, travel caravans, or even American Indian tipis. We were devoted to a life of meditation and service, and we expected to spend the rest of our day living simply, because, after all, we were monks and nuns.
So we wondered why Swamiji had bought a twelve-person dining room table with carved chairs and elaborate screens.
Swamiji explained, “If we want to persuade people that our ideas are refined, we have to present a refined environment. If we don’t present a refined environment, they won’t believe that our ideas are refined.”
In the case of the Kashmiri furniture, it wasn’t purchased because of any personal desire on Swamiji’s part, but purely because it needed to be done. In fact, it is now part of the Crystal Hermitage, where guests from many countries come to absorb the spiritual vibrations where Swamiji lived and countless people have meditated and prayed for many years.
Reflecting on that episode, I realize that it was intended also as a lesson for each of us. Because the key point of our spiritual life is not what we do, but what kinds of desires are motivating us to do it.
Are we acting impersonally and expansively, for the joy of serving, or are we being driven by likes and dislikes?
Swami always told us, “You can take Divine Mother with you.” If you go on holiday, take God with you. Do you want to see the Grand Canyon? Say to Divine Mother, “We’re going on vacation to the Grand Canyon.”
I remember a morning, long ago, when we set out with Swamiji to drive to Carmel, a lovely seaside town in northern California, for the weekend.
On the day we left, I appeared in my favorite brown sweater and brown skirt.
Swamiji said, “Did you bring anything else with you?”
(It was one of my best outfits!)
He said, “We’ll just have to buy you something new.”
When we arrived in Carmel, Swamiji took us to a store and picked out a white dress for me. It was a pretty dress with embroidered eyelets, long sleeves, and a little collar. All of my usual clothes were big and unshapely, but this dress was stylishly fitted and a little bit transparent. I didn’t have the right slip for it, so you could see my underwear through it. But he wanted me to wear it anyway.
He turned to everyone and said, “Just pretend it’s her bathing suit.” Thankfully, a friend showed up later and let me borrow a slip.
Meanwhile, I had to walk around in this dress that you could see through, and I was a young girl and very modest. So I walked around in the slip and wore it for most of the weekend, and it was an absolute nightmare. It cost $100, which was a large amount for us at the time. And Swamiji just walked in the store and pulled it off the rack, and bingo, this is what Asha will wear.
For the whole weekend I was so filled with tension that I could barely move. It was a little bit better once I got the slip, but not much.
On the way home, I said to Swamiji, “Sir, do I have to wear this at Ananda?”
Only twice in all the years I knew him was Swamiji ever sarcastic with me, and this was the first time.
“No, let’s put it in a glass case and make it part of the grand tour of Ananda!” he said dismissingly.
I never wore the dress again, because I just couldn’t. And then I managed to lose it.
Over the years, I realized that Swamiji went to the trouble to buy that expensive dress and make me wear it because he wanted me to learn that what matters is what we are doing inside, not what is happening on the outside.
There was a young man who lived at Ananda in the early years, who became gripped by a strong desire to go to India. Nowadays, many people from Ananda have traveled to India and have lived there. But it was an unusual desire at the time.
Swamiji wasn’t in favor of it, because he felt that it would be better for the man to stay at Ananda and grow deeper inwardly.
He said, “It would be better for you than going on this trip.”
The man protested, “But I have such an intense desire to go to India. I will never be at peace until I go!”
Swami drew himself up and said, very strongly, “You have millions and millions of desires! If you expect to overcome them by fulfilling them all, there will be no end to it.”
The spell was broken, and the man didn’t go to India.
Swamiji was saying: “This is your spiritual home. Better to stay here than go rushing all over. Learn to center yourself, focus yourself, and calm down.”
Paramhansa Yogananda and Swami Kriyananda gave us a path in which we are encouraged us to seek God while living in a natural way.
We have to be sincere with ourselves, and if we’re always trying to suppress our ego and pretend to be without desires, we’ll only find ourselves becoming tense with the effort of keeping our real self bottled inside.
Far better to flow with your own nature, in a natural way, and turn that nature toward God.
Paramhansa Yogananda reminded us that we don’t actually exist as separate egos, and that God is, in fact, playing this role through us. And the best way to become aware of this truth is to take God with us. Just keep the thought in mind, “Divine Mother and I are doing this together.”
As you live with that thought, you find a growing sense that you are actually cooperating with God, until that sense becomes a living experience of unity, and a realization that God is truly living through you. You realize that your little self is merely a wave on the great ocean of Spirit, and that the tiny wave has no separate reality of its own.
God is going out and buying a new dress – don’t be ashamed of it! Instead, take it as an opportunity to learn that you can do absolutely everything in the company of Spirit, until you realize that you don’t exist as a separate self at all. Enjoy the flowers, enjoy your work and your relationships, whatever it might be, but enjoy it with God.
A dear friend of ours was a shining example of this approach. Paula was an elevated soul, and Swamiji spoke highly of her. He said, “Only a very great soul could die the way she did.”
Paula had cancer, and she died very consciously. She held her consciousness firmly on God to the end. The last words she spoke were, “God, Christ, Guru.”
She faced death with perfect spiritual power. You can’t die like that unless you have a very high level of consciousness.
And yet – Paula had so many clothes! The women in the community reaped great blessings from Paula’s closets and closets of clothes after she died. She had endless clothes and earrings, and she greatly overspent her financial resources.
