How to Stay Safely on the Spiritual Path

L-R: Yogananda’s most advanced disciple, Rajarsi Janakananda; Swami Kriyananda (standing), Paramhansa Yogananda, and Dr. Lewis, Yogananda’s first disciple in America.
L-R: Yogananda’s most advanced disciple, Rajarsi Janakananda (seated); Swami Kriyananda (standing), Paramhansa Yogananda, and Dr. M. W. Lewis, Yogananda’s first disciple in America. Click photos to enlarge.

When Swami Kriyananda lived with Paramhansa Yogananda, there was a young monk in the ashram who had lots of visions and extraordinary experiences in meditation. At one point, he had a vision of himself as Yogananda’s disciple in the ancient land of Lemuria, thousands of years ago. And he realized that his spiritual search had been going on for very long time.

When Swamiji heard about the disciple’s vision, he asked Master, “Does it always take so long?” And then he said, “Have I, too, been your disciple for thousands of years?” And Master’s answer was diplomatic. He said, “It’s been a long time. That’s all I will say.”

Swamiji was appalled. He said, “Does it always take so long?” And Master said, “Oh, yes. Desires for this or that thing take them away again and again.”

Swamiji would occasionally talk about his own past lives. He spoke about them very matter-of-factly, without a lot of fanfare or drama. But he mentioned certain “confirmed sightings” when he felt that he’d been with Master in former lives. And he talked about his spiritual failings in various lives, based on certain readings that he had received from the Book of Bhrigu, a very well-known and reliable book of prophecy in India.

He talked about having attained high states of consciousness in a former life, including what Bhrigu called “shanti in his vrittis,” which is to say that the whirlpools of karma in his spine had become completely calmed. And that is Patanjali’s definition of Self-realization, where the vortices of feeling in the chakras are neutralized. “Shanti in the vrittis” is a state where we are free of all karmic compulsions. And yet Bhrigu said that Swamiji had fallen from that high state.

Desires for this or that thing take us away again and again. Swami talked about several lives in which he had been Master’s disciple, and how he had been taken into the inner circle – and how that alone was no guarantee, because until we achieve the state of unbroken oneness with God, in nirbikalpa samadhi, we can always fall.

Now, when I heard this, I found it exceedingly depressing. For starters, it’s depressing because of the anguishing monotony of this very long project that we’ve undertaken. And it’s depressing also, in the sense that can erode our confidence that we’ve finally got it right in this lifetime, and that we’re on the right track, and that we’ll be able to stay the course to the end.

So the conclusion to be drawn, I think, is that the spiritual path is a very long one, and that it’s a constant challenge. We’re challenged to be both realistic about the effort that’s required to find our freedom, and we’re challenged to be optimistic about our capacity to do it.

As I look back on my life, I find it interesting to see how our perspective shifts over the years. I’ve followed this path very seriously since my early twenties, which now amounts to several decades. It isn’t thousands of years, although I think we can safely assume that we’ve been at this for quite a while in order to be here today. But I find it interesting to contemplate how the many facets of our souls are revealed to us at different times, so that we can work on them, and ultimately balance them all and become free.

I find it fascinating to reflect on the way Swamiji expressed very different aspects of his nature at various times in his life, and how his last years were a particularly unique and inspiring phase of that great life.

If you listen to recordings of the talks he gave in the early years, in the 1970s and the 1980s, you find that he was introducing Master’s teachings in an extremely dynamic way to the people who had come to be part of Ananda, as well as to all of the West, and to the spiritual movement that was very active in the country at that time.

He introduced the whole of Master’s teachings, in a way that even Master himself did not really articulate in his lifetime. A great deal of what Master taught was actually lost to us, because it wasn’t recorded, filmed, or written down. So we have really only a tiny portion of his teachings, especially from the 1920s, when he was very actively traveling back and forth across the country and spreading his message.

He traveled all over, talking to huge audiences about all kinds of subjects, to show how the spiritual teachings address them all: health and healing, wealth, relationships, business, literature, politics, science, and religion. He spoke on all manner of topics, and we don’t have any of those recordings, just a few scattered notes, and we don’t really know what he said.

