Christ’s Teachings Are for the Individual Seeker

Christ and St. Peter at the Sea of Galilee; Scarsellino
Christ and St. Peter at the Sea of Galilee; Scarsellino


In the New Testament, Jesus makes a chilling statement:

“Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household.” (Luke 12:49-53)

Taken out of context, it seems a frightening forewarning of what’s in store for us if we choose to follow him.

And yet, it’s extremely unlikely that it was the first thing he said to his followers. “I’m going to take away everything you hold dear, and make you suffer.”

Surely, if he had issued such an daunting challenge at the start, it’s likely that very few would have followed him.

It’s far more likely that he would have presented such a radical challenge to those who were sufficiently mature in their spiritual development to receive it.

As Swami Kriyananda often said, all true spiritual teaching is individual. It’s why he said that it would be inappropriate for us to try to live as he did, straining ourselves beyond our present capabilities in an attempt to give ourselves to God as completely as he was able to do.

Jesus was focused on helping his disciples take the next natural step in their individual spiritual development. He was practical in his teachings, and he would never challenge them beyond their ability to follow.

In our long path to freedom, we are bound to make many mistakes that will bring us suffering, even though we would never consciously choose to suffer.

When suffering comes, we’re surprised and dismayed. “Why did this happen to me?!” It’s only as we become more spiritually mature that we’re able to accept that the source of all our suffering is the foolish things we’ve done in the past.

Someone recently told me about a friend of his who had experienced a massive failure in his life, as a result of certain unwise actions he had taken. With wonder in his voice, he said, “how could he do such a thing?”

My immediate thought was that it’s extremely easy to understand how people can make foolish decisions. I doubt that any of us can look back on our lives without blushing with embarrassment at the amazingly stupid things we’ve done – or that we can look within, without finding countless inclinations and tendencies that are just poised to lure us into making equally stupid or even worse mistakes.

And, isn’t that a scary thought – that we carry within us any number of desires that can prompt us to behave stupidly, and that those tendencies may just be waiting for us to summon the energy to activate them, or that they’re just waiting for the right circumstances where they can tempt us to act out our ignorance.

It’s a very, very, very good idea to bear this in mind – that delusion has an extraordinary power to sweep us off our feet, and that when the howling winds of maya begin to blow, we may find it extremely easy to let ourselves be swept away.

The people who had the remarkable good karma to come into contact with Jesus must have felt something extraordinary in his presence – they must have felt a divine bliss of such overmastering power that it caused them to drop whatever they were doing and know with absolute certainty that he was offering them an infinity of happiness.

I love it when people ask me how I came to Ananda, because I relish the opportunity to remember the moment when I first set eyes on Swami Kriyananda.

I was twenty-two at the time, and I had always been very bold in my thinking. I was dissatisfied with this world, even as a child, and I had always craved “something else.” I craved it with a deep longing – it felt as if some essential nutrient was missing in my life, and I had no idea what it was, or where I might find it.

I was always seeking that “something more.” And when I left home and entered Stanford University, I thought that such a prestigious and respected institution of higher learning would surely be able to give me a clue. But in a very short time I realized that they had no more clue than I did. And perhaps it was arrogant to presume that Stanford had nothing to offer me. But I simply wasn’t interested in filling my brain with facts, and learning to twiddle ideas. What interested me, to the point of obsession, was what I can only call “truth.” And, even more, I was interested in happiness.

We all want to be happy and avoid suffering, but I had an unwavering feeling that there was a happiness that nobody else seemed to be looking for, and that it must be possible to find it, if I could only figure out how.

Of course, I now know, and can testify from my own experience, that what I was seeking was the natural happiness of the soul. But the people I met could only offer me hints for achieving the fleeting happiness of an ordinary worldly life.

All of the elements were in place for me to achieve that kind of success, but it didn’t look like happiness to me. The world seemed to be inviting me to devote all my energy and intelligence to a path that would lead me nowhere that I wanted to be.

So I went to Stanford, and it didn’t seem to be offering me very much, and after a time I felt that that phase of my life had ended. So I began to explore the path of human romance, and that life was sort of okay for a while, until it began to be rather dull.

And then in walked Swami Kriyananda. As  it happened, I met him on the Stanford campus, so my initial attraction to Stanford might not have been entirely misguided. I remember almost nothing of what he said in his talk, but I vividly remember the sight of him walking down the aisle, and I remember feeling an absolute conviction that he had what I wanted.

