A good friend of mine had an extremely difficult childhood. Her mother had a serious drinking problem, her father was out of the picture, and she had no siblings. So she was all alone, living with an unstable parent, in an environment where she never knew the security of a stable and predictable life. There were no fixed realities, only a chaos that was terribly upsetting, and that she wouldn’t be able to comprehend for many years.
By the grace of God, she eventually found her way to the spiritual path and to Ananda, and we became friends.
I remember a conversation we had, where she asked me to help her with an unusual circumstance that had come up in her life. I knew that, given the circumstances, it was a completely unrealistic request. She was wanting something to happen that simply couldn’t, and I tried, as honestly and straightforwardly as I could, to explain that as much as I would like to help her, I couldn’t, because what she was asking simply wasn’t in the cards.
So she rephrased the question. And when I again told her that it couldn’t be done, she rephrased the question. And then she began telling me how important it was to her.
She came back to the issue over and over, from different angles, and with growing impatience, I assured her that if I could do it, I would, but it was completely out of the question.
I said, “Why do you keep asking?” And she seemed to snap out of the cycle of insistent pleading. She apologized and explained that she had been projecting the image of her mother onto me, and that as a child she had had to beg, again and again, for whatever she needed, because she could never know when her life would be turned upside down, and her mother would be completely inaccessible.
There had been no fixed reality in her life. And it gave me a powerful and very poignant insight, because it showed me the extent to which our way of dealing with the world can be shaped in seemingly arbitrary and random ways.
God has implanted in us an insatiable drive to seek happiness at any cost – to seek connections with other people, and to satisfy the desires and ambitions that spring up in our hearts, seemingly out of nowhere, with a promise that they will fulfill our longing for happiness.
Some of those desires are wholesome, and some are not, but we are compelled to purse them regardless. Because in one way or another, we are all trying to find our way through the maze of this life, and in each of our lives the process starts in childhood, as we find ourselves having to deal with our families.
Recently we were talking with friends, and we were contemplating what stinkers some of us were as children, in terms of not being very kind to our parents. One of my friends, who’s about as egoless a person as I’ve known, told us how her sisters would often be unkind to their mother, and how she was always trying to persuade them to be nicer, because she had been born free enough of her own ego that she could feel her mother as an equal person. And it was a very rare and wonderful consciousness for a child to have.
Swami liked to tell the story of a little girl who asked her mother, “Mommy, what do you think about all day?”
Her mother said, “I think about you. I think about your brother. I think about your father, and your grandparents, and other people.”
“Oh,” the little girl said brightly. “I think about me!”
And that sums up the spiritual journey, doesn’t it?
“I think about me.” Because we’re all living at a particular point on the spectrum of ego attachment, and some of are still spending lots of time thinking about me, and some of us have begun to look at our self-definitions, and understand how they’re limiting our happiness, and we’ve begun to try to expand them.
When we come onto the spiritual path, we find that we need to look at the individuality that we’ve been living in for a very long time, and we need to figure out how to bring it in line with the only thing that really matters, which is the Infinite, in its various expressions as God, Guru, Divine Mother, and the saints.
And it’s very unfortunate that we can only bring to the relationship whatever we’ve learned so far, whether it’s helpful or unhelpful – just as my friend forgot the difference between me and her alcoholic mother.
When we come before the One who has everything we’ve always been longing for, we bring with us all of the complexes and complexities that have been woven into us by our experiences of countless lives.
We’ve gone through so many incarnations, both painful and pleasant, and it’s a staggering journey that I can’t begin to comprehend. But there are a certain number of experiences from my past lives that have broken through to my consciousness in this life. And the only way I can think to describe them is to say that they are frightening.
They’re frightening because they prevent me from having a clear idea of where I’m standing, and they prevent me from understanding my own thoughts and feelings – why I like this person, why I don’t like that one, and why I respond in a negative way toward this person, but in a positive way toward that one.
Why do I find it so difficult to deal with people who approach me in a certain way? Why do I love someone, and find another person impossible to deal with? Where are these seemingly automatic reactions coming from?
Years ago, I read a book about a woman who had had serious schizophrenia that started in her childhood. It wasn’t until she was in her forties that she was able to get the drugs that would enable her to function normally, and she was amazed to find that it was how other people lived. She had struggled with these internal forces for so long, and because they had always been part of her, she didn’t know that they were unusual.
