Mistakes on the Spiritual Path — How to Lighten the Load

When David and I moved to this area, we found that many people were interested in Ananda and the spiritual path.

Mistakes on the spiritual path are not mistakes; they are part of the process of liberation. Click to enlarge. Creative Commons; flickr photo by mbmrbr
Mistakes on the path are not mistakes; they are an absolutely indispensable part of the process. Click to enlarge. Creative Commons; flickr photo by mbmrbr

They were enthusiastic and had sincere intentions: “I’m going to take classes, learn Kriya Yoga, and come to service every Sunday.”

I could feel that they were absolutely resolved to do it, and then I wouldn’t see them again, or they wouldn’t return for years.

It reminded me of the many times I had thoroughly intended to do this or that, and then something happened and it didn’t turn out that way.

There’s often a big divide between our aspirations and our reality. We’re completely sincere in wanting to reach for the highest, because there’s a sure, intuitive knowing in us that God has implanted there – we know that if we follow that subtle God-given impulse, our heart’s desires will be fulfilled.

It’s the part of us that completely understands Jesus’ words, “But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.”

We visualize ourselves marching in a straight line toward our shining goal. And then we find, to our bewilderment, that we’ve moved sideways, and we may have drifted far from where we intended to go.

Lately, I’ve had what people kindly call senior moments, where my aging brain shorts out on me.

As I was putting in an earring the other day, I looked at another pair and thought, “Those are pretty – I don’t wear them often enough.” And five or six hours later I realized that I was wearing one earring from one set and one from another.

I don’t mind being embarrassed, but there was no moment at which I could remember making that decision. It was as if I had fallen asleep and gotten dressed in that state.

David and I were giving the Festival of Light, and I suddenly realized that I was reading his part. I asked him later, “What happened?” He said, “I don’t know. I paused and you took over.” He was very kind about it, but there was no point when I decided, “I think I’ll muscle in and take David’s lines.” God knows what made me do it.

Now, these are trivial examples, but they’re part of a pattern that we can observe in our lives. “I’ll follow this path.” And then something else happens.

The point is that whether we succeed or fail on the path isn’t ultimately a question of how many times we behave like idiots, but of what we do after we behave like idiots.

Durga Mata, a senior disciple of Yogananda, used to say, “The first thought isn’t yours.” It’s what we do with the second thought that matters.

We often talk about how wonderful it is to live in an Ananda community, among friends who support our high ideals.

It creates powerful bonds between us to be walking this path together. But another thing about living in a spiritual community is that everybody knows all about you, and the longer you live together, the more they know. They may witness the moments that you aren’t the most proud of. And then you can’t simply run away, because there’s a God-given bond with your gurubhais that will endure over many lives.

8741402150_77c95d4e4d_zIf you aren’t living in a spiritual community, you can get divorced, lose your job, and make a complete fool of yourself, and you can move to another city and start over. But at Ananda, you can’t. You’re certainly free to leave, but you’ll just end up missing your gurubhais and feeling that you’ve lost your true spiritual family.

A friend of mine did something that people were all abuzz about, because it wasn’t his shining hour.

He walked up to me and said, very charmingly, “Well, what do you think about what happened?”

It took courage, because it wasn’t easy to be so open and trusting, and I wasn’t part of his close circle.

Then he said, “I consider my spiritual liberation a community project.”

It took humility and courage, because we do have our pride. But it was the right attitude. Because success on the path is a question of deciding that even if difficult tests come, and even if I make a fool of myself – why make it worse by covering myself with shame, and hiding my face and feeling that “I can’t go to church anymore, and I can’t live here anymore, because everyone knows.”

A friend of mine had an embarrassing cycle that left him feeling uncomfortable about himself, and with the way he thought others were defining him.

He said to me, “I just can’t be here anymore!”

I said, “Look – straighten your spine, lift your chin, look people in the eye, and in two days no one will remember.”

And it’s true. Because when we’re up close with ourselves, we think we’re so terribly important. But the truth is that people aren’t all that interested, because they’re engrossed in their own reality.

