In the early stages of World War II, Adolf Hitler made a series of brilliant military decisions that brought his armies great success. And then he suddenly decided to open up a second front in Russia, which meant that he had to divide his forces, ultimately ensuring that Germany would be defeated.
It was utterly baffling that he would make such an infantile decision, given the masterful way he had conducted the war up to that point. And, very interestingly, Paramhansa Yogananda said that it was he who planted that thought in Hitler’s mind.
But he was quick to add that it wasn’t that he’d hypnotized Hitler, or forced him to accept the idea by some arcane spiritual power. Rather, there were aspects of Hitler’s own nature – arrogance, pride, racial superiority, and so on – that made him confident that his decisions couldn’t possibly go wrong. And Master said that if he hadn’t had those qualities, he wouldn’t have been open to the suggestion.
When Swami Kriyananda would talk about his style of leadership, he would often leave us with the impression that he hadn’t actually been involved in whatever was going on.
When we were developing the Ananda community in Mountain View, for example, he hardly ever offered us specific suggestions. But as things progressed, those of us who were in charge of making the day-to-day decisions had a sense that he was somehow putting the right ideas in our minds.
On one hand, he would say, “I founded nine communities,” even though it was other people who had done the actual work. But on the other hand, his way of working was to project an idea into the ether, and if you were in tune with the idea, you would be receptive. And then you would filter it through your understanding, and the idea would become, in a sense, your own, because you would add your energy and enthusiasm to make it happen.
It’s important to understand that we aren’t simply being manipulated like puppets by these great souls who offer us their guidance. What’s actually happening is that we’re attuning ourselves to their consciousness, and we’re free to accept or reject their influence.
Yogananda said, “Thoughts are universally, not individually rooted.” We receive our thoughts, including our greatest insights and inspirations, as strains of consciousness that are floating in the ether, with which we happen to be personally in tune. Over many lives, we’ve put ourselves in alignment with a certain level of consciousness, and then we’re able to receive the ideas that are floating on that particular level.
It’s why, when you shift your energy, you find your thoughts changing in surprising ways. If you’re feeling depressed, and then something positive happens, you might find your whole attitude changing, even though your circumstances haven’t changed. A new wave of thoughts and inspirations has entered your consciousness, and your attitude reflects that new level of awareness.
Swami told a strange story that he heard from someone in India. It seems that the Himalayan master that God had placed in charge of the spiritual destiny of China, and the master who was in charge of India, got together and had some sort of consultation. The master who was in charge of China said, “My boys are getting restless. They’re becoming aggressive. They want to fight, and they want to fight with India.” So they decided, as Swami heard the story, that they would make a deal, and they would let the Chinese come over the Himalayas, but only so far. And that’s apparently what happened. The Chinese invaded up to a certain point, and then they arbitrarily stopped, and after a time they lost interest and went back to China.
We see inexplicable things happening all the time, and we assume that it’s the people in charge who are making them happen. But we are part of a great consciousness that is writing an unimaginably complex story, based on the individual karma of millions of souls, and the karma of entire nations and continents.
The amazingly diverse qualities of the various nations and cultures, with their unique ethnicities and prejudices and tendencies are, in fact, created purely to hold vibrations that can help individual souls learn their spiritual lessons.
Paramhansa Yogananda said that there are many planets that we can to go to. When Swamiji asked him if there is life on other worlds, he said that this universe is “teeming with life.” And when a soul is ready to incarnate, and it needs to be part of a persecuted minority, for example, that soul will find a place to be born where it can be persecuted. And if the soul needs to be the one instigating the persecution, it will find a planet where it can learn the lessons that will help it work out its destiny.
If it wants to have lots of will power, it can be born in Germany, and if wants to go deeper into the heart, it gets to be Italian. And if it wants to be practical, it gets to be American. And this is how we find a suitable place to work out our karma.
I was talking with a friend about how the America culture is so incredibly individualized, and on the other hand, how deeply group-oriented most oriental cultures are. And I was remarking how little interest I have in being part of a group culture, because I feel that I’ve worked through that way of being.
Now, I like the Indian culture, but I like the freedom of being American. And I’m sure that when I was born, I made a very specific and deliberate choice to be born in this country.
