Faith is a Call to Prayer; Prayer is a Call to Faith

Frederic Edwin Church. A Country Home. 1854. Source: Wikimedia; Creative Commons License
Frederic Edwin Church. A Country Home. 1854. Source: Wikimedia; Creative Commons License

One of the most interesting and subtly complicated passages in the Bible holds out a thrilling promise to us:

“Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.” (Matthew 7:7-8)

On the one hand, it’s inviting us to ask God for whatever we need. And, in doing so, it’s telling us that we can have a real relationship with Him as our very own Father.

On the other hand, it has the potential to create tremendous confusion. Because when we look at our lives as spiritual seekers clearly and objectively, we find that much of what we ask for is not given, and much of what we seek, we don’t find.

Someone asked me a very common question recently: “Should I follow this direction, or should I go this other way?” She was facing a dilemma of the heart that was very real to her: “Is this the destined one, or is this the right one for me?” For the person asking the question, it was a deadly serious conundrum; it was no joke.

She asked to talk to me privately on a Friday night before I was scheduled to give a webinar. I agreed, and I called her, thinking that we would have a relaxed hour to chat before the webinar would begin. And I don’t know how it happens, but sometimes your brain just falls out of your ears. At six o’clock Saiganesh knocked on the door and said, “It’s six; we’re supposed to start.” And even though it was my own brain that had imagined we had a whole hour to talk, there was a tendency to be annoyed – “Why are you bothering me?”

The human mind is amazing. I was committed to the idea that I needed to talk to this woman, knowing it was the only time she would be free. So my mind played a game with me, insisting that we had plenty of time for our conversation.

The person I was talking to was a sincere devotee. She said, “I’m praying about this, and I need to know what Master wants.” And although I was very committed to try to help her, it gave me pause, because I thought, “What does Master want? I don’t know what Master wants. I don’t even know how to find out what Master wants.” And then the inspiration came to say to her, very simply, that Master doesn’t care.

From our perspective, every detail of our lives matters so much. It seems so terribly important, and sometimes it’s super-important: “Don’t let my baby die. Give me a few more years with my mother. Help me fulfill this longing to give my love to someone.”

These questions don’t fall within the realm of the trivial, by any means. And the Bible tells us that if we really want these things, and if we ask God for them, they will be given.

We work so hard at our lives, and at our prayers. And when it seems that God isn’t answering, or that He’s deliberately ignoring our prayers, I think what we need to do is just go on believing regardless.

It requires a great deal of subtlety to understand this aspect of our spiritual lives. It requires a subtle understanding of how God works with us, and why He would choose to answer some prayers, and why He would not to answer others.

The mind is very subjective – my mind decided that it was more convenient to assume that it wouldn’t be six o’clock for another hour. And maybe nothing terribly important was at stake. But just imagine how selective our minds can be, in deciding what we want to believe, when there’s a great deal at stake.

I’ve had an interesting experience lately, where I’m reading Swami Kriyananda’s writings, and I’m finding that the words can assume different shades of meaning, depending on my present capacity to receive them.

Over the years, I’ve seen how Swami would offer his advice to people, and how later on, when he talked to them about what he’d said, there would often be stunning differences in what they thought he had told them.

There was a man who came to Swami to ask for his advice about a project that he had a powerful desire to start. Swami told him, “There’s no spiritual benefit to you to do this project. You don’t need to do this project. You’re fine with what you’re doing. You don’t need to do this.”

It was just about the clearest, most direct advice I had heard Swami give anyone. And yet, when the man walked out of the room, he said, “Swami says I can do it!”

Fortunately, instead of opening my mouth and trying to break the hold of whatever delusion had the man in its grip, I had the good sense to remain silent and just think, “Wow!”

When I told Swami about it, he, too, said, “Wow. That’s impressive!”

The problem is that we tend to move with whatever feeling is most strongly present in our hearts. And this is the whole description of delusion. This is Maya.

Maya is a marvelous word. It’s a much better word than “delusion.” Maya suggests a living being; and in fact, in Indian mythology the cosmic power of Maya is personified as a God. Maya is a goddess, because it’s the feminine, feeling side of us that interferes with our ability to reason clearly.

In the consciousness of a master, reason is perfectly balanced with feeling, but Yogananda explained that at the level of ordinary human consciousness the male tends to go more by reason, and the female tends to go more by feeling. It isn’t talking about men versus women as separate categories. Rather, it’s referring to the two sides that we all have in our nature.

In the story of the Garden of Eden, it was Eve who gave Adam the apple and persuaded him to eat it. And it’s symbolically telling us that our emotions can easily overwhelm our reason and persuade us to take the wrong path. It’s warning us that when we allow our emotions to get the upper hand, lots of bad things are bound to happen.

