I got my first set of Swami Kriyananda’s lessons, 14 Steps to Higher Awareness, in 1969.
(It’s since been retitled The Ananda Course in Self-Realization.)
The early editions of the lessons were distributed as stapled pages that you could put in a three-ring binder. I still have my forty-seven-year-old binder, and as I turn the pages I invariably find that gremlins have inserted passages that I’m absolutely certain were not there in the first place.
It’s common for people to read Autobiography of a Yogi, and then come back to it over the years and discover that there’s stuff in the book that they seem to be reading for the first time. It’s because they’ve grown spiritually, and they’ve arrived at a deeper understanding.
I had a friend who had an unfortunate habit of saying, “Yes, yes, I know!” whenever you would remind him of something he needed to learn. I remember Swamiji trying to get him to understand something one day, and how the man protested as usual, “Yes, yes, I know.” Finally, Swamiji said, “No, you don’t! If you did know, you would be acting differently.”
There always seems to be a gap between the wise words we can rattle off with the rational mind, and what we can understand with a deep, unshakable knowing.
Today’s scripture reading is titled “Did God Create the Universe, or Did He Become It?” For years, I couldn’t wrap my mind around that reading, and I would usually skip over it.
I prefer more earthy, grounded topics. I like to ponder the spiritual principles that apply in our daily lives. I do enjoy letting my mind float in ethereal realms on occasion, but only if it doesn’t distract me too much from the main event of my life, where the issues are simple and down to earth. “Were you a good girl today? Were you kind and compassionate? Or did you let petty self-concerns sweep you away?”
Did God become the world, or did He create it? It’s easy to brush the question aside with a cheerful “Who cares?” Because, really, is it relevant to the more immediate questions standing directly before me?
And yet I’ve realized over time that it has a great deal of relevance for how we approach our everyday lives.
As many of you know, we have an elementary school here in Palo Alto. It’s called Living Wisdom School, and it’s been a wonderful effort to create a revolution in education. But when you’re starting something radically new and innovative, it can be a challenge to explain it to others, depending on who you’re talking to, and how they understand the goals of education.
One of our parents told us how she explains the school to people who aren’t familiar with our approach. She says that in most schools the teachers see that the children need to have certain things disciplined out of them. The child may not be able to concentrate, or maybe they talk too much, or they’re simply expressing the typical squirrely energy of a child.
The traditional approach is to try to discipline the undesired energy away. But this mother explains that in our school there’s a tremendous emphasis on the child’s inherent goodness, and that the teachers are oriented toward strengthening each child’s positive energy. Because when you strengthen the positive, the negative tends to melt away.
A newly published book (see right) reveals the inspiring methods of Living Wisdom School. Click the image to order a copy on Amazon.
It’s very relevant to our topic, because it goes to the heart of the difference between how spiritual development is understood in East and West.
In the West, the churches have adopted the doctrine of original sin. The fundamentalist Christian idea is that we’re born inherently sinful, and we need to be saved.
I think it’s ironic that it’s actually quite close to the Darwinian idea that we’ve come up from the apes, and that our animal nature defines us, and it’s silly to pretend otherwise.
It assumes that we’re trying terribly hard to raise our heads a tiny bit up out of the mud, but that the animal characteristics in us will always be the dominant ones. And maybe over the centuries we’ll be able to mutate into something ever so slightly better, but maybe we won’t.
It’s ironic that the fundamentalists and Darwinists basically agree about this, even though the fundamentalists reject the theory of evolution. Because if we accept the idea that we’re born sinners, and that we’re hopelessly mired in the mud, and defined by our sinfulness until God decides to forgive us, it’s basically saying the same thing, that the dark side is our true nature.
The Eastern understanding is very different. It says that we are expressions of the perfect Spirit, but we’ve just gotten a little confused about it, and all we have to do to recover our inherent perfection is to become unconfused.
As Paramhansa Yogananda said, we simply need to improve our knowing. And the more we can come back to understanding what we truly are, the more we find that it’s a tremendously joyful, hopeful, and ultimately blissful reality.
So this is the answer to our question today. Did God create the universe, or did He manifest it out of His own being? Did He make it out of something separate from Himself, like a potter molding a pot, or is the Divine Spirit expressing itself through us and through all creation?
A great deal depends on how we answer that question. Because if our inherent nature is divine, it means that we’re like children who’ve gone out to play in the mud and gotten dirty. And then we come back in the house, as happy as only children can be in that condition. But it isn’t really suitable for the dinner table, so you pick the child up and put him in the bathtub and get rid of the dirt. You wash it off, because you recognize that it’s just something they’ve accumulated in their enthusiasm. Even though the child has accumulated this mud, you only need to spray it off and the perfectly clean, beautiful little child will emerge again.
There’s really no point in having a big brouhaha about the mud, and there’s no point in the parent getting all distressed about it, and making the child feel distressed and distraught and ashamed about it. “It’s just something you’re wearing, and I’ll wash it off.”
Of course, the project gets a little more complicated when it comes to washing away the mud of ignorance that we’ve accumulated over many incarnations. We’ve spent a long time playing in the mud, and it may take a while to learn to assume the best about ourselves, and to realize that it is who we really are.
