Love vs Wisdom on the Spiritual Path

Krishna shows is devotee Arjuna his universal form. Art by C. Kondiah Raja, ca. 1950s, Creative Commons.
Krishna shows his devotee Arjuna his universal form. Art by C. Kondiah Raja, ca. 1950s, Creative Commons.

In the Bhagavad Gita, we find God making a thrilling promise to His devotees:

And unto these – thus serving well, thus loving ceaselessly –
I give a mind of perfect mood, whereby they draw to me.
And, all for love of them, within their darkened souls I dwell,
And with bright rays of wisdom’s lamp, their ignorance dispel.

Hidden in the Gita’s beautiful poetic words, we find a deeply practical message that can help us find fulfillment in every aspect of our lives.

In his commentary on this passage, Swami Kriyananda distills its inner meaning in a few succinct words: “To those who love me, I will give them discernment.”

It’s a startling statement, if you think about it. Because we generally place love and wisdom in separate mental categories. Yet this passage is telling us that we need to take a closer look at this common assumption.

How can we develop the ability to know which actions and attitudes will take us toward perfect happiness and freedom from suffering?

Should we follow our hearts, or our minds? People on the spiritual path tend to get stuck in the thought, “I’m a devotee. I go by the path of love and devotion. I don’t relate very well to the path of wisdom and discrimination.”

We think of the paths of devotion and wisdom as separate. Yet the Gita is saying that they are both equally important parts of the spiritual life. It’s telling us, in a very practical way, that if we will work to increase our capacity to love, God will give us the grace to know what to do.

In his expanded commentary, Swamiji quotes Jesus’ words: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”

Thus we find these two great scriptures, the Bible and Gita, telling us that love and wisdom are inseparable, and that love comes first.

How can we understand this? At first, the idea that love and wisdom are intimately related seems confusing, because it takes us out of our usual mental categories.

In our culture, spirituality is increasingly on people’s minds these days. In this part of the world, it seems that everyone is trying to get a handle on spirituality, and it’s a very healthy trend. And, in the marvelous American way, people are picking up on it as a business opportunity. I’ve seen advertisements recently for “consciousness apps” that you can put on your phone and find answers to your life’s questions. And I’m absolutely certain that they’re taking people in a positive direction. Because, really, the search for happiness is all about moving in the right direction. And if a smartphone app can help, then it’s a very good thing.

We’re always looking in the direction where we imagine we’ll find what we want. And we’ll never stop searching until we’ve chased down every possible avenue where we think happiness lies, and we’ve discovered for ourselves if it’s really there.

It’s the eternal human way. The only way we can really learn is by finding out for ourselves. And this is how we acquire discernment, through trial and error, over a very long span of time.

But the Gita and Bible are offering us a tremendous shortcut, by telling us that if we will give ourselves completely to developing our heart’s love, and give our love to God, He will give us the wisdom to know which thoughts, feelings, and actions will take us toward perfect happiness. Because when we love God, as the Gita says, He gives us “a mind of perfect mood, whereby they draw to Me.”

We can never get this higher kind of discernment until we begin to learn to give our love. And this is why the Bible says, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”

We may have lots of positive qualities that can bring us worldly success. But if our goal is to receive God’s unending love and wisdom and joy, we need to start to increase and expand our love.

One reason we need to start with love is that we need to realize that our greatest happiness lies in not really being all that interested in ourselves.

And until we reach that level of understanding, let’s face it, we’re continually walking around thinking about ourselves and calculating our self-interest and our position, and how we can get something better. And it’s an extremely difficult habit to break.

In my first years at Ananda, because I was a very serviceful, energetic, and happy person by nature, I loved to be involved in whatever was going on, and to help make it happen.

I wasn’t self-serving, but I was very self-aware, self-conscious, and self-interested. And, looking back, I can see that I was always calculating my own advantage. And if something seemed like fun, I would do it.

Fortunately, what seemed like fun to me was that I would go out and help in the garden when I was supposed to be on my way to work. So it was a level of self-interest that wasn’t entirely bad, because it was expressing enthusiasm and love. And now this person needs a little help with their moving, and now there’s a problem in the market. And it would distract me while I was supposed to be on my way to the office.

