The Path of Divine Ascension

St. Thomas the Apostle
St. Thomas the Apostle

Last week, I talked about the disciple of Jesus who was Thomas. Based on historical research by a monk whose work I respect, it seems that Thomas received Jesus’ direct guidance apart from the other disciples. Apparently, Jesus told him that his assignment would be to go to India and start a work there, a work that would reflect Christ’s true inner teachings. Even today, there’s still a strong Thomasine Church in southern India with about 3 million members.

When Jesus died, the other disciples got together to decide what they should do. But Thomas wasn’t part of that discussion, having received his assignment directly from the Master.

I suspect that when I talked about Thomas last week, many of you were waiting for me to state the obvious, namely that there’s an interesting parallel between Thomas’s mission and Swami Kriyananda’s life, and his past lives of which we’re aware.

We’ve often wondered where Swami Kriyananda was at the time of Jesus. And to a certain extent, his role in Yogananda’s work over several lives fits the story of St. Paul, who also brought the teachings out to the wider world. But whenever we would pose to Swami that he might have been Paul, he would reply in one of two ways. First, “I would like to think that Paul had been liberated by now, and wouldn’t be incarnating.” And then, “I never really liked Paul very much.”

King Alfonso X (“The Wise”), statue in Madrid by Jose Alcoverro, 1892
King Alfonso X (“The Wise”), statue in Madrid by Jose Alcoverro, 1892

Swamiji didn’t feel that his personality was compatible with Paul’s. On the other hand, we know little about Thomas, because his mission wasn’t closely recorded. Yet, like Thomas, it seems that Swamiji’s role has repeatedly been to continue his guru’s work and preserve its purity. As Alfonso, the son of King Fernando of Spain, Swamiji continued his father’s work of driving the Moors out of Spain in order to protect Christianity in Europe. And in an earlier life, as Henry I, the youngest son of William the Great, he completed his father’s work of uniting England under a single monarchy, in order to drive out the Scandinavians who’d gained a foothold in the north and were threatening to take over the island and suppress the Christian church.

Nirmoha told me that the standard Christian line on Thomas’s work is that when the missionaries arrived in South India they found a thriving devotion to Jesus that looked a great deal like the indigenous religion of Sanataan Dharma. Which, in fact, it was, because Thomas saw hardly any difference between the inner teachings of Jesus and the inner teachings of yoga. But the missionaries decided that what Thomas originally brought had been corrupted over the centuries. And so they “fixed” it.

What St. Thomas taught was, in fact, very close to the native religion of India, which held that great spiritual teachers come again and again, and that they all teach the same basic teachings, but in ways that are suited to the needs of the times and culture in which they are born.

Of course, it greatly offended the Europeans when they arrived in the third or fourth century. And the first thing they did was to destroy the holy scriptures of the Thomasine church, and force people to accept a more western way of thought.

Don’t you just love the human mind, in its endless capacity for ignorance? I’m reminded of Master’s teaching, where he says that “Spirit is center everywhere, circumference nowhere.” And if creation is without any discernible center, it means that we can understand it from any point. Thus people make their point of reference the most immediate and obvious one of which they are aware, which, of course, is themselves – “me,” as my limited egoic self.

What other center could we possibly take as our own, except the one that’s most close and familiar to us? But the trouble is, it isn’t a well-informed decision, because we’re seeing only a small slice of the cosmic whole. So it’s an unconscious decision – here I am, looking out through my particular eyes, and my viewpoint is limited to my own identity, and my identification with a single physical body. So I conclude that my way of seeing the world is how things actually are. But, in fact, the reality in which we’re living is so much more vast than we are aware.

Master addresses this perfectly natural mistake of human perception in an interesting way. He tells us that the bodily center of spiritual understanding is located in the forehead, in the spiritual eye, and that the ego is centered in the medulla, at the base of the brain. He says that the medulla is the opposite pole of the spiritual eye, because the ego and Spirit express opposite states of consciousness, the one being very small and limited, and the other infinitely vast.

When a child is conceived, the sperm and ovum come together at the medulla to create the first cells of the newborn jiva – the individualized soul that has just come into a physical body. The medulla is the only part of the body that the doctors can’t operate on, because even to touch it lightly with a feather would produce violent convulsions, and cutting into it would bring instant death.

The medulla is the point through which the cosmic energy sustains our bodies, and most of us have our sense of self focused there, reflecting that we are identified with the ego – the spark of divinity in us that has separated itself from Spirit and identified itself with limitation. As Master put it, the ego is “the soul, identified with the body.”

