The weekly readings that we use in our Sunday services follow a particular flow. And because we listen to them just once a week, it isn’t always clear how they fit together.
The first of the yearly readings are somewhat abstract. They lay out the basic spiritual realities that operate in our lives, as a foundation for the readings that follow. And I always find myself in a mild dilemma, because I’m not all that abstract in my way of thinking. I’m much more oriented toward the practical side of the spiritual life, and when it comes to the deep philosophical principles, I’m mainly interested in figuring out how they apply in real life.
I was reflecting on the Bible statement, “The light shineth in darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not.” (John 1:5) And I’ve been trying to bring it down to the level of my own daily experience.
I saw an aphorism that someone posted on Facebook: “Anger is the punishment you impose on yourself for someone else’s behavior.” And while I don’t think it’s particularly profound, I do believe there’s enough truth in it to make it worth contemplating.
It put me in mind of a story that Swamiji liked to tell, of an Indian sadhu who was very advanced spiritually, but decidedly eccentric in his ways. Sadhus in India will sometimes adopt strange mannerisms that make them appear different from normal people. But, nonetheless, this particular sadhu was greatly respected for his realization.
One day, the sadhu went for a stroll in a nearby village, and when he returned his clothes were torn, and he was bleeding.
The disciples were distressed. “Sir, what happened to you?!” The sadhu replied with a blissful smile, “Oh, I was walking in the village and the boys were throwing rocks, and we had so much fun.”
The sadhu was completely indifferent to the fact that the stones were being thrown at him, and that the boys were tormenting him because he looked strange. In his spiritual state, he was completely free of any ego-identification with the body.
Of course, most people, if a group of mean-spirited children started throwing stones at them, would have no hesitation in inflicting the punishment of anger upon themselves. “They shouldn’t be treating me like this! I’m going to speak to their parents!”
From the viewpoint of normal human life, it might actually be helpful for the sadhu to talk to the children’s parents. It wasn’t appropriate behavior, and it would be beneficial for the children to be disciplined.
But the sadhu was making a higher point – that we can find perfect joy by learning to detach our consciousness from the likes and dislikes of the little ego.
Paramhansa Yogananda talked about an incident that happened shortly after he arrived in America in 1920. He continued to dress as he had in India, wearing an orange swami robe. He was walking on the street one day, when some young girls started making fun of him, saying rude things and mocking him. He stopped and said to them, “If you were in my country, you would be considered very inappropriately dressed.” He went on to admonish them that just because he was from another place, it was no reason to respond so rudely. And to their credit, they were embarrassed and took his correction to heart.
So it isn’t as if we should never respond in a normal human way. But the higher point is that we need to monitor our responses, and be extremely wary if we sense that our emotions are starting to move us away from our center.
The only reason the sadhu was able to react with joyful dispassion in a situation that would provoke most of us to anger and indignation was because he had detached his consciousness from the reactions of the body-identified ego.
Very few of us would react with delight at being pelted with stones. How many times do we decide that when we’re treated badly the right and appropriate response is to get upset?
The spiritual path is a process of juggling many things: taking care to do our sadhana regularly, developing devotion, and constantly watching our consciousness as we work to refine our awareness. And as we become more sensitive, we find that our understanding of the spiritual path becomes very simple. It becomes a constant process of watching the oscillations of our heart, to a point where even the smallest vibrations of disharmony will set off warning bells for us, because we realize that those disturbances can take us away from where we want to be.
This is why the saints can sometimes seem very exaggerated in their concern for the smallest deviations in their consciousness.
Toward the end of her life, Bernadette of Lourdes was often ill and close to death. On one of those occasions, it came out that she was deeply troubled by the memory of how her poor and struggling mother had made a soup with whatever vegetables she could scrape together, and how Bernadette had told her mother that she didn’t like the soup. And on her deathbed, she was still tormented by the memory of having hurt her mother by her words.
For most people, critical thoughts fly through their consciousness without raising a ripple of shame.