Nonetheless, she was an admirable person who had accomplished a great deal in her life, and I found her story fascinating. But when I offered the book to a friend, she said, “I couldn’t even read that book!” And it surprised me that the book was so interesting to me, but it didn’t hold the slightest interest for her. And I remember how she gazed at me, as if to say, “You must be crazy to like that book!”
In our spiritual efforts, we’re supposed to be completely relaxed and open with God. We’re supposed to come before Him exactly as we are – unprotected, without fear, and with absolute confidence that we can trust that whatever He gives us will be exactly right.
And it isn’t easy. You wonder why we have trouble talking to God with that kind of honesty and openness. My goodness, Jesus tries so hard to tell us how to do it, and Master tries so hard, especially in his Whispers From Eternity, where he’s telling us, over and over, how to talk with God.
Whispers is really a book on how to pray. You can get engaged in the book for the pure poetry and creativity of its images, and you can forget that it’s a guide for your whole life.
Swamiji edited it some years ago, and he talked about how Master’s sheer exuberance had caused him to pour out these wonderful images in a torrent of inspiration. And Swami, who came from the Western rational tradition, would smile at how Master would start off talking about a rosebud, and then he would be gushing forth images of diving in the ocean, and flying past the planets, all in the same poem.
Swami said that he was delighted with the sheer freedom that Master had in his heart to write that way. But when you look at Whispers on a different level, he’s giving you a great deal of practical advice, telling you what to do when people criticize you, and how to deal with betrayal, and what needs to happen when you’ve lost everything, and how to deal with overwhelming sadness. And in every case he’s turning your attention to God and Divine Mother as your only solution. And it’s not as if we can ever solve our problems by insisting on doing it our own way, because we really have no other choice but to insist on cultivating our relationship with God.
That’s the force that we’re putting forth when we begin to walk the path in earnest – we’re saying, “I belong to You alone!”
Many times, people have expressed to me a feeling that on the spiritual path certain standards have to be met, and that our relationship with God has to be a give-and-take, vaishya kind of exchange.
The vaishya consciousness is the second level of psychological development, according to the ancient Indian caste system. It’s a fair and honest way of living, and of understanding life, but it’s entirely based on a merchant kind of consciousness, where you’re wanting to be in a relationship with the other person, but it has to be with the expectation that you’ll give equal value for value received.
I used to like to visit a clothing store in Palo Alto called Leaf and Petal, where, oh man, the things on display are so beautiful and soooo expensive! I allow myself to go there once in awhile. But I couldn’t just walk up to the clerk and say, “This dress is beautiful. It looks just right on me. I want it.” Because she’ll say, “May I have your credit card?” And maybe I’ll tell her, “No, you don’t understand – I want it. I don’t want to pay for it. I just want the dress. So I’m going to take it, okay?”
And the clerk will be on the phone to the police because of this unstable person who’s in the shop. She isn’t going to let me take the dress, because I have to offer her something in return. And that’s how the merchant consciousness works.
It’s an entire way of understanding life, where everything has a price, and everything has to be negotiated, and you have to dicker and work out a fair exchange.
I won’t let the shop clerk double the price on me, but I do have to pay her. And this is how we grow up in our culture, which has become extremely vaishya in its orientation – where we’re always thinking about the value of things in terms of money, and we’re constantly on our guard so we won’t be short-changed. The consciousness in this country nowadays is all about measuring value in terms of money, money, money.
And as we start moving toward God, there’s a part of us that can’t help but think of the relationship as an equal exchange. If I haven’t done enough Kriyas, and if I don’t get up early and meditate, and if I don’t promise that I’ll do this or that service or sacrifice or ritual, and really do it, God can’t possibly love me, and He’ll turn away.
And the other side of the bargaining consciousness is that I want God’s love, but I’m also obsessed with all of the many other things I want, and I’m not actually doing any of the things that are necessary for me to be worthy of having a real relationship with God. As Jesus said, “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.” (Mathew 7:21)
We get so tangled up in our minds, because so much of our consciousness is afraid and vulnerable and unprotected.
Swamiji said, “When I was with master, I was just twenty-two years old.” Master was gone before Swamiji was twenty-five, so it was just three and a half years that he spent with him. Which, if you think about it, is roughly the same time the disciples were able to spend with Jesus. But it was long enough.
And then Swamiji said, “I just didn’t know. I just didn’t understand.”
He didn’t use those words exactly, but he was lamenting how free he might have been, if he had known, and understood, and been able to give himself more completely.
And God played with him, because it was six years later, in 1958, that he went to India, and he went to see Anandamoy Ma. And Swamiji and Anandamoy Ma had a wonderful, deep connection. In fact, Ma remarked to her disciples that the people who came to see her were like frogs sitting next to the water lily, but Kriyananda had come like the bee and taken the honey.
