One of the most exasperating obstacles we face on the spiritual path is a tendency to focus obsessively on the outside world.
We’re constantly looking at others and deciding if we’re superior or inferior. We compare ourselves with a sigh of regret: “I was born with such heavy bones, and that one is so delicate!” Or with satisfaction: “Ah, but my car is much faster.”
Researchers have found that when the human mind is at rest, it takes hardly a few seconds before it becomes refocused on the external environment.
We expend tremendous energy thinking about our place in the world – evaluating who’s doing what, how it relates to us, where we fit, and if we’re inferior or superior.
I remember, as a young person, how I never actually thought about other people, except as they related to me. I rarely thought about other people at all, and then my attention would quickly shift to how they were impacting me.
We play this game all the time, automatically comparing ourselves with others and figuring out our place in the world. And the scriptures give us a wonderful way to think about it.
Krishna, in the Bhagavad Gita, says that whenever we manifest some special talent or strength, it’s always an expression of the limitless energy and intelligence of God. If we develop a shining quality, it simply means that we’ve somehow managed to tap into the glory of the Divine.
“Among gamblers, Thou art Shakuni,” the Gita says – meaning that even if our talent is of a relatively low and laughably unimportant order, still, it’s expressing an aspect of the divine radiance.
We tend to feel that we’re the source of everything about ourselves. And the Gita tells us that this is ignorance, because it means that we’ve lost sight of the God within us.
We’re blinded by our self-concern, and unable to see that we are but a tiny expression of something vastly larger that exists apart from the little ego with which we’ve identified ourselves.
When I was seven, my parents sent me to sleep-away camp. I was younger than the other campers, and I was too small to participate in the crafts. When visiting day came, the other children all had potholders that they had hung on a nail on their bunks to show their parents. But I didn’t have any potholders, so I took a couple from the bunk above me and hung them on mine. And naturally it did not go over very well with the girl from whom I’d taken them. So there was a big kerfuffle, and there were aspects of the story that were quite touching. But the part that I remember most vividly is how I looked up at my parents and said, “I didn’t take them! They just fell!”
My parents always insisted on truthfulness, but in this case, God bless them, they were understanding. I remember standing there and insisting, “They fell! They fell!” And even as I spoke, I was trying to work out the physics of how it might have happened. Because I was determined, in that moment and against all evidence and reason, to insist on my own point of view.
And are we really so much wiser? Young or old, we find it terribly easy to become entranced by the ideas in our own heads. We say, “Look at what I’ve done! This is mine, and I created it.” And it’s absolutely essential on the spiritual path to learn how to raise our awareness above that limiting thought.
This is a point on which the spiritual teachings and modern psychology completely disagree. I don’t mean that there isn’t a place for psychology, and for cultivating a healthy mental and emotional life. In fact, one of the first requirements for entering the spiritual path is that we need to have a fairly healthy and well-functioning ego. If we’re too fractured in our mental or emotional structure, we won’t have a solid base from which we can expand our awareness to include a higher reality. And we’ll need to fix the broken parts of ourselves before we can go forward.
If you’re too psychologically fractured, you’ll probably feel so overwhelmed by your problems that you’ll be hoping that God will just take it all over and fix you, because you don’t have the inner balance and wisdom to deal with it yourself.
It’s not as if the Divine can’t repair us. But until we’re capable of taking responsibility for our predicament and starting to work diligently on our salvation, we really aren’t ready to go forward on the path.
But, even assuming that we have a fairly well-functioning ego, we still need to recognize that the spiritual path isn’t a question of taking ourselves in hand and fixing ourselves by our own power.
A lot of new-age teaching purports to tell us how to take charge of our lives. It promises to tell us how to bring ourselves in line with some ideal image of ourselves, and how to make sure all the parts are working.
Swami Kriyananda talked about a time, in his late teens and early twenties, when he began to understand the need for a spiritual teacher. He was an extremely intelligent and energetic young man, but he realized that no matter how hard he worked on himself, the problems were always beyond his own resources.
If he worked on one fault, it would mean that he had to neglect another. And no matter how hard he tried to corral his qualities and change them, some undesirable quality was always wiggling loose.
As we grow on the path, we realize that we can never bring all the parts of ourselves into perfect alignment, unless and until we can put ourselves in harmony with the part of us that is perfect already.
To return to the story of the potholders, there I stood, seven years old, trying to persuade my parents of an impossibility – that I really hadn’t taken those potholders, because they just fell. And I remember how my mother comforted me, even though she didn’t believe a word I was saying. But she could understand the reality that I was trying to create for myself, and my desperate need to cling to that reality.
