Swami Kriyananda’s book, The Essence of Self Realization, is a collection of sayings of Paramhansa Yogananda that Swamiji recorded during the years he lived with his Guru.
Even though I’ve read that book many times, it continues to have an extraordinary power for me.
One memorable passage is a conversation between Yogananda and a professor from Columbia University.
As a professor of philosophy, he was more interested in ideas about religion, than the practices of inner communion.
“What is God?” “What are His attributes?” “What are His qualities?” These are the kind of questions that intellectuals and theologians love.
Yogananda answered the professor in an interesting way. He explained that it’s impossible for us, with our limited human minds, to perceive God’s nature – His unconditional love, His omnipresence, and His infinite wisdom.
The human intellect can only grasp reality secondhand. It cannot directly know a being whose nature is unbounded.
Yogananda tells the professor that the point of an avatar’s presence on earth is not to explain the spiritual life in terms that satisfy the mind, but to inspire us. The avatar’s role is to awaken that part of us that can realize God’s omnipresence as our own.
Elsewhere, Yogananda says, “The masters talk about God in terms that we already know.” The masters are aware of our human longings – how our hearts long for love, and to be understood, to be seen, and to be comforted, appreciated, and supported. So they talk about human experiences that we can relate to. They speak of God as a father and mother, and they talk about friendship and romantic love.
In the Bible, we find the story of the seven virgins who waited for the bridegroom. But when the bridegroom came, only those who truly loved him were accepted into the inner sanctum.
We can understand the meaning of the story because it touches our hearts. We can imagine longing for a great love, and how we would feel if that love were to come and it was denied to us.
Our hearts can understand those feelings. And so, instead of giving us a set of intellectual definitions, the masters give us stories that we can understand with our hearts.
Jesus says, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and all these things shall be added unto you.”
The “things” he is referring to are not the mansion on the hill, with the fancy car in the driveway and the perfect family. They are the things without which our hearts are never satisfied. And until we find them, we live in a state of continual restlessness.
As St. Augustine put it, “Lord, our hearts are restless, until they find their rest in Thee.”
That word, “restless,” opens up a wonderful perspective on spiritual path.
During the Christmas season, my responsibility is to make the costumes for our Christmas Eve crèche scene, and I have what I can only describe as an obsessive relationship with the costumes. Once the idea of a costume enters my head, it will not give me peace. My mind is so restless that I can’t sleep, and I can barely meditate, because it wants to go and put the gold lamé back in the sewing machine and get to work. I’ve broken two sewing machines this week in my restless obsession to move the project forward.
Fortunately, it’s a joyful service. It’s fun, and it’s for a good cause. But nevertheless, “restless” and “obsessed” are the perfect words to describe what I become when I work on the costumes at Christmas.
Our human hearts are forever restless. A friend and I were discussing a word that people often use when talking about romantic relationships. They’ll say, “I’m not sure I should ‘settle’ for this relationship.” We all have a list of the qualities we want in a perfect relationship. And, “Maybe this person won’t fulfill all of my longings, but I don’t think I should settle, so I’m going to try this other relationship because it looks like it might give me more.”
Restless, restless, restless. Wherever I’m standing, it’s not enough. And we’re perfectly right – whatever we long for in this world, it will never be enough. Because we can seek here and there, but it will never satisfy our hearts completely.
Yogananda described God as better than a thousand million romantic loves all merged into one – better than the most delicious taste, the most delightful feelings, and the most exquisite sights. And the way he describes God is very persuasive, because he’s speaking from direct experience. He isn’t describing God from the outside, in a cold, abstract, intellectual way; he’s inspiring us to seek the perfect, flawless fulfillment of the deepest longing of our hearts.
In the West, Christmas is a time when something very special happens – it’s as if a ray of Spirit breaks through and floods the world. And it can touch us on a profound level if we can open ourselves to receive it.
Yogananda and Swamiji strongly urge us to throw ourselves into the spirit of Christmas and receive the blessings of this time. They admonish us, “Do not dissipate the energy of this season by getting lost in the material side.” Because the veil that separates us from Spirit becomes thinner at this time, and it’s a priceless opportunity for spiritual growth. For those with hearts to receive it, there is a great spiritual celebration at this time that we can participate in.
But it’s the story of the virgins who were barred from seeing the bridegroom. The bridegroom is God who is eternally present in us. The power of God was present for the seven virgins, but the foolish virgins were vibrating on the wrong wavelength. Instead of holding their hearts in readiness to receive the Spirit, the restless feelings of their hearts prevailed.
We may do good works, but if we’re doing them in a spirit of restlessness, without selfless love for God, we’ll be barred from the chamber of inner communion. The Bible urges us not to act from that spirit of restlessness, but to find the right attunement, even as we continue to act, by keeping the lamp of our attunement filled with the divine love that dwells in the deepest inner chamber of the heart.
Even though I’ve read The Essence of Self-Realization many times, it’s uncanny how I’ll come upon a paragraph that I’m positive wasn’t there before.
I had that experience recently with a passage where Yogananda talks about the purpose of human love.
