“Getting the Point” in the Spiritual Life

When people first come on the spiritual path, it’s very common for them to be interested in, if not absol

Shivani. Swamiji praised her wonderful spirit. Click photos to enlarge.
Shivani. Swamiji praised her wonderful spirit. Click photos to enlarge.

utely obsessed by the details.

They become fanatical about the tiniest elements of their diet, determined to know how to pronounce the various mantras just so – and on and on.

The first time Swami Kriyananda taught one of the higher Kriya initiations, I remember how he spent an enormous amount of time explaining the meaning of a Sanskrit mantra that goes along with the practice, and how he went to great lengths to teach us to pronounce the mantra properly.

Later, he remarked, “Oh, I did that for Shivani.”

Shivani always wanted to have a very precise explanation of the details, so Swamiji spent ages explaining it to her, and it was his loving way of supporting her.

It was Shivani’s role in our work to be a kind of curator of the teachings, making sure we had accurate copies of Master’s and Swamiji’s writings. So it was appropriate for her to be concerned about understanding these things accurately.

But we often get it into our heads that the nitpicking details of the spiritual path are the paramount thing, and that we had better get the details just right, or God will be displeased.

Swami told us how Yogananda’s chief disciple, Rajarsi Janakananda, couldn’t even pronounce the name of his own paramguru, Sri Yukteswar. He’d been raised in the Midwest, and when he prayed to the gurus he would come to Sri Yukteswar’s name and pronounce it “Seer Yuktetraji.”

Rajarsi Janakananda (James Lynn). “I have come to understand that one-hundred percent of the spiritual path is receptivity.”
Rajarsi Janakananda (James Lynn). “I have come to understand that one-hundred percent of the spiritual path is receptivity.”

After Yogananda died, and Rajarsi became president of his organization, he continued to pray to “Seer Yuktetraji.” But, as Swamiji remarked, “When he meditated, he would see Seer Yuktetraji.” And you can bet that Sri Yukteswar didn’t care a hoot how Rajarsi pronounced his name, because what difference did it make? It was a meaningless sound, pasted onto Sri Yukteswar’s vast reality.

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras give us the clearest possible outline of yoga practice. In a very few pithy passages, Patanjali lays out the essence of yoga and the spiritual path. And at a certain point, where he warns us about some of the pitfalls to watch out for on the path, one of them is “missing the point.”

I remember how Swami talked about this during a lecture, and how I asked him afterward, “Swamiji, does it actually say ‘missing the point’?” And Swami said, “Yes, that’s what it says.”

The human mind has this amazing ability to latch onto everything but what really matters. We insist on learning to pronounce Sri Yukteswar’s name just right, but we neglect the need to purify our hearts so that we can commune with him.

We get so obsessed with the outward details that we forget the most important thing, which is to intuitively feel the essence of what we’re doing.

In a conversation that I had with Swamiji about language in general, I asked him if there’s a Sanskrit word that means “silly.” Because it would have been very useful to know in the early days of Ananda, when we had so much energy and zeal and enthusiasm, and so little money, and so little sense of our practical limitations.

Nuns serving in the kitchen. L-R: Prita, Asha, Kalyani, Arati, Anandi.
Nuns serving in the kitchen. L-R: Prita, Asha, Kalyani, Arati, Anandi.

For a long time, our only kitchen was at the seclusion retreat, which was a six-mile drive, including two miles over a completely impossible, deeply rutted and pothole-riddled dirt road. Our Expanding Light retreat was down at the farm, but it didn’t have a kitchen initially, so we had to cook the food six miles away and bring it down.

I was in charge of preparing the meals that we would serve after Sunday service at the Expanding Light, and I remember how we would cook the food at the retreat, then load it in the back of a truck and cover it with blankets and haul it down.

Daisy Duck
Daisy Duck

There was a Walt Disney cartoon character called Daisy Duck who said, “I’m so silly, I don’t know this is impossible!” It became a byword for us at Ananda, because we were so silly that we didn’t understand that what we were doing was impossible. And because it never occurred to us that it was impossible, we just plunged in and did it.

So it was in that context that I asked Swamiji if there was a Sanskrit word for “silly.” And he said, “Yes, there is, and the word is murkha.”

I think it sounds almost as ridiculous as the Italian word for mold, which is “moofa.” And isn’t that a great word? In fact, it’s a useful word to know in our Assisi community, where we have to deal with moofa in some of the older houses.