She didn’t have her life perfectly arranged on all levels. But it didn’t matter, because there was such a purity of consciousness in her. And it is our purity of heart that defines who we are spiritually – it’s not those small desires.
It’s as if God says, “Don’t sweat the small stuff!” Don’t worry about all the little things that pass through your life. Just cultivate more and more love for God, and everything will take care of itself.
Many times at Ananda, somebody would announce that they had decided to earn lots of money in order to help Ananda.
And, sure enough, we never had enough money, so we could always have used more. But I would tell them, “Money is not the only way to serve.”
If you have the ability to earn money, then by all means, help by giving money. But to go out and try to get money when your greatest need is to cultivate devotion to God might be a big step backward.
If your karma is to make money, then by all means use it generously, because it will help you expand your awareness and find more of God’s abundance flowing into your life.
Paramhansa Yogananda’s chief disciple, Rajarsi Janakananda, had the ability to make tons of money, which he used to help the Guru’s work. But we need to recognize that money is fleeting and illusory. It doesn’t mean anything of itself. And great things are accomplished not by material means alone, but by great consciousness.
Prosperity is needed in a spiritual work. But the saints have never let themselves own very much. Buddha was completely impoverished. And Christ had nothing, yet he made quite an impact on the world!
Saint Francis was utterly without worldly goods. At the end of his life, Francis was horrified when he saw that his monastic order was becoming wealthy. One of the last things he did was to climb on the roof of the monastery that the monks had built, where with his bare hands he tried to tear off the roof tiles and throw them onto the ground. Because poverty, and complete reliance on God as the only reality, was, in his view, the true power of their order.
At the end, they were erecting large buildings, and it broke St. Francis’ heart, because the monastic order had turned on him and betrayed everything he had set out to do.
St. Francis had written a rule for the order, and it was very simple. It said basically “We have nothing except God. We depend on God. That is our rule.” They asked St. Francis to write a new rule, and he went into seclusion and came up with the same rule. They asked him again, and he came up with the same rule.
By now, the people in charge were saying that Francis needed to be more practical and sensible. They said, “The order is too big for us to live in poverty.” So he wrote the rule a third time. And finally they threw it all out and wrote what they wanted. But all of the money didn’t do anything for their spirit.
Swami Kriyananda said that if we have a strong desire for something, we can “spiritualize it” by turning it toward God. If you have material desires, you can earn money and give some of it to good causes. If you like beautiful things, you can buy them and give them away.
Take whatever you’re going to do anyway, and try to make it as generous as you can. And bring Divine Mother into it. Because if you’re going to do it anyway, you might as well go ahead and do it but give it to God. In that way, He will be able to gradually guide you toward a deeper understanding.
Do what is natural for you. It’s sometimes more expansive to have nothing, and sometimes it’s contractive to have nothing. It depends on where your reality is.
Paramhansa Yogananda made his monks and nuns dress nicely, and Swamiji also encouraged us to dress well, because he believed that it’s a service to others. (After all, they have to look at you!) He complimented people when they dressed well, and if they were dressed too shabbily he didn’t approve, because it didn’t express an expansive consciousness.
The process of transcending the ego and realizing our oneness with God doesn’t happen by adopting a particular lifestyle – living as monks and nuns or as householders. Swamiji emphasized that even the best karma won’t take you to God. Which is to say, you can do lots of good things, but as long as you’re identified with what you’re doing, that ego-identification will bind you.
The way to overcome this sense of identification with our ego-desires is by repeatedly experiencing the deep inner stillness that comes through the practice of meditation and devotion.
In that deep inner stillness, you stop the vibrations of likes and dislikes and get to know yourself as you really are. And you realize that in the midst of all the coming and going, succeeding and failing, there’s really only one continuous thread, and that’s the unbroken thread of Divine Spirit. That’s how you can become impersonal and find it just as easy to give God your failures as your successes.
Through the practice of meditation, you realize that when all motion stops, the only enduring reality is the inner reality of Spirit. And if you are this power of Spirit in the silence of meditation, then you haven’t really become something else when you go out in the midst of your daily activities. And if the inner Spirit goes out and does this or that, and even if it all ends in a big mess, it’s no more your doing than when it’s successful. But unless you can continually come back to that center point in meditation, and refuse to let your mind run restless, it’s much harder to find that inner point of stillness in your daily life.
And that’s the simple reason why all of these desires are not our friends. Because if you are restless and agitated and spend all your days seeking outwardly, it’s harder to come back to meditate and be still, because the restlessness comes with you.
When you begin to find the consciousness that meditation gives you, you automatically begin to want to cut away anything that disrupts it too much. You automatically begin to do the things that nurture this inner awareness. And whether it’s through actual deep meditation (if we have the gift of being able to dive deeply), or if it’s only the peace of mind of being in tune with Spirit, it has to be an actual experience.
You stop going to agitating movies, not because somebody tells you that it isn’t spiritual, but because you don’t want to come into meditation and be thinking about that. You stop reading certain books, you stop watching the news, you stop eating meat, you stop drinking beer, you stop doing all kinds of things because they take you out of the place where you want to be. And the reason you want to be in that place is that the more you feel the inner oneness and bliss, the freer you are. And nobody has to force you to do it. But you won’t change until you can experience it for yourself.
We can’t make people come to our Sangha, we can’t make people meditate, and we can’t make them want to expand their awareness in love and compassion.
People can talk to you forever, but it’s only when you begin to feel that stillness in your self that you begin to get the benefit, and begin to see what your life is all about.
(From a class on the Bhagavad Gita.)