And this is why we’re limited to looking out through our physical eyes, instead of being able to see with the limitless sight of intuition. But when our sense of identity moves from the limited ego to the eye of Spirit, we can look through the spiritual eye and perceive the entire cosmos. As Jesus said, “If thine eye be single, thy whole body will be full of light.”

We move through this physical universe with our own particular perspective, and we can’t help it. Sitting here in this building today, we don’t know what’s happening at Starbucks down the street, because we’re only aware of this little body. But a master could know, if he cared to.

Swamiji told us about an incident that happened when he was a young monk. He attended a public event in Los Angeles, where he got into a discussion with a very worldly Beverly Hills psychiatrist about the validity of the spiritual teachings. And in the course of their talk, Swamiji mentioned some of miracles that Master had performed, hoping to open the psychiatrist’s mind. But when Master saw him, he remarked casually, “Better not talk about such things to someone like that.”

Swamiji didn’t mind being corrected, but Master had been a great distance away when the conversation occurred. So he was very surprised, and he said to Master, “You knew?”

Master replied, “I know every single thought that you are thinking.”

Master’s consciousness wasn’t centered in the medulla – it was fully centered in the spiritual eye. Thus everything that was happening in creation was happening to him in his expanded identification with Spirit. And if he wanted to perceive something that was happening anywhere in the physical cosmos, he could do so effortlessly. And naturally it boggles our limited, ego-identified minds.

Swamiji described how he was sitting at his Guru’s feet one day, and feeling thoroughly confused by the contrast between the Master’s limited physical body and his vast consciousness. How could he be infinite, and yet be sitting here in front of the disciples, talking about ordinary things? Swami told us two stories in this regard, of how he had tried so hard to wrap his mind around what Master was like.

He told us that Master, seeing him thoroughly confused one day, silently handed him an apple. As if to say, “Poor boy, you’ll never get there that way! Better come down to earth.” And on another occasion, Master looked at him gravely and said, “If you knew my consciousness!” Meaning, don’t even try, because you’ll never be able to understand me, until you’ve expanded your awareness sufficiently to grasp the state in which I live.

A woman friend of mine spent several weeks in seclusion, and when she emerged she was very excited. We’d been on this path together for twenty-five years, and she came up to me with her eyes gleaming and said, “God is love!”

I said, half-humorously, “Hmm, that’s pretty basic.” But she said, “No, no – God is love!” And when I listened more closely, I understood that she was speaking from a deep personal experience.

This is why we who are on this path don’t think of spiritual advancement as an ever-increasing capacity to understand God with our minds. The ability to express oneself clearly and memorize vast numbers of facts has hardly anything to do with our state of Self-realization. But if we could truly know that God is love, just think how transforming that would be. You could write it a hundred thousand times – “God is love” – yet it wouldn’t change your life one iota. Because the kind of understanding that can truly effect a change in your life comes when you realize an aspect of God’s nature as a direct, unshakable experience: “God is love, and I am made of the perfect love of God.”

At Christmas time, a great power of transformation is in the air, and we can experience things that were previously no more than words to us. These deeper realities come closer at this time, when Christ’s consciousness is born anew in the world.

Bishops of the Indian Orthodox Church
Bishops of the Indian Orthodox Church

“I am the way, the truth, and the light,” Jesus tells us. And a great deal of meaning hangs on that simple word “I.” If Jesus had meant that his physical body was the sole and exclusive carrier of God’s light, it would mean that our devotion must go back in time and be limited by our capacity to grasp the physical form of Jesus with our minds. But when Jesus said “I,” he meant something very different than the physical body and personality that he manifested on earth.

Swamiji tells us that Yogananda said, “When I come into this world and I see the personality that I have to assume, it feels confining at first, like putting on a heavy overcoat on a hot day.” Then he added, “But after a while I get used to it.”

I’m sure that many of us feel confined by the personality that we’ve assumed in this lifetime. When a woman friend of mine was a child, she was completely convinced that all little girls eventually grew up to be men. It wasn’t that she was emotionally unbalanced, but she was incredulous to find herself born in a female body, and she figured that it would have to work out so that she would be male. Clearly, it was based on a past-life memory of having lived as a man. And although she was more than a little nonplussed when she realized that it wouldn’t happen, she adjusted gracefully. But, nonetheless, here we are, having put on these heavy overcoats, and now we’ve gotten used to it.

Swamiji asked Master if, when he came on earth act out the life of a historical figure such as William the Conqueror or King Fernando of Spain, he could still recall that he was fully liberated. And Master said, “In your heart, you are always free.”