I couldn’t have said what it was, but I knew that he had it. I knew that he had looked at the world, and that he had added it up differently, and that he had decided that there was something in this life that was worth achieving. I couldn’t formulate it with my mind, but I could feel it. And from that first meeting to this moment, my whole life’s dedication has been to bring myself as close as I can to what he had, which I’ve realized was an inner attunement with God through the guidance and blessings of Paramhansa Yogananda and the path of Kriya Yoga.

We’ve been drawn to the spiritual path because we felt that it would offer us something we dearly wanted. And, in most cases, the message reached us through an embodiment of truth in the form of one individual.

It may have touched us through a living teacher, or through Autobiography of a Yogi, or the New Testament, or the teachings of the Buddha. But through the contact with a ray of truth we became convinced that there was something wonderful that we could achieve in this life, and that we were seeing its clear expression before us.

This was the transcendent power of God’s bliss that enabled Christ to convince people beyond any possibility of doubt that he had what they had always wanted, and that it would be worth any effort and sacrifice to get it for themselves.

The New Testament gives us a glorious picture of the way Jesus worked with his closest disciples. They were fisherman, and Jesus simply walked up to them and said, “follow me.” And they dropped everything and followed. They didn’t have the Gospels or the Church to tell them who he was. He was simply a young man who began to speak to them with the power of truth. As the Bible says, he spoke in a way that they had heard no man speak before.

The rabbis in the temples spoke about truth, but Jesus embodied truth. He was the truth, and those who were receptive could feel that he had everything they were seeking, and that by following him they would get it for themselves.

It was in this context that Jesus was able to say, “Everything that you cling to, and that you think will make you happy, I will take from you. And if you want that which I have, and that I have promised to give you, you must be ready to give it up gladly.”

And then, of course, there had to be a mature understanding, and a one-pointed receptivity that would give them the courage to risk it all. The ability to give their lives so completely to God, without the slightest hesitation, is a quality of highly advanced disciples. And this is why Yogananda said that one of the chief qualities of a true disciple is courage.

We are comfortable in our little world, with our little families and all the little things we cling to. And even though we sense that there might be a vast happiness hiding just behind the scenes, we’re powerfully drawn to the safe and familiar.

Jesus gave his followers a touch of his divine consciousness, to reassure them that they wouldn’t lose what their souls most desired, but that they would find it in him.

This is the great secret of life, that the happiness we are all seeking lies in another realm, separate and apart from the familiar forms we see all around us.

Jesus spoke to his disciples in a way that would challenge them, but that would not exceed their ability to receive. To those who were sincere and committed, he spoke dramatically, in a way that the average person would be bound to reject. He urged them to leave their unsatisfying life and seek a higher fulfillment. But he didn’t encourage the masses to turn aside from their worldly duties. And it was a reflection of the same way that Yogananda’s is a householder path.

For some souls, the monastic life is a perfectly noble and appropriate calling. But Yogananda promised us that we can find our salvation in any station of life. He said that we can live in this world, yet not be part of it. But he was definitely not calling us to a worldly life.

At his first meeting with Paramhansa Yogananda, on September 12, 1948, Swamiji was hoping desperately to be accepted as a monk and a disciple, even though they had met only minutes earlier.

Swami said, “I just can’t see myself as married with a family. I can’t see anything in it for me.” And then, thinking that it might have sounded too harsh, he added, “I’m sure it’s perfectly fine for other people, but it’s not for me.” And Yogananda said, “it’s not as fine for anybody as people try to make it out to be.”

He was encouraging Swamiji to pursue his ideal of living for God alone. But he was also saying that the images we have of married life, and of finding our ideal partner and having an ideal marriage, are completely unrealistic and false.

I love a statement that Swami often made – that we can learn a certain amount from having our desires frustrated, but that we can learn a great deal more from having them fulfilled.

I think there’s a very earthy and practical truth in that statement. Because if we’re frustrated in our longings, we’ll just invest them with a glory that they don’t have.

We long for the forbidden fruit, and for the greener pastures on the other side of the fence. And for many lifetimes we get to pursue our desires so that we can experience their fulfillment and decide if they are worthwhile.

Swami said of Paramhansa Yogananda’s teaching, “as much as possible, he allowed us to live out our fantasies.”

