Understanding the Spiritual Path, Its Trials and Rewards


When we read Paramhansa Yogananda’s celebrated book Autobiography of a Yogi, we find that it’s focused mainly on his relationship with his guru, Sri Yukteswar, and the flavor of that relationship as it would unfold in the culture of India. And the thought naturally arises that it must be the way we should understand our own relationship to the guru.

In the early days of Ananda, people would sometimes think, “When I finish reading the Autobiography, I’ll go to India and become Self-realized.” Swami Kriyananda would occasionally poke fun at the idea that they would stand on a corner in Calcutta or Bombay and wait for the guru to come and touch them on the chest and give them samadhi.

And yet, it’s natural to want to have someone come along and give us liberation without much effort on our part. But the fact is that the guru-disciple relationship is a very long one. When Swamiji asked Yogananda how long he had been his disciple, he replied, “I won’t say, but I’ll tell you that it has been a long time.”

Swami Kriyananda and Paramhansa Yogananda
Swami Kriyananda and Paramhansa Yogananda

In the deepest part of our hearts we know that the goal is worth any price. And while part of us imagines that being corrected by the guru will be a little scary, another part is saying, “I really want someone who can help me find the highest kind of happiness.”

When people come onto a path such as ours, where the gurus have all passed away, it can sometimes make them wonder if it’s necessary to have a living guru who’ll be physically present with us. And in the early years of Ananda, it was partly this thought that made people dream of going to India. “Because I need somebody who can sit in front of me and talk to me.”

Again, it’s a perfectly natural thought. And I remember how I resolved it for myself. First of all, I had the idea that whatever I needed, God would give it to me, whether or not the guru was alive in a physical body. Also, when a fully Self-realized soul, an avatar, is born in this world and lives among us, he comes with a great mission to change the consciousness of the world, and he leaves behind a spiritual power that never fades.

The masters live on a plane of consciousness that is difficult for us to comprehend. Their consciousness is everywhere at all times, and they are just as present with us after they’ve left their physical bodies as when they walked among us. They come by the will of God, in response to a deep call from mankind, and they continue to respond to the call of our hearts throughout all time.

When we come into the world, we have no control over the karma that determines where and when we’ll be born. You’re going about your business in the astral world, and everything’s fine, and then a certain restlessness sets in. We know what it’s like to be blissfully contented with our lives, and then we start to feel a little restless because we’re lonely. Or we’re feeling really positive about our career, but then we begin to feel anxious about the future. Something intrudes on our equanimity and disturbs it. And in the astral world, when your astral karma begins to run out, your unfulfilled desires begin to draw you back to this material plane where you can fulfill them.

Our restlessness puts us out of harmony with the astral vibrations, and before we know it, here we are in a human womb again, and pretty soon we’re out of the womb, and we’re trying to figure out, “Where am I, and how did I get here, and what am I supposed to do?” And then all of the karma that we’ve stored up begins to push us along, and we’re off and running.

And after a very long time, it begins to occur to us that maybe there’s a better system. And this is the point at which we begin to realize that we really need to spend less time thinking about the outer world, and start thinking more about the world inside us. And when the masters are born on this earth, a major part of their mission is to help us understand how to go inside ourselves and do that.

I was saying to a group yesterday, “The single unifying demographic of the people who come to Ananda is the realization that we need to start paying more attention to the inner world, because we’ve started to feel that the outer world is not enough.”

We’ve reached a point where our first and foremost concern is no longer the career that we’ll follow, or the social position we want to aspire to, or how many material goods we can acquire. At some point, it begins to cross our minds that the inner world is the source of everything we experience, and if we want to have a better experience of life, we must change our consciousness.

Then we have to decide how seriously we’re going to take the search. Are we going to be satisfied to tweak our perspective a little, and explore the inner world just enough to make the outer world work a little better for us? Or are we going to follow the path all the way to the end?

There’s a lot of spiritual teaching today that wants to tell you how to organize your inner self so that you can gain power over the outside world. And that kind of teaching, which we might justly think is a bit shallow, is at least a step in the right direction, because we’re beginning to learn how to pull our energy and inspiration from its true source.

But we ultimately have to understand that the inner world is a great deal more than just a convenient tool to make ourselves successful and a little bit happier. Because the inner world is, in fact, the only reality. And all that we ever experience of the outer world, good or bad, positive or negative, depends entirely on our inner capacity to experience it.

And this is when we realize that our inner restlessness is preventing us from knowing the real world inside, and finding the fathomless happiness that lies, as the Festival of Light tells us, in the farthest depths of being, in our own self.