When an individualized spark of Divinity such as a Jesus or a Yogananda assumes a personality, and when they speak of “I,” what are they referring to?

In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna tells his disciple Arjuna, “Both of us have lived many times, but I remember my births, and you do not.”

If you can remember your countless births, and you speak of “I,” to which life are you referring? There was a woman at Ananda Village who was dying, and as she lay waiting for the end to come, she said to a friend of mine, “I see thousands of faces going by in front of me, and I know that every one of them has been my face. And it’s very hard to be concerned about the face I’m wearing now, when I’ve seen how many of them I’ve worn.”

When we say “I,” what do we mean? Do we mean the I who was a little child, or the I who is now an adult, or the I who was the excited youth, or the I who may become an old man or woman?

Jesus said, “I and my Father are One.” When he spoke of “I,” he was referring to the Infinite Spirit. And when he said, “I am the way, the truth, and the light,” it cannot possibly mean that all of those souls are damned who haven’t accepted Jesus Christ as their savior.

I realize that for some people, this attitude is the only way they can hold onto their faith, by grabbing tightly to something firm and fixed. I met a man who had been a drug addict living on the streets. He was fully convinced that nothing short of a rigid, absolute, no-margin kind of faith would keep him out of addiction and off the streets.

I saw a woman in a coffee shop who was wearing a tank top, and on her back she had tattooed in big letters “Redeemed.” On one level, perhaps it was in questionable taste, but on another I wanted to stand up and cheer – “Go, girl! You wear it well, and I understand how you feel!” Because all of us know what it’s like to be redeemed, when we’ve been utterly lost.

But we have to keep growing, because at a certain point it’s no longer appropriate to be small in our consciousness, and we don’t wear it well anymore.

I saw a cartoon where St. Peter stands at the pearly gates, and a cat approaches, wanting to get into heaven. And the cat hands St. Peter a punch card with nine slots in it.

From a dogmatic perspective, St. Peter will be thoroughly willing to close the gates to us if we haven’t followed the proper set of rigid rules – if we haven’t punched the proper slots in our card.

Master loved to tell a joke about a famous evangelist called Billy Sunday. Master said that when Billy Sunday arrived in heaven, St. Peter searched the book of souls and said, “I’m sorry, but I don’t find your name here.”

Billy Sunday was very upset. He said, “But I sent so many souls to you!” And St. Peter replied, “Well, you may have sent them, but they never arrived.” Because you can’t fool the Spirit who knows our hearts.

God tells us in the Bhagavad Gita, “In whatever way people worship me, in that way I come to them.” We can only stand where we are. And the ex-drug addict who was deeply devoted to Jesus was making far greater progress than an intellectual atheist. Because he was worshipping, he was looking forward, and he was looking upward. For those of us who’ve moved on from blind faith and who are seeking the experience of God, it would be turning backward to aspire to worship as he did, with his rigid dogmas and blind belief. But he was moving forward according to his own best lights, and I had to admire him for it.

“I am the way.” And what are we seeking in our search for happiness and freedom, but a continual sense of moving forward on the “way,” toward that ever-increasing expansion of our consciousness which will set us free from our limited, enclosed ego-identity, and our sense of impotence, confinement, sorrow, and imprisoning selfishness.

The only true path to happiness is through the infinite “I.” And the path and the method are to expand our awareness a little bit further, starting exactly where we are and taking one small step at a time. Because we can pick the infinite consciousness that pervades the universe and has no visible center from any point. It is center everywhere, circumference nowhere. And the perspective in which we are living today is the only one we need to concern ourselves with. Our own perspective is the one we can get hold of and work with. And the method is straightforward, because it simply means asking ourselves, “How do I feel right now, and how can I feel better?” And, “In what ways am I suffering, and how can I ease this suffering?”

This is the true way of all religions. And the true way means gradually and steadily to relinquish the small and limited consciousness that insists, “I want my way.”

A little girl entered our kindergarten. She had worn her parents down, to the point where they were basically just trying to outlast her childhood. Because she was a handful. And parents will sometimes do that – they don’t know how to cope with the child, and they imagine that if they can just hang on long enough, they won’t have a child to deal with anymore.

So the child was sort of on her own, because her parents didn’t know how to deal with her, and then she came into our school.

Do you know how some children are built like tanks? She was a little tank, just a big, solid child. And now she suddenly found herself in kindergarten, and whenever things didn’t go her way she would scream. She had a hefty set of lungs, and she would scream very loudly. The kindergarten teacher was very wise. She took the little girl aside and said, “When you do this at home, does it get you what you want?”


