Years ago, there was a young cellist from France, Jacqueline du Pré, whose life was celebrated in the movie Hilary and Jackie. She was an exceptionally sensitive and talented young musician who achieved great fame at an early age. And then, in the way of this world, at the apex of her career she developed multiple sclerosis, and eventually she couldn’t play at all.
Swamiji loved a particular recording by her, and many times we would sit in the evening at his home and listen to it, because her playing was extraordinary.
In a television interview, years after she retired, she was asked, “How is it for you, not being able to play music anymore?”
She looked sort of startled. She said, “Oh, but the music is still inside me.”
It was an interesting response. Swamiji often said that whatever inspiration or negativity we pass along to the world, it has its greatest effect at the origin. And whatever inspiration she was giving to the world, it was hers first, at its source.
There was a very interesting period in Ananda’s history, in the early 1980s, when Swamiji got the inspiration to write his Oratorio, “Christ Lives,” which takes us through the story of Jesus’ life.
The Oratorio was a major turning point for Ananda. While Jesus had always been on our altars, in the early years at Ananda we were closer to the Indian side of our path.
Swamiji had spent a good deal of time in India, and at the start Ananda had a strong Indian flavor – we had Indian names, we often wore Indian clothes, and we did more Indian chanting. So even though Jesus was on the altar, he was on the edges, so to speak, because we simply didn’t know how to take him in.
At Ananda, there were Jewish people who had rejected Jesus, and Catholics who had known him only through the filter of the church, and a bunchy middle of Protestants and Mormons. But Jesus’ life didn’t hold a central place in how we understood Yogananda’s teachings.
Then Swamiji went on a pilgrimage with a group of Ananda members to Israel. It was around that time also that we started an Ananda group in Italy, which eventually became closely connected with a group of charismatic Catholic people who were deeply devoted to Jesus. So there was a wonderful exchange of energy with that group, at about the time Swamiji started writing the Oratorio. And it was only after he put Christ’s teachings to music that we were able to connect with Jesus’ role on our path.
We hadn’t been felt any great devotion to Jesus in the religion from which we came, because it didn’t give us an experience of Christ. It was all about outward worship, and it didn’t touch us inwardly.
Outward beliefs give you a vicarious sense of Christ, through worshipping his external image and form. But when you have an experience of his presence, you feel a bliss and love that is overwhelming in its power to inspire and uplift your consciousness and change your life. And one of the most powerful ways to come into that vibration, apart from experiencing it in the silence of meditation, is through music.
Paramhansa Yogananda said that music is an outward expression of the AUM vibration. AUM is the vibratory expression of cosmic Spirit which creates and sustains this outward creation, including ourselves.
So we were suddenly singing and hearing these songs that took us into Jesus’ life, and we found ourselves recovering the aspect of Yogananda’s teachings that related to the culture in which most of us were born.
My family is Jewish, and my parents kept in touch with Ananda, more or less, after I came here. But when the Oratorio came out, my mother insisted, to her deep dismay, that we had become Christians. I tried to explain that we’d always been Christians. But when my mother decided that something was true, she didn’t want to be confused by facts. So she told me what my life had become, and I realized that it wasn’t worth the effort to try to dispute her.
I was with Ananda for thirty-five years while my parents were still living, and they went in and out of liking it. But when we “became Christian,” it made my mother much more intensely Jewish – more Jewish, in fact, than she’d been prior to my “becoming a Christian.” And then she went on a big crusade about how, if only they had raised me properly in Judaism, perhaps this awful thing wouldn’t have happened. Which was ironic, since we hadn’t been raised Jewish at all. And, being terribly rational, I initially tried to give her the facts, even as a little voice inside was saying, “Let her take the blame.”
So instead of trying to explain it, I finally agreed with her. “Oh, yes, Mother, who knows what might have happened?” And she managed to feel terrible about it for a while, and then she dropped it and never brought it up again.
The real experience of our path isn’t about anything outward, but about attuning ourselves to a vibration in which the great consciousness of God resides. We are attuning ourselves to the vibration of AUM. And when we meditate together, as the Bible promises, “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” And in our mutual attunement we find ourselves growing closer over the years.
