Activity or Inner Communion: Finding Your Path

Jesus in the house of Mary and Martha. Johannes Vermeer.
Jesus in the house of Mary and Martha. Johannes Vermeer.


Our affirmation this Sunday is about income, and it’s a bit strange, because the subject of today’s talk is the resurrection of Jesus. Nevertheless, interestingly enough, there’s a subtle overlap in these two apparently very different topics.

In Paramhansa Yogananda’s book, How to Be Happy All the Time, he spends a great deal of time talking about money. Yogananda said that he came to the West to show people how to make their religion practical. And when it came to talking about happiness, he had his feet planted firmly on the ground.

He knew that a great deal of people’s unhappiness revolves around money – whether it’s due to a lack of money, or an excess – although that isn’t most people’s problem.

Money is intimately connected with our inner sense of security – it makes us nervous not to have money, and not to know where the next influx will come from.

It gives us a sense of freedom to have money, and the confidence that we’ll be able to make money when we need it. Money gives us choices, and if we feel that the source of our money is drying up, we become anxious, because we feel that our options are closing down.

It’s a fact of life that we must work hard to earn money, and yet I remember an interesting comment that Swamiji made, years ago, when we were on vacation in Hawaii.

When the missionaries arrived in the Hawaiian Islands, they brought new diseases and puritanical attitudes, and from that point on, life became more difficult for the natives. Swami remarked that when they had the islands to themselves, being born in Hawaii wasn’t really like incarnating on earth. The weather was temperate year-round, and you didn’t have to work very hard for food or shelter. The food grew on trees, or came easily from the ocean, and you could make clothes out of the materials that were close at hand.

He said that if you didn’t really want to come back to earth, but your karma dictated that you had to come here for a while, you could be born in Hawaii and hang out there until it was time to return to the astral world.

But when the missionaries arrived, everything changed, and similar changes have overtaken many indigenous cultures in the last four or five centuries. Cultures that were formerly isolated have come increasingly in contact with the industrial world, with the result that a lot has changed, and much has been lost.

It’s all part of a tremendous shift that’s taking place on the planet, from one very well-defined period of history to another. Paramhansa Yogananda explained that the world has entered a period when people will be increasingly aware that energy is the underlying reality of creation. With the flood of discoveries of new ways to use energy, geographical distances are shrinking, and cultures that were formerly separate are now able to communicate and intermingle more freely with the rest of the world.

In the previous age, which the ancients called Kali Yuga, human consciousness was limited to the belief that matter was the ultimate reality. In Kali Yuga, travel was severely limited – it was slow and arduous, and most of the earth’s cultures were isolated. Entire civilizations could grow up without being aware that other civilizations existed on the planet. And each culture had its own forms, including its unique traditions, beliefs, and ways of life.

The age of matter-awareness ended around 1700, and since then we’ve seen many of the old, rigid forms begin to dissolve, as our awareness of energy has exploded.

This is why the earth’s cultures have begun to blend together, with the result that it’s very difficult nowadays to find any remaining unspoiled places on the planet. Everywhere you go, you find the same restaurants, the same food, and the same clothes. English has become almost a universal language, and indigenous cultures are being blurred or obliterated, right and left.

From a narrow perspective, it seems that a great deal is being lost – we are saddened to see so many charming cultures, with their unique and lovely characteristics that formerly gave the people a sense of stability and pride in their own identity, being wiped out in favor of something that isn’t particularly lovely at all.

But if we look at the longer picture, we can see that it’s an unavoidable part of the spiritual evolution of this planet, where the old borders are being dissolved, and people are starting to find a common identity.

In the highest ages, which are still a very long way off, we will see a global civilization, with universal harmony and understanding, and a complete cessation of wars.

I’ve mentioned a marvelous book called The Yugas that describes these changes and explains how the earth passes through 12,000-year cycles of gradually increasing and decreasing spiritual awareness.

One of the proofs that the authors offer for the existence of higher civilizations and a global culture in the distant past is that, even today, we can find many of the same myths and stories in widely separated cultures, suggesting that we were much more united at some point in the past.