In fact, we can gain a lot of insight about our karma by looking at where we were born. Not the ethnic or cultural or political circumstances, but what kind of family we were born into, and what influences were we brought up with, and what kinds of forces were pushing us along.
Now, psychology, which doesn’t have a clue about reincarnation or karma, explains a person’s development by logic and reason. But if you accept the idea of reincarnation and karma, you have to start with the idea that this is who I was before I was born, and I’ve simply stepped into the circumstances that will help me grow.
It’s good to remember that we don’t always step into a set of circumstances that will bring out our virtues. Very often, we come into circumstances that will exaggerate our faults, or intensify our suffering, so that we will begin to want to put out the necessary energy to change.
The attracting power of inertia is ingrained in the fabric of creation. It’s a force that gets into our subconscious and tells us that we’ll be happier if we just put out less energy – just dull our awareness so we won’t have to feel the pain and struggle of life. We’ll take the easy way, and ignore the superconscious influences that are prodding us to rise up and become more.
Swami Kriyananda would often quote a talk that Paramhansa Yogananda gave in 1950, in which he spoke very passionately about the future of this planet. He said that we are living in a time of enormous change and transformation, and that we will see dramatic changes that are approaching rapidly. And he wasn’t speaking mildly or off-handedly. As Swami described it, he thundered, “You don’t know what a terrible cataclysm is coming!” He said those words during a Sunday service, and Swami said that it was spoken with such power that you would think it would happen the very next day.
Now, many decades have passed without our seeing that kind of dramatic shift. But all along, we’ve been inching away from stability toward instability. And although we haven’t seen anything that we could call a cataclysm, Swamiji felt a tremendous obligation, as Master’s disciple, to remind us of those words.
Everything that he did, he did with a great sense of urgency, because, as he explained it, we need to orient our lives in a spiritual direction. The pressures are becoming more and more intense, and if we aren’t oriented in the right way, it will be more than we can handle when times get really tough.
I think it’s important to understand where we stand right now in the history of the planet. Swami explained that this world goes through cycles of greater and lesser awareness. These ages are explained very clearly in a fascinating book called The Yugas, co-authored by two Ananda devotees.
In the highest age, the karma of the planet is, on the whole, very sattwic – it’s a spiritually refined age; very calm, focused, and in tune with higher realities. Then, over a descending cycle of 12,000 years, the karma of the planet becomes increasingly dense and materialistic. And during the lowest age, people are so unreceptive to spiritual things, and so unrefined in their consciousness that they actually persecute the saints who come into this world to try to help them rise into the light.
Not so long ago, a great Christ figure came to this planet for the salvation of mankind and was crucified for his efforts. More recently, Paramhansa Yogananda was subjected to all kinds of abuse in this country, including multiple lawsuits and flagrant race prejudice.
At this time, the planet on the whole is hostile to people who are even a little bit expansive in their consciousness. Mahatma Gandhi was shot. Martin Luther King was shot. Kennedy was shot. And the Pope and President Reagan were shot at – all because we are living in an age that is indifferent to higher realities, and where the vast majority of people don’t want to be reminded of them, and where they may even react violently if those realities are placed prominently before their eyes.
But we’re also seeing an enormous uprising of spiritual awareness. What we find today is a certain elevation of consciousness, at the same time as there’s a tremendous karma of violence and chaos and confusion.
Swamiji said that what’s happening today is that there’s a massive increase of energy-awareness in the consciousness of the planet. Outwardly, in the physical sciences, scientists are becoming increasingly aware that the fundamental reality of creation is not matter, but energy. It began in the 19th century, with the discovery of ways to turn fossil fuels into energy, resulting in the steam engine, the automobile, and so on. And over the last two centuries people have discovered ever more refined ways to use energy, to the point where your simple smartphone today contains more computing power than the computers that sent the first rocket to the moon.
We take these things for granted, with people flashing their phones wherever they go. And on a spiritual level, it’s all part of the vast new awareness of energy that has entered people’s minds at the start of a post-materialistic energy-conscious age.
