The Highest Relationship Between the Devotee and God

Ananda in the beginning. Very Indian and devotional, yet not fully aware of Ananda’s central mission to bring God to searching souls.
Ananda in the beginning. Very Indian and devotional, yet not fully aware of Ananda’s central mission to bring God to searching souls.

As many of you know, I’ve been working on a book about my life with Swami Kriyananda. I’m finding that thinking about my life forty-five years ago is a very here-and-now experience for me.

I lived in New York for a summer as a teenager. When I was there recently, I innocently started to say, “Yes, you know, I’ve lived in New York City.” And then it struck me that it was fifty years ago, which sounds like a long time, but it really isn’t, if the memory is fresh in your brain.

At any rate, while reviewing my notes for the book about Swamiji, I was taken back to 1981, to a time when we were trying to write a brochure about Ananda Village. I had some experience with writing, and I had previously written a little brochure that needed revising. So I cribbed what I could from the old version and wrote a new one.

It was very nicely written, and extremely straightforward. “We have this much land, we have these schools, so-and-so many people live here, and this is how you can come and visit us.”

Swami and I had an interesting relationship over the years when it came to my writing. He was determined that I would learn to write at the level he thought I was capable of, but which was far beyond where I stood at the time.

When I think about it in retrospect, he was actually quite ruthless on the issue. Many times, I would create something for him, and he would hold it in his hand and tell me it was inadequate. He wouldn’t even read it. He would say that he could tell from the vibration that it wasn’t good enough.

So I would regularly write, and he would regularly throw it away. And he might console me that it had actually been helpful to him, because I had done what we shouldn’t do, and it helped him eliminate some of the possibilities.

It all happened one day at a time, and the cumulative effect over the long haul was rather daunting. Finally, I gave up writing for a number of years, not with a grand, dramatic pronouncement, “I quit!” but because I didn’t have the stamina for it anymore. So I stopped, and then my job changed, and I didn’t have to write for a long while.

But in 1981 we had these warring brochures, you could say, because I had simply rewritten what I had done earlier, and everybody liked it. And then Swamiji looked it and threw it away, and he took it over and wrote a very different story of how Ananda had been started.

He didn’t start with “We have so much land and so many businesses, and this is what we do.” It started with “We were building the publications building, and it had a double-curved roof, and the builders simply didn’t know how to build it. And then, on the last day, just as they were about to walk off the job, a man we had never met drove up and got out of his car and said that he was a contractor from Santa Barbara. He asked the builders, “What are you doing here?” And they said, “We’re building a publications building, but we’re about to leave because we don’t know how to build a double-curved roof.”

“Well, you’re in luck,” he said. “Because I’m probably the only person in California who knows how to build that roof.” And then he showed him how to do it.

Ananda members in the early days.
Early Ananda portrait — yes, that’s all of the members, in front of the publications building with its unique roof that symbolizes God’s blessings descending in protection to all.

It’s the Hansa Temple now, but for many years it was the publications building, and Swami designed it with a very unusual roof because he felt that it would represent our ideals in architecture.

When he rewrote the brochure, Swami included a story about Vijay, who had a job doing pinecone harvesting for the state of California, and how he fell sixty feet out of a tree to the ground and didn’t break a single bone. He was hardly bruised, although he was sore for a day or two, and then he was fine.

Swamiji told how another man was driving the steep road down to the Yuba River in a big truck, when his brakes failed. He ran over the edge in this big, heavy truck, and he plowed straight into a small bush that managed to hold the truck and keep it from crashing into the canyon below and ending his life. So he got out, and they pulled the truck back up.

Then he told a story about Kalyani, who was working on a construction site when she fell about twelve feet into the foundation, and an iron rod pierced her thigh. It was awful, and then they had to lift her off the iron rod, and it ripped the wound in the other direction. It was the kind of thing where if it isn’t treated immediately it will go septic, and then you’ll die.

So they took her to the surgeon, and he said afterward that the wound was as clean as if it had been made by a skilled surgeon with a scalpel. He said, “Every major artery, everything that could have killed you on the spot, the rebar missed it all.” And then it healed right up.

Those are just the stories I remember. But the point is that he put all of these miracle stories into his version of the brochure, where I had been talking about the goats and the organic garden.