But then, as human consciousness became ever more contracted during the downward arc of the Yugas, the world culture devolved into separate fragments. And now that we’ve begun to rise into the ascending portion of the Yuga cycle, we find many of the differences that formerly set us apart starting to fade away.

If you’re attached to way things were, you may find the changes troubling. But if you understand them as part of the divinely appointed unfolding of the ages, you find that they are telling a much more positive and hopeful story.

For example, we now find that many natural species are dying away. When Swami heard about a big campaign to save the crocodiles and alligators in Florida, he questioned why you would want to preserve such dull-minded, vicious creatures. What would be the value in it?

It’s true that the disappearance of a species tends to disrupt the ecosystem. But the larger point is that we are in a period of tremendous transition, as a result of which Paramhansa Yogananda said that the entire planet will look very different than it does today. And we cannot expect such drastic changes to take place without a certain amount of disruption.

I’ll return to the subject of money, but let me say that the story of Jesus’ resurrection is about the difference between outer forms and inner consciousness. You could almost say that it is a defining symbol of the spiritual path – that it is urging us to stop seeking our security in outer forms, and to find it in our inner consciousness.

One of the most important insights that Paramhansa Yogananda brought to the planet is that the outer forms of religion are no longer the point. We find the old forms being discarded as part of a natural and necessary evolution toward a more inward understanding that will value the spiritual welfare of the individual over religious institutions.

Self-realization has come to show us how to make our spiritual life practical, by using the energy-based yoga methods of meditation to interiorize our minds and open our hearts so that we can experience the God who dwells within us.

Jesus was born five hundred years before the absolute bottom of the grand cycle of human history. He came at time when people’s consciousness was extremely contracted and matter-bound. Yet he offered the world a teaching of Self-realization that transcends the ages.

The passage of the Yugas is a physical phenomenon – it is linked to the cyclical movement of the sun toward and away from a tremendous source of energy at the center of the galaxy. But these outward movements are merely the backdrop on which the soul finds its way back to God.

At times, the soul will need to incarnate in extremely gross physical times to learn certain lessons. And in those matter-bound times, we find spiritually minded people separating themselves from the world, because it’s almost impossible to lead a spiritual life when we’re surrounded by downward-pulling, contractive influences.

This is why, after Jesus died, the desert fathers became the defining examples of spiritual aspiration. They went out into the desert, as far as possible from the world, and they dedicated themselves completely to the spiritual search.

Jesus planted the highest truth so that souls could continue to find it for centuries to come. Thus we have the inspiration of the Christian saints who were liberated by following Jesus’ inner teachings. Meanwhile, the church became increasingly devoted to outward forms and rituals, and to the precise articulation of dogmas, and the authority of the priests. And it was inevitable that it would happen, because of the matter-bound consciousness of the age.

I remember, years ago, how young people would carry “boom boxes” on their shoulders. It was before we had iPods and earbuds, and they would play loud music that I didn’t enjoy at all. I remarked to Swamiji that they looked like normal people, and how incongruous it seemed for them to be playing this horrible music. And I well remember his answer. He said, speaking very seriously, “Oh, if only you could see their consciousness!”

It was said with chilling seriousness. And it was very revealing of how Swamiji saw people, because he only saw their consciousness, and he wasn’t much concerned about the outer form of what he was looking at.

There was a glamorous movie star who came to see Master. When she started trying to seduce him with sexual energy, Master stood up and spoke very harshly, and with great sternness about her evil consciousness. It turned out that she was infected with syphilis, and out of hatred for men, she was trying to infect as many as she could. Master said to her, “You have a beautiful exterior, but you have a dark and evil heart. What are you doing? Why are you living this way?” His desire was to help her, and he wasn’t fooled at all by her wiles or her outward appearance.

Master was once invited to a social event where many wealthy people were in attendance. After dinner, the hostess asked him to speak, but he demurred. “It would be better if I didn’t.”

“Oh, but you’re the guest of honor. You must speak!”

“I think it would be better if I didn’t speak.”

Finally she insisted, so Master stood up and excoriated the people for their selfishness and worldliness. He said, “You’re lusting after each other’s wives and sitting here with so much pride.” And he just ripped them to pieces. “Who are you, really?” he demanded. And he said that many of them were weeping because they knew that he was speaking the truth.