We imagine that we can take charge of our life and make it work. “I’m perfectly capable of forming my own ideas, thank you very much, and I certainly don’t need a guru. I don’t believe in reincarnation, and I don’t believe that karma is true, because my success in this world is purely a question of luck, and I’m strong and capable enough to make my own good luck.”
We invent endless theories about the nature of the world, and God simply waits patiently and is amused. He watches us, and when we fall He’s ready to comfort us. And this is a touching aspect of the path. Because we can pretend for a very long time that we’re in charge, and we can make a mess of it time after time, and still the Divine Mother is always standing at our side, ready to comfort us. She is amused by our shenanigans and false rationalizations, and when we fall, She comforts us out of Her unconditional love for us.
The Divine Mother watches over us without judging us. She is forever concerned with our happiness. She offers Her guidance and encouragement to the extent that we are open to receive. But She won’t intervene as we learn our lessons. She watches patiently as we try to manage our lives by our own power, as if to say, “And how is that working out for you, my Dear?”
“I don’t need a Master, I don’t need a teaching. I don’t need to commit to one path, because I can accept them all and take whatever I need.”
There was a popular teacher in America years ago who told his students to do anything they wanted and call it spiritual. “I’m a spiritual person, and if I drink and carouse, and I’m promiscuous and spend all my time in places of low consciousness, it’s all God, and He won’t care.” And God watches and says, “And how is that working out for you, my Dears?”
In the Bible, we find Jesus talking in a very different vein. The Bible passage from which today’s service reading is taken is so beautiful that it’s worth quoting it in full:
I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman. Every branch in me that beareth not fruit he taketh away: and every branch that beareth fruit, he purgeth it, that it may bring forth more fruit. Now ye are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me. I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing. If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned. If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you. Herein is my Father glorified, that ye bear much fruit; so shall ye be my disciples. As the Father hath loved me, so have I loved you: continue ye in my love. If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father’s commandments, and abide in his love. These things have I spoken unto you, that my joy might remain in you, and that your joy might be full. (John: 15)
It’s important to remember that when Jesus used the pronoun “I,” he was referring to the consciousness of God in which he had drowned all sense of a separate identity. He is telling us that the absolute consciousness of God is the only reality, and that we must come into that consciousness.
But at the same time he’s talking as the divine teacher, which is to say, as God Himself who has come to us in a human form, to offer us a window by which we can know Him.
Both of these realities are true: that Jesus is an expression of God Himself, and that he has come for us individually. And for our own salvation we need to take both of these messages to heart.
Whether Jesus is your destined window onto the Infinite, or whether you follow another master, it is the nature of the spiritual life that God reveals Himself to us through the window of these great avatars.
The avatars come again and again in response to a “wordless yearning,” as we hear in the Festival of Light. There must be an intense longing among mankind for God to send a great master to lead us back to Him.
Whether our life is a complete mess, or even if it’s going beautifully, we can never be fully satisfied without God. This world is never quite enough. As Yogananda said, the delusion of this world is that it “almost works.” And in the end we find that it always lets us down.
The potholder will never fall off the other person’s nail and land perfectly on ours. And no matter how desperately our childish mind longs for it to happen, it cannot.
The little ego declares, “I have no use for God or a guru. Or if I need God, I certainly don’t need a guru. And maybe I need the divine light, but I don’t need it to come to me in a human form.”
We hate to admit that we aren’t perfectly sufficient unto ourselves. And how is that working for us?
In time, we must all come to the humble realization where we can admit with complete honesty, “My life is fine, but it’s very, very far from sufficient.” And if people are still thinking that it’s enough, there’s really nothing you can tell them that will convince them otherwise.
In Conversations With Yogananda, Swami Kriyananda describes about a conversation that a professor from Columbia University had with Paramhansa Yogananda, during which he asked him a number of deep philosophical questions.
He said, “What is the difference between you and your disciples?” And the first answer that might occur to us is that the master is very large and we are very small. In fact, it’s an accurate description of our position.
In the age of materialism, they built huge cathedrals to help us understand our proper relationship with God – that He is awe-inspiring in His majesty, and we are inconceivably small in comparison.
Yogananda said to the professor, “All creation is made from the same substance, which is the ocean of Spirit, and some waves are higher on the ocean, and some waves barely cause a ripple on the ocean’s surface.”
We might think to paste Master onto the big wave, and the rest of us on the tiny waves. But Master reversed the picture.
A master makes barely a ripple on the ocean, because he has no need to assert his separate identity. He lives as one with the ocean of Spirit. And the more ego-centered we are in our consciousness, the higher we try to push our single wave. But if we were watching an actual wave, we would think it folly, because we would see that it was bound to come crashing down.