In a way, it’s a chilling statement. The guru’s role is not to lift us out of our desires and magically take them all away. Swamiji said that many people in India who retire, and then renounce the world and go to the Himalayas to live as monks, end up no better than bums, with their consciousness more in the world than many spiritually minded householders. They spend all their time dreaming of what they might have had. And it’s often better and more spiritually effective to drink the cup and get the experience, so that we can evaluate the results and learn from them.

It’s the only way we can truly learn to discriminate and know the truth with a sure inner knowing – by tasting the fruits and asking ourselves, “Is this enough?

“I’ve found perfect human love with a perfect mate and a perfect family and perfect children and a perfect career. I have everything I’ve sought, and now I have to ask myself with perfect honesty and sincerity: is it enough? Does my soul feel fulfilled? Do I feel safe and secure? Do I feel the strength of the ages flowing through my being?”

If we go ahead and have those experiences, it can help us learn the lesson faster. Because in the end death will come to us and take it all away. And even in the midst of life, change is bound to happen. No matter how much fun we’re having, something will always come along to change our life’s direction and sweep it away.

This is why Jesus said that those who cling to their life will lose it. Because if we cling to God’s outward gifts, we find that they are fickle, and that they will disappoint us in the end.

What we cling to, we will lose in two ways – first, because change is inevitable and God’s outward gifts do not endure, and second, because to the extent that those gifts are outside of us, they cannot possibly satisfy our souls.

We will all die eventually, and we’ll regret the things we’ve left undone. We’ll wonder, why didn’t I do what I was born to do? Why didn’t I look into the eyes of those I loved, and love the infinitely beautiful God in them?

We see a person who strikes us as attractive. But is it that person who attracts us? Or is it the consciousness we sense in them?

What do we love in people? What we most truly love is love itself. We love the vibration that we feel in our hearts in certain circumstances. And, does that vibration of love really have to change when our circumstances change?

Maya’s power tries to convince us, “I’m happy when I’m near this person, and I’m unhappy when they aren’t near.” And it’s strangely untrue, because the only happiness we can ever feel is self-generated.

There was a period at Ananda Village in the 1980s when we found ourselves frustrated in our efforts to develop our property because the county officials couldn’t fit us into any of their neat categories.

We tried to explain that we were a cooperative community, and that we shared the land and had our homes and businesses and church in one place. And I remember how one of the officials thumbed through his book of rules and said, “Hm, then you must be a condominium.”

We said, “we’re not exactly a condominium. We’re a cooperative spiritual community.” And he said, “cooperative spiritual community – it’s not in here.”

We were asking bureaucrats to think creatively, and it wasn’t in the cards. They couldn’t bend the rules. And, to make it worse, we had people living all around us who had come to our remote area to drop out of society. It was ironic, because many of them had been attracted to the area because of Ananda, and they felt it might be a place that would be friendly to an alternative lifestyle. But then they saw us building this “organization,” as they called it, and it gave them something to shout about.

So we had endless controversy. And finally we had the wonderful idea that if we were a city, we would have more control over our land.

Ananda Village looked like a rustic farm with a few houses sprinkled here and there, but we realized that if we could fulfill the legal requirements, we could become an official California city and have more control over our destiny. So for about eighteen months, several friends and I worked on the incorporation of Ananda.

During that time, Ananta, who is very much the jokester, dubbed me “Your Honor, the Mayor.” And every time I came down to what we referred to as the “Ananda City Hall,” which was a funky little room on the second floor of a rickety old barn that we eventually tore down, Ananta would yell to the gardeners, “Her Honor, the Mayor is coming,” and the gardeners would line up with their hoes and salute me as I entered the barn. And it was all part of the great fun of living at Ananda.

We had to take our application before a county board called the LASCO Commission, which had the authority to approve or reject our incorporation submission. And everybody knew that the application process was sort of nuts, but for a long time we were able to make it work for us. And even though we eventually lost, it was a good effort, and a worthwhile experience.

A historic photo, taken circa 1977-78. L-R: Haanel Cassidy, formerly a famous commercial photographer for the Conde Nast magazine publishing empire, who guided the development of the garden at Ananda Village; Ananta McSweeney; Swami Kriyananda; Govinda Frutos; Shivani; James Robinson; Maria McSweeney. Click to enlarge.
A historic photo, taken circa 1977-78. L-R: Haanel Cassidy, formerly a famous commercial photographer for the Conde Nast magazine publishing empire, who guided the development of the garden at Ananda Village; Ananta McSweeney; Swami Kriyananda; Govinda Frutos; Shivani; James Robinson; Maria McSweeney. Click to enlarge.