So it isn’t really saying anything about men and women, or claiming that one is better than the other. It’s simply warning us that whenever we let ourselves become powerfully engaged with our emotions, our reason will generally follow. As Swamiji said, reason tends to support whatever feeling is uppermost in the heart.

Whenever there’s a strong desire for something to happen, we tend to line up all of the perfectly logical reasons why it should be so. And it’s only later, when we’re lifting ourselves up out of the rubble and trying to figure out what went wrong, that we realize it was because we let our emotions take control, instead of seeking the calm, impartial guidance of a higher power.

I remember, many years ago, how Swami said to me, “Whenever your ego gets involved, you make terrible mistakes.” But he also gave us the answer for how we can avoid the trap of following our emotions. He said that we can only know the right thing to do when our inner awareness is united with the presence of God within us.

I suspect that we all can remember times when our inner reality was united with the presence of God. And what was the result? Whether it was for only a moment, or during an inspired meditation, or for a lifetime, we felt that we had suddenly come back to center and there was an astonishing, extraordinary feeling of contentment and rightness.

Book cover - Swami Kriyananda, As We Have Known Him
Swami Kriyananda: As We Have Known Him, by Nayaswami Asha. Click the photo to go to the publisher’s page.

In the book that I wrote, Swami Kriyananda – As We Have Known Him, there’s a story of a man who fell and struck his head so hard that his spirit began to leave his body. He didn’t die, but he went into the tunnel of light and found himself in the presence of an angelic being. He said that when he first met Swami Kriyananda, he received a very powerful blessing, and when he seemed to be dying he found himself back in the same place. He said that although he had read descriptions of what it’s like to be in a state of absolute desirelessness where nothing is lacking, nothing that he had ever experienced could match what it was like to be in the presence of that light. He said that it wasn’t so much that he had to put out a big effort to let go of his desires, but that in that powerful vibration of blessedness it was simply impossible for desires to arise. He said that when a desire would start to rise up into his awareness, it would be incinerated in that vibration.

Desire implies that whatever I have isn’t enough, that something is lacking, and that it’s preventing me from being fulfilled. And in that state of perfect fulfillment there was simply nothing that he lacked.

Our entire culture, and our entire economy, is based on a constant welcoming of restless desires. This is Maya, persuading us that whatever we are, and whatever we have, is not enough.

Someone told me about a billboard in Los Angeles that said, “Fall in love with yourself all over again!” It was an ad for plastic surgery – just make over your body, and you’ll be able to fall in love with yourself again. And this is the basic mood of our culture, that what I have is never good enough, and I need something else, and I’m seeking it restlessly outside myself.

Now, the Bhagavad Gita tells us that we cannot reach that inner state of perfect contentment by merely renouncing all outward action. Most of our outward seeking reflects a consciousness of restlessness within us. And the solution isn’t to become passive and inert, but to transform the feelings of the heart. The Gita explains that “doing nothing” is actually doing something, and that every “something” we’re doing is bound to have consequences. And if we’re just deliberately cultivating a state of inertia, it won’t have positive consequences.

We cannot escape the need for action by inaction. When we feel discontented, the answer is not to refuse to put out the energy to pursue our desires and express our restlessness. Passivity isn’t the same as contentment – it’s just laziness.

The real answer is to be intensely active for God, as Swami Kriyananda was. In his case, we saw that there were never any restless desires propelling his intense activity, but that he was always completely centered in himself and inviting the Spirit to act through him.

There was a young man at Ananda who conceived a desire to leave the community and pursue a career in music. He wanted to write and publish his own songs, and he tried to get Swami on his side. “You know what it’s like,” he said. “Sometimes you just have to write a song!” And Swami, who had written many, many songs, said, “No, I have no idea what you’re talking about. I never do anything because I’m compelled by restlessness to do it.” Those aren’t his exact words, but they are close enough. He continued, “I do only what God inspires me to do.”

When we’re trying to understand this very interesting saying of Jesus, “Ask and it shall be given,” we need to realize that true understanding cannot come if we’re only asking for it with our minds, because the first requirement for receiving an answer is that we unite our consciousness with God.

How do I know that I have a right hand? Because it’s how my body is made – I can feel my hand, and I have no need of blind belief to be aware of it. And I don’t have to believe blindly that I’m female, because I’m living in a female body and I’m aware of it.

When someone asked Marin Alsop, the conductor of the Baltimore Symphony, “What does it feel like to be the first woman conductor of a major symphony orchestra?” she replied, “Conducting this orchestra is very thrilling to me, and I’m elated to have this position. As for being a woman, I’ve been one for a long time.”