Attunement with Spirit is a subtle thing. It’s not about an outward attitude, or our willingness to serve, or our talents and personality. Attunement is when we come to rest and everything stops, and the personality melts away and we experience the higher level of reality that has created us all, and is always creating this outward show.
Returning to my memories of the period when Swami wrote the Oratorio, he said something very interesting at the time. He said, “My own experience of the presence of Christ was complete. I didn’t have to translate it into music, and I didn’t have to share it with anyone else. It was already complete.” But then, he said, “It came to me in music.”
When he set out to write the Oratorio, he found himself receiving many of the melodies before he received the words. He would wake up hearing a melody, or it would come to him during the day. He had a little tape recorder, and he would whistle the melody into the recorder. So a great deal of the Oratorio started as a series of whistled melodies. But Swamiji could hear the exquisite, inspiring music that the melodies would become.
We had an ashram in San Francisco, in a big house on Broadway, and Swami had a room on the top floor. I remember how one day some of us were gathered with him on the top floor, and he had a little keyboard that was scarcely bigger than a harmonica, and sounded like one. He wanted to tell us about this wonderful thing that was happening with the Oratorio, and he got out this little keyboard and played some of the melodies one note at a time, dee, dee, dee, dee, dah. And we said, “That’s just gorgeous, Swamiji!” Because he was so obviously feeling an inspiration that only he could hear, but in his mind it had already formed itself as the Oratorio.
In our spiritual life, we have to be very aware that what we’re trying to do is live in a higher vibration. And it isn’t always possible for us to bring that vibration into our full awareness, because we may have very strange personalities, many of us, that hinder its flow.
I knew a woman who had a great deal of trouble getting along with people. Her relationships never seemed to work. And an astrologer told her, whether rightly or wrongly, “You have the karma to appear insincere.”
People were suspicious of her because they didn’t see her for who she really was. And where would that karma have come from? Perhaps from having been a flatterer in other lives, and trying to get things from people. Who knows? But her heart had changed, even as the karma was still unfolding.
Now, we often find strange karmas unfolding in our lives, even after we’ve changed, and we can’t always do anything about it. The karma comes around in a big circle and strikes us, long after we’re done with the actions that created it. It’s like throwing a karmic boomerang into the ether, and it can take incarnations for the boomerang to come back and strike us. We send out endless karmas over the course of many lives, and they are tied to us by our self-identification with the ego.
While it’s interesting to contemplate who did what to whom in previous lives, and where our strange karma is coming from, we eventually realize that the details don’t matter. In fact, they’re a distraction, and people will often just use them as justify their wrong actions. “Oh, it’s my karma – I can’t help myself.”
A woman was having difficulty with a friend, and she came to me with a long list of all the things so-and-so had done, and why she had responded this way, and so on and on.
I said. “Yes, but other people’s shortcomings don’t justify our shortcomings.” And it was true, but after a while you stop caring about the details of the karma, because you realize that they just don’t matter, and you get busy correcting your own behavior so you can get rid of the karma forever.
I believe that all of us, at some time or another, have made, or will make, the serious spiritual mistake of imagining that we can get what we want at the expense of others. Whether we go about it with deliberate malice or subconsciously, some part of us values ourself and our own feelings more than we value others.
To put it kindly, we’re more aware of ourselves and our feelings than we’re aware of others. But when we’re self-centered, we’re bound to project a certain amount of hurt, and it’s a boomerang that will eventually come back and strike us. You can visualize it as filling a syringe with hurt that God will eventually, at just the right moment, jab into your veins, and you’ll suffer.
All suffering is the same, really – it’s generic, because whatever the source or the details, we’re suffering so that we can learn a needed lesson and get back into balance. God’s law is that we must finish our karma. So we can’t always stop the karmic injection from being plunged into our arm, even though our hearts have changed. But we can change how we feel in our hearts, and we can stop creating new karmas.
We can change our heart’s feelings in two ways. First, we can realize that we don’t need to justify our weaknesses by blaming them on other people. Perhaps you treated me horribly, but it doesn’t give me the right to treat you the same way.
We may feel very justified – we may in fact have been truly mistreated. But in the strict working of the karmic law, we never are justified in increasing the error by responding with anger and self-justification.