Someone makes a remark that is innocently intended, and we find ourselves reacting from a deep well of emotion. But the liberated master is free from emotional reactions. He has no inner restlessness – no surging whirlpools of raw emotion that can get stirred up by the slightest outward provocation. He has no karma to work out, and there is only the perfect contentment and freedom of living in God’s bliss. And the only thing that draws the liberated soul back into manifestation is, frankly, us.

The avatar comes in response to our restless longing to know peace, and our deep and fathomless yearning to learn about God and to actually know Him.

Edgar Cayce as a young man.
Edgar Cayce as a young man.

Edgar Cayce was a savant and seer who lived in the first half of the twentieth century. We don’t hear much about him today, but he was a remarkable soul. He would go into a trance state and give readings for people, and as a result he brought forth a huge amount of fascinating information from the spiritual world. And in a surprising number of readings he would tell a person, “You were on the streets of Jerusalem when Jesus walked by, and you were blessed by him. And everything you’ve done since that meeting has been part of your effort to integrate that experience.”

Think of all the lives you’ve lived in the two thousand years since Jesus walked on earth. And all of those lives were concerned with resolving the experience you had when you were in the presence of the Master and he turned on a light in you. And ever since, you’ve spent all of your lives trying to figure out how to align yourself with that inspiration.

There’s a saying in India that a single moment in the company of a saint can be your raft over the ocean of delusion. It’s a remarkable statement, and it’s true.

This is the concept of darshan. Darshan means “the sight of a great master.” And the masters of this line have come on earth many times, with a great mission to shift the spiritual direction of the planet. Because that’s what an avatar does. But they also come for us.

Many saints come on earth to live quiet lives in the company of a handful of their close disciples. But an avatar comes with a mission to turn the whole of society in a more favorable spiritual direction. He comes first for his disciples, and then through his disciples, and by his presence, he brings a power that can shift the consciousness of the whole world.

Look at Christ, and Buddha, and Krishna – these great avatars that we can still continue to know and love, thousands of years after they lived. And how many avatars have been forgotten with the passing of time? But their influence lives on.

In our time, our gurus have come to introduce a very specific new direction to the world’s consciousness. And because we are at the beginning of the age of energy-awareness that they came to help usher in, the world is still barely aware of their existence and their influence.

Jesus was considered an obscure and relatively unknown teacher for the first three hundred years after he lived, and no one at the time could have imagined that this obscure rabbi who’d been crucified so many years before would be revered for two thousand years, and very likely much longer.

True transformation never happens quickly, because it isn’t superficial. This is true for the sweeping changes that the great masters introduce into the world, and for ourselves and our own transformation.

It’s easy to goad ourselves into a fever pitch of resolve to turn our lives around and start moving in a new direction, but the process of actually erasing the karma that is driving our actions takes a long time.

Overcoming our karma is not a question of holding ourselves back from doing whatever our instincts are telling us to do. To truly overcome a karma means that we’ve gotten to a point where the thought no longer even arises.

That’s real freedom – when it doesn’t even occur to you to respond in an unkind way, or to carry a grudge, or to be afraid. Overcoming your karma isn’t a question of mastering yourself by a single, all-out, zealous effort of self-restraint. In the natural order of things, before the karmic tendency can be truly erased, it has to be replaced with a completely new perception.

Over the years, I saw that although Swami Kriyananda would often talk about meditation and Kriya Yoga, what he mostly talked about was the right attitude toward life. He said that it was what Master mostly talked about, because if you have the right attitude, you’ll gradually learn everything else.

If you meditate long hours daily but your idea is to get more power for yourself, or to get more of God’s bliss for yourself, without expanding your heart in sympathy and compassion to others, and surrendering yourself completely to the power of God in you, you won’t even begin to get what you’re looking for. You might get a certain amount of spiritual power, but it will all just have to be unraveled again in order to teach you the right attitude, as the indispensable foundation for real spiritual progress.

Paramhansa Yogananda brought many new and elevating thoughts to the world, and one of the most central is the idea that God is not only a father but also a mother, and that we can worship God as our own Divine Mother.

At the start of the Autobiography, he talks about his childhood, and how he would make images of Mother Kali and worship her. He talks about his human mother, and what a profound influence she had on him, and how bereft he was when she died, and how the Divine Mother eventually appeared to him and comforted him.

Throughout his life, he talked about God as the Mother, and when he came to the West, it was a central part of his message.

In the West, our image of God for two thousand years has been of the Heavenly Father. And now there’s a rebellion against the male image of God, especially among female worshippers.