Seva and Asha confer in the publications building at Ananda Village.
Kalyani, Seva, and Asha confer in the publications building at Ananda Village.

It was interesting to grow up spiritually at Ananda, because in the beginning we didn’t know what we had. It was as if we were suffering from a kind of temporary blindness while we were intent on growing Ananda from roots that were buried deep in the mud, and we couldn’t see the beautiful flowers that were already subtly present in their astral form.

Many years later, when we made the movie Finding Happiness, we had the Hollywood film crew working with us at Ananda Village, and they were sophisticated professionals who had brought their own aesthetic with them. And when it came time to film the scene where the reporter, Juliette, arrives at the Expanding Light, we showed the crew our absolutely first‑class accommodations, which consisted of a very small, very plain room with a very small, plain indoor bathroom. And the director and the crew people looked puzzled. They kept saying, “This is it?” And we were saying, “Yes, this is it!” As if to say, “Isn’t it wonderful?” And they were trying to figure out how they were going turn this into a place where people would actually want to come and visit.

Finally, I had to take off my Ananda eyes, and I walked into the bathroom, and I realized that it was about as industrial-strength cheap as it could possibly be, like a Motel 6 when it actually cost six dollars. That’s what the bathroom looked like, although it was spotlessly clean and very well tended and tastefully decorated. But it was built at minimum cost, and I realized that from the point of view of someone from Hollywood, maybe it was a little primitive.

Guest room in Serenity House at Ananda Village. Very nice! — but hardly the Ritz.
Guest room in Serenity House at the Expanding Light retrest, Ananda Village. Very nice! — but hardly the Ritz.

I had become very good friends with our director, and I said to him, “Ted, you have to understand that we literally dragged this room up out of the mud. There was nothing here, just a meadow with trees and animals and pine cones and rain and mud in winter. And by our willpower, piece by piece, day after day, we pulled it all up, and we think it’s an absolute palace. So I can see how, if you’re coming from the Chateau Marmont Hotel in Hollywood, it might seem a little primitive.”

If you watch the movie, you’ll see Juliette walk in, and then David Eby, who’s serving as her Ananda guide, sort of apologies for the accommodations. She looks around sort of scornfully and says, “Well, it won’t hurt me to live like a monk for a week.”

She says it with a wistful sigh of resignation in her voice. But the director insisted on putting in that line to modify the impact on people who were used to a much higher level of plush. Because everything is in your point of view.

Now, I’ll go back to 1981. Swamiji’s point of view was that he was vividly aware that we were channeling a ray of divine grace, and the fact that we had land and goats and organic gardens was completely incidental and of hardly any importance at all.

Having a much greater understanding of human nature than the rest of us, he said, “If you describe it here, people will imagine it here.” He said, “Because they can’t see what they don’t know.” He said, “You have to describe it here for them even to come close to what it actually is.”

It may sound a little cryptic, but what Swami wanted us to convey to people was the real point of what we were doing, which was entirely spiritual. And he wanted us to paint a vivid picture for them, so that they would be attracted to the real Ananda, which was the spiritual power of the place, and which was very different from the physical infrastructure.

At Ananda in those days, people were much more on my wavelength than Swamiji’s, in terms of feeling very timid and shy about speaking openly of our spiritual mission, and not really having the dignity of what we were doing. So, for a long time, we had no brochure about Ananda, because no one wanted to print Swamiji’s vision, and no one dared print mine. So we were caught in the middle, because of our lack of vision. People would ask us, “Why don’t you have some kind of a brochure?” And, well, because there was this deep inner conflict.

I was perfectly willing to capitulate, but it just couldn’t happen, because as a group we were still thinking too much on the physical plane, caught up, as we were, in the daily struggle to build a community out of the mud, and we couldn’t see the true reality as Swami saw it.

We eventually used what Swami had written in another piece of literature, but that’s beside the point. And what I wanted to talk about is how very different our vision must become as we grow on the spiritual path.