Self-justification is a very, very dangerous attitude on the spiritual path. I found some letters recently that I wrote to Swamiji long ago. Most of them I burned after writing them, because I realized how silly they were. But I found a few, and they were full of long explanations about why I’d done so-and-so. And I’m sure they must have bored the socks off him.
But it seemed like a good idea at the time, even though it was the furthest thing from good. Because on the spiritual path the first thing we have to learn is to stop explaining why we’re justified.
We have to just stop. And when you can stop – oh, what a relief it is. I can’t claim that I’ve stopped entirely. But in the times when you’re able to stop rationalizing your mistakes and weaknesses, you realize it’s so wonderful, because then you have just one problem. You may have big syringe full of painful karma that needs to be shot into your arm, but you’re no longer filling the syringe. You’re watching your karmic vessel empty, and you aren’t filling it from the other side.
The other thing we urgently need to learn is to never let anything separate us from the full awareness of God’s love for us.
I recently started re-reading Whispers from Eternity from the first page. One of the early entries says, “I am your child. We are all your children. Naughty or good, we still belong to you.”
As I read it, I felt that Master was almost saying to God, “You’re stuck with us, and there’s nothing You can do about it!”
I remember how, at age ten, I came under the influence of bad companions, and my parents naturally wanted to separate me from these great girls I was hanging out with. I was a very small ten, but with a great big mouth, and I declared to them – and this is what I actually said. I said to my parents, “The die is cast!” Because I’d read a lot of books. “The die is cast. I am either a good kid or a bad kid, and there is nothing you can do about it!”
On one level, it was ludicrous. But, not really, because I knew that I was what I was, even though I was small enough that my Dad could still carry me around. But the die was cast, and I was myself, and I knew it.
But the positive side is that whether we’re good or bad, we belong to the Divine Mother all the same. And Master tells us in Whispers, “Whatever I pray, I demand it, because naughty or good I belong to You, and You have to take care of me.”
You have to take care of me. And if I’m a big problem for You, I belong to you nonetheless, so it’s Your problem, and not mine.
It may sound odd, but this is real attunement. Because we will not let anything separate us from God, and we refuse to let anything get in the way of that deepest of all relationships. No matter what kind of a mess I am – naughty or good – and no matter what I’ve done, I belong to You. Because You belong to me, and You must take care of me. And anything else about me doesn’t matter.
So we find ourselves this evening at the start of a new year. And I urge you to make a resolution: “I will live in the vibration of the Divine. I will be in the presence of Spirit.”
And one of the most powerful ways we can move into the presence of God and Christ is through sound.
I talked about the period when Swamiji put the inspiration of Jesus’ life into music, and how Jacqueline Du Pre, even though she could no longer pick up the cello, was still able to feel the music inside her. And
Music is the most direct way to shift our consciousness, because it can bring our consciousness into the vibration of AUM. Swamiji said that everyone at Ananda should sing his music. Not for the sake of spreading the music, or for advertising Ananda, but because it will put us in attunement with the source of the music, every note of which he told us he received directly from Spirit.
He said, “If you want to understand who I am, listen to my music.” Again, not so that we can better understand his human personality, but so that we can realize in our own consciousness the high vibration from which the music came.
When you’re singing the Ananda music, and when you’re singing Yogananda’s chants, or you’re chanting a sacred mantra, don’t think that you’re only saying the mantra or singing the song, and don’t imagine that the purpose is to listen passively. Because what you want to do is become the music. And the method is to concentrate so deeply on every sound that it drives from our heart every other desire, and it drives from our mind every other thought.
There’s tremendous power in the music and the chants and mantras that these great souls have given us. They were created with absolute attunement to the power that descended through them into the melodies and words.
The inspiration is there, and it translates directly into sounds that offer us a “way in.” And the goal is to be inside that consciousness. If you can find that attunement, even for a moment, it will serve as your “true north”: a sure and certain compass that will guide you back to God. And all our spiritual life is to become more and more familiar with that vibration.
And then, yes, certainly we can be serviceful and joyful and wise, and all the things that we can be in our lives on this earth. But the only thing that matters in the midst of it all is when we can come to rest at our center, when we can rest in the sure knowing that “I belong to You, Lord, and You must help me.” So let that be your constant resolution in the new year. “I belong to You, Lord, and You must help me.”
(From Asha’s talk during the New Year’s Eve celebration at Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto on December 31, 2015.)