What Is the Best Way to Worship?

A devotee meditates before a large portrait of Christ.
Scene from all-day Christmas meditation at Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto, California, December 2015. Click photos to enlarge.

We’ve all seen cartoons of meditating sages – a serenely meditating Buddha with the caption “Inquire Within.” Or the somewhat less enlightened housewife who’s meditating, eyes closed, and she’s thinking, “Come on, inner peace, I haven’t got all day!”

A lovely passage from the Bhagavad Gita offers us a somewhat loftier image of the meditating yogi:

“Free from the hopes engendered by desire, and untouched by any craving for possession, the waves of feelings in his heart controlled by yoga concentration, the yogi, having retired alone to a quiet place, should try to unite his little self with the supreme self.”

I’ve always loved this passage, especially the words, “free from the hopes engendered by desire.”

The Gita is telling us that we can never satisfy our longing for fulfillment outwardly, and that this is simply the bittersweet nature of this world.

Swami would often quote this verse to me, as if to remind me of the sad news. He would say, “The scriptures say, our hopes will not be realized.” I’m sure he was teasing, but that he was also reminding me not to put my hopes in the wrong basket.

At any rate, the question that this Gita passage poses is: “How shall we worship?”

There are various rituals that we think of as worship – the Catholic mass, the traditional Indian offering of arati, and even a simple offering of flowers. But the truest expression of worship is when we offer ourselves spontaneously and completely to the object of our love.

We say, “He worships the ground she walks on.” The thought of her evokes a worshipful feeling in him, and it’s a feeling that has taken him over and occupies his every waking moment.

Ramakrishna in ecstasy, 1878.
Ramakrishna in ecstasy, 1878.

There’s a sweet story of Sri Ramakrishna, a great saint who lived in the 1800s in Bengal. He was born into a high-caste family, at a time when people were possibly even more caste-conscious in India than today, and many of his disciples were high-caste Brahmins.

At the time, people who performed as dancers and actors were considered very low-caste, especially the women, because many of the actresses were taken from brothels.

There was a disciple of Ramakrishna called Girish Ghosh who was a famous dramatist, and a colorful, somewhat rascally character. But he was utterly devoted to Ramakrishna, and Ramakrishna was very responsive to Ghirish Ghosh, because of his good heart.

Girish had discovered many actresses among the women of the streets, and it was a considerable upgrade of their lives to be given the opportunity to go into the theater. Yet none of these people were considered in any way of a suitable caste to consort with a great saint and Brahmin such as Ramakrishna. But Ghirish was unencumbered by such considerations, and he brought them to meet Ramakrishna, because he was an extravagant fellow and very dramatic, and he wanted them to receive the master’s blessing.

So they met Ramakrishna, and he enjoyed their company tremendously. But the Brahmin disciples were deeply scandalized by the fact that these low-caste folk had been brought into the master’s presence, and that he had associated with them.

Ramakrishna’s response was wonderful. He said, “Right now the God they worship is music and dance and art.” He added, “But, oh! – they know how to worship!”

He was chastising his narrow-minded disciples because they didn’t have the same capacity to offer themselves completely.

Girish Chandra Ghosh, first row, second from left, with fellow disciples of Ramakrishna.
Girish Chandra Ghosh, first row, second from left, center, with fellow disciples of Ramakrishna.

I watched a short clip of a scene with Meryl Streep, who is an astonishing actress. She was being given a lifetime award for her achievements in the theater, and she said, “I have to thank my mother and father, two of the most interesting, creative, and intelligent people I’ve ever known, who fought continuously for sixty years of marriage. And I thank them for introducing me to drama at a very young age.”

Ramakrishna was extolling the ability to give ourselves to whatever we’re doing, with full enthusiasm, from the depths of our hearts.

Vanamali Devi is a great devotee of Sri Krishna and a friend of Ananda’s who lives near Rishikesh. She is extremely enamored of the rituals associated with the worship of Krishna, and she performs them very beautifully and thoroughly, all the time.

Vanamali Devi (with unidentified person), circa 2001.
Vanamali Devi (with unidentified person), circa 2001.

Her son is a successful businessman in England, and his beautiful mother visits him from time to time. And when she stays with him, she likes to go out early in the morning and pick flowers for her worship. And, as she said to me, her son doesn’t like to see his mother wandering in the parks of London, picking flowers. So he begs her to let him order the flowers for her, but she still sneaks out with her scissors and cuts them herself, because it’s not the same if you buy them and they come delivered. It’s not the same as when she walks outside and finds them growing on the plants, and she brings them home and sits at her altar and takes them apart, petal by petal, and offers them to the Beloved, so that she rebuilds the flowers with her devotion one petal at a time.

