What Really Matters on the Spiritual Path?

“The Last Smile” — photo taken by Los Angeles Times photographer an hour before Paramhansa Yogananda’s mahasamadhi, Biltmore Hotel, Los Angeles, March 7, 1952. Click photos to enlarge.
“The Last Smile” — photo taken by a Los Angeles Times photographer. an hour before Paramhansa Yogananda’s mahasamadhi, his final conscious exit from the body. Biltmore Hotel, Los Angeles, March 7, 1952. Click photos to enlarge.

We’re moving into late winter and spring, which I think in future may become known, at least in the Ananda world, as “the mahasamadhi season.”

We have Paramhansa Yogananda’s passing on March 7, followed by Sri Yukteswar’s on March 9, Easter in late March, and Swami Kriyananda’s departure on April 21.

Will this become a seasonal celebration of death? To Western ears, I know it might sound a bit morbid, but in truth, there’s nothing morbid about it at all.

I’ve mentioned Happy Winningham, a woman who lived at Ananda Village for many years, and who had AIDS. She was very valiantly trying to stay in her body, which she managed to do for several years. She said it was like having a bad case of the flu all the time. It was a struggle, and she finally went to Swami Kriyananda and asked him, “How much is enough?”

She had several near-death experiences, in which she entered the astral world and realized how wonderful the death experience actually is. So she had no fear of dying, but she wanted to do the right thing.

Swamiji said, “First of all, it’s great good karma to get a human body.” He explained that if you’ve found your spiritual path, and your guru and your spiritual family, it’s not something that you should toss away lightly. Because then you’ll just have to be born again in a baby’s body, and you’ll be pooping in the diaper, and it’s altogether an unpleasant and tedious experience to have to grow up and search for your spiritual family again.

One of my friends had a baby boy who refused to learn to use the potty. She said to him, “Don’t you want to be a big boy?” He looked at her in shock. “No, Mommy, I like being a baby!”

But most of us don’t feel that way. And when Happy asked Swamiji what she should do, and how long she should try to hang on, he said, “As long as that body is useful to you spiritually.”

Even if you no longer have the ability to do Kriya Yoga and meditate deeply, if you feel that you can still work out some of your karma, and that you can face your challenges and turn inward to the Divine, it can be useful to you spiritually to stay in the body. But once it becomes such an obstacle that you can’t really focus on your spiritual practices, then it’s time to let it go.

And why not? After all, what is the purpose of this life, if not to keeping moving toward our freedom in God?  

Dannion Brinkley, a well-known speaker and author who gave many public talks about his after-death experiences, said that Americans suffer from what he called “life greed.”

We’re greedy to go on living, even when the body is falling apart and everything is telling us to let go. And it’s not as if death is something that only happens once, because our lives are filled with many small death experiences. We suffer a small death each time we lose hope, or lose a dear one, or when our dreams of worldly success and happiness fail to materialize. Because nothing in this world lasts.

When I lived at Ananda village, I worked in the building that is now the Hansa Temple. It was formerly the publications building, and it had a lovely balcony where we would often sit outdoors in the sun and have our lunch. It had a wonderful view of the distant hills, and the “downtown” area of the community below. I remember watching a man drive up one day and get out of his car, and his little daughter, who was maybe five, saw her father, and loud enough for us to hear several hundred yards away, she screamed at the top of her lungs, “Daddy, Daddy!” and she dashed across the way and launched herself into his arms with complete confidence that he would catch her. And I thought, how could we not become attached? How could we not allow ourselves to feed on that sense of sweetness and love? And why shouldn’t we? Because the attitude that says that to be spiritual is to be cold and withdrawn and to let nothing touch us is not an attitude that Swami Kriyananda ever endorsed.

Devotees meditate at noon on the balcony of the “Pubble” building at Ananda Village, mid-1970s.
Devotees meditate at noon on the balcony of the “Pubble” building at Ananda Village, mid-1970s.

Swamiji talked about a yogi that he had met in India who was 132 years old. He described how the man had developed a certain spiritual power, and an ability to live in a reality that was outside the ordinary. But his philosophy was one of absolute, uncompromising renunciation, to the extent that he believed we must never enjoy anything. Swami asked him, “Not even a beautiful, God‑given sunset?” “Nothing!” the man replied.

Swami’s comment was, “What a dry way to live!” Because our path, and Master’s path, and the way Swami lived, was not like that at all. It was not about holding ourselves austerely aloof from the natural flow of life.