Now, these are extreme examples, and it’s easy to affirm that we won’t fall into that kind of worldliness. But there’s a very definite danger to us if we’re tempted to lean even a little bit in the direction of worldliness. As Swamiji warned, it’s very dangerous to our spiritual progress if we even look kindly or approvingly on the worldliness of others.

I think of the story of Martha and Mary, both of whom were among Jesus’ closest and most devoted disciples. The Bible gives us a picture of Mary sitting in silent communion at Jesus’ feet, while Martha is making sure that all the people who’ve come to see him are fed.

It’s a very natural and practical consideration. I can sympathize with Martha on a certain level, because I was in that position many times whenever we would have Swamiji staying in our house. There was always a tug of war between the desire to sit quietly in the living room and just listen to the conversation with Swamiji, or to stay in the kitchen and make the soup.

The Bible paints a realistic picture of the scene, and one that I witnessed countless times. Swami would be doing something beautiful in the living room, saying inspiring things and sharing his vibrations. But then everybody needs soup. And what happened to Martha is that she forgot what she was really doing – she forgot what a privilege it was, not just to be able to serve the master, but to serve the devotees.

In India, it’s a tradition that you serve not only the master, but that you serve the devotees with equal devotion. And when you enter the temple you touch the doorway with reverence for all the devotees who’ve walked through it. In other words, the people who love God are those whom you love as your own family, and it’s a blessing and an honor to be able to serve them.

But Martha had forgotten the point: “Jesus has come to my home, and what an honor it is to be near him, and to be able to help his mission. How could I imagine a life more beautiful and blessed than this?”

Martha could have very rightly and naturally been “busy about many things,” as Jesus reprimanded her, if she could have remembered to think of Spirit at the same time. But she had fallen into the thought, “I’m stuck in the kitchen, doing all this work, and Mary isn’t helping because she’s just doing nothing like she always does.”

We accrue a tiny bit of good karma for doing the right thing, but it’s very little, really. Because the point of doing the right thing is not so much to get things done, as to do them with the right spirit. Because in the right spirit the master can elevate us and help us grow.

There’s a story of Ramakrishna and one of his disciples. The disciple was sitting with the master, talking about all the good things that he was doing, and all the money that he was donating to charity. And Ramakrishna, without a touch of sarcasm, in a completely childlike way, said, “My, I wonder how God got along before you were born.” Because the man was going on as if it all depended on him.

No matter how great a work we’re doing, and no matter how many wonderful works we’re supporting, it will all sooner or later turn to dust. All of the people we’ve helped will die and go to another life, and very soon, no matter how well-known and respected we’ve been, we will be forgotten.

Swamiji loved to go into Rammurti and Sita’s bookstore, because he loved books. But he lamented that it was a little depressing, as an author, to see the thousands of books, and to think of how each author had devoted so much effort to write and publish a book. And then the author was so happy to see the book published at last. But if you go into the bookstore a year later, you see seventeen copies gathering dust on the bottom shelf. Or you ask for a book by an author who was famous, and nobody knows their name, and their books are out of print because it all ends up going to dust.

Nevertheless, we need to remember that it’s enormously helpful to us to put out the effort to create these things, because of what it does for us, and the selflessness that it helps develop in us, which will endure as a source of joy in our consciousness.

And that’s what counts, because we create our own enduring reality by the way we use our consciousness, and by the consciousness that we affirm every day. This is our real experience, and it will be with us when everything else has turned to dust.

The books we’ve written, and the hospitals we’ve built, will go to dust, but our consciousness will go with us when we die, along with the joy that our service has brought us.

Martha is working in the kitchen, thinking that she is making soup for Jesus. But she isn’t really making soup for him, because she’s thinking of how oppressed and mistreated she is, and how lousy her sister is for not helping her. And what is she becoming? She’s becoming bitter and narrow-minded and self-involved. She’s become distracted from the deeper reality of what she’s doing. And this is why Jesus says, “Your sister Mary has chosen that better part.”