“Well, I want you to know that it doesn’t work here.”

She put the little girl in a separate room and said, “Go ahead and scream. I’m not going to pay any attention.” And in a short while she stopped screaming, because she realized that it wasn’t working.

Isn’t that how we often live? We think, “Somebody should be paying attention to me.” Or, “If I insist harder and harder on getting my way, the universe will turn around and pay attention and give me what I want.”

I’m making a joke of it, but in truth it is no joke at all.

My friend Prahlad said that when he was a newborn baby, his mother was holding him, and then his father took him and held him for a while. And he could remember thinking in his little newborn brain, “They don’t have any idea what to do with me.” And it made him very nervous, to feel that nobody knew what to do with him.

To my utter embarrassment, I remember a time when I took seclusion many years ago and found a tape running in my head about how the world ought to work from my perspective, and why wouldn’t everyone listen to me?

Looking for the fulcrum point of my annoyance, I realized that it came down to, “Someone owes me an apology. Somebody should apologize for not treating me the way I should be treated.”

And of course I just had to laugh. Because, for heaven’s sake, who owes me an apology? But it’s how we like to live in this world, don’t we? We walk around wanting “them” to change. And the change we want is for them to do it our way. And we’ll scream, weep, cry, or get mad at God, or go crazy to get what we want.

Sometimes we literally go crazy and have to be incarcerated for a time, because we decide to check out from this life, in a kind of metaphysical madness. And I guess I’m not too far away from that, because I can kind of understand it.

I remember saying to Swamiji that there were people in my life that I felt had checked out and let themselves go insane as a way to escape the battle. And Swamiji confirmed that it was true, and that at some point in our spiritual life we all realize, “I am the way, the truth, and the light, and no one comes to the Father except through me.” And we decide, “I’m having none of this! Do you mean that I really have to give up all my selfish desires? And I really have to expand my consciousness beyond my wonderful little identification with my own ego, and grow out of my own little perspective? And do you mean that nobody is ever going to apologize to me or give me the importance I deserve? And if that’s the case, I’m checking out of here.”

Swami said that you go into a dream world of your own making, because that’s what madness is – it’s an absolute refusal to relate to the world on its own terms. So you escape into a universe that’s entirely subjective. And it’s a unique kind of hell, and nothing to be made light of. But it’s a metaphysical fact of the spiritual path, as Swamiji said, that every devotee goes through incarnations like that, where we decide that we’re going to throw the ultimate hissy fit and see if anything changes. I’m going to take my toys and not play your game anymore. I’m going to go into an imaginary world of my own making and see if it will get me what I want.

But it never does, because “No one cometh unto the Father but by me.” And that “me” is our own infinite Self. And the only way to enter the infinite Self is through the spine, by progressing upward through the chakras as we expand our awareness and transfer our identification from the ego to the spiritual eye. And then the Infinite opens itself up to us naturally and willingly.

How long will the journey take? How much misery will we have to endure along the way? Really, it’s in our hands. Because all of us make decisions that seem like a good idea at the time, and that cause us to go veering off the path. And then our painful experiences push us back onto the path again. And we go forward for a while until it all becomes too much, and off we go until our life’s experiences set us back on the path again.

candleIt’s good to understand that veering from the path isn’t about getting married or having children or having a good job or starting a business. It’s more subtle: “Oh, look. I get to have my own way this time around, and this time I’ll get to keep all of the fruits for myself.” Instead of understanding this life as the saints do – that none of the world’s shiny rewards will ever satisfy me, and I want to live this life for you alone, Lord.

One of the great souls at Ananda Village was reputed to have said at the start of his spiritual life, “Master, I don’t know how strong I’ll be forever, but this life is for you.” It’s a wonderful way to think. “I don’t know for how many lives I’ll be able to keep my promise, but I give this life to You.”

Let’s make it even smaller. “I don’t know where I’ll be a year from now spiritually, but this day is for You.” Or, “This hour is for You.”

Which “I” do we want to be? Which “I” do we want to hold in our hearts and follow? Which door do we want to walk through? Who do we want to become? How long are we willing to wait?

Really, our spiritual future is in our own hands. We can be like the young girl who so loved the Lord that the tattoo on her back proclaimed to the whole world: “Redeemed.” But we can take it a step further and say, “Lord, I offer into Thy infinite Light the little self that is me. Make me one with Your spirit. Make me free!”

God bless you.

(From a talk by Asha at Sunday service at Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto on December 27, 2015.)


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