The reading for today, about how the light shineth in darkness, and how the darkness comprehended it not, reminds me of the Superconscious Living system that Swamiji developed in the late 1970s. Swamiji did so many great things that they would often get displaced by the latest great thing that came along. Today, we hardly remember Superconscious Living, even though it’s a beautiful system that offers us a wonderful explanation of how our consciousness works, and what we can do about it.
Swamiji presented Superconscious Living as a bridge to help people understand how spiritual principles operate in their lives. It was meant to help them work with our consciousness in ways that will bring them happiness.
In our efforts to cope, we’re always trying to figure out what will make us happy, and how we can avoid sorrow and suffering.
One of the first great statements of spiritual truth I heard when I was new on the path was something that Swami Vivekananda said: “Don’t think about yourself, and you will be happy.”
Self-forgetfulness is a tremendous tool in our search for happiness – not suppressing our feelings, but finding ways to forget our narrow self-concerns and concentrate instead on feeling our unity with a greater reality. The teachings of yoga and Superconscious Living tell us how we can release our self-concern through service, kindness, compassion, devotion, and meditation. And the promise, and the reality, is that these are thoroughly tested, surefire paths to happiness.
When I read Vivekananda’s statement, I was nineteen, and my initial reaction was: “What else is there to think about except myself?”
I wasn’t exactly selfish, but I was definitely self-aware – to be more accurate, I was self-concerned. I was always trying to gauge my own position in the wider scheme of things. I was a generous-hearted person and very cheerful, and when I tried to gauge my position, I was always thinking, “How can I have more fun? What’s the most fun thing I can do next?”
It wasn’t about self-discipline and self-sacrifice and duty, but it was a habit of always thinking how I could maximize my pleasure and happiness in the moment. And it’s a very valid thing to do, spiritually speaking, because if we keep looking for happiness in the laboratory of our lives, we will eventually come to the realization that our greatest happiness is inside, in communion with God.
We all have our habitual responses to the things that happen to us. Some people will react outwardly, while others will interiorize. Some people will verbalize, and some will just go silent. But we all have times when we’re swept off our center, and then our habitual responses try to reassert themselves.
Maybe our way of coping will be to go out and exercise, or we’ll binge on food, or maybe we’ll turn on the TV, or we’ll take drugs or drink. But there’s an inevitable tendency to want to hunker down in a familiar position of comfort. And meanwhile, the superconscious is always trying to bring us into a new and more blissful reality.
This is the battle of Kurukshetra that the Bhagavad Gita talks about. It’s the war between our habitual reactions and the superconscious. While the subconscious is trying to get us to retreat and hunker down, the superconscious says, “What you have is but a pale shadow of the bliss you could know and that is the nature of your innermost being.”
Whether we see our potential in human terms, defined by how much we can develop our talents, or our capacity to love, or our capacity for friendship, or whether we think of it as the highest realization, at the level of real daily life it’s always just an expression of the superconscious that is constantly urging us to take the higher path.
Meanwhile, the subconscious is whispering, “You’re fine just the way you are. It’s worked so far, and let’s not mess with success. It might not be all that great, but at least it’s familiar and well-known.”
It’s a universal human tendency, and I like to think of it as “the preference for the known misery.”
With the known misery, at least you know the size and shape of it. But if you step out into the unknown, maybe there’s a promise of a greater happiness, but there’s also a great fear of what might come. Who knows what sacrifices might be involved? And we’d better just stick to what we know.
There’s a ridiculous 1959 movie called “The Mouse that Roared.” It’s a very funny film about the world’s smallest country, the Duchy of Grand Fenwick, in the French Alps. Peter Sellars plays three roles, including the Grand Duchess Gloriana XII, the Prime Minister Count Rupert of Mountjoy, and the young Constable Tully Bascombe. It’s about how the country goes bankrupt and they decide to invade the United States, because they’re sure to lose and then they’ll be flooded with foreign aid.
So this ridiculous little band of solders come to America, and by chance they land in New York during an air raid drill when nobody’s around, and they accidentally seem to win. They take a few prisoners, and when they come home they treat the prisoners as honored guests, and there’s a great feast with music and wonderful food and dancing. But there’s one hard-line American soldier who demands that they abide by the Geneva Accords and give him a little cell of a certain size, and food rations of a certain kind.