I love how Swamiji would always add, “And the Bible doesn’t tell us whether Jesus said to Mary, ‘Go help your sister in the kitchen,’ because he might very well have done so.”

On many occasions Swamiji would recognize that we needed to help in the kitchen, and he would send some of us to help, or he would end the satsang and send us all to help out in the kitchen. Because we all have to eat, and there’s no reason why one person should always be taking on the role of making soup. But the important point is the consciousness with which we stand over the pot and stir the ingredients.

There was a time, years ago, when I was constantly learning lessons about hard work and tension and many other things, and I found it very interesting to see how Swamiji would give completely different advice to each person. Even though two of us were standing together doing the same work, our spiritual needs were never the same.

I remember a situation where Swamiji was urging the person next to me to do more and more. But, at the same time, he would say to me, “Don’t think that you’ll do more good merely by doing more.”

As he pointed out to me, whenever I would let myself flip over into a stressed-out consciousness, the magnetism of whatever I was trying to do would be so awful that nothing good could ever come of it.

So I learned, early on, that it isn’t what you do, but the magnetism with which you do it. And, really, it’s so much fun to work with this idea. Because if you can get in the habit of always watching your consciousness, it gives you a wonderful way to rescue yourself, and turn back and find the joy that comes with the right attitude.

And what is the right attitude? Swamiji wrote, “When we work, we should always be working for God, no matter what we’re doing. And even if our hearts are not pure enough to feel that we’re giving it all to God, at least we can remember God.”

He said that if Martha had thought of Jesus while she worked, Jesus would have been able to come into her and lift her consciousness into joy. But once she turned from an attitude of loving service to a narrow focus of self-concern, the door swung shut, and he couldn’t come in.

The Book of John tells us, “As many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God.”

We might think, “Of course I want to receive him!” But it’s vitally important to remember that receiving him isn’t the same as demanding to get what I want. The right attitude of a devotee is not to pray, “I want you! Give Yourself to me!”

To receive Him means to create a vibration in ourselves that will match His vibration, because the emanations of the infinite bliss never change, and we can only receive them by attuning ourselves to them in the right way.

The Infinite Spirit never changes, and all of the masters who ever lived are here with us, every bit as much as when they walked on earth. Jesus and Paramhansa Yogananda and Swamiji and all the masters are here, because they are present throughout eternity.

It’s an amazing thought, isn’t it? And any two of us will experience the same reality in different ways, because our consciousness is always shifting. We are shifting in and out of receptivity, and serviceful self-offering is a powerful tool to steady ourselves and stay tuned to the right wavelength. Because service helps us understand, “I value the greater reality of God more than I value myself.”

Instead of thinking, “I need help! Nobody’s paying attention to me!” – we can think, very simply, “How can I serve? How can I give?” And once you’ve experienced the joy of that attitude, and that simplicity, you find that it sets you on the path to the greatest happiness.

We’re coming up to Swami Kriyananda’s birthday. And at Ananda Village in the beginning, it didn’t even occur to people to make his birthday a big celebration, because they didn’t understand his relationship to us. But there came a point when we started making it a big deal.

We didn’t have a public facility at the time, because the Expanding Light wasn’t built, but his birthday was in the spring, so we would hike out to a meadow that was hidden in a lovely fold in the hills, and we would create a little piece of heaven there for one afternoon.

Swami’s birthday party at the “birthday meadow” in a hidden vale near the then-future site of the Expanding Light guest retreat. Photo taken in 1976 by Nayaswami Rambhakta.
Swami’s birthday party at the “birthday meadow” in a hidden vale near the then-future site of the Expanding Light guest retreat. Old-timers: how many present and former members can you identify? Photo taken in 1976 by Nayaswami Rambhakta.

We put up a primitive little wooden platform, and we carried some furniture out to the meadow, and we would have an astral birthday party for a few hours. There was a chair for Swamiji, and presents and food, and it was all an enormous amount of work, but we didn’t think of it as work, because it was all about just having fun by serving together.

Through the years, with all of the wonderful holiday celebrations we’ve had in this temple, we’ve never thought of them as work. They’ve just given us all an excuse to find creative ways to share in a spirit of joyful friendship.

