In the English language, “God” is not a very helpful word, because it doesn’t, at least for most people, conjure up an actual experience.
People often come to our meditation classes because they’ve heard that meditation will make them less tense at work, less impatient with their family, and so on.
So they’ll come for those reasons, but then they’ll find that they’ve gotten involved with a “brand” of meditation that has a strong spiritual element attached to it. And they’ll feel duty-bound to take a stand: “You know, I don’t really believe in God.”
They have strong feelings against God. And if you ask them what it is that they’re against, you find that it’s a narrow, sectarian concept of God, based on blind belief and rigid dogmas.
I answer them, “If that was my idea of God, I’d be against it, too!”
The Sanskrit language is much better than English for talking about spiritual things. In Sanskrit, there are hundreds of words for God, each expressing an understanding of a different subtle aspect of His being. And of course it causes uninformed observers in the West to exclaim, “Can’t you make up your minds?”
Swami Kriyananda said that when he first listened to Paramhansa Yogananda interpret the Bhagavad Gita, he was utterly confused. He’d been raised in the western intellectual tradition, where if something means something, it can’t mean something else. It’s based on an “either/or,” logical-rational kind of thinking, whereas in India, they’ll take a single scripture verse and see how many different meanings they can find in it.
So when Yogananda would say that a Gita verse meant such-and-such, but it also meant something else, it became a serious spiritual test for him, because he began to doubt the Guru. “Can’t he make up his mind?”
When we look at the Western concept of God, it’s very rigid and remote, rather like a statue that you can walk up to and ask for favors. And if He’s in a bad mood you’ll have to turn around and run away. But in the Eastern tradition, God is viewed as a flowing reality that we can experience in our heart. It’s not something to be thought of with our reasoning powers, but a living reality that is part of us, and that we can commune with in meditation.
In India we find that the concept of God implies a personal relationship, and that there are as many concepts of god as there are worshippers. Because, as Yogananda put it, the infinite Lord can take any form that the devotee holds dear.
We had a wonderful party in our temple last night. The room was beautifully decorated, and there were long tables of food that people had brought. And as I went through the food line, I looked carefully at all of the dishes and chose just those that suited me well. Other people chose different foods, and it was a perfect expression of the Eastern concept that each of us is highly individual and unique.
Looking at other people’s plates, we see that our uniqueness extends even to something as simple as our palate. We can see that everyone is moving in his or her own reality. Because, as Yogananda said, we are a field of vibrations that we’ve molded into our own unique pattern.
When I was new to Ananda, my parents came to visit. I was living at the Seclusion Retreat at the time, and we had daily meditations at noon. My father was a very inquisitive person, and he asked if he could go along and watch.
I said, “Sure, but there’s not a lot to see.”
So he sat in the back and watched, and he saw that different people had their own ways of sitting and meditating. So that was his first experience of meditation, more or less as a spectator sport. And he was able to see that although we were doing basically the same practices, Kriya Yoga and the other techniques, we were highly individual in our practice.
The Bhagavad Gita talks about how we naturally progress in our spiritual understanding. It says, “When you first hear the truth spoken, you aren’t aware that it has been spoken. The next time you hear it spoken, you hear it, but then you immediately fall asleep.”
At first, you think, “No, this isn’t for me. I’m really not all that interested.” You aren’t ready, and so it makes no impact.
Later, you may be intrigued, but then you “go to sleep” – you get distracted and forget all about it. And so, step by step, we come to the point where we’re more or less awake and consistent in our practice.
I talked with a woman who wanted to explain God to her grandson who was three years old, but she wasn’t sure how to go about it.
I said, “Why don’t you ask him if he loves his mother, and if he loves his grandma?”
We really have to stop thinking about God in rational, intellectual terms. Because it does us no good at all to hold Him at arm’s length with our rational minds. Rather, we need to let deep love for God grow naturally in our hearts over time. This is why Sri Yukteswar said that it’s impossible to take even a single step on the spiritual path without “the natural love of the heart.”
I came across an amazing video, of a surgeon performing an operation on a six-month-old baby in its mother’s womb. The baby’s spine hadn’t come together properly, so they opened up the mother and repaired it, and then they closed up the mother again and left the baby there so that he could develop normally. And in the middle of the surgery, this little, tiny hand comes out of the womb and takes hold of the surgeon’s finger.
