To Free Yourself, First Be Yourself!

While writing my book, Swami Kriyananda – As We Have Known Him, I had a lovely experience.

In the early years at Ananda Village, we published a weekly newsletter that we typed and Xeroxed and put in people’s mailboxes. The newsletter was primitive – it was just our little family talking among ourselves.

As I was looking for material for the book, I discovered that someone had kept most of those old newsletters. I was delighted to be able to leaf through them and find details of so many things that Swamiji and Ananda had done over the years. In about three days, I went through twenty-eight years of newsletters that covered 1974 to 2002. It was amazing to see my own life reflected in the pages, and the flourishing of the spiritual movement that I was part of at Ananda.

A short slideshow of Early Ananda. Click an image to begin. Hover with the mouse cursor to display the arrow at left or right of the image, and click to move through the slides.

In the early days, our Ananda singing group was called The Gandharvas, after a band of celestial singers in Hindu mythology. Later, we decided it wasn’t a name that most people could relate to, and we had a contest in the Village newsletter to choose a new name.

My favorite name – it wasn’t chosen! – was “The flying Garbanzos.” Another favorite was “The Brainwashed Cult Quintet.”

We knew that in society’s eyes we were part of the lunatic fringe, and we figured, why not embrace it and have a good laugh?

The old newsletters were full of amusingly quirky little items. At the same time, you could watch the seeds of an extraordinary movement sprouting and gaining strength.

In the beginning, we were a very simple, impoverished little group of spiritual pioneers. And then in 1976 a forest fire came along and burned most of Ananda to the ground. The community was literally reduced to ashes – we lost twenty-one of our twenty-three houses. By divine grace, the fire spared the building where Swami Kriyananda’s books were published, and a handful of buildings in “downtown” Ananda.

We had to start over from almost nothing. And you could feel the wonderful spirit, as we got up every day and meditated and went about rebuilding our way of life.

Some of us were going out and selling Swami’s books to bookstores, to help spread the teachings and keep the community alive. You would see little notices in the newsletter: “Swami has gone to Los Angeles.” “Swamiji flew to Italy.” “Swamiji gave a lecture.” “Swamiji has written a new book.” “Swamiji wrote a new song.” “A group of us are going out to teach.” “We’re starting an ashram in San Francisco.” “Swamiji arrived home safely.”

Underneath it all, you could feel a current of spiritual power building, as people grew stronger through their dedication and service.

In the beginning, people sometimes felt conflicted between two seemingly opposite desires: “How can I express my own creativity?” And, “How can I give myself to this spiritual movement?”

It’s a conflict that I think most of us have felt at some time. We’re told that every single person’s effort, however small, is important to the spiritual movement that Yogananda started. And, reading those old newsletters, you can see how it was literally true – how Swamiji had the vision, and how each of us was busy working on one tiny part of it – building the roads, making the electricity work, fixing the water pipes, patching the roofs, etc.

Narada Agee — those who knew him will always be grateful for his example of cheerful service. Click to enlarge.
Narada Agee — those who knew him will always be grateful for his example of cheerful service. Click to enlarge.

I think of Narada, who passed away several years ago. Narada was about the humblest devotee in all of Ananda. He was a cheerful, simple-hearted fellow. While Swamiji was out conquering worlds with the message of Self-realization, Narada was wiring the buildings. You would see Narada replacing the horrible, ancient wiring of the original farm house at the Village. Or you would see him wiring a brand-new home. And you might think – hmm, wiring the buildings – that’s not a very important job. But if nobody had wired the buildings, nothing much else could have happened.

As I leafed through twenty-eight years of newsletters, I was struck by how much was created from extremely humble beginnings, simply by each person putting one foot forward and advancing one small step at a time – often in the face of grave difficulties, often confused, sometimes without a clear sense of their role as part of a great spiritual movement. But the job was there to be done, and so they did it, because in their heart they felt that Ananda was where they would find their fulfillment.