Jesus came to bring a new concept of God as the Father, because the people of his time were worshipping God as a stern judge. And Paramhansa Yogananda came to bring us a relationship with God that is even more intimate and dear. It’s why he called his teachings Self-realization, because they give us a way to discover God in our own hearts, and experience God in an individual and intimate way. It’s why he gave us the practices of Kriya Yoga, which enable us to go deep within and have a personal experience of God.

When you take Kriya initiation, you have to learn the method from someone who’s qualified to teach it. You can’t just walk into a church or a bookstore and buy it. You have to qualify, but it’s easy to qualify, because it just requires sincerity, regularity, and perseverance. And once you qualify, it’s yours forever. Yogananda promised that Kriya will give you your own private experience of God, and you won’t need a ritual or a priest to intercede with Him on your behalf.

When we started leading pilgrimages to India, our tour guide mentioned that he’d bought an apartment, and that the priest had determined that the most auspicious day for the move was five months away. So he had to wait five months, and then all of the necessary rituals had to be performed before he could move in, which included lighting a fire in the living room and breaking coconuts against the wall, so that the inside had to be redone after they finished the ceremony. He told us, “Hinduism is the only religion where we have to pay someone to practice it for us.” It’s the profession of the priest to come in and perform the ceremonies and be paid for it. And it’s amusing, when you think about it, because how could our personal and individual relationship with God possibly depend on paying someone else to perform the proper rituals for us?

This is why Master brought the world a new approach to religion. He gave us Kriya Yoga, by which we can revolve the energy in the spine and gradually erase the whirlpools of energy that are binding us to our karma. And when you erase the vrittis, as they’re called, your perception of reality begins to change, and you begin to see yourself and the world in a very different light.

By practicing Kriya we gradually begin to see ourselves as part of all that is, and nobody else can give you that perception, and nobody can take it away from you once you have it.

Several weeks ago I talked about a friend of Ananda’s who’s been in prison for thirty years for a crime he didn’t commit. Because of the intensity of his desire, he attracted the gift of Kriya initiation while he was incarcerated. And in the midst of the most chaotic, uncongenial circumstances you can imagine, he has proved, again and again, that no one can take away his inner relationship to God.

This is the first part of the gift that Paramhansa Yogananda came to offer us – by showing us that the responsibility for our spiritual progress is in the only place it can ever be, in our own hands. No one can make us love God, because we have to decide that we are going to love Him. And no one can save us from our delusions unless we want to be saved.

When we enter the path, we face a number of difficult questions. How much courage will I be able to summon, and how completely will I be able to give myself to the search? And, even more basically, what does “God” mean?

The word “God” is exceedingly unfortunate in the English language, because it has no general meaning that people can clearly understand. Many sincere people have rejected religion for very good reason, because the only definitions of God they’ve been offered are so profoundly illogical and narrow that no person of any intelligence could accept them.

But it doesn’t mean that God is bound by those definitions. If there’s one thing we can be sure of, it’s that God is much more than the narrow ways people define Him.

The word that Paramhansa Yogananda used to describe God is Satchitananda. And of course it poses the obstacle that it’s a foreign term. But when we translate it, the meaning is clear: it means “ever existing, ever conscious, ever new joy.”

What do I want in my life? I don’t want to be merely snuffed out at the end of it all. We have a terrible fear that it will all be taken away from us in the end, don’t we, and that we’ll just become nothing. And of course we would deeply prefer to go on existing.

A friend of mine has a son who was terrified of dying. His parents tried to reassure him, “You’re six years old. You’re not going to die anytime soon.”

“Yes, but I will!” And it was an intelligent way of thinking, because he felt that he didn’t want to be obliterated, no matter when it would happen. But Satchidananda, the Sanskrit word for God, gives us the hope that the essence of our being is deathless, and that it can never be snuffed out and obliterated.

“Ever existing.” But what’s good about existing, if we aren’t keenly aware of our existence? And what’s the good of being aware of our existence, if it’s limited to a brief span on this earth, and if there is no blissful and inspiring goal at the end?

But the prospect of discovering that we are “ever existing, ever conscious, ever new joy” gives us an extremely hopeful perspective on the purpose and goal of our life.

Who wouldn’t desire that? We may not believe it’s possible, in our current state of consciousness. But by steadfast meditation and prayer we begin to get glimpses of a deeper truth that’s hiding inside us, by our own inner perception, and by the grace of the saints.