Rheda Becker, music director of the Baltimore Symphony, with Marin Alsop, conductor. (Image source: Wikimedia; Creative Commons License.)
Rheda Becker (left), music director of the Baltimore Symphony, with Marin Alsop, conductor. (Image source: Wikimedia; Creative Commons License.)

To her way of thinking, there was nothing special about her being a woman. And this is the understanding that we need to arrive at in our spiritual lives – we need to reach a point where we’ve practiced and experienced for so long and so intensely that our beliefs have become our awareness, and a higher awareness has become our reality.

Our awareness defines us at all times. And to return to my ridiculous experience, it was strangely not true for me that it was six o’clock, because I was quite simply unaware. My mind had followed my strong feeling that it shouldn’t be six o’clock, even though it was out of sync with reality.

How many times do we find ourselves out of sync with reality, simply because we aren’t aware? The world is going about its business, and we cannot be aware of it all. Nevertheless, what we’re aware of, or unaware of, will always define the nature of our experience, and the vibration in which we are living.

This is only slightly related, but it’s an important point that I want to get across. Swamiji tried in as many ways as possible to persuade us to live in accordance with what the Spirit wants for us, which is to learn how to live always in divine joy. I remember him talking many times about how negative, judgmental attitudes are so harmful. And then I remember having to arbitrate a dispute between two women friends who had some very difficult karma between them. I remember a day when woman number one was working in the kitchen, when woman number two walked in and said something that, to her mind, was completely innocent, like, “Good morning.” And woman number one went ballistic – she became extremely upset about what she thought this woman was projecting onto her.

When I became involved, I was able to sort out what had happened, and as far as I could tell, the script was fairly innocent. But when this woman walked in, she was immediately flooded with a torrent of powerful judgmental thoughts about the other woman, and even though her words were innocent enough – “Good morning” – the other woman responded to the underlying vibration. Woman number two thought she could get away with her negativity, but she couldn’t. And it was a very clear demonstration of the power of our thoughts.

One of our members showed us how to make a dowsing rod out of a coat hanger, and it was amazing how well it worked. Plumbers have long used dowsing rods to locate pipes buried underground. And who knows how it works, but when we project negative thoughts toward others, they will feel them, and no coat hangers are required.

Swamiji said that a vibration is always strongest at its source. If you’re projecting negative thoughts, the other person may receive some part of their power, but they will always be strongest in your own heart. And nobody will receive the same negativity that you will, because the source is in you, and its power will affect you most strongly.

The law of karma works in most impressive ways, and this is the thought that I wanted to put out to you. I’ve observed that you always get back exactly what you’ve given. And every little bit of negativity that you’ve ever put out is just waiting in the wings until the right moment when it can come out and kick you in the head, as it inevitably will. And whenever you’re feeling a little bit off balance, it’s because of the inner world you’ve created for yourself. And what kind of world do you want to live in?

Swami Kriyananda told us a most touching story. He was meditating in the Porziuncola, the little chapel in Assisi that St. Francis built with his own hands. That tiny chapel is now enclosed in a massive basilica that they built over it, and you have to walk across what seems like several acres of marble floor to reach this primitive little chapel.

Swamiji was meditating there when he began to be intensely aware of St. Francis’ sweetness. He prayed, “How is it possible to be so sweet? How can anyone be so sweet?” And the answer that came to him was, “By never judging.” Which is to say, by never allowing yourself to be the instrument for anything but the God who is looking out through you at the God in others.

The Porziuncola, in the Papal Basilica of Saint Mary of the Angels, Assisi. (Image source: Wikimedia; Creative Commons License)

That is the realization that gives real power to our prayers: when we’re able to stand outside our restless desires – “Oh God, please make it all right!” – and never judge. Never judging our experiences, seemingly good or bad, but always standing in God’s presence. And then, whatever we ask will come to us, and it won’t even occur to us to ask for anything but more of the Divine. Because, when we have that state, what else could we possibly want?

There’s the story of how, when Master had his school in India, he would take a group of boys safely across a dangerous waterfall, all the while exhorting them to chant loudly to God. Master was able to do it because he had that consciousness and that power. And then some poor teacher who wasn’t able to channel the same power tried to take the boys across, and one of them fell and was killed. It’s a heartrending story of how the teacher had to learn the difference between superficial belief and a kind of faith that is based on actual experience.

What we need to pray for is the awareness of God, because that is the prayer that God will always hear and answer. You see, this is who we already are. And we only need to let go of our restless need to imagine that something else is ours. As St. Augustine said, “Lord, Thou has made us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee.”

God bless you.

(From Asha’s talk during Sunday service at Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto, California on November 8, 2015.)

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