The Bhagavad Gita tells us that we must do our own duty, and not try to do someone else’s. It tells is that it doesn’t matter how grand and glittering our role is, or even if we are successful or if we fail. We must simply do what God wants of us. And the extraordinary thing is how many uplifting and inspiring things can happen when we say, very simply and humbly, “This is what I was born to do, and I will give it all my enthusiasm.”

Jyotish gave a talk on Easter Sunday years ago that has stuck in my mind and inspired me. He began by quoting Jesus, when he wept outside the gates of Jerusalem, “I would have saved you, and you rejected me yet again.”

When Jesus foresaw his fate, he said, “save me from this hour.” But he wasn’t concerned for himself – he wept for the people who would acquire negative karma by rejecting him. And then he added the timeless words, “but for this hour, was I born.”

Jyotish looked at us penetratingly and said, “for this hour, were all of us born.”

For this moment, right here, right now, sitting in this church, on this morning – this is the sum of more lives than we can imagine, and more experiences than we can dream of – both dramatic and boring, challenging and effortless, uplifting and discouraging. And all of it – every least, insignificant-seeming thread – has conspired to bring us to this moment. And now God wants us to ask, “What will I do? Where will I put my energy and my consciousness?”

Looking through the newsletters, I remembered what it felt like to be young at Ananda. Someone recently asked me if I had known Yogananda. And, quite aside from the fact that, sadly, it wasn’t true, it surprised me that anyone would think me old enough to have known him. (I was just five when he left this world.) But I remembered how I could lift a hundred pounds when I was younger, because I was very strong, and how I lived in a very different body than I do today. I could follow my life through twenty-eight years of Village newsletters, and see how I went along, day by day, just being myself and doing my best to follow God’s will. And all of us have done the same.

The infant Asha. Click to enlarge.
Baby Asha. Click to enlarge.

For a long time, I had a picture on my wall of myself as a baby. It was my favorite picture, because you could see those two little eyes just glowing out of that photo, as if to say “Let me get at life!!” And I would think, “That’s the spirit! Let’s be like that every day.”

We can put one foot in front of the other. And by living each moment fully, we can look back after many years and see what a wonderful journey it has been.

And what is the intention of this moment? It’s quite simple: to be more aware of God than ever before, and to work toward our freedom in Him.

Why? Because it’s what our hearts desire. And all of the other things we do in our lives – we will still have to do them. But let’s keep our eyes on the shining goal at every moment, even amid our life’s many duties.

Swamiji and I used to joke about our “petty enthusiasms.” We come to this planet to learn many things, in part by following our own little enthusiasms. But it’s all ultimately a facade for our greatest duty, to remember God and drown ourselves in His bliss.

When Swamiji spoke here several months ago, he said, “I have long thought how wonderful it would be to travel around the country and around the world talking of Divine Mother.”

The women’s movement has invested a great deal of energy in “women’s mysteries,” “the goddess,” and other iconic woman-centered things. And sometimes people complain to me that we don’t have female figures on our altar, or pictures of women saints in our temple. It’s a challenge to explain that we follow a particular line of great masters who happened to be male, but that we have profound respect for many woman saints as well.

In fact, Swamiji explained the concept of Divine Mother in a way that resonates far beyond the gender of a particular saint’s human body. Toward the end of his life, he repeatedly urged us to think of our gurus as neither male or female, but as manifestations or emanations of the one great genderless Spirit of God.

The fact that we find ourselves temporarily inhabiting a female or male body has nothing to do with what we really are. If you’re wearing a dress, it doesn’t make you a dress. Our soul, which is neither male or female, and is both male and female, temporarily inhabits a certain outward reality, taking on a male or female form. And it’s exclusively for the purpose of teaching us lessons that will expand our consciousness until we can know our essential nature, as God.

Swami said that worshipping God as the Divine Mother is a wonderful way to personalize the Infinite so that we are no longer afraid of it. Swamiji said that this, in fact, is one of the greatest needs of our time. He said that we’ve spent too many centuries speaking of the Father, and how we must meet the stringent demands of the divine law, and how we’re all sinners who’ve fallen short, and how we’ll have to face the Father’s wrathful judgment when we die.