As part of the process, we had to invite the county officials to tour our community. And Ananda was a pretty funky-looking place. It’s a lot more civilized now, and at the time of the incorporation campaign it was a lot better than it had been twenty years earlier. But it was still quite basic.

 The main downtown area was mostly just the big garden plus the market and auto shop, and on any given day you would see Ananta and the gardeners working in the minimum amount of clothing, because it was very hot. Ananta and the other men would be wearing shorts and big straw hats, and they were always bare-chested, and the women would wear shorts and T-shirts. So there wasn’t much style, and they were always covered with dirt, which they called “soil,” because of course it isn’t dirt if you’re a gardener.

 I said to Ananta, “These people are coming from the LASCO Commission, and we need to be ourselves, but could you at least do your best to look a little better that day?” And he said okay.

So the day arrived when the commission members would visit Ananda, and I came over the hill and saw the gardeners, and four or five of the men were lined up in their shorts and big hats and bare chests, and they all had ties on, and they saluted Her Honor, the Mayor.

At any rate, the process of trying to incorporate Ananda was very, very controversial, and I’m sure it gave me a chance to work out a lot of my political karma. I was the main spokesperson for Ananda, and I was in out in front at all of the meetings, with people asking me their antagonistic questions, and we spent a long time fighting the battle.

Ananta today, with Asha and Maria. Click to enlarge.
Ananta today, with Asha and Maria. Click to enlarge.

At each successive meeting, we had to find a larger hall, until the last meeting was held in the biggest auditorium in the county. There must have been five or six hundred people, and everybody was against incorporation except our little band from Ananda.

We came in by twos and threes and acted as if we didn’t know each other, so it would seem that there were more of our supporters spread throughout the hall. But it was a huge scene, with all of this energy of fighting and fighting, and people in the balcony yelling catcalls.

For a year and a half, I had been totally focused on this issue and nothing else, day and night. And we lost magnificently, because everybody on the commission had been on our side except for one individual, but then they all lost their nerve – they couldn’t vote for us in the face of the tremendous opposition. And then we decided that we would appeal, because it looked like religious prejudice, and so on and so forth.

After the final meeting where we were shot down, we talked to the reporters, and it was a great big scene, because it was at about the same time that Rajneesh was trying to take over Antelope, Oregon. So the issues were all mixed up together in the minds of the public and the media, and it was a very big deal. And then the next day, a television crew came out to the Village to talk to us about this great event.

The television crew came up, and there were no telephones at the Village, so we couldn’t communicate easily to where Swami lived. But I came out and met the television crew at the farm, ready to drive over the ridge with them so they could talk to Swamiji. We didn’t have paved roads, so we drove up the winding dirt road, raising clouds of dust, and the whole time I was telling them why appealing the decision was the right thing to do.

When we arrived with the television crew and the camera operator, we walked into Swamiji’s house, and he said, “if you’ll give me five minutes, I have a special announcement to make.”

I had no inkling what it was all about. And then Swami came out and sat down and started reading a prepared statement. And I realized right away that he was using the past tense. I didn’t have the faintest idea why he would talk about the project in the past tense, because I thought we would be going ahead like gangbusters.

He read the statement, and he basically said that although he didn’t necessarily think that the process had been fair, he actually thought that it wasn’t a good idea for us to incorporate as a city, because it would be a question of combining church and state in one place. It would be what our attorney, Nayaswami Naidhruva, would call “bad law,” if we were allowed to create a city based on a single religion.

I thought, “aha, yes, that’s wonderful.” And then I had to take the television crew back, and explain why it was a really good idea for us not to incorporate. I had driven them up telling them why we were doing it, and now I had to drive back down telling them why we weren’t.

As soon as I dropped them off, I drove back to Swamiji’s and said, “Sir, what is going on? I thought we were going to do this.”

He smiled very sweetly and said, “I’m sorry, Asha, but there was no way for me to reach you.” Because there were no phones. He said, “I was meditating this morning, and much to my surprise, when I asked Master what we should do, I really sensed that we shouldn’t go further.”

 Now, of course that was good enough for me, but I said, “How come I didn’t get that message from Master?”

But I knew the answer, and I knew that it was for several reasons. I hadn’t really asked Master. And I hadn’t meditated with complete openness, as Swami always does, saying, “I want only to be your instrument.”