I remember a day when I set out at eight in the morning to go to the office and wound up arriving at four in the afternoon. And it wasn’t that I wasted the whole day, because there was always something worthwhile going on, where I could jump in and help. But it was at that point that I decided I needed to be a little more focused. Because, sure enough, I had given my love and joy and enthusiasm to all of these wonderful distractions, with the result that God started to give me discernment.

When we start giving from the love of our hearts, we find that we begin to have insights about the things we can give our hearts to that will really take us toward joy and freedom. And this is how God fulfills His promise in the Gita and the Bible. Because just as I gave my love in a scattered way and then realized what God really wanted me to give my heart to, even so, this is how we can begin to develop discernment in these small ways.

When we think of a yogi of wisdom, we might visualize Sri Yukteswar, who was very grave and awe-inspiring in his discernment. And, indeed, wisdom can be very stern and detached and cosmic and philosophical. But on the down-to-earth level where we live, we’re really just trying to answer a few simple questions. “Who am I, really? And where does my happiness lie? And what should I do right now?”

And at this point that’s all we really need to discern. Because if I can know the steps I need to take today, then everything will unfold naturally tomorrow, and I’ll be on the fast track to happiness.

Where does my happiness come from? From concentrating my mind, from doing serviceful work, from being energetic and enthusiastic, and from being kind-hearted and compassionate and less self-involved.

All of these expansive qualities will take us toward our true happiness. But until we realize this truth for ourselves, we can spend many lifetimes getting thoroughly mixed up about what will fulfill us.

We think it will come from making ourselves secure in the world, and from having other people do what we want, and from setting up our little systems and making them run perfectly.

It’s the idea that everything in this world may change, but not in my little world. And if I can just get my little corner of the world perfectly organized, by applying my own cleverness and will power, I’ll be fine.

But when we start to love, we find that our center of self shifts. And whether you’re loving your child, or your work, or the other people in your life, your sphere of what’s important to you starts to get bigger.

Viktor Frankl was a young psychiatrist in Vienna, when he was imprisoned by the Nazis because he was a Jew.

When he was swept up with his fellow prisoners, the guards took all their possessions away. And Viktor Frankl watched his fellow prisoners trying desperately to hold on to their diamonds and rubies and gold. Many of them were wealthy people, and they desperately wanted to keep their wealth, because they associated it with freedom, and they felt that it could give them choices.

So he watched them clinging, but none of those worldly things meant anything to him at all. What he cared about was the manuscript he was working on, because he was an intellectual, and his intellectual output was his wealth. So he was carrying this thick manuscript in his coat, and it was the last thing he wanted to lose. And then one of the soldiers came along and ripped it away and threw it on the trash heap.

Later, he wrote that it was a pivotal moment in his experience of that terrible time. Because he realized that he had lost everything, and it became a kind of spiritual practice for him that he followed throughout his time in the camp. His practice was that he would surrender, because he realized that it was impossible to know what to do. And he didn’t talk about God, but it’s clear that there was a power that came into him through his surrender, and that he began to listen to this power that came from a source that was bigger than himself.

viktor-franklWhen we let go of our endless scheming, and we open ourselves to receive, we find that there’s a force that’s much larger than ourselves. And, for many of us, it’s a paradox of the spiritual path that in order to come to that understanding, we have to reach the limit of our understanding, and we have to be very dynamic about letting go and actively receiving something higher.

In the discipleship vow that Swami wrote, we hear, “Too long did I try to walk by my own power. And now I’ve found that Your power infuses me.”

We reach a point where we realize that nothing I’ve done has come out right. And it’s an experience that we all have, sooner or later, even if we are very powerful and self-directed. Because whether we’re powerful in the ways of the world doesn’t matter a bit. We may have found great strength within ourselves, and we may have tried to get what we wanted by pushing as far as we could with our will power. But in the end we found that it came to nothing, because it didn’t still our craving and satisfy our souls.