So they try very hard to accommodate him, and they build him a cell and serve him the rations he demands, and he’s so proud that he got what he wanted. And meanwhile everybody is feasting and dancing, and it’s a perfect metaphor for the darkness failing to comprehend the light.
God has given us the light of perfect happiness, but we’ve set up our own little systems that we’ve worked out so carefully, and the only reason we think they are so terrific is that we don’t know there’s anything better.
This life is constantly pushing us to climb out of our ruts and wake up and discover a greater freedom. And sometimes it pushes us a little bit, and sometimes it pushes very hard and forces us to break away and leave our old reality behind.
We cultivate our human skills with great perseverance and will power, and it’s a very good thing to do, because it gives us strength and wisdom and intuitive savvy. It develops our self-discipline and concentration, and all of the terrific qualities it takes to be successful in this world. But then we start to feel that we have a certain position to maintain, and a certain identity, and that these skills define us. And meanwhile, the light keeps shining in the darkness.
As the parable of the little bird in the Festival of Light tells us, our true happiness comes by sharing with the world whatever we receive, in recognition of our oneness with a greater reality.
This is the example of the saints, and of the sadhu who didn’t care that he was being pelted with stones, because his reality was so much more expanded, and identified with a greater, blissful reality.
From the point of view of rational psychology, it’s completely insane not to care about your ego, and not to affirm it in the face of your tests. But that way of thinking is just another expression of the darkness not comprehending the freedom of total self-forgetfulness.
There’s a story of St. Francis that Swamiji loved to tell. It was the dead of winter and Francis was walking in the bitter cold and snow with his brothers. They were returning to their monastery, and Francis struck up a conversation with Brother Leo. “Brother Leo,” he said, “Tell me. What is perfect happiness?” They talked for a while, and finally Francis said, “If we were to arrive at the monastery after walking through the cold, and if instead of welcoming us the monks were to drive us back into the cold without food or comfort, and if in that moment we were able to remember God with gratitude in our hearts, that would be perfect joy.”
The greatest joy doesn’t come by developing our own skills. Of course, there’s a fine line to be drawn here, because it obviously doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t develop our strengths. But Master resolved the issue with perfect clarity when he gave us a wonderful prayer: “Lord, I will reason, I will will, and I will act. But guide Thou my reason, will, and activity to the right path in everything.”
Master said that our tests are not sent to destroy us, but to awaken the infinite power within us. He urged us to learn to “stand unshaken amidst of crash of breaking worlds.” And he gave us the method.
Some weeks ago I talked about how our karma must all be balanced out and ultimately reduced to zero. As Yogananda writes in Autobiography of a Yogi, we have to come to a point where, like the saints, “His bones stripped of all desirous flesh, his karmic skeleton bleached in the antiseptic suns of wisdom, he is clean at last, inoffensive before man and Maker.”
We have to resolve all of the currents of our consciousness that keep us from living unmoved at the center of our being.
The Indian scriptures call the state of final karmic balance shunya. It literally means “zero” or “emptiness.” It’s a state in which we’ve managed to quiet all of the dualistic likes and dislikes in our nature, and our ego-driven urges have all melted away.
Every time we allow another person’s behavior or some outward experience or disappointment to upset us, we move away from the perfection of the shunya state that dwells at the center of our being.
This is the picture that I’ve been contemplating lately. And it’s fair game to analyze people in pursuit of a deeper understanding, so long as you don’t judge them. But if you judge them, moved by your emotional reactions, you’ll be setting in motion a current of energy and karma that will take your consciousness away from your center and into darkness.
We need to be able to understand people, and to recognize that the decisions they make aren’t always for the best, and we need to be able to discriminate and see what will be in their best interest. And even so, we need to be able to discriminate and understand ourselves and observe the human experiences of our lives dispassionately. But if we allow them to upset our peace, it will just take us off our center. And these are two very different things, judgment versus discrimination.