I watched it repeatedly, because here’s this bloody scene where they’ve got the mother’s belly cut open, and this little hand comes out and grabs the doctor’s finger. And where does that instinct to want to have a contact come from? Where does that life come from? Where does the instinct to reach out and connect come from? I don’t know Sanskrit, but I’ll bet there’s a term for it.
There’s certainly a word for the infinite current of love of which that yearning for connection is but a small part. That word is prem. We think of romantic love – “I love you” and “I love you because you love me, and if you stop loving me I’ll stop loving you.”
This is the great misery of human existence, that we feel compelled to keep score and to bargain back and forth. But no matter how often we’re disappointed, and no matter how often the score doesn’t come out in our favor, there’s something in us that we have no control over and that is so much bigger than we are, that we are an aspect of. And it’s this irresistible desire to love and to be loved.
I visited a friend who’s been in prison for a long time. I used to visit him in Folsom State Prison, and now I’m visiting him in a facility where there’s more freedom. But I found that in Folsom it was a very spiritually stimulating experience to step into an environment that’s completely other than your own.
You go into Folsom Prison, and because the security is very tight, you have to pass through a series of double-entry doors, where you stand in a chamber and the door behind you closes before the next door opens. So it’s a long process to get to where you’re going, and finally you get to the center of the prison, and you’re in an ugly multi-purpose room, and perfectly regular-looking people are sitting around with their mothers and fathers and wives and girlfriends and children. And I would sit there and think, “Every one of these men has a mother, and many of their mothers are sitting here, and this is the irresistible need to love.”
It didn’t matter why they were there, or where they had come from. People were looking out from the same human reality, and the mother’s heart, or the sister’s or sweetheart’s or child’s heart was engaged in this flow of energy back and forth. And we are so not in charge of that energy, and we are not the creators of it.
But where does it come from? And why is it always there? Because it’s always there. If you’re a parent or a child, you can’t give up on it. Even if you don’t like the person, you can’t give up on it, no matter what they’ve done. Because it is the fundamental reality.
That love of interrelationship, that desire to comfort, that tiny hand coming out of the bloody womb to grasp the surgeon’s finger. You look at that picture and you can’t help but think that the baby is saying, “Thank you.” Because the doctor is healing him for his whole incarnation. “Thank you for going to medical school and learning how to do this and save me.”
We are so not in charge of this. And when everything is finished and when we come to calmness – not the calmness of death, but when all of the little distractions of our lives are ended, we each of us will come back to that same reality. And everyone shares the longing for it. “I want to be connected. I want to be loved. I want to have the opportunity to give love.”
The thing that makes people most unhappy is loneliness. Someone recently said to me, “You travel in India a lot. The poverty there must be difficult to deal with.”
I thought, “No, it’s not. Every soul has to struggle, one way or another.” In America we struggle with money above all else. And our idea of the worst kind of struggle is not to have any money. We can’t conceive of anything worse.
One of our dear Indian friends is very westernized. We asked him, “You’re so good at what you do. Have you ever thought of moving to America?”
“Oh, no,” he said. “You Americans are never satisfied. No matter how much you have, you always want more.”
He said, “I wouldn’t live in your country for anything.”
For us, the greatest poverty is not to have stuff. We see Indian people with one change of clothes, or not even that, and that’s the worst thing we could possibly think of.
Mother Teresa came to America, and she may have been successful in setting up a mission here and there. But in San Francisco she was utterly thwarted. She basically shook the dust of San Francisco off her sandaled feet and went back to India, because she couldn’t get an ashram started.
Mother Teresa was trying to establish missions of charity in San Francisco. They had a house, and they ripped out the carpets and wanted to turn off the hot water. It was a multi-story house, and she didn’t want to install an elevator. And when they asked, “How will you get the sick and poor people up and down the stairs?” Mother Teresa said, “The nuns will carry them.”
“And why don’t you want hot water?”
“We don’t need hot water.”
And the city wouldn’t let her do it. Everything she wanted to do to reduce it all down to the nuns’ capacity to love people – absolutely not! Because you had to have all this stuff.
And she finally went like this. (Asha throws up her arms.) Afterwards, she said, “The poverty of India is nothing compared to the poverty of this country.” She said, “There, it’s poverty of the body. Here it’s poverty of the heart.”
The inability to love. The inability even to allow ourselves to do it, the fear of expressing it, the isolation that our passion for all of this material stuff gives us. Starting with the fact that everybody can afford their own car and their own house and their own washing machine.