And the crux is that we have to let go of all our self-striving and begin to learn to love something other than ourselves. We have to imagine, first of all, that there is something “other” that we can love. And as we become entranced by that, and enamored of it, we find a love coming back to us in many ways, including, as the Gita tells us, the ability to discern.

Many, many times Swami Kriyananda would repeat the story of how he came to Paramhansa Yogananda. Toward the end of his life it was practically all he ever wanted to talk about. He talked about how he saw Master’s picture on the cover of Autobiography of a Yogi in a bookstore in New York City, and how he felt the great consciousness in those eyes. And then something went out of him and into Yogananda, and he recognized him. He recognized the consciousness of this great master, and it happened even before he read a single page of the book, because he recognized something that was fathomlessly attractive to him.

This is the beginning of how we learn to love. Something attracts us, whether it’s art, or music, or people, or service – something begins to pull at our hearts. And Swami describes how he took the Autobiography off the shelf with great excitement, because he’d been searching for so long, and he knew he’d finally found it.

And no sooner had he stepped out of the bookstore, than he ran into an old classmate who began describing the glorious career in advertising that he was going to carve out for himself, and how much money he would make. And Swamiji describes how he clutched the book ever more tightly to his heart while the man was painting this glowing picture of the path that all of Swami’s friends were taking.

Swamiji had grown up among the wealthy elite of society, where it was assumed that they would take the path of worldly achievement. And as he held Master’s book, he described the moment so sweetly. “Somehow this unknown yogi and I had become allies against this reality.”

Swami had given his heart to Master without even knowing exactly why, and then discernment was given, where he suddenly had a point of reference, and he knew what he needed to do, after wandering for so long in confusion.

After reading the Autobiography, he left his old life behind and took the bus to Los Angeles. It was an extremely rare thing for a young person to do at that time, in 1948. But he had received Master in his heart, and Master gave him the power to make that radical change

And this is the answer to all our problems and struggles. We lack the power to discriminate and to know what we should do. We know we ought to meditate more and be more self-disciplined and overcome our selfish inclinations, and let go of all the regrets and disappointments and longings that keep us bound. But we don’t have the power. And this is the central problem of our existence. And the beginning of the solution is to begin to grow in our capacity to love.

The promise of our lives is to realize our eternal oneness with God. But it doesn’t happen at the snap of a finger. Self-realization is a gradual dawning within us. And the dawn comes a little bit at a time.

The morning light has a glorious quality at this time of year, in midwinter. It’s exquisite, and it serves to remind us of the process of our spiritual life. With the dawn of growing awareness comes the power to change, and when it comes we recognize that power as our own.

With the first dawn rays of God’s light, we receive a power to discern, a power to be self-disciplined, a power to renounce the darkness and embrace the light.

Master talked so frequently about attunement that it seems almost as if he was giving us a magic formula. He told his disciples, “Some of you will leave the path, but it doesn’t have to happen if you remain in tune.”

We can’t force that attunement, because it has to be based on giving our hearts to something that we genuinely love. We have to gradually fall in love with the relationship of the Guru and disciple, until we begin to crave to stay in that vibration.

This is why we gather together in spiritual celebration – in satsang, or fellowship with Truth. This is why we have the pictures of the masters on our altars. And it’s why we have Swamiji’s music.

It’s all because we need to come to love that vibration. And this is what we’re working toward constantly in our relationships with others, to learn to love what’s closest to us, and then expand that love outward.

Sometimes we become picky, pondering what we like about this one and don’t like about that one. But these are superficial considerations, compared to the real issue. What we’re really doing in our human relationships is putting ourselves in tune with God’s infinitely expansive love. And we need to be always trying to do that in small ways.

How can I begin to love more? It isn’t a question of becoming more emotional, or banging the cymbals and chanting loudly. It’s about becoming inwardly sure of what we love – what evokes our enthusiasm, our loyalty, and our wish to serve. And only then will we start to develop the ability to make the right choices – knowing that we truly want to make the choices that will take us to freedom.