The river is being drawn back to the ocean. The soul is being drawn back to God who is the infinitude of blissful shunya. If we separate ourselves, affirming that you and I are radically different, and if we judge – I don’t like you, I want you to be punished – we will step outside the infinite perfection within us.
God has given us the freedom to push back when others offend us. And what I’ve begun to observe in my own life is that if we don’t restrain these emotional reactions and work hard to bring ourselves back to the deep center of shunya stillness and Self-realization, to that extent we will be shutting ourselves off from Him.
As you sow, so shall you reap. Judge not, lest ye be judged. I’ve taken enormous enjoyment in watching how God keeps narrowing the gates that He allows us to pass through. He makes our options smaller and smaller, as He challenges us to become ever more refined in our understanding.
Most karma is difficult to see, because of “the thwarting cross-currents of ego,” as Yogananda called them. This is a subtle and interesting point. Because of our attachment to our own will and our wonderful skills, we spend our time pushing our way through life by our own power. And if we make a little mistake, we may have the power to push through it. It doesn’t mean that we’ve gotten away with it, but we’ve just postponed the karma until another time, And when the karma comes back, we don’t remember where it came from.
This is why instant karma is very helpful. You act, and boom – it comes right back to you, and you get to learn the lesson right away.
Many years ago, I was in India, in the holy city of Varanasi, on one of our first pilgrimage trips, and our tour guide insisted that we visit the Durga Temple. It’s absolutely filled with monkeys, owing to the principle of Ahimsa, or harmlessness, which is very strong in Varanasi, and as a result the monkeys have overrun everything.
We met a priest at the temple who wanted to put a garland around my neck. But the garland was no longer fresh, and I didn’t want to wear it, so I kept taking it off, and the priest kept putting it back around my neck. I was feeling impatient and upset, and I wasn’t thinking very kindly about the Goddess Durga, which I don’t recommend. I was lost in my negative thoughts and not paying attention to the monkeys, and as a result I wandered into a pack of monkeys, and one of the monkeys jumped on by back.
All I remember is grabbing the monkey and throwing him to the ground and yelling, “Get away from me, you filthy thing!” So there I was, screaming in the Durga temple, and the monkey started coming back at me. I wore American clothes, and he tried to bite me on the leg, but fortunately he only caught my skirt. But it just made me more enraged, and I kept yelling, “Let go of me, you filthy thing!” And then he ripped out of a piece of my skirt, by which point everybody in the temple was there, because they had heard that the leader of the American group had been attacked by a monkey. Finally, they got the monkey away from me, and I was thinking, “Wow, instant karma!” And, “Thank you, God!” Because, know, you do not walk around an ancient holy Durga temple thinking bad things about Durga.
I had moved away from zero, and God saw fit to rip my skirt and see how far I would string along with my emotional reactions.
But when the karma isn’t of the instant variety, it catches up to you later, and you don’t always tie it together. I judge this person for not being courageous, and years later I may find my courage failing in the face of some challenging test. And this is how the greater life behind our little life keeps pushing us, to see if we are ready to awaken to the light, or if we want to continue to grovel in the darkness.
Now, the spiritual path offers us a way to escape the endless cycles of karma. But the necessary first step is to want to do something about it. We need to get to the point where we’re no longer eager to hunker down in our familiar habits, and we want to learn to be guided by the superconscious.
It’s not easy. This is why the Gita tells us that out of a thousand, only one seeks God, and out of a thousand who seek God, only one truly knows Him as He is.
Master told us that our percentage is much higher on this path. As he put it, this is a new expression of religion, a special dispensation sent by God to uplift suffering humanity, by offering us the liberating tools of Kriya Yoga, and the opportunity to enjoy satsang with our fellow seekers, and to live in spiritual communities.
The light continues to shine in darkness. And will we comprehend it? Only we can make that decision at every moment of our lives. And let’s reach for the light with all the power that is in us. God bless you.
(From Asha’s talk during Sunday service at Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto, California on July 1, 2015.)