He tells us that the purpose of the love of good friends is to help us understand that the nature of divine love is to give itself freely, without conditions or expectations.
Yogananda said that friendship is the freest form of love. We give love to our friends simply because we feel inspired by the joy of giving it.
And then Master uses a beautiful phrase, “the selfless intensity of romantic love.” This is something we desire of love in all its forms – a “selfless intensity” that takes us out of ourselves.
And finally, Master says that the love of the parents for the child is meant to help us understand that the nature of God’s love is supportive and protective.
And this is one of the reasons Christmas is such a heart-expanding time of year, because it’s about turning our feelings of parental love to worship God as a baby.
The story of Christ’s birth is permeated with meaning on many levels. One is simply that it happened – the Divine incarnated that little form to live among us, and show us what perfection looks like.
This is the avatar’s role. Christ was born in a baby’s body, and even in that little form he was a divine being who had merged himself completely in God.
Anandamoyi Ma was a great woman saint in India. It was a remarkable fact that when she was a baby she never cried. As an infant she had no agitation at all. She was born very calm. When someone asked her about it, she said, “I was lying there admiring the beautiful green trees that I could see out the window.”
She described her consciousness as a seamless current that began long before her human birth and continued unbroken through her birth, infancy and childhood, and as she grew into adulthood.
She said, “I was always the same.” She had not the slightest identification with the changing reality in which we live. Where the rational mind finds it impossible to understand infinity, she lived in that infinity. And when that infinity assumed the form of a baby, she lived as a baby for a time, but her consciousness of infinity never changed. So she saw no reason to be excited about being born. And while everyone was welcoming the baby and making a fuss, she was identified with infinity and was always the same.
Christ had that infinite consciousness. This is why the Bible tells us that he was worshipped by angels and wise men. Yet his birth as a pure incarnation of God – an avatar – is symbolic of our own potential to welcome the birth of the Christ consciousness in our hearts. And as parents we can learn that the Christ consciousness in is very precious, and that we must protect and nurture it.
Now, just think how the parents nurture the newborn child. The baby is so vulnerable, and the love of the mother and father says, “I will do anything to protect this child. I will do anything to ensure that my child can realize its potential.”
The love of the parents reflects the great spiritual drama of our lives. Because we need to understand and nurture our potential – our potential to love infinitely, and to sacrifice self-interest and expand our awareness in the great ocean of God’s love.
When I was new at Ananda, there were two women in my life with whom I had completely different relationships. One of them I loved dearly, and the other I did not get along with at all. We had a karmic conflict that, I suspect, was born in the distant past. With Swami Kriyananda’s help, thank God, we were able to resolve our differences. But it was an intense time, and I was new on the path, and I couldn’t figure it out.
I knew that I had an intense aversion on one side, and an intense affection on the other. And so I came up with a bright idea that I presented to Swami Kriyananda.
“Swamiji,” I said, “the problem is not that I dislike this woman so much, it’s that I love this one too much. And if I loved her less, it would sort of equalize. What do you think?”
Swami looked at me for a moment in stunned silence. In all the years I knew him, he was sarcastic with me perhaps three times, and this was the first.
“That’s the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard!”
He said that great love is given to us so that we can begin to understand the joy of great love. And the love that’s planted in us to give to the baby is so that we can understand the joy of giving that great love. We think it’s purely about loving the baby as our own, because we don’t understand that it’s the story of our own spiritual potential.
We need to reflect on where the ability to love comes from. Do we think that it comes from nothing, simply because the child is suddenly there, or because our dream romantic partner is suddenly there? Do we think that our love is simply a mechanism implanted in us by nature to preserve the species, as many intellectuals claim? Or that it is born from the physical structure of our brains and hearts?
The love that comes out of us shows us what we are made of. We didn’t realize how much we could love, and that we could experience the joy of such great love. All of human life is God’s great play, in which He is trying to draw us into a love that is forever increasing.
This life is not an end in itself. Now, that doesn’t mean that we should live our lives badly. Just the opposite – the more perfectly we live, the more perfectly we can begin to understand the flawless fulfillment that is possible in God’s bliss and love.
“Be ye therefore perfect, even as our Father in heaven is perfect.” Christ wasn’t merely spinning beautiful ideas. He was describing our actual destiny. That destiny is what Christ is describing when he says, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and all these things will be added unto you.” It was a definite promise.
In our human hearts we say, “Oh, this love is so satisfying to me!” And then the masters come and tell us, “A thousand million romantic loves all crushed into one, moment by moment, can be yours if you would seek it.” And the mind doesn’t know what to think, but the heart understands.
Think of the first thrilling days of a great romance. A thousand million times that love crushed into each moment! It’s inconceivable, because it’s not a mental definition but a very real promise. It’s a promise that our hearts will be restless until they are fulfilled in the perfect love of the Christ child. “Lord, our hearts are restless, until they find their rest in Thee.” And so it is. And so it will always be.
And now, in this beautiful season, we’re given permission to love the baby and to taste that cosmic love. And so I urge you to seize this opportunity, and you will find your love transformed.
God bless you.
(From Asha’s talk at Sunday service on December 7, 2014.)