In tandem with the new consciousness of energy, there’s been a tremendously increased awareness of the importance of the individual. People are feeling that they must follow their own star, and be guided by their own inner understanding, and express what they are uniquely meant to be.
At the same time, we haven’t entirely left the age of materialism behind, and we find ourselves in a transition period between these two great ages, where people are continuing to feel the pull of material things.
They’re feeling the pull of their individual destiny – “I can be anything I want to be! It all depends on how much energy I can generate.” But they’re also feeling a pull to continue to define themselves in material ways. “I am this body. I am my family. I am the furniture I own. I am the car I drive.” And it’s why we’re seeing such a stunning rise of selfish self‑determination. “If I want something, I’ll simply put out a heap of energy to get it, and I’m not terribly concerned how others may be affected, or how my actions might impact the world around me.”
Our politicians are, to a large extent, motivated by power and money, because it’s what our culture still values at this time. People are using the new energy-based discoveries to try to fulfill themselves with material things. The unspoken assumption is: “I’ll use my energy to get what I want, and I’ll make sure my ego gets really powerful along the way. And then I’ll just get and get and get, and at the end of it all I’ll be perfectly happy.”
A friend of mine worked for the man who invented the duty‑free shops. He was an eccentric billionaire, and he owned just one pair of shoes. When someone asked him about it, he said, “I have one pair of feet. How many shoes do I need?”
A friend from India remarked, “Every child in America has his own room.” Now, there’s a certain value to that, because it’s part of the new awareness of the importance of the individual. So I don’t completely object to it. But then he said, “And the room is full of things that belong to the child.”
A three-year-old lies in its crib and looks out at all of this stuff that’s his. And this is what’s wrecking the planet. It’s the thought that “I am the only reality, and if I want it, I can have it all for myself alone.”
Meanwhile, there’s no awareness of the whole. No thought that I’m part of all that is. And every selfish action and self-centered thought ripples out and influences what everyone on the planet is thinking. And the more we push in this direction, the more the planet is preparing to rebel, because the instinct to contract our awareness to our own little sphere is completely out of harmony with the higher reality.
In the area where we live, children are literally throwing themselves in front of trains, thanks to an educational system that force-feeds them a materialistic understanding of life, as a consequence of which they’ve lost all sense of life’s higher purpose and meaning. And when we have a city hall meeting to talk about it, the first rule is that we can’t talk about religion or spiritual things.
So there’s no hint whatever that there might be a greater reality than the little ego. We’ll solve the problem with our rational minds, in the full pride of our own egos, thank you very much.
But, of course, that’s the problem. Because until we understand that we are, quite literally, the children of God, we can never find lasting solutions.
The solutions are there, vibrating in the ether, as Yogananda said. But we must lift our consciousness to receive them. We haven’t created ourselves, and we don‘t create the answers we need.
Not one of the millions of people who believe that they’ve found the answer by pouring their energy into gathering material things can do anything about the hour of their death. They are not in charge of their own destiny. No one is in charge except the Infinite. And it is the responsibility, and the salvation, of every soul to live in ever-deepening awareness that they are part of that greater reality.
In the Festival of Light, the ceremony that Swamiji created for our services, we affirm that we are part of the great reality of God. We say, “For you are a part of all that is.” And we affirm that we’ve been given a holy mission to be fruitful and multiply, and to share with all the gifts that we have received.
When Swamiji wrote the Festival, it was as a deliberate response to the forces that are trying to push us into darkness and suffering.
Our society is so super-saturated with those suffering‑producing influences today that we’re barely aware of them. We imagine it’s natural for a little child to have a roomful of things that belong strictly to him. But – oh, wait – maybe a four‑year‑old doesn’t need fifteen dresses and ten dolls. Maybe it isn’t actually helping the child, to be continually pulled outside himself to look for his happiness in all the shiny things around him.
Through the teachings and our meditation practices, we’ve been given the awareness and the experience of our oneness with God. And we need to ask ourselves continually if we’re opening our hearts to feel what others are feeling. Because whatever pain and suffering are moving your heart, I was made to feel it also, and to offer my help and prayers.
What do I want from my life? And what do I want to give to this life? These are not airy philosophical questions. They are vital, central, deeply affecting questions that will define our reality and determine whether we will move toward greater happiness or suffering.