We need to face our tests courageously, and with a constant sense of our long-range goal. The only reason we’re uncomfortable is because of the little ego’s desire to look good. But if we didn’t have a pile of weird and embarrassing karma, we wouldn’t be living on this earth. The odds are that if you’re living on this planet, you aren’t a liberated being. So I feel justified in including all of us in what I’m saying.

People move into our communities, and sometimes they’ll become disillusioned, because they see things happening that aren’t “supposed” to happen in a spiritual place.

People lose their tempers, couples get divorced, and we realize that the people for whom we have the highest regard are less than perfect. Surprise, surprise!

And then it makes people second-guess their decision to come here. “Maybe this isn’t a true path. Maybe this isn’t the place for me.”

Naturally, we want to hold out for the best. But the reality is that it isn’t a question of what people are doing wrong, but of how they’re responding to it.

Are they getting stuck in some terrible self-definition, letting it take them over and guide their actions? Or are they working hard to become better? Are they working toward God-realization, starting where they are?

In our schools, where the environment is so amazingly positive and supportive, the parents will sometimes question whether the children are getting a real experience of life, and whether we’re shielding them too much from reality?

I always say, “No such luck!” Because each child brings into that nurturing environment their own unique karma and their own destiny. And what we offer in our school is a genuine, mature, spiritually grounded way of dealing with what we are and learning to see ourselves honestly, so that we can move forward with self-acceptance and full confidence and energy and joy.

And that, of course, is the path of Self-Realization – to recognize that in my deepest reality I am the Infinite Spirit, and that I will someday be God-realized, even if some dramatic things may happen along the way. And when they happen, let me be amused. Or if I can’t be amused, let me be a little bit detached, because these things don’t define me.

There’s a passage in the Bhagavad Gita where Krishna tells us that delusion is of three kinds: it’s like smoke from a fire, like rust on a mirror, and like an embryo in the womb.

It’s a deeply meaningful passage, with highly practical applications that can help us understand ourselves and what we need to do to move forward and grow closer to God.

In the Bible, Christ tells us that no matter how difficult our problems are, we can always call on God – “Lord, save me!” – and God will surely come and help us.

But many of us have trouble saying “Lord, save me!” Because we’re terribly afraid to open our hearts and talk to God with humble sincerity. And if we aren’t able to create that childlike relationship, it can make us feel distanced from God, and it can tempt us to think that this path isn’t working, and maybe it isn’t for us after all.

But it’s extremely useful to understand the type of delusion that is ours, so that we can accept ourselves and start doing the right spiritual work.

For some of us, our delusions are barely a wisp of karma – as the Gita quaintly puts it, there’s just a little bit of smoke obscuring the light, and it takes only a little puff to blow the smoke away and reveal the fire burning brightly.


Coach John Wooden’s UCLA teams won 10 national championships and 66 games in a row.
Coach John Wooden’s UCLA teams won 10 national championships and 66 games in a row.

But for some of us, our delusions are like rust on a mirror, and we have to scrub hard to remove them. And then your arm gets tired, and it can require that you develop real spiritual strength.

Your cleaning fluid runs out, and you go to the store, and you forget why you went there. And then you get a product that doesn’t work, and you find that the dog has walked on the mirror, and all sorts of things happen to help you develop strength and perseverance. And you have to accept that this is your karma, and that it’s your natural spiritual work at this time, and that you have to keep at it.

We have to understand what the Bhagavad Gita is saying. It’s telling us not to be depressed or downcast by the spiritual work that we have to do. “Don’t worry about it! This is simply the way it is. The rust will come off in due time. Your divinely appointed duty, for now, is to work hard to scrub it away.”

This is the level of spiritual development where our delusions cling to us like rust on a mirror. It’s a karma that requires lots of “scrubbing” before we’re free. We may have to work on these karmic qualities for years, repeating the same lessons over and over.

Swamiji was so patient with us in this process. He never said, “It’s about time you got that mirror clean!”