So Swamiji was teaching very dynamically in the 1970s and 1980s, to fill the gaps in our knowledge of the teachings, by speaking from his inner attunement with Master, as Master had told him to do.

It’s interesting to listen to those recordings, and to see how he talked very fast – how the words poured out of him in a flood of fresh insights and concepts. It was as if he knew that he only had a certain amount of time, and that this message would not be just for the people in the room, and that he needed to use the time available to him to the full, to put forward this entire new way of thinking.

Swami Kriyananda in the mid-1970s — sharing the teachings of Paramhansa Yogananda with dynamic energy.
Swami Kriyananda in the mid-1970s — sharing the teachings of Paramhansa Yogananda with dynamic energy.

So he was running as fast as he could, to get as much of Yogananda’s message out into the ether as possible. And it was not a superficial teaching, because it was a very complete and sophisticated and nuanced articulation of all of the facets of the spiritual path.

He knew that it would be a treasure that would nourish people in later generations, because all of what was being recorded – and later, filmed – would endure.

And then, over the years, it was as if that phase of his life ended, and he began to speak in a different way. At the end of his life, no matter what the announced topic of his talks might be, he would almost always turn to telling the story, as if for the very first time, of how he found Autobiography of a Yogi, and how enamored he was of that book, and how completely taken he was by Master’s picture on the cover, and how he held the book to his heart when he came out of the bookstore and ran into a very worldly friend who tried to persuade him to go into advertising which was where the real money was. And then he would talk about how he traveled across the country on the bus to find Master and become his disciple. And then, always with tears running down his face, he would talk about meeting Master, and what it meant to him to be accepted as his disciple. And it was such a wonderful and moving personal account that you never tired of hearing it.

But the point was that this entire life, and the thousands of years of spiritual seeking that preceded it, all came down to that single story. All of the philosophy, all of the erudition, and all of the scriptural interpretations, ultimately came down to that one episode. “I was lost. I found my master. My master picked me up, and here I am.”

Swamiji talked about Rajarsi Janakananda, who was Master’s most advanced disciple. We put on a play recently about several of the great disciples of our path, adapted from their own words. There was a monologue for Rajarsi which was taken from his words, but we had to take certain liberties to make it interesting, because as Swamiji said of Rajarsi, “He had no small talk.”

Swamiji said, “He was silent most of the time, and when he did speak, he mostly said ‘Om Guru.’” Even though he was a self-made American millionaire and sat on the boards of various companies, he was sufficiently advanced spiritually to know that it was all just an expression of the one consciousness of God that shone forth through his guru.

Similarly, all of Swamiji’s incarnations came down to the simple fact: “I asked to be my Guru’s disciple, and he gave me his unconditional love.”

Swamiji writes, “You have to have enormous respect for delusion. Not in the sense of fearing it,” he said. “But don’t ever underestimate it. Don’t ever think for a minute that merely because I have this together I can say that I am free.”

I remember a very small experience in meditation that I had early on, and for some reason I mentioned it to Swamiji. He said, “Don’t be afraid.” And I immediately said, “I’m not afraid!” But even as I said it, I realized that I was tense and nervous. And he smiled and didn’t carry it further, but I realized that I was in fact very afraid. I was, in fact, too afraid to admit how afraid I was.

We have the teachings that are tremendously helpful to us as guidelines on the spiritual path, and it’s wonderful to be able to share them in Master’s name, and to help others understand the meaning of this existence and this human life. It helps us enormously to aware of the wisdom aspect of the path, as a roadmap for our lives. But we should never make the mistake of confusing our mental pictures with the state of actual freedom.

Think of Judas. The Bible describes Judas as a very bright fellow. He was said to be of a different class than the other disciples, because he was wealthier, and he was more “in” with the establishment, and he was convinced that this was where the real power was. He was sure that he knew where Jesus should go and what he should do, because it would impress everyone with the power that Jesus had.