But in any case, Swami told us about a swami that he met in India, whose name was Murkhananda.

It’s traditional that when you become a swami you take a name like Yogananda or Kriyananda, because Ananda means the bliss of God, and you take a name that says, “I aspire to realize the bliss of God through a certain divine quality or spiritual course of action.”

So, for example, “Yogananda” means the “I aspire to experience or attain the bliss of God through the practice of the science of yoga.” And “Kriyananda” means finding God through Kriya Yoga. “Kriya” literally means the spiritual method taught by Paramhansa Yogananda, but it also means “action.” So Kriyananda means “I aspire to experience the bliss of God through the technique of Kriya Yoga and by active service.”

At any rate, Swamiji told us about this swami he’d met in India whose name was Murkhananda. And Swamiji said to him, “It’s not much of a name for a swami.” But the man replied, “I know myself – it is a good name.”

If Murkhananda felt that he could realize God by wandering around India and appreciating the pure silliness of the cosmic play, who’s to say that it isn’t every bit as valid as a more “spiritually correct” name?

Swami Murkhananda
Swami Murkhananda

Swamiji said that there was a man in Yogananda’s monastery who had severe cerebral palsy. He could barely walk or speak, and in The New Path Swamiji tells how Master said of this man, “He’s very nearly free.”

He said, “Divine Mother is pleased with his devotion.” And Swamiji said, “It must be a very simple kind of devotion, then, isn’t it, Seer?” And Yogananda said, “Ah, that is the kind that pleases God.”

Master loved the American can-do spirit. In India, people are aware of how long and arduous the spiritual path really is, and Master loved the fact that in America it doesn’t even occur to us that we might not be able to make it. And because of that spirit, which is such a distinguishing feature of the American character, we can often make great spiritual progress. So we may get the point a lot better than those Indians who become paralyzed by the difficulties.

In the Bible, Jesus raises a question that I’m sure many of us have contemplated: “How can you tell if a teaching is true?” And the answer that he gives couldn’t be more simple and down-to-earth: “By their fruits ye shall know them.”

Of course, it implies that we have the ability to judge the fruits and know which ones are best.

You’d think it wouldn’t be that hard, because we’ve all had lots of opportunities to judge the outcome of our actions. But we also need to take the further step of having the courage to apply the test before we act.

We need to be able to look very dispassionately and courageously at our situation and decide which actions will give us true, lasting happiness, and not just look for ways to make our lives easy and comfortable in the short run.

At the end of his life, Jesus was aware of the great tests that his disciples would face. And it’s helpful to have an accurate picture of what Jesus’ last days were really like.

Jesus was, in fact, an obscure rabbi who was either completely ignored or unknown by the vast majority of the people of his time. Reading the New Testament, we get the impression that the whole world was watching; but hardly anyone was watching. Jesus lived and died while the world went about its business and simply ignored him. Yet he planted a seed of spiritual power that would inspire millions, and that would guide a great world civilization for two thousand years.

Because he could foresee that his followers would face the terrible shock of his death, and the persecution that would follow, he knew that he needed to make them strong.

He realized that he needed to weed out those who weren’t sufficiently strong in their faith to endure these things. So he began to make statements that were extremely puzzling to those among his followers who lacked the power of intuitive understanding.

Toward the end of Yogananda’s life there was a similar housecleaning. In The Path, Swami Kriyananda describes how quite a few of the disciples, including some who had seemed strong, suddenly began to leave the monastery.

When Swamiji asked Master about it, he explained, “Satan is testing the organization.” God wanted the work to be strong, so he tested the disciples by allowing the forces of darkness to enter the hearts of those who were shaky in their faith and vulnerable to doubts.

We’re all a little bit vulnerable when it comes to our particular doubts and fears. And until we merge our consciousness in God, there’s one part of us that understands with a sure intuitive knowing that there is a divine power operating behind this world. But there’s also a part of us that isn’t completely convinced.

The world is constantly talking to us about things that are incompatible with our higher aspirations. And depending on the company we keep, we may find our inner sense of the purpose of our life being challenged and denied.

And then maybe you start to feel that it’s perfectly reasonable and okay to let your resolve weaken a little and compromise your ideals. “I guess this is what I’m meant to do. I’m meant to go to school and get a job and get married and have a family.”

And all the while a quiet voice is whispering, “Wait a minute, there’s something fishy about that line of reasoning, because there really is something completely and utterly different and vastly more important going on behind the scenes.”