In many ways, the path that has been offered to us is more demanding, because it requires that we be fully engaged, and that we try to see God in every situation.

Thomas à Kempis, the author of The Imitation of Christ, said that keeping silence is not difficult, and that having an unbridled tongue is not difficult, but restraining our speech and expressing ourselves appropriately is the real challenge.

It would be a lot easier if we could simply wall ourselves off and never be tempted. But Master set up his headquarters in Los Angeles, California – and, talk about going straight into the lion’s den! And Swamiji traveled all over the world and participated fully in the life that God and guru had assigned him.

What we are aspiring to do on this path is to live appropriately. We’re trying live with a realistic understanding of who we are, and why we are here, and what the purpose of this life is. And in that process, we need to learn how to meet every situation on its own terms, but with God as our guide.

And that’s the charming reality of time, isn’t it? That it’s always in the future until it isn’t, and then it’s suddenly in the past. And most of us are hardly ever really living in the present moment. We’re living where it’s going to be and where it’s already been. And in the moment when this body is done, where will our consciousness be? Will we be panic-stricken by this moment that is suddenly impinging itself upon us? Will we be desperate to escape, or will we imagine that shedding the body will free us of all suffering? Because, in either case, it doesn’t work that way.

This life is a series of challenges, and whether we’re suffering, or cruising merrily along, the challenge of this life is always the same. We are always being asked the same questions: What is the meaning of this life? And where does my happiness come from?

It would be cruel for the father not to open his arms to receive the child’s love. Because that is the present reality that his life has assigned to him. The child is there, and now the little girl sees him as her father, and he is serving as a stand‑in for the Heavenly Father, because his role is to teach the child about love.

A friend of mine was told by an astrologer that the most auspicious period of his life was in his first eighteen years. The astrologer was lamenting that it was really too bad that those eighteen years were wasted, because youth is a time when we never really produce anything worthwhile. But Swamiji’s response was very different. He said what a great good karma it was, because an auspicious beginning sets you moving in a positive direction. It gives you an expectation that you can accomplish what you set out to do, and that whatever happens, it will turn out for the best, and that this life has a positive purpose.

We are given our children to raise, to help them understand that they can trust in the positive purpose of this life, and that love is real. Not a self-indulgent, demanding kind of love. Paramhansa Yogananda said that we should be a little bit tough with our children. It’s not a popular philosophy nowadays, but it’s an interesting idea to contemplate.

He urged parents not to give their children the impression that all of their desires are there to be satisfied. Just because they want something, doesn’t mean that we should give it to them.

It’s a fine balance, because on the one hand we always need to be ready to give them our love, as instruments of God’s love. But we need to remember to tune in to what is really going on in each moment, and behave appropriately.

The maturity that comes with age has its unique blessings. At this stage of my life, I find it’s so much easier to be patient. It’s easier to understand that, well, if it doesn’t work out the way I hoped, something else will turn up. But as children we’re tremendously impatient. We’re continually demanding fulfillment in the moment. “Are we there yet?” “I have to wait a whole hour?!” When you’re a child, an hour seems like forever. You tell a little child to take a two-minute timeout, and it seems like an eternity.

Children imagine that it’s all supposed to happen right now. They have no sense of the need for the passing of time. But as we age, we discover that the ability to be flexible and self-restrained and patient gives us a certain power to adapt ourselves to reality as it is. And it gives us the ability to keep our eye on the goal. Maybe this will be a bad year, or a bad month, or an unfortunate incarnation. But the shining goal is still before me, and I can move toward it one step at a time.

What am I going to do with this moment? Will I use my consciousness in a way that will make tomorrow what I want it to be? Will I take steps today that will help me die in a way that will bring me closer to freedom, and that will make my transition to the next world a blessed one?

The more we can expand our awareness to embrace the infinite consciousness of God, and then narrow it back to this moment, the more we will find ourselves following the right path in all things. Master said, “Take care of the minutes, and the incarnations will take care of themselves.”

When a group of us went to Israel in October, we visited the Wailing Wall, which is a remnant of the enormous temple that formerly stood on that spot. The day before, we visited a museum where there was a huge scale model of Jerusalem as it looked in the time of Jesus. It was a tremendous labor of love, and it was fascinating to see the tiny streets and the little houses and temples. And the most prominent feature was the great temple which was a tremendous point of pride to the Jewish people. I’ll venture to call it “mistaken pride,” because they felt that this huge physical thing was a true representation of the power of their religion, and a reward for their devotion to God.