But of course Jesus knew where his real power came from. His power came from his very simple relationship with God. Because as Sri Yukteswar warns us in Autobiography of a Yogi, “Intelligence is a two-edged sword. It can be used to cut off the boil of ignorance, or to chop off our own head.”

Swami used his intellectual brilliance in the best possible way. He used it to create a world for us in which we can live by the highest ideals. But in the end he revealed through his simple way of being that the only thing that really matters is that the masters are ready to lift us out of delusion. They are eager to lift us out of any need for clever reasoning and intellectual subtleties, and even the need for the scriptures.

In the Mahabharata, there’s a story of Krishna and Draupadi, the wife of one of the pandavas, who were the “good guys” in the story. Draupadi was a great devotee of Krishna, and at one point Krishna urged her to practice yoga, the holy science that tells us how to extricate ourselves from delusion. And she said, “My Lord, you will have to bless me so that I can take my mind off of you long enough to practice yoga.” And of course he let it be.

Draupadi and Krishna
Draupadi and Krishna

The story of Draupadi tells us that the entire spiritual path comes down to standing heart to heart with God. And this is why the Gita warns us that the first point at which delusion begins to take hold of us is when we allow ourselves to ponder the objects of the senses. That’s where it begins, when we allow our minds to wander away from the true goal and start circling around this world and thinking of what we want.

Swami said that when Master talked about how people fall away from the path, he would say, “Oh, yes, desires for…” And Swami said, “He would pause so that everyone could fill in the blank with their own desires.”

Swamiji talked about how one of the monastics would occasionally be seized by the thought, “Oh, I think I think I need to go off and become a scientist. I need to go off and be a musician. I need to go home and take care of my mother.” And it’s not as if those things are inherently bad, except as they conflict with a higher dharma. And once we start pondering those realities and imagining how they’re going to fulfill us, that’s when we discover the tremendous power of Maya.

Swamiji talked about Judas, and how he was interested in money, and the power that money can buy. And then he became obsessed with the status that power and money can attract, and how it could help the mission of his great guru. And so he began to argue with Jesus, because he began to be seized by the thought, “Oh, yes, Jesus is very strong spiritually, but in the field of worldly power and influence, I know more.”

I was listening to a recording of a meeting that we had with Swamiji, many years ago, about our schools. It was the meeting where he came up with the name “Living Wisdom School.” We had called it the Ananda School, because we wanted to tie it to our spiritual teachings. We all knew that our teachings are universal and nonsectarian. But it quickly became clear that it was impossible to persuade people that an Ananda school wasn’t parochial. After all, it was located in a church, and if you have an Ananda school in an Ananda church, you can pretty well imagine that it’s a parochial school.

But it was at that meeting that he came up with the name “Living Wisdom.” Because the essence of spirituality is nonsectarian – it’s a set of principles that describe how life works, and what the goal is, and how to attain it. And those principles are not in any sense owned by Ananda or any other group.

And then some of us started talking about working with other groups in the field of education. And Swamiji said something extremely interesting. He said that our greatest danger would be if, in the effort to cooperate with others, we would begin to dilute what we were doing.

He was very cautious about the idea of our getting involved with other groups, because when you start trying to create harmony with someone else, you can all too easily find yourself backing off a bit from your principles, because you don’t want to offend them.

And when it comes to our spiritual life, we need to be very wary of anything that threatens to dilute our one-pointed focus on what we’re doing, and we need to be aware that it will be very dangerous to our spiritual progress.

The perfect example is Judas, because he didn’t feel that he was diluting the teachings at all. He just wanted Jesus to pay a little more attention to the power structure – to be a little more attentive to those in power, and to try to get them a little more on our side. After all, he was saying, they can help us, and he was trying to save Jesus from the fate that would befall him if he went against the powers that be. And Jesus wouldn’t have it. He spoke what he had to say, and if the people in charge didn’t like it, he wouldn’t bend, or dilute the truth in the slightest degree to mollify them. And, well, he got crucified as a result, and Judas realized that he had been very, very wrong.