It really is quite extraordinary, and wherever she is, that’s what she does every morning without fail. She’ll wander around searching for something to offer, and then you can sit next to her and watch her as she does this wonderful worship.

In the Bible, the woman of Samaria asks Jesus, “What is the best way to worship?” She wants him to tell her the details, “Where should we go to worship, what should we do, and what kind of language should we use when we pray?”

Not being Hindu, the woman of Samaria was asking a different question – not “Where will I find some humble flowers to offer with the greatest devotion to my Lord?” but more fundamentally, “How shall we worship?”

And what she was really asking is our original question; What does it mean to worship? What is worship? And then the Gita tells us that worship means simply to give ourselves from the fullness of our hearts.

As Swami Kriyananda writes, there is no God in a form that resembles a person that you can chat with and have a good conversation, as if at a cocktail party. The presence of Spirit is a formless power within us that we almost never actually experience, and that we hardly ever bother to worship, because we’re too busy worshipping other stuff.

A man in India said to Swamiji, “You westerners criticize us Indians – you think we are superstitious because we have statues of the gods and goddesses. But we personify the nature of the Divine through these images, and we call a certain set of characteristics of the Divine ‘Shiva,’ or ‘Agni,’ or ‘Durga.’”

Swami answered him, “These are not idols. These are ideals, made clear by the personalities of the gods and goddesses.” 

And then Swamiji added, “And what could be more superstitious than to imagine that happiness can come to us through material things?” He said, “Talk about superstition. Where is it ever verified, and whatever makes us think that if we can just get enough stuff, then somehow what I am really seeking inside myself will come to me? Because these are inanimate objects.”

I’ve shared with you how we went through a huge ordeal, years ago, to find exactly the right carpet for our apartment. We couldn’t find the right style and color locally, so we had it shipped from across the country. And then, after all this brouhaha, the carpet finally arrived and was laid. The apartment was completely empty, and spread out over the floor was this beautiful pale-gold carpet.

It was very nice, and I stood there and tried to draw some happiness from it. I looked at it from every angle, and I lay down and stretched out on it. And then I got up and looked at it again, and it just sat there. And it occurred to me that it could never love me back. Nor was there any level on which it could be a channel for the Divine.

Even a cat, or a flower, has a living consciousness, and at least there’s a spark of the living divinity there that can relate to us. The color of a rose will always be slightly different from every other rose, because it is a living thing. But the inanimate objects that man creates have no capacity to love us back, or to project any kind of active consciousness toward us. They can’t channel anything to us that we don’t first project onto them by our hopes and desires. They cannot serve us as a link to satchidananda, the ever-existing, ever-conscious, ever-new bliss that is God.

What keeps us from worshipping is not that we’ve joined the wrong church, or we’re following the wrong dogmas, or we’re doing the wrong rituals, or we’re doing them incorrectly. What separates us from worship is that we are distracted. We are so busy worshipping other things that we simply cannot connect to the still power of Spirit within us. And the answer, if we would truly worship the Divine, and find ourselves in intimate communion with that satchidananda, is to become “free from hopes engendered by desire.”

One of the things that keeps us forever shifting our attention from one distraction to the next is that we are always imagining. We are always being moved out of the present moment by the restless desire for something that we imagine in our minds. We are always hoping, and always imagining that everything would be a little bit better, “if only…”

Isn’t it so? Even when we enter the temple, we imagine how much nicer it would be if the lights were different, if the chairs were softer, if there wasn’t a draft from the window, if I had eaten a better breakfast, and if only the difficult situation I’m dealing with could be quickly resolved. Then I could sit here and be happy and meditate without distraction.

And it’s all just hopes engendered by desire. We are always desiring something to be different, and this is how we habitually live.

Patanjali defines yoga as the cessation of the restless vibrations of the stored-up desires in our spine. He tells us, “Yogas chitta vritti nirodh.” “Yoga is the neutralization of the vortices of restless emotions.”

The state of yoga, of union with the Divine, comes to us when all of the vrittis, all of our restless emotions, are stilled. It’s not as if God suddenly appears once we’ve achieved yoga. It’s much more interesting, because at no time is there an absence of God – of his satchidananda – His ever-existing, ever-conscious, ever-new joy.

This is the definition of God, and there is never an absence of that joy. It’s amazing to contemplate that there is no shortage of God. Some part of us likes to think that God hasn’t quite been delivered yet. Like the little girl who came home from Sunday school and said to her mother, “Mom, don’t worry, the quilt is coming.” And the mother spoke to the Sunday school teacher, and he told her that the Sunday school lesson was about God sending the Comforter.

We imagine the Comforter as something that will come to us at a later date. The quilt will arrive from Amazon, and then we will have God.