Toward the end of his life, he gave me some advice as if it had only then occurred to him for the first time – even though he had said the same thing to me at regular intervals for many years. And each time he would say it as if he had only just thought of it.

It was lovely, because it gave me the opportunity to deal with it completely fresh. I had scrubbed the mirror as far as I could, and I couldn’t go farther. And then Swamiji would pick it up and hand it to me as if it were completely new. I don’t think it was calculated on his part – he didn’t think up these things with his mind. Rather, it was guided by his inspiration from Master and God.

We were in Italy, traveling with our Ananda choir. Swamiji sang at every performance, and my little assignment was to keep his clothes ironed. There was a sports jacket that he wore, and after each concert I would iron it carefully, and then I would hang it up, and I would come back later and realize that it was still wrinkled. It was very confusing, and it wasn’t until the last performance that I realized there were two identical jackets, and as I ironed one he would be wearing the other.

It’s a silly example. But you never know how thick the rust is until you’ve worked on it for a long time, and you begin to see the shining mirror underneath.

Some of the karmas we have to scrub away aren’t easy. We resolve, “I won’t hold a grudge. I won’t be jealous. I won’t be angry. I won’t react. This time I’ll be calm no matter what happens.”

And then for the umpteenth time you realize that you’ve slid backwards. And the point is that it doesn’t matter. What matters is what you do next. You simply need to keep working, even though you don’t know when you’ll be done.

There are delusions that are so deep that we can’t get our hands on them – they are like the baby in the womb, and it will only come out at its proper time. Swamiji said, “Fight the battles that you stand a good chance of winning.” He advised us to put the out-of-reach delusions on the shelf until we’ve developed the strength to deal with them.

We plead with God, “But I’m a good devotee. You must take away karma soon!” And, very often, it’s no use at all, because those karmas can only be resolved with the right amount of time and effort. And we must find the courage and acceptance not to become downcast or depressed about it. Because God knows our difficulties, and He only wants us to have complete faith that His love is with us always, and faith that we’ll become free if we will just put one foot in front of the other.

Paramhansa Yogananda said, “I don’t expect you to overcome your tests. I just expect you to resist.”

We can’t be better than we are. Swamiji said that if we can’t resist temptation by turning our back on it forever and walking away, we can at least resist mentally.

Even in the act of doing what you know you shouldn’t do, hold back a part of yourself. Even if I’m behaving like a complete idiot today, with part of my mind I know that someday I’ll be able to behave with wisdom.

mistakesWhen you stumble, think of it as one less time it will happen, and one more chance to gradually build a resolve that will, in time, be strong enough to overwhelm the unwelcome tendency.

Swami says, “If you don’t give energy to your mistakes, then when their energy runs down, you’ll be free.”

Refusing to give energy to your mistakes doesn’t mean that you’ll never fall. It means that you shouldn’t let your mistakes define you. And that’s a big difference.

I may do things that I don’t believe in, and that I don’t want to commit myself to, but I’m not defined by them. I’m committed to merging my consciousness with my own perfect nature and becoming God-realized. I’m committed to becoming a perfect expression of God.

I don’t always live up to my aspirations. No surprise! Why kid ourselves? We don’t always live up to our ideals. But as Swamiji reminded us, our aspirations are the part of us that most truly defines us.

Swamiji said, “If you judge yourself, which I don’t recommend, realize that you are energy in motion, and that anything that you can see in yourself is already behind you. And what you really are is the direction your energy is going.”

Define yourself more by your aspirations, because they are your reality. What you aspire to, where your heart is, that is what you will become. And never give up.

Who cares if others are streaking ahead and seemingly doing much better than you? It doesn’t make any difference, if you simply refuse to give up. This is God’s law. If you give up, you’ll just have to start over again. Because you can never leave the spiritual path.

Don’t let yourself dwell on what has gone wrong. Think, “What can I do to move forward?” In that thought, God will hold your hand, direct you on your path, and cheer your efforts. The divine truth is that we are heroes and heroines of a great story of courage and divine destiny.

(From Asha’s talk at Sunday service on August 24, 2003.)

Leave a Comment

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.