This is when we discover the true path to happiness, when we learn to ask, “What can I do with my consciousness that will expand my awareness and help me forget myself and find true joy? And how can I manifest that consciousness outwardly by giving it to others?”

Whether I’m arranging the altar or spreading the tablecloths, or making dinner or singing or organizing a skit or chanting, it’s never about the thing itself, but about how I can transfer the blessings of God within me into an outward form that others can enjoy.

As soon as I think, “Nobody’s helping me! It’s so much work! I can’t do this anymore!” the spirit dies. And who loses?

The birthday meadow that we would set up for Swami was so delightful – and then in the morning it would be gone. It was there for a day, and in the evening there was just a wild meadow again with birds and bugs and rabbits.

I somehow enjoyed it more because it was so ephemeral, because then you would realize that it was all about making a special vibration for the day, and it had only ever been about that vibration.

This is what the story of Martha and Mary is telling us. Mary has taken the part that is “needful,” as Jesus says, because she understands that what counts is the inner spirit and the right vibration.

We can take that vibration with us, as we go about our lives. Most of us must be very active. And Swamiji said that you can really only go off to meditate in a cave and try to find God that way, if you’re able to meditate in deep superconsciousness. But for most of us, we must first overcome the ego by devoting ourselves to active service.

When you let your guard down even for a moment, delusion tries to rush right back in, doesn’t it? And then you have to pick yourself up and brush yourself off and start over.

You’re tithing ten percent, and you begin to think, “Maybe eight percent is enough…or five percent.” Or you fall into the thought, “After all, I’ve been volunteering a lot, and it’s winter, and it gets dark early, and I need to stay home and not go to the temple to meditate.”

And then we need to ask ourselves, where is this taking my consciousness? This is all that Jesus is asking of us, that we watch our consciousness, and if it isn’t taking us where we want it to be, what can we do about it?

I said that I would talk about money, so just to keep my word I’ll touch on it now. Swami talked a great deal about income. He wrote the book called Money Magnetism, and in his later years, when he was living in India, he wrote a complete course on how to make money in a spiritual way.

He made a special point of saying that money is deeply connected with our inner sense of security, and where we think it comes from.

Where does our security really come from? A deeper way of asking this question is: “What is the nature of this world? Can we rely on the ways of the world to bring us the resources we need?”

The teachings of the spiritual path are meant to help us understand the true nature of reality. And as we gain experience on the path, we increasingly realize that our security is really about magnetism, and that it isn’t about the outward mechanics of things.

I may have all the money in the world, but what really gives me my security and makes me feel safe is my relationship with God. Wherever I am, and no matter what my situation may be, I know that God is with me, and that He can guide and protect me, unless I close the door.

This is why Jesus scolded Martha. Although she had the tremendous blessing to be with him, she had closed the door by allowing petty self-concern to take over her consciousness.

There’s a story in India of a sadhu who lived in the forest with his son. His son was protected, living with his saintly father far away from the world, and he had never seen a woman.

One day, the father sent his son to the nearest village and told him to go and knock on the door of a certain house.

It was a simple village, and the women often went bare-chested before they married. The door opened and the son found himself looking at a woman’s chest with developed breasts. He had never seen a woman before, and he became quite concerned that there was something wrong with her. He looked so alarmed that the woman called to her father, and the father, who was a wise soul, said to the young man, “My son, what is your difficulty?”

The son replied, “What’s wrong with him? Why did God make him like that?”

The father said, “In the event that we should find a suitable husband for my daughter and she should marry, and in the event that she becomes pregnant, and in the event that the child comes to term and is born and healthy, then the child will be able to use those breasts to draw nourishment, and they will be the source of its life.”

The young man broke out in tears, and the father said, “My son, what is wrong with you?” The young man said, “If God could provide so perfectly for someone who may never be born, why for one moment should I ever harbor worries or doubts?”

And this is the understanding that we are all destined to reach. How quickly we will get there, and how much we will have to suffer along the way, is between us and God. So let us do our part, and do our best to watch our consciousness.

God bless you.

(From Asha’s talk during Sunday service at Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto, California on May 15, 2016.)

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