In the Bhagavad Gita, Sri Krishna tells his beloved disciple Arjuna: “To you, Arjuna, who have overcome the carping spirit, I reveal these deeper truths.”
The teachings of the Gita are very often subtle, and not easy to understand at a glance. Swami Kriyananda remarked that many Gita commentators have simply glossed over the more obscure passages, hoping their readers wouldn’t notice. But Paramhansa Yogananda revealed the Gita’s message in its crystal-clear relevance for our daily lives.
What does it mean to “overcome the carping spirit”? Krishna is warning us that we need to decide, at each moment of our lives, whether we will make the effort to expand our consciousness and keeping moving toward greater freedom, or if we will allow ourselves to fall back into the old ego-born attitudes that have kept us separate from God. At first glance, contractive attitudes seem to offer an promise of comfort and ease, even though they invariably let us down in the end.
In his Gita commentaries, Yogananda makes a statement that has always struck me as particularly horrifying. He says that, just as our capacity for bliss is infinite, so also is our capacity for suffering.
It’s not that we can ever become permanently mired in ignorance, because everything created is part of God’s divine light and must eventually return to Him. But we can fall a very long way.
In Conversations with Yogananda, Master says that once we reach the human level, we usually remain here. But if we behave very badly, we may fall back to the animal level, although it’s generally just for one lifetime. And what makes it particularly agonizing is that some part of us remembers that we have been much more.
In an animal’s body, the possibilities for awareness and expression are severely limited compared to the human. I recently came across an article about service dogs, and the amazing ways they can train them to sense when their masters are having an epileptic fit, and to go and get help.
The article talked about the tremendous difference that owning a dog can make in the lives of veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome, and for children with autism. And it struck me that it must be a tremendous relief for the dog to be able to do something so useful and meaningful. Otherwise, the dog would spend its days sleeping, or begging to be taken for a walk. And you would think that it would be delighted to play a more useful part in our lives.
If someone behaves very badly and must be reborn as an animal, they may be a highly intelligent dog, but they won’t even be able to pick up anything except with their teeth, and it will be extremely frustrating and humiliating.
Master said that if you are very evil, and if you persist in evil, you can be thrown back as far as the germ. And he added that, even as a germ, you’ll have a vague idea that you used to be so much more.
Even in this human life, we sometimes feel that we’ve been more. Over the years, I’ve watched lots of people grow into their own strength at Ananda. And sometimes when a person comes into their strength after resolving whatever issues were holding them back, you see how much hidden potential they had, and you realize why they were frustrated.
Does that make sense? I’ve been reviewing my notes of my life with Swami Kriyananda, and I recently came across a note about a meeting of the publications staff many years ago. There were some colorful characters on the staff – it was a fascinating group of eccentric, very intense and original creative people, and our meetings tended to be lively.
About ten of us were gathered around the table with Swamiji, planning a forthcoming meeting with a New York publisher. It was a very big deal for us, and everybody was talking at once. We all had strong views, and at one point, somebody made a suggestion, and I had an afterthought that I thought was pretty good. I tried to get people’s attention, but nobody was paying the slightest attention to me, and I responded in a manner that was appropriate in the setting, because we were all good friends. I shouted into the room, “Listen to me! Listen to me! Listen to me!” And everyone laughed, because they knew I was joking. But I happened to be sitting next to Swamiji, and I noticed that he wasn’t laughing. In fact, he turned to me with absolute seriousness and said, “Asha, we always listen to you.”
Even in the moment, I knew that something important and interesting was happening. I didn’t think the others noticed that it was anything special, because the conversation continued. And, in any case, my idea turned out to be lousy. But while I was reviewing my notes, the reality of the moment came back to me very strongly.
Isn’t that what we’re always trying to do? We’re trying to be heard, to be seen, to be respected, and to be acknowledged. And even though I was being playful, Swamiji knew that on some level I wasn’t joking. And because I was being lighthearted and jocular, he wanted to make a special effort to get a serious message into my heart.
We are living in a reality in which we are always struggling to know what’s happening to us, and what we should do about it. And it all boils down in the end to a simple choice of whether we’ll choose to go toward the light, or if we’ll turn back to where we’ve come from.
Krishna has covered a tremendous amount of philosophical ground, at the point in the Gita when he says to his disciple Arjuna, “Because you have overcome the carping spirit, now I can talk to you about these things.”
What Krishna is about to reveal is the secret of how we can keep moving ever closer to the light. And the fulcrum that determines whether we’ll be able to hear the message is that the higher truths are reserved for those who have overcome the carping spirit.
Now, there are all kinds of interpretations for what it means to overcome the carping spirit. And we want to latch onto the most useful and practical meaning that will be most useful to us in our daily lives. And Swami tells us that it’s about the difference between the intellect and intuition.
What is the faculty that enables us to know what is true? We can go for a very long time relying on the intellect – reading books and studying and learning and gathering information with the rational mind. And it’s fascinating to see how the scientists, whose lives are dedicated to gathering data in spirit of rational objectivity, will sometimes find themselves bumping up against facts that baffle the intellect.