We think that if we can make our wave stand high, we’ll be powerful and important. In our ego consciousness, we want to be separate from the ocean, different and special, and important and above it all. Yet we will all learn, in time, that our life comes entirely from the ocean. And the master moves harmoniously and effortlessly within that greater reality.
Master used a phrase that I love. He said that the taller the wave of ego, the more exuberantly it engages in the delusion of this world. I love that word, “exuberantly,” because it so beautifully captures our situation. Master added, “And the closer the wave is to the ocean, the less excited it gets.”
I love to think of how both waves are participating in the same great reality, but one gets all excited and exuberant about its fleeting exaltation, and the other isn’t excited at all, because it moves along at one with the ocean.
“I am the vine,” Jesus said. And he so sweetly added, “My Father is the husbandman.”
There’s a beautiful fig tree my garden. It’s as big as a house, and next to it there’s a ginger plant that at one point began encroaching on the fig. And in order to save the fig tree, I had to trim back the ginger plant. It was participating exuberantly in being itself, but it was endangering the other tree. And, fond as I was of the ginger plant, I had to go out with a sharp tool and start hacking away at its branches.
God is growing all things, but He doesn’t allow them to grow heedless of their higher welfare. It seemed a brutal act to prune the ginger plant, because I knew that it was alive and simply growing according to its own nature, and doing so very well. It was painful to have to thwart it, but it had to be done. And that’s the job of the husbandman.
In the early days at Ananda Village, there was an elderly man named Haanel Cassidy who trained our first organic gardeners. When Haanel showed them how to prune a tree, he would say, “Stand before the tree and tune into it deeply, until you can feel its astral form.”
The astral form is the divine blueprint that the tree is trying to manifest on the physical plane. Haanel taught us to feel the tree’s astral form and prune the tree to match. And it was a wonderful way of respecting the vine.
Jesus said, “I am the vine. Ye abide in me.” And we are but branches of the same reality in which he lived.
God watches over us in His love, just as my mother looked at me and knew how to read my heart. She knew where I was trying to go, and she comforted me. I don’t remember my parents scolding me at the time, but I’m sure that they must have scolded me for lying, because they were seeing my astral form. Not literally, but they were conscientious parents, and they knew intuitively what I was trying to become, and they knew that it was their responsibility to guide me. And if I wandered outside the astral pattern, they would take a sharp tool and prune the branches.
And why would God, the Divine Mother, Heavenly Father, and husbandman, be any less conscientious?
When we stray from the divine pattern, we can expect to be pruned. And whether we suffer is up to us. Because we are destined to change. Our very nature is forcing us to grow, and we will need to be pruned for our proper growth. Will we hurt when we are pruned? Of course. And if we become deeply confused and disappointed, it’s because we are blind to the process.
Let’s be practical. When our natural inclinations are clipped by the husbandman’s blade, let’s not push against the guiding Hand, insisting that it turn away.
Let us instead relax at our center, and become the ocean. Let us always ask, “Who do I want to be? Where am I going? Where is my true happiness?”
This is the difference between psychology and the wisdom of the spiritual teachings. Psychology has its uses, but there’s a point at which we simply stop caring. We no longer care about our personal reactions, or little ego and personality, or the details of our karma.
It can be useful to analyze our psychological quirks for our own greater understanding. And psychology may help you if you’re a complete stranger to yourself. But there’s a time when we simply lose interest.
A wise astrologer counseled a friend of mine who faced a series of difficult tests. He said, “Don’t even try to think of what it’s about.” He said, “It’s happening on so many levels that you’ll never be able to penetrate it with your mind.”
When your life begins to move in a direction that threatens your personal desires, say, “Fine!”
It doesn’t mean that you won’t weep. But realize that we exist on many levels. There’s a level on which the little self is in rebellion. And there’s a level where the soul is rejoicing in the sure knowledge of what’s best for us.
Meera Mata, who was the second most advanced among Master’s female direct disciples, after Sister Gyanamata, had surgery, and afterward the surgeons reported that while she was under anesthesia she had exclaimed very forcefully, “Take it out! Anything you want, just take it out!”
It’s a wonderful attitude to have, instead of saying, “This body defines me, and what will happen to my poor little self if you take some part of my body away?”
Who cares? And if I feel that this is my mind and my emotions, and my heart and my life, let me look more deeply and ask – “Really?”
He is the vine, and his Father is the husbandman. And everything that does not bear fruit will be cut away and burned, and everything that isn’t cut away will flourish. And it will flourish even more if we open our hearts to embrace it.
God bless you.
(From a talk by Asha during Sunday service at Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto, California on July 12, 2015.)