Scale model of Jerusalem in Jesus’ time; in foreground is the Second Temple.
Scale model of Jerusalem in Jesus’ time; in foreground is the Second Temple.

I remember sitting at Ananda Village years ago, contemplating the higher and lower ages on this planet. In the ancient lore of India, the ages of human civilization are called the Yugas, and they are said to rise and fall in 24,000-year cycles of four Yugas each. They’re the subject of a marvelous book by two Ananda members, Purushottama Selbie and Byasa Steinmetz.

As I sat there looking out over Ananda, I was thinking of the highest age of Satya Yuga, and how in that age we will leave hardly any physical trace of our existence. And then I thought of the Native Americans, and how lightly they lived on the earth.

At Ananda Village, before we had paved roads and central heating, winter was a very notable event in our lives. It was colder and snowier at the time, and I thought of the early photos of American Indians, wrapped in their buffalo robes and standing before their teepees, and living very close to the natural world.

The Yugas. Click image to visit publisher’s page.
The Yugas. Click image to visit publisher’s page.

I had a small experience of that way of life in the early years, when I lived in a tiny travel trailer that had no indoor plumbing. It meant that your life would take you outside at times when you wouldn’t normally want to go outside. The walls of the trailer were thin plywood, so there was very little separating you from the outside world. It was perched in the forest, and when you stepped out, you were immediately in the woods. You were literally nowhere. So there was a closer relationship with nature. And because the facilities, such as they were, were outdoors, you were always stepping out into that world.

I remember standing outside in the middle of the night in the snow. I can clearly see it now, looking up and watching the snow fall out of the night sky, and it was thrilling. And then I was thinking of the American Indians, and how lightly they moved in the world. And I realized that the more spiritually advanced we become, the fewer physical barriers we want to construct against the world. We take the world as it is and move through it, being contained within ourselves.

Swamiji said, “For the Tibetans, hell is really, really cold.” It’s not hot, because they can’t image anything being too warm, but they can imagine it being much too cold. The Tibetan monks developed the ability to be immune to the cold, to the extent that they could lie in the snow and melt the snow by the heat that they could generate from their bodies. And that’s one way of accommodating yourself to a cold climate, by turning within and finding within yourself everything you need.

So the idea that this enormous physical temple, with these huge stone walls, represented the epitome of spiritual success, seems absolutely wacky, from a broader perspective. Of course, it was Kali Yuga at the time, which is the lowest age of matter-bound awareness, when people’s consciousness is incapable of understanding any reality beyond the material. So they had to express their ideals in stone. But, like all symbols, it has the danger that we can begin to take it too literally.

When I first saw the Wailing Wall and stood before this monstrous heavy thing, I thought of Jesus coming and talking about the lilies of the field, and how our Father clothes them so perfectly, and how he cares for the birds of the air.

The Bible describes how Jesus argued with the narrow-minded priests who had authority over the temple. And I thought, what chance did he have, against the weight of this immensely heavy worldly consciousness? He had no chance at all. But because of God’s compassion, he was sent to hurl himself against that great stone wall of rigidity.

Orthodox Jew worships at the Wailing Wall.
An Orthodox Jew worships at the Wailing Wall.

The religion of the time had become rigid a system of rules that no longer had anything to do with the compassion and the infinitely forgiving consciousness of God. It had become an elaborate system of ideas that man had imposed on the world. And this is why the Bible tells us about the episode where the priests were chastising Jesus because his people were washing their hands improperly. It was such a trivial point, and completely outside the liberating message that God wanted to give them.

And let’s not miss the point ourselves. The point of our life has nothing to do with anything of this world. The point is that it will all go away in the end, and we will lose everything except our consciousness.

The final question that we will be asked is: how much have we loved? How free are we in our hearts? How much of God do we see when we look at one another, and when we look at this creation, and when we look in the mirror? And how much of God do we express when we open our mouths? How much of God do we see hiding just behind these human forms? What are we identified with – the reality of God within us, or the material things that surround us? And what kind of consciousness are we expressing by our actions?

Because it doesn’t matter how big the edifice is. All that matters is whether we are learning to serve as instruments for the only reality that matters. “From joy I came, for joy I live, in sacred joy I melt again.” Joy, bliss, love, devotion, and God. That is all we are here for, and all we need. God bless you.

(From Asha’s talk during Sunday service at Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto, California on February 28, 2016)


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