But in time, we begin to discern that we’ve simply gotten a bit messed up in our understanding, and that it isn’t useful to have any kind of big emotional upset over it, because it’s just the way things are. We went out to play, and we got lost, and we fell in the mud, and we wandered around for a time. But the eons that we’ve spent wandering haven’t really affected the pristine divinity at the center of our nature. And it doesn’t matter how long the debris has accumulated, because it simply doesn’t define us.
Just think how confusing it would be for the child, if the mother behaved as if the mud that he’d picked up was a permanent and defining feature of his nature. And how confusing and hurtful it would be for the child to be treated as essentially dirty and muddy, and made to feel that he has to be ashamed and upset about it, when all that’s really required is to wash it off.
Of course, when it comes to resolving our karma and realizing the divine perfection that truly defines us, we may find that we’re dealing with ink stains, and that it will take a bit longer. Or maybe we’ve tattooed ourselves, and it will take even longer. But regardless of the nature of the dirt that clouds our vision of the higher Self in us, none of it has ever had the slightest effect on our inborn divinity.
In the newspaper yesterday, I saw a big picture of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, “The Little Flower” as she’s called. It seems that her bones are touring the U.S., and on one level, it’s so medieval – you go and see this beautiful, ornate box, and inside are Thérèse’s bones. But the pilgrims who make the effort to visit the relics of the saints testify that they carry a powerful vibration of blessing. It’s why they don’t cremate the bodies of liberated masters, and it’s why Yogananda wasn’t cremated. His body was put in a casket, and it’s kept in a vault that you can visit, because there’s a powerful aura of divine blessings around these relics.
In Catholicism, when the saint is gone, they break up the body, and you can go and visit the finger, or you can find out where St. Catherine’s head is kept. And while it’s just so weird on one level, still, here in our church we have a little frame with a lock of Yogananda’s hair and a patch from one of his robes, because the hair was cut while he was living, and it carries his vibration.
At any rate, the relics of St. Thérèse will be in Menlo Park, and I think it’s glorious that in this completely non-spiritual society you can see something that’s deeply God-reminding. In this society you can read about computers until your eyeballs fall out, but you never hear a word about the saints.
When I read the article about Thérèse, I realized that her way was very humble, but that there was real divine power behind the sweetness. She made a disarmingly simple statement: “If even someone like me can win the grace and love of Jesus Christ, anyone can do it.” She added, “God does not expect us to do great things or to succeed. All He expects of us is that we are self-surrendered and grateful.”
I love that. All we have to do is surrender to the reality that God has given us, and be grateful for it.
It’s so easy to get confused about how we should relate to the reality of this world, and at the same time how we should relate to the deeper reality of Spirit.
On one hand, it’s true that we must do the best we can in this world, and that laziness is not a spiritual option. In Autobiography of a Yogi, Yogananda tells how he was a little careless when he came to his master, Sri Yukteswar, and how he justified his carelessness because he was concerned about spiritual things. But Sri Yukteswar disciplined him to be very attentive all the time, because as he put it, “Saintliness is not dumbness.”
You can be a little inattentive to this world, if your awareness is expanded and you’re focused on a higher reality. But in Yogananda’s case, it wasn’t justifiable, because he had a great mission to carry out in this world, and he needed to learn relate to the world appropriately.
On one level, it’s true that we really do have to wake up – that we can’t just be asleep in this world and call it spirituality. Because low energy has no part of being spiritual.
As Sri Yukteswar said, “Those who are too good for this world are adorning some other.” If we’re living in this world, we need to learn to relate to it in the right way.
Swamiji said that we cannot transcend this plane of existence by refusing to relate to it. You have to learn to relate to it as you find it, and then you can use it to help you learn to relate to the spiritual world. We need to see our lives in this world as a God-given opportunity to learn to relate to Spirit.
Now, having said that, it’s also true that learning to relate properly to the spiritual side of life is the central reason for our existence. And perhaps using spiritual principles will help us be successful in the world – maybe it will develop our artistic talents, or give us the concentration and willpower to be successful in business. And maybe it won’t. But as long as we’re relating properly to the spiritual side of this life, and doing our spiritually appointed duty in the world, that’s all that matters.
Thérèse of Lisieux is a good example for us, because she lived a small and confined life, viewed from the perspective of the world. But inside she was constantly vigilant about her attitudes and her state of consciousness. And whether it was expressed in the prayers she offered, or when she swept the convent floor, that part of her life was merely her karma. But the lesson that it can teach us is that it doesn’t matter what outward role you may have, even if you’re the president, because your greatest responsibility isn’t necessarily that you play your role perfectly, but that you do it with the right consciousness.
And what is the right consciousness? This is a subject that the Bhagavad Gita addresses beautifully. We find Krishna telling his disciple Arjuna, “I am the light of the moon, the light of the sun, the manliness of men, the sweet smell of the earth, the perceptivity of the perceptive.”
Did God create the world, or did He become it? The Gita tells us very plainly that everything in creation is a manifestation of Spirit, and that our job is to remind ourselves of this simple fact all the time.