As Swami Kriyananda said, the spiritual path is a matter of life or death. And the answers can come only from our innermost consciousness, through our daily experience of God.
In our service readings, Swami points out how people love to discuss theology and philosophy and the nature of the universe. And this is actually a necessary step on the spiritual path, because it can help us greatly to understand the nature of the reality in which we spend our lives. What will the results of my actions be? What will give me joy, and what will bring me sorrow? Knowing that our lives are subject to definite divine laws gives us a wonderful sense that our lives are meaningful, and that all life has a purpose.
But Swami says that there’s a point beyond which you can no longer bear the suffering. You can’t bear what you’re feeling and what you’ve become inside, and you desperately want to know how to change.
And then we’re no longer worried about dogmas. We aren’t even worried about religion, because we want to know, in the deepest, innermost core of our hearts what we can do to experience that which our hearts are breaking to experience.
And what is it that our hearts are longing for? Love? Joy? Bliss? The complete removal of fear? An all-encompassing love to assuage the agonizing loneliness that is the plague of our times?
We’ve cut ourselves off from everything that matters. We’ve surrounded ourselves with inanimate objects that we grasp tightly in our hands, and that have no capacity to give us anything in response. And we’re spent. We’re absolutely spent. Did you know that the YMCA – the “Young Men’s Christian Association” – is open from 9 a.m. until 2 p.m. on Easter Sunday, and nobody gives it a second thought?
It’s not as if the outward forms of traditional religion are the way of the future. They are not. The “old-time religion” is the product of a matter-bound age, which asks us to explore no more deeply into the source of happiness and suffering than to affirm what we believe with our minds.
What is the theology? What are the rules? What does the leader say? What does the authority say? What is the dogma? Who can do it for me?
And that’s not where we are today, those of us who long to know the source of all bliss and freedom as an actual experience. We need to be in an intimate, personal relationship with God. Not a relationship with something that just makes us feel good, but a relationship to a power that will ultimately lift us beyond all thought of self into pure satchidananda – ever-conscious, ever-existing, ever-new joy.
Is it easy? No. It’s a lot easier to simply let ourselves slip into the stream of what’s going on all around us. But the spiritual path is a battlefield. The struggle for happiness has always been a battle, because it’s a struggle against the false promise of the world, and the misguided tendencies of our own hearts.
It has always been a war for the individual soul. And our daily battle is to challenge ourselves: “Which path will I allow my soul to take today?”
Will I take the soft, easy road of acquiring a roomful of things? Will I dedicate my life to the heart-draining pleasure of watching a pile of things grow up around me until I die?
Will I give my life to earning money to buy more stuff, so that I can die in the comforting knowledge that I have a great big pile of stuff, just before the light goes out?
Or will I follow the path that constantly questions and challenges: “Who am I? Where does my happiness come from?”
Almost no one begins to ask those questions until they’ve suffered. And, unfortunately, Paramhansa Yogananda said that the reason hard times are coming is that we’re so out of balance that it will take a big whack to bring us back in harmony with the higher truth.
His words were simple: “Americans will have half as much wealth, but they will be more spiritual.” Which is to say, once we’ve come back into harmony with the Divine, we will be a lot happier.
People ask, “Does it always have to come through suffering?” And Swami said, “No, not at all.”
Because, while there’s a powerful karmic wave that’s pushing the world toward a great cataclysm, we as individuals don’t have to learn through suffering. The power of the Divine is always available. But we must be sufficiently dissatisfied with what is, and powerfully insistent, as spiritual warriors, on finding something better.
The question we need to ask ourselves in the privacy of our hearts is simple: “What direction are we going to look for our fulfillment?” Not just while we’re sitting in the temple, but in every moment. Will our heart go out, as the Festival of Light asks, in generosity of spirit? Will we offer a prayer of gratitude for all that we’ve received, and pray for the grace to share the gifts we’ve received? Is this our constant prayer? Because, if so, then that grace will flow through us, and with that grace will come the joy that all of us are seeking. God bless you.
(From Asha’s talk during Sunday service at Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto, California on June 12, 2016.)