God’s Relentless Pursuit of His Devotee

Film clip from a modern rendition of “The Hound of Heaven” by Francis Thompson (Creative Commons License)
Film clip from a modern rendition of “The Hound of Heaven” a poem by Francis Thompson (Creative Commons License)

In our class series on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, we’ve come to a point where we’re starting to review the instructions for entering samadhi, or cosmic consciousness. And while it isn’t a subject on which I feel qualified to speak from personal experience, I do feel it’s a very interesting topic nevertheless.

I’m particularly awe-inspired when I reflect on how much of our spiritual progress happens on levels of which we may be presently only dimly aware.

For example, I remember Swami Kriyananda saying, “Just as you’re about to make the transition out of ego-identification and into the Infinite, there’s a moment of absolute loneliness.”

I believe Swamiji was speaking from his own experience. But I think the point he wanted to make is that samadhi comes without any mitigating human warmth, and with a feeling that you’re entirely alone in the universe.

It isn’t as if God singles out your little personality for liberation – the part of you that’s identified with your own little ego and isolated from the rest of humanity. “Here, Asha, you’ve been a good girl, it’s time to usher you into the Infinite.” Rather, that’s the part of you that will be completely vaporized in that moment.

When your ego dissolves in Infinity, you realize that there has only ever been that one reality, and that there was never any perfection of warmth or satisfaction or comfort in all your lives as an ego-identified human being, and that you were never able to satisfy your longing for that comfort by trying to seek it outside yourself.

This morning, I listened to the choir rehearse the song that we’ll shortly hear them sing, “You Remain Our Friend”:

Long we feared to face Your love,
Lest our emptiness it prove.
Now at last our hearts we give You,
Who remain our Friend.

I’ve contemplated those words endlessly, yet I’m unable to say that I can imagine what it would be like to face that emptiness.

It’s a great mystery – why are we afraid to face divine love – and why does it “prove our emptiness”?

Swamiji didn’t say this, but I imagine it’s because we’re afraid that in that moment of intense loneliness our worst fears will be realized. For countless incarnations we’ve feared that no one will ever really be able to understand us, and that no one could ever comfort us in a way that would satisfy the little ego: “Oh, yes, you were mistreated! Poor you! You were the victim!”

In that moment, you’ll face the realization that no one is ever going to be able to make everything right for you, and that no one will ever be able to support you in a warmly human way that will satisfy the craving for that kind of love.

You realize that you are completely alone. But then, Swami said, a moment later you realize that in that solitude there is perfect bliss. And once that bliss comes, all your desires for anything else melt away – all the desire for human love, for understanding, vindication, and self-justification. Because with the death of those lesser desires comes the absolute fulfillment of bliss.

Why do we long to be loved by others? Because we think it will bring us happiness. And why do we want this or that thing? Because we think it will make us happy. And when we find the perfect fulfillment of love in God, all of the tormenting feelings of lack simply fade away, because we realize that this is what we’ve always been seeking.

Patanjali says that even after we achieve our liberation, the memory of our human ways of feeling and thinking still clings to us.

Swamiji said that even though we are free, we may still have lots of karma to work out. We’ve achieved the state of a jivanmukta – one who is “free while living.” But before we can attain the final state of a siddha, one who is free from all his karma, we must go back over every one of our incarnations, and see through the delusions of that incarnation and burn them up in the fire of divine bliss. We must cauterize those memories with the awareness that, in every circumstance, it was always the Divine that was playing through us.

On one hand, it’s chilling to contemplate that moment of complete loneliness, and the long labor of clearing up our karma. But, as Swami said, at that point you no longer care, because you are free. And in any case, what choice do we have? And this is true at every step of the way: what choice do we really have?

People would often ask Swamiji to tell them the secrets of success on the spiritual path, and at various times he would give different answers. But I particularly remember a statement he made: “The spiritual path is a matter of life or death.”

It was absolutely not that he went around with a long face, contemplating the seriousness of it all. Swami was a very enthusiastic person – he was not withheld from this world! In fact, he participated with an astonishing degree of enthusiasm. But in the last weeks before he died, he wrote to the Ananda members and said, “The hallmark of my character has always been enthusiasm.” “But,” he said, “I find that I don’t have that anymore.”

Swami Kriyananda, Temple of Trees, 1974 or 1976.
Swami Kriyananda, Temple of Trees, 1974 or 1976.

Some of us were mildly alarmed by that statement, because it seemed so uncharacteristic of him. But it turned out to be his final message to us. He was saying, “I can’t move in this world as I used to.” Because he was too far removed from it inwardly. He knew that he would be going, and he was subtly telling us: “I’ll be leaving soon, and I’m letting it all go.”

Bhaduri Mahasaya was a saint that Yogananda often visited as a boy. An unusual characteristic of his life was that he spent almost all his time in an upstairs room of his house, where the disciples would come and visit him.