It doesn’t matter how much mud we’ve accumulated, because everything that flows through us is part of the Divine, and this is what we need to be continually aware of, and remind ourselves of, and practice.
It’s lovely if our lives work out harmoniously in the world, but it doesn’t necessarily make a lot of difference, as long as we’re inwardly doing our best to be in tune, because that’s what really matters, and it’s what truly defines us.
In The Path, Swami Kriyananda describes the annual Christmas banquet that the monks and nuns would enjoy with Paramhansa Yogananda. For the monastic disciples, it was one of the highlights of the year. Master would play the role of host, and they would cook, and the tables would be set beautifully, and everyone would have their assigned seat. It was primarily for the monks and nuns, and for the Guru’s inner circle. And Swamiji tells how some non-monastic members got word of the event one year and came uninvited. They suddenly showed up, and there were only so many seats, but Yogananda welcomed them graciously. After the banquet, Swamiji mentioned to Master how the monks were vying to give up their seats. And in The Path he tells how Yogananda very sweetly smiled and said, “Ah, these are the things that please me.”
Now, why would the monks compete with each other to give up their seats? Because each of them had individually realized that the more they could wash away the mud of ego-involvement, the more they would be able to live as they truly were, close to the blissful Self that most truly defined them. They had learned that their happiness trumped every other consideration, and that the greatest happiness came by tending to the inner Self and loosening their attachment to the little ego.
When we were in Assisi, we climbed down to the cellar where St. Joseph of Cupertino lived. We saw the bed where he slept, and it was so tiny that he had to sleep sitting up. There was a cold water tap, and the place where he flagellated himself, as part of what may seem to us an excessive mortification of the self, for the sake of retraining his consciousness.
Instead of always thinking how he could be comfortable, and how he could take care of himself, and how he could do everything by his own power, separate from the Divine and strictly for himself, he deliberately avoided indulging the desires of the little ego for comfort and ease, in order to break the hypnotic thought that he needed to have those things, instead of finding out who he truly was – nothing at all but a blissful expression of Spirit.
Now, I have to say, thank God, that isn’t our way. And I have to say, I’m glad that it isn’t, although I think we’ve followed that path at some time or another in the past, even if it’s not the one we’re following now. But, make no mistake, it’s important to understand what these saints were doing, and why they did it.
Yogananda told his disciples not to read the lives of saints who were too extreme in their renunciation, because it might give them a distorted picture of their present reality. “What if I can’t follow the saints and do exactly as they did – am I lost?”
Master talked more often about the lives of St. Francis and St. Teresa, and others in our line who worked more nearly the way we do. We don’t have to flagellate ourselves, and we get to stretch out and go to sleep, and even go to the movies and wear nice clothes. Master followed the path of moderation, because extreme asceticism isn’t what God is asking of us at this time. But we shouldn’t allow ourselves to think therefore that we get to love the mud of this world and call it our own.
Swamiji tells in The Path how lots of people came to live with Master, and how they turned around and left within a short time when they realized the nature of his discipline, which was intended to help them set aside their cherished ego-attachments. And while at first they had found Master to be a charming friend, “Many of them,” as Swami puts it, “didn’t appreciate how drastic was the revolution to which he was calling them.”
We must eventually relinquish every last ounce of that which is not divine in us. But the key is that we need to grow gradually, until we reach a point where we can relinquish it with joy. Because the only way we’ll be able to relinquish it truly and completely is by developing a longing to exchange it for something that we understand, with deep inner knowing, we want more.
Mahatma Gandhi’s self-discipline could be very austere and uncompromising. Yet he said, “Never give up something until you are ready to replace it with something you want more.” Which is to say, as long as you still consider it a pleasure, don’t torture yourself over it, or try to renounce it prematurely, because you’ll only keep longing for it in your mind.
But there’s a point where you recognize that it’s incomparably more joyful to give up your seat at the Christmas banquet than to try to hold onto it. It’s an understanding that comes about naturally, over time. And in the meantime, don’t hate the mud. Because if you hate it, you’ll just be investing energy that will bind you to it more firmly. Recognize that this stain may be a little deeper than the others, and I’ll leave it for the time being, and come back to it when I’ve gained the strength to deal with it.
Just keep shining the part of you that is shining already. Because, as that parent said about our school, it isn’t a matter of beating out what isn’t good in the child, but a matter of polishing what is already good. And then the joy of the light will gradually become so strong that you won’t have to discipline yourself to give up everything else. You experience the divine light, and you think, “Why would I want anything else? Why would I want to go back to my old habits?”
This is how the saints see us, clinging to so many little things – our friendships, our comforts, and all the little ways we hope to be satisfied. And it’s simply how it is for us at this point in time. But it will all have to go eventually, because we will realize, naturally and gradually, that everything we’re seeking in these lesser things is ours already in the Spirit.
Slowly and joyfully, step by step, we will discover the supreme satisfaction that exists inside us. Because God didn’t create this universe separately. He made us of Himself, and little by little we will awaken to that realization. And ah! What joy will be ours when we do.
(From Asha’s talk during Sunday service at Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto, California on January 9, 2000.)