Years after the controversy over the brochures, I was talking to Swamiji and trying to understand what had happened. Because I had lived through every one of the stories that Swamiji told in his version, and I knew that they were true. So it wasn’t as if I doubted them, or that I felt there was the slightest exaggeration in them. Nor did I have any doubt that God’s hand was at play. And I certainly didn’t think that those miracles were purely coincidental, because I knew that they were cases of real divine intervention.

But there was a profound timidity in me, and a near-paralysis that kept me from standing in the true facts with courage, and announcing to the world that God’s protection is real.

Also, I was conflicted by my own distorted belief that it was somehow presumptuous to expect that God was taking care of us, and that it would be presumptuous to tell others that He would take care of them, too, if they would turn to Him.

I was committed to the idea that my role was to suffer – to slave and suffer and martyr myself and make endless effort. And then, at the end of it all, to fail, and to just sort of immolate myself in the fires of effort, instead of celebrating the wonderful experience of God’s unceasing affection for us.

Now, it’s a bit of a razor’s edge, because as Swami said, too much passive dependence on grace doesn’t have the magnetism to attract the actual experience of grace.

On the other hand, it doesn’t help us to have “too much boastful self‑confidence,” as Swamiji put it. Self‑confidence is a very good thing, if we derive it from the inner awareness of our oneness with God, but it’s a bad thing if it’s just a boastful self‑confidence that’s based on a false sense of our own power. Because, naturally, that will block the flow of God’s grace.

Now, I love the story of Jesus, where the people were crowding around and jostling up against him, because they had heard that he could heal them. So everyone who was ill or had a sick child or an ailing parent was rushing to see him, because nothing else had availed, and here was this miracle worker, and he was walking down their street.

Just imagine the scene – how Jesus is walking among them, and he has omniscient consciousness. So he knows who’s around him, and he’s not confused or vague, because he is fully merged with the God who is sustaining every single one of them, and he feels all of their unique vibrations.

And then he says the most interesting thing. He suddenly stops walking and says, “I felt power go out of me.”

And the story gives us an important insight, because it tells us that Christ’s healing power is a channel that is always open. Everybody was touching him, but no power went out until a woman touched, not even his body, but the hem of his garment, and he felt a power go out of him. And the reason she was able to receive, where others could not, is that she understood the right attitude, which was a calm acceptance of what God had given her, which in her case was twelve years of unrelenting bleeding, and she understood that she belonged to Jesus.

She belonged to Jesus, because she knew that he was her father. He was her friend, and it was her duty and privilege and the spontaneous reaction of her heart to bring herself to him.

Jesus heals the bleeding woman; 4th century image from the catacombs of Marcellinus and Peter, Rome.
Jesus heals the bleeding woman; 4th century image from the catacombs of Marcellinus and Peter, Rome.

Was she praying for a healing, or was she coming close to him because she loved him? Swamiji said, “Those devotees who are on the path because of their pure-hearted love for God are of a different order than those who are there merely because the teacher is attractive or the teaching is interesting.”

In the Bible, Jesus says, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”

And isn’t it a magnificent promise? But what does it mean, to be pure in our hearts?

In our relationship with God, we need to be as simple as a little child. When I’m swimming at the YMCA, sometimes a father or mother, or sometimes a grandparent will bring a very small baby for a swimming lesson. And you see these adorable little children in such an intense relationship to their parents, because the parents are holding them in the water. And you get to see before your eyes the absolute trust that a child gives to its parent.

As Swamiji says, “They haven’t learned not to trust.” And it isn’t that they don’t have karma that will assert itself later, but in that moment they expect to be completely protected. They open their arms and expect to be lifted and fed and comforted. And they are not disappointed. Because there are no interfering cross‑currents of self‑concern.

That’s what purity of heart is. It’s the woman who could bring to Jesus twelve years of suffering without any interfering currents of self‑concern, and who could tell him in that moment with absolute simplicity, “I am your daughter. This has been my experience. Here I am.”

When Swami was trying to help me understand why he had re-written the brochure in that way, he talked about the right understanding of miracles. And I remember him saying, “It’s not that you wait passively, but you have this deep unwavering feeling in your heart that God is my friend.”

Everything in this world is a little mirror of what the divine world is like. Women have a unique kind of friendship that’s not unknown to men, but it’s much more common among women.  I remember a woman friend of mine who was given an assignment in her work that kept her separated from most of her friends for a time, and she said to her husband, “I need a girlfriend.”