I had gotten completely involved and committed to following a certain direction, and it was an interesting test for me, because now I had to ask myself what I thought I’d been  doing all along. Was I trying to incorporate Ananda as a California city, or was I trying to help us do God’s will?

Over the years I’ve seen that when Swamiji gets a new inspiration or new information, he will always feel completely impartial and able to change his mind. If, for example, you tell him, “But, Sir, consider these facts,” he will always be inwardly free to say, “Oh, if that’s how it is, let’s change it.” But he’ll very seldom mention the inward guidance that he receives from Master as a basis for changing our direction: “I was meditating, and Master said we shouldn’t do this.” Because it’s a complete conversation stopper, and he would rather give people the freedom to develop their own intuition and receptivity.

I knew that I was free to question his decision, and to ask him to explain it. But I wanted to accept it, because I trusted his inner receptivity and his commitment to doing only Master’s will, and I wanted to be able to meditate on what it all meant and understand it for myself.

But I also found it very interesting to watch how I reacted. After a day or so, I said, “Sir, I don’t mind whether we incorporate as a city, but it really irks me that they won.”

I realized that I was attached to winning a victory over our detractors. And I thought, “But is that really what I want?”

We want to be free to put our energy wherever God directs us. If it’s what God wants, we want to be able to receive it humbly and follow as if our very lives depend on it. Which, spiritually speaking, they do.

But we also need to have the inner faith and understanding that whatever we’re doing, it’s only worth doing insofar as God has given it to us. And if He snatches it away through the instrument of someone whose spiritual attunement we trust, it’s very good to be able to calmly step back and look at it from a broader perspective: “What am I really doing?”

There’s a beautiful film about Mother Teresa, where the filmmakers are talking about her work with the poor, and they ask her, “do you think you’re making a difference in the poverty of Calcutta?

In other words, do you think that some social agency might be able to do a better job for the poor than you can, with your little organization and your little efforts as just one person?

Mother Teresa was able to keep her cool regardless of the provocation, and she replied, “I am not helping the poor. I’m doing what Jesus wants me to do.”

It was obvious that her words went completely over the heads of the filmmakers, and they quickly cut to the next scene. But it’s profoundly important for us as disciples to remember these words, because our lives are never really about what we might be doing outwardly.

There’s a scene where Mother Teresa holds a homeless person in her arms, and someone asks her, “how can you do this?” And she says, “because I see Jesus Christ.”

Mother Teresa in 1980, with the Kelly family of Liverpool (UK).
Mother Teresa in 1980, with the Kelly family of Liverpool (UK).

Now, when we find ourselves facing some really big, epically dramatic, supremely difficult test, we’re generally able to say, “I need to see Master’s will in this.” But we need to understand that it’s every bit as important to be able to see God’s presence in the smallest and seemingly least significant moments of our lives.

It’s a very beautiful and spiritually valuable practice to do. Because this is the area where we’re most apt to get mixed up and forget what we’re really doing, isn’t it, in the small moments of our daily lives. This is where we get confused, and where the danger lies. The danger is that we’ll take an infinity of happiness and shrink it down to something small, with all our worrying about so many petty things, and feeling that God couldn’t possibly be interested in them because they’re too small for His attention.

But then we’re just needlessly separating ourselves from God – we’re taking our potential for infinite happiness and squishing it into a little ball and setting it aside, and saying, “This couldn’t possibly concern God – this is just an ordinary little part of my ordinary little life, and I don’t want to bother God about it.”

When we think that way, we’re putting ourselves at very great risk of losing the infinity of happiness that is our divine birthright. We may not always be facing a major test of epic proportions. But we may be losing the many small but very important spiritual battles if we aren’t constantly offering ourselves to God in those humble moments.

The spiritual battle for happiness takes place in the smallest moments of our lives, because God never stops challenging us to offer Him every least aspect of our life. This is why Jesus says, “I don’t come to make you comfortable with what you have. I come with a sword to cut away your delusions so that you can have what I have.” And he’s talking about all the moments of our life, large and small alike.

So let us cling with all our hearts to the image of our absolute freedom.

Swamiji said, “those who are really free can really love, because they have no fear in it.” It’s our clinging that makes us too small to get what we crave above all else – an infinite freedom of self-forgetfulness in the awareness of God’s ever-expanding bliss and love.

(From Asha’s talk during Sunday service at Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto, California on October 13, 2002.)


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