And Swamiji said, in effect, enough already! We’ve had the image of God as a stern judge thrown at us for far too long, and all it has done is make us feel small and unworthy and alienated from our Mother-Father-Friend-Beloved-God.

Paramhansa Yogananda came with several clearly defined missions which he said were assigned to him by God. One was to tell us about a God that we can approach as our Friend and Mother. It was a very important part of his role, because it’s the next step in the progress of humanity’s relationship with God, starting where Jesus left off.

At Jesus’ time, people felt that God was a fearsome judge. The religion of the Jews was encased in an elaborate system of rigid laws. And for Jesus to speak of approaching God in confidence and love was a revolutionary teaching.

The image of God that people held was that if we can’t meet the most stringent demands of the law, God will punish us.

The Prodigal Son, Josef Mozier, c. 1857
The Prodigal Son, Josef Mozier, c. 1857. Click to enlarge.

This is why Jesus gave us the story of the prodigal son, which tells us that those who’ve strayed the farthest are the ones that God embraces most lovingly, because He rejoices in their return. “you have been lost, and now you’ve come back to me.”

Jesus started the thought of a God who is close and approachable and loving. And Yogananda carried it a step farther.

He said, “the Mother is closer than the Father.” And, “when you pray to God as Divine Mother, She can’t resist you.”

This is why Swamiji wanted to travel the world and tell people, “God is your own. God is your Divine Mother. You have nothing to fear from the Infinite One. Feel Her compassion, no matter how many wrongs you have done.”

We come on earth, drawn by our desires to experience many things. And sometimes we find a path that gives us happiness, and sometimes we fail and suffer. But the Mother never rejects us, any more than a human mother would reject her naughty child. We can approach Her with the utmost confidence, just as we would run to our human mother when we were little children.

Swamiji said of a person at Ananda, “they’re doing very well, considering who they are.”

It’s a perfect way to think of ourselves. “I think I’m doing pretty well, considering who I am.”

It takes the question of good and bad, and right and wrong, completely out of the picture. “For this hour was I born.” And maybe we were born to have a life of complete chaos. And maybe we were born to cause the people who love us to suffer.

Maybe my role in life is to do all of the stupidest things I can imagine. And here I am! For this hour was I born. Because this is my challenge. I’ve worked hard for centuries to get here, so that I can deal with this reality and learn the lessons that will help me find lasting happiness.

How can we save ourselves from experiencing the suffering that our wrong actions inevitably bring us? Our salvation lies in this alone: when in every moment we remember God as our perfectly compassionate and ever forgiving Divine Mother. Always remember that there is nothing you can do that will ever make Her stop loving you.

Yogananda wrote that when his earthly mother died, he was so grief-stricken that it took him years to be reconciled with God for taking her away. Finally, he had a vision of the Mother who gazed at him with Her fathomless dark eyes.

Swami Kriyananda’s song “Dark Eyes” tells how She looked at him and said “In those dark eyes of your earthly mother, it was I who loved you. And in the eyes of all mothers, and all people, it is I who am loving you.”

Every good thing that we receive in this world comes from just one source. That source is the Infinite Mother. Everything we are, everything we do, everything we have is from that source. And our role is to learn that that source is all kindness and compassion, and that we must, in turn, be kind and compassionate toward ourselves, no matter what mistakes and weaknesses we carry with us now.

It has taken us a long time to get here, and this is the most important moment of all. What I do in this moment will determine what will come next – joy or sorrow. And if I am not enjoying this moment, I can approach my Divine Mother with an open heart and ask Her to help me.

Over the decades of my life at Ananda, I saw my friends and myself just being our little selves, falling on our faces and getting up, over and over. But we got up, and that was the key. The Divine Mother can do extraordinary things for you, if you will find the humility to accept Her guidance.

So listen for Her silent counsel, and offer yourself to Her with utmost confidence and love. And never give up. Understand that it makes no sense to give up, because you’ll just have to go on regardless. You’ll die and get to start over again. So realize that the Mother is with you now and always.

(From Asha’s talk at Sunday service on September 29, 2002.)

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