He said, “Well, honey, you have me,”

“I know, but I need a girlfriend.”

Because there’s a friendship that only women can have with each other. “I’m standing here for you, and I’m always going to be standing here, and no matter what happens I will always be standing here.”

And if you’re fortunate to have that kind of friendship, you can begin to understand the purity that’s possible in a relationship, and how deeply you can relax into that friendship.

Now, Master said something very interesting about our relationship with God. When we say our prayer, “Heavenly Father, Divine Mother, Friend, Beloved, God” – we’re talking about the various ways that we can relate to Him. God is our father, He is our mother, He is our friend, and He is our Beloved. The prayer is a little confusing because it sounds like “friend, beloved God” – where “beloved” is an adjective, but it’s not how Master intended it. It’s meant to describe an entirely different way of relating to God, as our dearest Beloved.

There’s friendship, and there’s romantic love. And romantic love can be a divine relationship with God, too. Radha’s love for Krishna represents the absolute perfection of the romantic love that the human heart longs for, but which can only ever be truly fulfilled in the love we offer to God.

And then there’s the relationship of servant to master, and of parent and child. But Master didn’t put that into his prayer – “My child, God” – even though it’s a perfectly valid way of relating to Him.

Out of all the possible relationships that we can have with God, Master said that the relationship of friend is the most elevated and refined, and the highest ideal, because friendship is a relationship without compulsion.

Those were Master’s words. He said that even in a mother’s love, as selflessly as she loves the child, it’s a love that she is compelled to give. The child will die if she doesn’t take care of it. But we choose our friend of our free will, out of the pure, sincere love of our heart. And there is an equality in that relationship, and a mutual respect.

So it’s a very interesting way that Master challenged us to open our hearts and think of God.

In the Bible, Jesus says to his closest disciples, near the end of his life, “You call me Master, but I call you friend.”

He said that the servant takes care of the master’s business, but he doesn’t share the burden. But a friend shares the burden. So when we’re thinking of a pure relationship with God, a relationship that has the magnetism to cause power to go out, it’s essential to understand that it’s a relationship where you’re relating to God as your dearest friend.

My friend – and thank God that I have friends like this –  would do everything for me. Of course, it isn’t always possible, but there’s no doubt in my mind about my friend’s good will and willingness.

And this is clearly the kind of friendship that the woman brought to Jesus when she touched his robe. “He is my own. He is my friend. I can come to him as I am.”

The completeness of her self-offering caused power to go out of him. And what is the power that he is always trying to give to us? It is a vibration that is at once personal and deeply impersonal. When we receive it, we feel God’s consciousness permeating our consciousness and shifting us so that we can know Him, and we know that we are one with Him.

The only thing that keeps us from receiving that power is that we don’t match its pure giving love. We’re busy asking for this or that, and in various ways we’re closing the cup that we’re asking Him to fill.

It’s very much like what I was trying to tell Swami about the miracles that he put into his version of the brochure. I knew that they were possible, and I didn’t doubt for a moment that they were true, but I was much too shy to present them for people’s inspection. And what was I doubting? I was doubting the purity of God’s friendship. I was doubting my own love for God. And I was wavering in my faith.

I’m unable to receive God’s power and be strong in my faith because I’m continually agitated – by what? By my self‑concern. “What about me? Where do I fit? Am I good enough?” And while God is trying to infuse me with the pure, unconditional love of His consciousness, I’m so busy begging for it that it can’t come in.

The solution to our doubts and fears is to truly, on the deepest level, be a friend of God.

When Swamiji started our Ananda monastery in 1971, he decided that it should be called The Friends of God. Many things have happened in the intervening forty-five years, and that particular name has long since floated away. But that was how he presented it to us, because it was how he wanted us to think of ourselves.

He wanted us to see ourselves in an unceasing, and strangely equal partnership with God – equal in the sense that our interests are exactly the same as His. Where there is no conflict between me and the Divine, because what God wants, I want, and what I want is what God wants. And let us walk together as friends, even as the woman walked with Jesus, so that the divine power can come out of Him and enter into us and make us free.

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

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