On festival days, of which there are many in India, he would sometimes come downstairs and stand on the sidewalk, and then he would go back to his room.

Badhuri Mahasaya

He didn’t undertake to live that way as a strange spiritual discipline. It was simply that there was nothing in this world that held any interest for him. Everything that he needed, he had found in himself. He had crossed over the line between this world and the world in which the masters live – “the land beyond my dreams,” as Yogananda calls it in his wonderful chant, “where no clouds come, and golden dreams dwell – I sit by life’s well, in the land, beyond my dreams.” And if we can once experience that untainted divine love, we find that it satisfies every longing of the heart and cancels every fear. But it’s a very difficult consciousness to attain, because we must give ourselves completely.

The great art of the spiritual path is to stand exactly where we are, and to have the courage to keep going forward, steadily expanding our awareness as we learn from our own life’s experiences. We must be absolutely authentic about how we’re feeling, and who we are, and at the same time we must always be sufficiently receptive and humble to want to know more.

The masters bring us the consciousness of divine love, and they tell us, over and over, who we are, and where we’re going, and how we can get there. And then they promise, as Jesus said, that in that realization we will find everything that we’ve been seeking.

“Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness,” Jesus said, “and all these things shall be added unto you.” And he didn’t bother to enumerate the gifts. Because we all have our own long lists of unfulfilled desires: a family, a nice home, friendships, the respect of our peers, satisfying work, and sufficient income.

Swamiji once asked Paramhansa Yogananda, “Does it always take such a long time to realize God?” Yogananda replied, “Oh, yes. Desires for this or that thing take them away again and again.” And Swamiji said that Master paused for a moment to let those present fill in the silence with the desires that were keeping them from wanting only God.

Our desires can never take us permanently away from the path. Because, as Master once said to a disciple who asked him if he would ever leave the path, “How could you? Everyone in the world is on the spiritual path.”

Every living being is being pulled by the soul’s longing for the light. And none of us will ever be able to still that divinely implanted longing until we can merge fully in the light. And whether it takes a long time really doesn’t matter, because all time is short compared to eternity, and in the end we find that it makes no difference. But we will never be able to stop seeking, so long as our realization is less than perfect, because the longing of our soul will keep prompting us keep trying again and again.

And this is the power that causes us to incarnate, over and over. Because, as Paramhansa Yogananda said, “The problem with this world is that it almost works.”

If it didn’t work, we would leave it behind in a heartbeat. But because it almost works, we’re tempted to think that if we tinker with it just a little bit more, we’ll be able to make it work. And meanwhile, our soul is whispering, “Is this really who I am? Is this really enough?”

In The New Path, Swami tells how, as a teenager in Scarsdale, New York, he felt like a complete outsider, and how he decided that he would conduct “the great experiment” – he would embrace the values that everyone else seemed to be following, and find out for himself how it would turn out.

His younger brother Bob was very popular – he was very social and the polar opposite of Swamiji, who was much more quiet and reserved. But through the agency of his brother, Swami was able to join the popular crowd, and he describes in The New Path how he danced and sang and partied with the best of them. He played the game of popularity, and in the end he describes how he watched a friend dancing about, pretending to play a musical instrument and being extremely silly, and he said to himself, “Why am I doing this? What is there in this for me?” And at that point the great experiment ended, and he returned to his own reality and who he was.

This is the process that we must follow until we realize that this world will never work for us, and give us what we want. We must make the grand experiment, until we finally begin to question: “What is the nature of truth? Why am I here? Where does my true fulfillment come from?” And it wasn’t long after the great experiment ended that Swami met Master. But from that time, he followed his own path.

And it isn’t easy. Even after we realize that this world is always just trying to trick us, it isn’t easy to turn away from the desires that have become deeply engrained in us.

I remember how, during an unusually deep meditation, I became profoundly aware of how much God loved me, and how little of that love I was able to accept. And it wasn’t that I didn’t want to receive God’s love, because of course we want love. But the masters tell us that God can only give us as much of His love as we are able to give Him. And to be able to offer God the utmost degree of love requires that we bring ourselves into perfect alignment with the ray of His love.

And that’s the difficulty. Because if we’re satisfied with a lower, ego-pleasing kind of love – “Oh, you’re so beautiful, you’re so good, you’re so kind, I love you because you’re so wonderful, you’re really an exceptional person” – God will wait until we are able to develop a level of love that is willing to offer itself totally, because we understand the inner rewards of that love.

Countless popular songs proclaim, “I love you, you love me. I love you because you love me.” And it’s all basically saying that I’m feeling a certain kind of love because you please me, and if you no longer please me, I won’t love you anymore.