The woman of Samaria meets Jesus at the well, and she asks him, “Where is the best place to worship? Where is the best place to find God? Should I go to that mountain? Should I go to the temple? Should I do this ritual in my house? Where is the best place?”

And Jesus answers her, “In Spirit and in truth.” In other words, in those things that are not tangible and material, but that are wholly within us.

We are so busy worshipping other stuff that we give only a little of ourselves to worship the satchidananda, and then we have a sense that there’s not quite enough. So we go to the movies, hoping that it will fulfill us, and satisfy this ceaseless longing to be fulfilled.

When will I find God? Will it be when I can do a hundred and eight Kriyas? When I can master kechari mudra? When I find my guru? When I find my soul mate? When I extricate myself from this great trial?

When – when – when! If – if – if!

The Gita says that we will find our freedom when we finally free ourselves from hopes engendered by desires. And it sounds a bit negative, doesn’t it, because we think of hope as something positive. To be a bearer of hope seems like a very good thing. But hopes engendered by desires for a fulfillment that lies outside ourselves can never be satisfied.

This is what keeps us separate from the Divine. And this is the least popular of the spiritual teachings, because it asks people to stop and examine their lives and turn around and give up the desires that seem to be the lifeblood of their existence.

I remember how, in the beginning, I was very enamored of the idea of giving up my desires. It seemed like a terrific idea at the time, when I was nineteen and starting out. But, looking back, I see that it was exceedingly naïve to imagine that I could do it as easily as blowing out a candle.

I remember coaxing a relative of mine, “You know, when we want new things and we finally get them, they always end up disappointing us, and then it’s just one thing after another, and one disappointment after another.”

“Yes! Yes!” she said. 

Oh, wow! My first convert! I was so excited.

And then she looked at me and said, “And that’s why it’s so important to keep on wanting new things!”

This is how people feel, because when one thing disappoints us, it’s wonderful that we can run right out and grab another. And let’s embrace the hope that the next thing will be the one that finally fulfills us.

But Paramhansa Yogananda points out the flaw in that argument. He tells us in Autobiography of the Yogi that after a while the whole thing begins to assume “a certain anguishing monotony.” And I think that of all the many wonderful phrases in the Autobiography, “anguishing monotony” is perhaps the one that says it all. Because this is what eventually brings us around to where we want to look at the inner reality – when we recognize the endless, agonizing cycle of wanting new things and being disappointed.

Self-realization tells us that if we want true freedom and fulfillment, we must systematically overcome the urge to move outside ourselves in pursuit of possessions. And it’s not a question of craving a new house or a new car. It means craving anything besides the all-desire-quenching satchidananda of God. 

In the Autobiography, Master gives us another wonderful statement: “Thoughts are universally, not individually, rooted.”

Our thoughts are not our own. We merely tune ourselves to thoughts that are impersonally circulating in the ether.

As I contemplated this saying for perhaps the thousandth time, it struck me that when we tune in to a particular vibration, let’s say of sorrow, or lack, or heartbreak, or longing, or disappointment, it begins to feel close to us, and so much a part of our being that we eventually find ourselves thinking, “I am a sorrowful, heartbroken person.”

And the solution is to realize that you’ve just latched onto one of countless vibrations, and as soon as you tune yourself to another vibration, this one will cease to define you, and you’ll be free of it.

This is why the Bible tells us, “As many as received him, to them gave he the power to become the sons of God.”

Which is to say that if we want to know God, all we have to do is worship. Which means that we must develop the power to long for God alone, and become free of the craving to possess anything else.

As soon as we stop turning away from the inner reality, we find that God’s satchidananda has been awaiting us all the time. That inner reality never changes – it’s there at every moment, but we don’t realize it because we’re distracted.

Master chose the name Self-realization for his teachings, and we fought a long court battle over our right to use that ancient term. Because no one can claim to own it exclusively. Nor can it belong to any particular religion, or even to any single expression of Yogananda’s work, because it refers to the eternal Self that dwells in all.

Now, think of that liberating image. There is no time or place where the Divinity is not with us. And all we have to do is realize it.

Of course, it’s simple to say, but it isn’t easy!

And yet we can find the answer to every dilemma if we will simply remember to come back to our center. So let us discriminate and watch out for those tempting wisps of desires, lest they catch hold of us and lead us far away from satchidananda, only to disappoint us yet again.

“Oh, I’ve caught one of those thoughts that are universal and are not really mine. Let me tune myself to a different frequency and receive the love and the bliss of Divinity.”

Sequestered shall I sit, steadfastly meditating, freed from craving, having let go of all hopes engendered by desire – and realizing who I truly am.

God bless you.

(From Asha’s talk during Sunday service at Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto, California on May 22, 2016.)

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