She singled him out for who he was. And Swamiji said that he was able to be with her in a way that he hadn’t been able to be with Master, because he had been too much in awe of his guru, but she was like his mother in the fullest and most complete sense of the word.
If we could feel close with God in exactly the same way you would feel as a little child snuggling up close to its mother – that’s what the true relationship with the Divine Mother is like, once you’ve learned to relate to Her in the right way, and be completely open and unprotected in Her presence.
Part of us wants to feel that closeness to the Mother: so trusting, just like a little child. And Swamiji talked about Anandamoy Ma that way – that he was her child, and there were no barriers.
Imagine that relationship – it’s unbearably sweet to imagine that utter simplicity, where there are no barriers of fear or shame or doubt.
I lived with Swamiji in that way to the farthest extent I was able, and it was a very close and trusting relationship. But when I look back, I can only wonder – why did I try to protect myself? What did I have that I thought was worth protecting? I did my best, but I have to ask myself, what am I still protecting, and why?
We have so many false ideas about the relationship with God. We imagine that if we keep wheedling Him and asking and asking, He’ll notice us and we’ll suddenly be close to Him in that intimate, all-encompassing way. But so few of us really understand the deep simplicity and completeness of that relationship, and the need to give ourselves in that open, trusting spirit.
The scriptures tell us, over and over, that only God will ever understand us, and that He alone knows what’s in our hearts. And why are we so concerned about protecting ourselves? And from what?
Why are we so convinced that if He isn’t giving me this or that, it means that the path isn’t working for me? And then if He decides to give me this or that, I might not be able to accept it, because it’s much too scary, and I’m not willing to let go, and I can’t yet trust Him to that extent.
What do we have that’s worth protecting? Nobody can answer that question for you. And I don’t find it’s a question I can easily answer for myself. What am I protecting? I’m protecting my picture of how my life needs to be, and I’m protecting what I think I’ve learned so far.
I remember when Sheila Rush, who’s now Nayaswami Naidhruva, lived here and we were working on the SRF litigation together. She was one of our lawyers, and I saw her every day. We would have lunch together, and she had a set of big pottery dishes that were heavy and earthy and spacious, and she would fix us a simple lunch of vegetables and rice in these big heavy plates and bowls. And we both knew that we would eat everything she prepared, and we would eat it in exactly the same way every time, in two servings. And one day we were sitting at the table laughing about it, and I don’t know what happened, but we suddenly got very small until we were about eight years old.
I had a mental picture of our having been orphans together, and how we never got a second helping. And it makes me wonder, how can we ever let ourselves feel completely unprotected before God, if we’re carrying these images of lack, and desperately wondering where our solution is?
No one can promise you that you’ll never be orphaned, because it may be your karma. And the only freedom is in the Heavenly Father. As Jesus said, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.”
But, oh my, just imagine what those words mean – that your Father knows your heart, and He knows what you need, right down to the tiniest details. And our prayer should always be that He will help us understand the truth of those words.
This is the great adventure of the spiritual life. And the last part, I think, was reflected in how Swamiji worked very, very hard.
I would always feel great joy in his company – he could be very joyful and funny, and it was always such fun to be with him, because there was always that sort of bubbling joy in his presence. But at the same time, he was extremely earnest and constant in his efforts – just tiresomely so, for someone like me, who would want a little break every now and then.
I remember how he talked to me once in a very fatherly way, and how he referred to the fact that he would sometimes see in my eyes a look of almost desperate fatigue. It was during the ten years when I was working with him nearly every day. And I could only say, “Yes, Sir, that’s what it was – it was desperate fatigue.”
I was just so tired of his earnestness, and I was just trying to keep up. So there would always be this great joy, but there was also this powerful determination, all the time, to the very end of his life.
And then at the end he just let it all go. He would say, “Many times I feel so much bliss, I don’t know what to do with myself.” And then he would talk to us about bliss. He hadn’t really talked very much about bliss in the earlier years, but he was laying it out for us now – that God’s great bliss is where we’re headed, and His bliss is what we’ll have, but first we will have to put away a lot of the things that we’ve been holding onto.
So the earnestness is there, because it has to be. And our joy is in the fact that we are on the path, and that we are working hard for God, and we will succeed, and that God will never give up on us until He has brought us home.
God bless you.
(From Asha’s talk during Sunday service at Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto, California on October 30, 2016.)