In my book, Ask Asha: Answers to Everyday Dilemmas on the Spiritual Path, I tell how a man asked me a very interesting question: “If a woman very badly wants to be married to a man, and if they marry in this lifetime, and she wants to be married to him in her next life, but he doesn’t want to be married to her, can her desire force him to marry her again?”

It was a purely theoretical question, because he just wanted to know if someone else’s desires can shift our karma.

Maybe the woman has a narrow definition of what it means to have love, and it’s all wrapped up in one man. And when they meet in their next life, maybe he’ll be finished with her, and her desire will be thwarted. But there’s no reason why he should have to help her work out her karma. And maybe she’ll begin to understand the fickleness of a love that comes from outside herself.

The Bhagavad Gita points out the deficiencies of that kind of desire – of trying to find our fulfillment in external things. It says that thwarted desire leads to anger, and anger leads to hate. And so the great yearning for romantic love turns to anger, and anger turns to hate.

I had a hard time understanding something that Swami said about human love: that love and hate are closer than we think. Because if our love is mixed with desire, and our desire is thwarted, it will lead to anger, and then we’ll begin to hate that which made us angry.

But then, after many failed attempts to make the external world conform to our desires, we begin to catch on to the game, and seek a deeper fulfillment.

I’m working on a book about Swamiji, and while reviewing the notes that I’d jotted down over the years, I came across a fragment of an idea that I had never truly contemplated very deeply. It was about dealing with the troubles and turmoil of this life, and that the answer is to be always even-minded and cheerful, as Paramhansa Yogananda said, and not to allow ourselves to get thrown about by the waves.

But, for me, even-mindedness frankly isn’t a very attractive quality. When we think of even-mindedness, we imagine it means being severely disciplined, where our energy is trying to go one way, but we aren’t going to let it, and we’re going to keep it tightly under our control. “I’m tempted to feel this way, but I’m not going to do it. I’m tempted to be elated, or to feel depressed, and I’m going to resist.”

But Swami said, “Even-mindedness is the point of bliss between the alternating waves of pleasure and pain.”

It’s an interesting thought – that you’re able to stand so immovably at a point of oneness that nothing can move you off that point, even as your circumstances shift, and everything is either exactly the way you want it to be, or exactly the opposite.

I had an interesting conversation with two women, one of whom was struggling, as an adult with the impossibility of her mother, while the other woman was struggling with the impossibility of her adult child.

Swami Kriyananda — always even-minded and cheerful.
Swami Kriyananda — always even-minded and cheerful.

It reminded me how we’re always trying to bring God down to our level. “God gave me this, He gave me that, He gave me this present, He brought me this wonderful person, He brought me this job.” And we’re much less willing to consider that God might be giving us the hard struggles in our lives.

It’s not that He doesn’t give us the gifts that please us. In fact, it’s very sweet and spiritually meaningful to practice remembering that it’s all coming from God. But it isn’t the final measure of His love, by any stretch. The measure of His love is when He purges everything from you that is keeping you from receiving the much greater Everything that He wants to give you. And the start of the process is a terrifying aloneness, where you realize that everything you’ve been clinging to will prove to be not nearly enough in the end. And it’s not that these things are necessarily evil in themselves, but that they will never be enough, because we were created for something else.

This is the reality in which the consciousness of the avataras is anchored. It’s the reason Badhuri Mahasaya didn’t need to leave his room, because there was nothing outside that wasn’t already inside him.

The masters have great compassion for us when we suffer, but they are waiting for us to wake up and begin to live rightly. And they wait lovingly, sympathetically, compassionately, but unrelentingly.

Master loved a beautiful poem called “The Hound of Heaven.” It’s about a soul who is looking back over his life and reflecting on all of the many ways he fled from the Lord – from those divine footsteps that pursued him everywhere:

I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
   I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
   Of my own mind; and in the midst of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
             Up vistaed hopes I sped;
             And shot, precipitated,
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmed fears,
   From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.

But in the end the author realizes that it was he who had feared to turn and face that love, lest his emptiness it prove:

Halts by me that footfall:
   Is my gloom, after all,
Shade of His hand, outstretched caressingly?
   “Ah, fondest, blindest, weakest,
   I am He Whom thou seekest!
Thou dravest love from thee, who dravest Me.”

In the introduction to “Christ Lives,” the oratorio that includes the song I quoted earlier, “You Remain Our Friend,” Swami writes:

“Why do we flee Him, or seek to hurt Him,
Whose hand is outstretched in kindness?
Is not the answer obvious?
It is the emptiness in our hearts!
We flee because he asks of us the greatest gift:
He asks our love.”

            Let us take these words to heart, and sing to God and the masters:

Long we feared to face Your love,
Lest our emptiness it prove.
Now at last our hearts we give You,
Who remain our Friend.

 (From Asha’s talk during Sunday service at Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto, California on February 1, 2015.)

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