This is something we have to watch out for very carefully in our spiritual life. Do we have a tendency to want to make it harmonize with everything else that’s going on in the world? “Well, let me take a little of this, and a little of that, and what harm can it do? Surely it will come out all right in the end, because my intentions are good.”

Now, part of being true to our chosen path involves the need for simple honesty. We need to say to ourselves, “I am serious about the spiritual path.” And then, if in all honesty we have to add, “but I’m not that serious,” it’s a real point of danger for us, and we need to look at it very carefully and seriously. At that point, we should hastily back away and reexamine what we’re doing and where it is leading us.

Years ago, there was a man at Ananda who subsequently left, even though he was very close to Swamiji. I remember standing in the kitchen of Crystal Hermitage one day, and I really don’t know what prompted the conversation, but I said something to this man, to the effect that, “Oh, there’s just really nothing in this world that interests me.”

I didn’t mean that I didn’t have any desires, but that I just didn’t have any gripping interest in chasing after anything that this world might have to offer, and that the world just wasn’t interesting to me anymore. And this man said, “Oh, there are many things I’m interested in doing.”

Later, I told Swamiji what the man had said, and how shocked I was. And Swamiji said, very seriously and a little sadly, “Yes, that’s true.” And eventually those desires blossomed and the man went off to pursue them. 

Now, he was a good man, and a very dear and wonderful person. As I often told people at the time, if you were trapped on a desert island, he wouldn’t be the worst choice as a companion. There are many fine people, but we have to make the decision within ourselves: how much of my life am I going to live for God?

We have to ask ourselves that question every single day of our lives. And we have to have the sheer nerve to answer it honestly. In my life, I’ve had to say to myself, many times, “Well, I’d like to be free, but I’m not ready. I’d like to even want to be free, but I’m not there yet. I’d like to be able to renounce this desire, but I don’t think I can.”

And the answer is to acknowledge with complete honesty that I’m all for God, but not really all that much yet – but I will be! Because we cannot move forward, and we cannot progress, if we’re confused about what it is that we truly want. And the confusion really sets in when we try to make ourselves out to be something that we are not.

But if we admit, wholeheartedly and with absolute honesty, that this is who we are, then we find that God can work with us much more effectively.

That’s why it’s very important not to pray absentmindedly, “Jesus Christ, Babaji Krishna, Lahiri Mahasaya…” And then at some point we actually start to pay attention.

We’re talking to the high souls who have come to rescue us from all suffering, and who offer us the ultimate compassion and love. And in the end, the more you realize how stuck you are when you try to work it all out on your own, and the more you try to become serious on the path, the more you realize that the answers don’t really ever come from inside you, by using your own resources, but they come by grace descending.

You realize that it’s not at all about making a big effort to keep your mind in the right place. Rather, it’s realizing that you’re drowning, and you’re going down for the umpteenth time, and you’re desperately trying to figure out how to save yourself, and you suddenly see that there’s a rope. And then what are you going to be thinking about and pondering with your rational mind? You aren’t going to waste time thinking at all, because you’re going to grab desperately for the rope.

This is the true reality, and it’s very simple, just as Rajarsi would only say “Om Guru, Om Guru.” Because he knew that it was the only reality. It’s why Swamiji, at the end of his life, could only tell us, over the over, “I found the Autobiography, and then I went to Los Angeles, and I knelt in front of Master, and he blessed me.”

If you want to tread safely on the spiritual path, just keep it very, very simple. All of the complexity just comes back to the ego and its instrument, the rational, self-confident, independent mind. A very good prayer is, “Divine Mother, what are we going to do about this? How can we figure this out? You’ve got to give me the solution! I am at the end of my tether, and I need you to hand me a lifeline.”

“Om Guru, Om Guru.” Wouldn’t it be wonderful to live in such a simple way, where you knew that there is no other reality but you and God? Where no matter what answers are needed, that you know where you can find them. And no matter what circumstances are placed before you, that this is where you can go to find the solution.

No matter what we think we are, that’s what we want to know that we truly are. And this is the only true freedom and joy.

God bless you.

 (From Asha’s talk at Sunday service at Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto, California on June 5, 2016.)

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