Certainly, that unbroken state of all-satisfying bliss is worth aspiring to. But in our present condition we must deal with ourselves as we are. Because we still have our lives to live, and we still have our human hearts. And the trouble with our hearts is that they’ve been corrupted by the nasty memories of our past actions and experiences in former lives. And those memories carry all of the misunderstandings that can torture us in this life.

I was deeply hurt in a past life, and the memory lingers as a subconscious fear. What do I have to be happy about, when I find a secret dread percolating in my subconscious? I feel the wounds of countless wrongs that were done to me in other lives, and why aren’t people treating me better in this life?

It goes all the way down to the most fundamental level: “My back hurts, and I don’t know why,” and “My kidney has cancer, and why is this happening to me?”

We labor under the awful things that have happened to us in the past. And what we need, if we’re going to find the strength to turn and face our life with courage, is the understanding that God is in some way our own.

Jesus said, so beautifully, “When I am gone, I will send you the Comforter” And I love that word. I don’t know what the original term is in the Aramaic language, and it really doesn’t matter. But whenever you’re feeling restless and dismayed and wondering what it is that we’re seeking, think of that promise. Because we are always seeking to be comforted.

Why do we go to the movies, and buy a pizza, and look for friends to be with? Because we want someone or something to comfort us.

Think of the little baby raising its hand to the mother, and how she holds the child, and how the child relaxes so completely in her arms. Someone told me about a little child that they brought to Sunday service. The child was about five years old, and after he was blessed as part of the Festival of Light he was sobbing. His mother’s friend was holding the little boy, and she said, “What’s wrong?” He said, “I felt all of the love my mother has for me, and so much more!” He said, “And I just don’t know what to do with it.” So he started crying.

And isn’t that what we’re looking for? All of the love that my mother has for me, and so much more. Whether we had a loving mother or not, our hearts know what that perfect love is like, and our hearts long for that comfort.

Paramhansa Yogananda said, “Worship God as Mother, because the Mother is closer than the Father.”

Our human life is a small imitation of the true reality. This life is given to us so that we can catch a glimpse of what the true reality is like. And in the shadow form of this human life, we are drawn to the comfort of the mother.

Swami Kriyananda had a particularly close connection with his mother, Gertrude Walters. She was a dignified, refined lady, and there’s a wonderful picture of her that was taken in Rumania, where Swami grew up. She’s dressed in the fashion of a woman of her day, and you can see that she was somewhat formal. Swamiji is about four years old, and he’s lounging across her lap in perfect trust and comfort. He always had the same face, so there’s this little person with the same Kriyananda face, and the attitude that you see in him is of absolute trust and comfort that he was where he wanted to be. And she, too, is completely at ease, and she has her hand on his shoulder.

People have worshiped God as Mother formally and ritually. Kriya Yoga gives us a way to go within and know Her in our hearts.
People have worshipped God as Mother formally and ritually. Kriya Yoga gives us a way to go within and know Her in our hearts.

This is the attitude that we need to cultivate in our hearts, and in the privacy of our meditation, which is the only place where we can deeply know God. We come to the temple to remind ourselves, and to renew our enthusiasm, and to receive something to contemplate, but in the end it doesn’t happen in this room. It happens in our hearts, and what we must learn, above all else, is to be absolutely unafraid of God, and absolutely confident, without a shred of doubt, that we can turn to God and we will always be comforted. And any part of you that thinks differently is from one of the restless whirlpools of energy and consciousness that are trying to keep you away from where you most truly belong.

This was Master’s message: “Look within yourself, and what you will find there is the Mother.” The mother’s love is selfless, and it answers the question of who we are, and where we truly want to be. Who should I aspire to be? How can I serve others? What is my destined role in life? What song can I play in this world?

The answer is always to be found in the Mother’s love. It’s not that the Mother will never ask anything of you, but when She asks it, She reaches out and makes it possible for you. Isn’t that so?

There’s a tremendous power in the planet that is pushing toward the feminine. We have feminine politicians, lawyers, doctors, and even the profession of the ministry is littered with females, whereas it used to be strictly a masculine domain. Many professions that were formerly male are being turned over to women. And Swami said, “Men and women are just two sides of the same coin, and you cannot say that one side of the coin is worth more than the other.” But what’s being said on another level, unspoken, is, “We are longing for the mother.” We are not longing for super-masculinized, aggressive, hard-edged people in female bodies who are even less present than the men they’re replacing. That’s not what we’re longing for. We are longing for the Mother. And when you find the Mother in your heart, you can give that perfect love to the world. That’s what God is asking of us at this time. Happy Mother’s Day, and God bless you.

(From Asha’s talk at Sunday service on April 17, 2016 at Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto, California.)


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