I remember when Swamiji wrote the blessing before meals and set it to music. All of a sudden, we were singing before every meal, and we joked about how Ananda was becoming more and more like an operetta, where everywhere you turned, someone was breaking out in song. And now even before we took our food there was this lovely song that we would sing together. “Receive, Lord, in Thy light, the food we eat, for it is Thine. Infuse it with Thy love, Thy energy, Thy life divine.”

It’s such a small thing, to sing over our food. But then, when should we not stop to think about attuning ourselves to a higher vibration?

Rajarsi Janakananda, who was Yogananda’s most advanced disciple, wrote – and I’m paraphrasing – “Before I did such-and-such, I tried meditating first, and I found that it went much better.” He was telling us something very important, that his life went better when he took time to stop and attune himself and receive Master’s power.

This is what God and the masters are telling us. Before you go shopping, attune yourself to My consciousness, and before you have a meeting, and before you get out of bed, and when you’re thinking of saying something, and you don’t know if it’s a good idea.

How can I stand in the right relation to whatever I’m doing? Because if you aren’t relating to it from a higher vibration, that’s when you’re going to be in danger.

Master said that even if you can’t meditate well, you can still be deeply in tune with his consciousness. One of his most advanced disciples didn’t meditate much at all. Swamiji said he knew for a fact that she never meditated more than thirty minutes, because she just didn’t have the capacity to meditate. But she was one of his strongest disciplines, because her heart was always with him, and wherever she was, and whatever she was doing, she would ask God to show her how to do it in His way, and she would open her heart to receive His power.

We have to break the hypnosis that says “I need my circumstances to change before I can be fulfilled and happy.” It’s a powerful web of delusion, where we’re always placing ourselves at the center of things. It’s the web of maya. And we don’t get out of the web simply by saying, “I’m not going to be in it anymore.” There’s no smartphone app that will get us out. Sooner or later, we have to be lifted and infused with the liberating power of God. We have to let God change us, by loving Him and opening our hearts to Him.

There are many reasons we don’t open ourselves to receive God. But the key reason is that we’re busy sustaining who we are, justifying it, reinforcing it, celebrating it, protecting it, and explaining it. But God only cares that we love Him, so that He can give us the discernment to follow and know Him. And if we receive Him, He will give us the power to be joyful and free.

The spiritual life becomes very simple then. A young friend of mine thanked her parents for what they had taught her. She said, “You’ve taught me to make the main thing the main thing.” And it’s a homey way of stating a great truth.

What’s the main thing? Am I here to accomplish this or that, and to stand up for my own rights, and to make sure you understand me?

The main thing is, I’m here to be in tune. And being in tune means to stop and remember, “Master, what would you have me do? What will keep me in tune with you?”

And then discernment comes, and then our human capacity to think and reason and act and be creative comes back to us on a higher level that isn’t as confined by our self-definitions.

Love and discernment aren’t separate. If we try to go by the intellect alone, we tend to make decisions that take us down the right path for a time, but then we find we’ve wandered off the road and fallen into a ditch.

When we put love first, we ask the One we love, “What should I do? How should I do it? Guide me.” And then we can go forward with assurance, knowing that we’ll be guided, perhaps even more than we realized.

It’s like singing the blessing before meals. If we stop and sing the blessing, or if we pray, and reflect that it isn’t the food that sustains our bodies, but the power of the divine in the food, we find that we can feel what’s right to do and say.

We should say a blessing before every act. “Lord, bless this action. Make me Your instrument. Let no impurity of greed defile it.” This is attunement. And it isn’t complicated. It’s simply remembering, “You and I are standing here together, Lord.” And this is when our love begins to grow.

When you love someone, you want to be with them always. You enjoy their company and their vibration. And if we love God, we’ll always want His company. We’re going shopping. We’re going to the post office. We’re going to talk to our disagreeable boss. We need to finish a project. How will we complete it? Say grace over it. Attune yourself, and the power will come. Who do you think gave you the project in the first place?

The bonds of maya that hold us can be broken, because the power of God is greater. And this is the power that God can give us. If we will love Him and receive Him, He will set us free.

God bless you.

(From Asha’s talk during Sunday service at Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto, California on February 6, 2016.)

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