And so, as Patanjali colorfully puts it, we miss the point.

And then we die again, and the spiritual teacher greets us at the Heavenly Gates and asks us, “How much of yourself did you give to God?” And we’re forced to admit, “I got sucked in again.”

I went after this or that worldly fulfillment and forgot the true purpose of my life. I missed the point. And so we resolve to do better next time, and not forget.

And then, as we gather more experience, we begin to understand what the fruits of our actions will be.

What’s the fruit of trying to find my security in money? What’s the fruit of letting other people’s ideas wreck my life? What’s the fruit of being careless about my health and my emotional well-being?

By looking at the fruits, you will know what is true. And the fruits of the spiritual life can be subtle and difficult to appreciate. But by having our own experiences over many lives, we gradually begin to develop the intuitive understanding to know what is true.

By the time Swami Kriyananda was in his early twenties, he was desperate to find a teaching that would give him a deep intuitive experience of truth. And when he was ready to turn his back on the petty fulfillments of this world, he was guided to Autobiography of a Yogi. And because he was ripe for the harvesting, he immediately got on a bus and came to California to meet his guru.

Swami Kriyananda on far right, as a young monk in SRF. L-R: Rajarsi Janakananda, Dr. Lewis, Mrs. Lewis
Swami Kriyananda, far right, as a young monk in SRF. L-R: Rajarsi Janakananda, Dr. Lewis, Mrs. Lewis, Durga Mata.

The first words out of his mouth at that meeting were, “I want to be your disciple.” And we need to understand that he was no man’s follower, but he knew that he was in the presence of someone who had everything that he had ever been seeking. And for the fifty-two years until his passing he never doubted that decision for a moment.

It’s the story of Yogananda and Kriyananda, but it’s also the story of our own spiritual life. Because at some point we’ve all longed for truth. And insofar as we were able to throw ourselves into our search and risk everything to know the truth, God responded.

In the early years of Ananda, when we were barely beginning to learn what this path is about, Swami’s presence was utterly indispensable to help us understand the real point.

You can read books, and your ego will choose the parts that it finds pleasing, and ignore the parts it doesn’t like.

We pick up on the big important things, and we think we’re going to have a big, important life. We imagine we’ll do great austerities and make a grand spectacle of our practice, and that whether we’re kind and compassionate in our relations with others is a secondary issue and not terribly important. And so we miss the point.

I remember asking Swamiji, in the early days, “Seer, how can people ever really grow on the spiritual path without someone like you to help them?”

He said, “By the time you get serious, God gives to you in exact proportion to your desire to know.”

God gives to us in exact proportion to our eagerness to receive and absorb and act on what He gives us.

Gratitude is a fundamental key to prosperity, and it’s absolutely a key to spiritual prosperity. Because if we aren’t able to receive gratefully, and ready to apply what God gives us, why would He give us more? And if we treat it casually, how can we realistically expect to receive more of His bounty?

It’s not because God enjoys refusing to reward us. It’s because we can only grow according to our own understanding, and we can only come to understand what’s true at our own pace, and in our own time.

God will never force a higher understanding on us. If He gives us opportunities, and we don’t have the right attitude to embrace them, He will give us the freedom to learn willy-nilly until we’re ready to receive humbly and gratefully from His hands.

Swamiji’s initiation by his guru, and his life of complete dedication in all the years that followed, offers us a wonderful example of how we need to live on the spiritual path.

When God offers us opportunities, let’s not miss the point. Let’s not get lost in the details, or seize the gift with our human hands and pretend we know what to do with it.

Let’s go for the heart and soul of what God offers us, and what He asks of us. Let’s give ourselves completely to meditation and devotion, and to love and kindness, so that we can be willing channels to give His love to others. Because that’s all that this path is about.

I listened to a talk recently by a woman who’s a minister of another tradition. She was on the point of retiring, and having reached the end of her life of active service, she said, “I used to have all kinds of ideas about what my spiritual mission was in this world, but now I understand it so simply. I was born to be a channel of God’s love to everyone I meet. And that’s all.”

That’s why we say Paramhansa Yogananda’s prayer: “May Thy love shine forever on the sanctuary of my devotion, and may I be able to awaken Thy love in all hearts.”

Because that’s the point. That’s all there is to the spiritual path, and nothing else matters. Call him “Seer Yutetragi” if you like, but give him your heart, and then be eager to share whatever he gives you with all.

(From Asha’s talk during Sunday service at Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto, California on March 12, 2000.)

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