I read in the paper about someone who’d been caught by the economic downturn, and three generations of the family were forced to live in a small house. They were saying that, yes, at times it was challenging, because the dining room was also a bedroom, for example. But on the other hand, they were finding a richness in the experience that they hadn’t known when they were able to cocoon themselves in their typical American individual personal spaces.
Now, Paramhansa Yogananda came to change all of that. He came to change it by starting cooperative communities. But he also came to change it in a much more profound way.
The western concept of God was cast by Jesus, when he spoke of God as the Father. And the reason he talked of God as Father is because he was correcting the Jews. To the Jews, God was a severe judge, and that was a really scary concept of God. So Jesus tried to teach them that God is not a judge but our loving Father.
He said, “If you ask of your Father a loaf of bread, will He give you a stone?”
He was trying to get them to understand that God was their friend, that He was on their side, and that that which belonged to the Father was the natural inheritance of the sons.
And so for two millennia the masculine image of God prevailed, and God remained somewhat impersonal and distant. Because even though the Father loves you, you still have to rise to meet His standards.
But Master said, “The Mother is closer than the Father.” The mother’s heart is always open, and nothing can separate the mother from her child. Master has many delightful prayers where he teaches us how to pray to God as our Mother. He said that you can crawl up onto the lap of the Divine Mother and say, “I know I’ve done wrong, Mother, and I know that the karmic law has to be fulfilled. But, Mother, You can intercede for me and it won’t have to happen. I’m Your naughty baby, and I’m going to cling to You, and You’re not going to be able to turn me away.
Yogananda came with that new thought, that new reality, with that new expression, with that personification which was reflected in his marvelously androgynous face, where in some photos you can’t really tell if he’s a mother or a father.
He was having dinner with a family, and the child kept staring at him. Finally, the child got up and put his face really close to Master’s and said, “Are you a man, or are you a woman?” And Master said, “Neither.”
As physical beings every one of us has grown under the mother’s heart. We have come from the mother’s body. She has sacrificed her body for us. She has made us from her own self, held us, and lived for us. And that is the side of God that Master came to tell us about, the God who is exactly that close.
We don’t want to sit alone in our room and make lists of the qualities of the Divine, as we did for two thousand years. What we want now is to be comforted, and to be able to love.
In the Bible, Jesus says, “After I am gone, I will send you the Comforter.” That word is so exquisite. I think it’s the best word we have in the English language for God. Because it’s much more accurate than “God.”
The Comforter. Just think of it. When things become so difficult, which they often do, what do we long for? We long to be comforted. We don’t want to be instructed. We don’t want to be reminded that, once again, we’ve failed to meet the standard, that once again all of our good intentions have crashed, that once again all of our high expectations won’t be fulfilled. Or, if everything has been going wonderfully, we realize that nothing lasts in this world, and even though we’ve had a good run, and it’s been a really good incarnation, at some point we’ll need to be comforted.
Paramhansa Yogananda’s mission was to give us the sacred keys of awakening. As it says in the Festival of Light, “Into our hands have been given the sacred keys of awakening.” And there’s another marvelous promise, “Abundant now is our hope.” Think of that. Think of what it means to have an abundance of hope. And that’s the Comforter.
That’s what comfort is, isn’t it? “Oh, yes, my dear, I know that you’re feeling miserable, and indeed this is quite a mess.” And then if we open our hearts to receive the Mother’s love, we find Her giving it freely, and comforting us.
The Comforter is the AUM – the expression of the Divine Mother’s consciousness within us. As Lahiri Mahasaya said, “The only duty that has been given to mankind is to listen to the inner sounds.”
A woman came to me for counseling because everything in her life was falling apart. The tale of woe was really impressive. And what could I say?
I said, “The good news is that you get to start over from scratch. Nothing that you had is left.”
She looked at me in horror. But she could feel what I was saying. Instead of resisting, let’s accept that this is happening to us, and let’s get to work and start over. Let us climb onto the Mother’s lap and be comforted.
Yogananda says, “Make that relationship the most intimate relationship you can possibly have.”
That’s what God is to us. And churches really are just places where we can come to celebrate and invite that love. It’s not something that anyone has created. It’s like your relationship with your mother when you were a little child, which was absolutely intimate, and it wasn’t possible for anyone else to be in that same relationship. And it doesn’t begin to describe how close we are with the Divine Mother, and how committed and constant, and infinite and ever-blissful that relationship is meant to be. And it’s always there, and the only limiting factor is our own willingness to open ourselves to receive it.
God bless you.
(From Asha’s talk at Sunday service on May 11, 2014.)