In physics, they have a name for those moments when they can’t explain their findings by reason alone. They came up with the term when they were trying to understand the strange behavior of subatomic particles, which isn’t rational at all – for example, the ability of a particle to occupy two positions at once. They call it “quantum weirdness.” They can’t explain it rationally, but they can’t deny that it’s happening, so they’re forced to accept it and call it “weird.”
Now, the rational mind can get lost in its ruminations for a very long time. And it’s amazing how much useful data the intellect can reveal to us. But in the end, reason and logic are like reading a cookbook but not bothering to cook a meal.
We get to a point where we can understand a great deal with the mind. And it’s a good start, but it doesn’t motivate us to change. And when we finally begin to feel a deep desire to shift our consciousness, we find that that desire isn’t coming from the intellect, but from the feelings of the heart.
Years ago, Swamiji gave a talk about these truths at a prestigious university. Later, he commented that it was one of the more interesting talks he’d given, because these very intelligent people had asked him penetrating questions, many of which he’d never been asked before. He was able to answer them, because his intellect could match anyone’s, and because Master’s teachings hold the answers to any question. But he remarked that while it was extremely interesting on that rational level, he could see that when it was all said and done, none of their lives would be changed.
He realized that they would go home and think about it and come up with new arguments and continue the discussion with their rational minds, because their hearts weren’t hungry. Their minds were stimulated, but that’s a very preliminary stage on the spiritual path. It’s better than being a germ, and it’s higher up the scale of spiritual evolution than being a dog. But there’s a point where the heart demands answers, even if it means that we’ll have to change.
When I met Swami Kriyananda for the first time, I was twenty-two, and I was twenty-four when I gave my life to this work. I was raised in a family where the intellect was held in high regard, and I had a very active and lively mind. I was school-smart, and I liked intelligence and smart people, because it was fun, like a hobby. But when I met Swamiji, I was drawn by his consciousness even before he had opened his mouth to speak a single word.
It wasn’t his brilliant mind that drew me to him, though it was a nice bonus, because it was so much fun. But in those first years, I often contemplated, “Why is he so intelligent?” I knew that he was well-read, but he had a capacity to understand, and to see the realities in situations, that was completely astonishing to me. And I realized in time that the power of his mind came from the fearlessness of his heart, and his courageous commitment to perceive reality without the slightest emotional need to make it different than it was.
How many of us do the dumbest things, even though the facts are standing before us clear as day, because we’re afraid to acknowledge them?
There was a friend of mine who made an unfortunate choice in her marriage. I could see what was coming, and as a good friend, I asked her, “Are you sure this is a good idea?”
We talked about it, and she decided that she would persevere despite my suggestion that it might not be the best way to go. And when it proved to be an absolute disaster, she came back to me, as girlfriends will, and said, “Why didn’t you tell me?” And of course I had to tell her, “Well, Sweetheart, I did.” And even though I was able to repeat the exact words I had said to her, she had no recollection of my having said them, because she’d been locked in her own reality and unable to hear them. And, unfortunately, there we are, and all that’s left is to decide what we’re going to do about it.
I’m sure you can remember times when the truth was standing before you, clear as day, and you didn’t want to know. As Swamiji said, the mind tends to support whatever feeling is uppermost in our hearts. And this is how the heart confuses the mind.
When Swami talked about meditation, he would often take pains to explain that while most people think meditation is about “calming the mind,” it’s actually the heart that needs to be calmed.
When you’re trying to meditate, what is it that keeps your mind agitated? It’s your feelings. “I’m worried about this. I want this. I need to figure out what to do about this.” It begins with a feeling in the heart, of worry or fretfulness or yearning, that makes the mind restless. But when the heart is calm, the mind becomes calm. And this is why Patanjali says that yoga is “the neutralization of the vortices of emotional feeling.”
Yoga speaks endlessly of the need to neutralize the likes and dislikes of the heart. Because union with God comes when our restless feelings have melted away and we’ve come into perfect peace.
Now, bear in mind, this entire manifested creation is an expression of Spirit. As the Jewish prayer says, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” (Deuteronomy 6:4) In that One there are no restless desires. And when we resolve the restless feelings of our hearts and merge with the oneness of Spirit, there can no longer be likes or dislikes.
In the final week of Swami Kriyananda’s life, he wrote a letter about his state of consciousness, which had become greatly detached from this world.
Many of us were alarmed by the letter, because it seemed to portend his imminent passing, which in fact came just a few days later.
He talked about how he had always felt that this world was not his home. In The New Path, his autobiography, he tells how, in his childhood, he spent more time in the astral world than on this earthly plane. Lying awake in bed at night, he would see a great light, and he would merge with the light, and he felt that it was his home.
In the letter, he said that the longer he was in this world, the more we might think he would be inclined to reject it. But he said that the opposite was true, because his consciousness was coming into that oneness of Spirit where he realized, “There is no here, there is no there. All there is, is where God is, wherever He has placed us.”
How could we have desires for anything else – “I want this! I don’t want that!” – if we were one with God’s fathomless bliss no matter where we were standing, and if we knew that this was where He had placed us and wanted us to be?
When I moved to this area, I had lived at Ananda Village for sixteen years. I had sworn that I would never live in an urban area again. Swami Kriyananda was still living at the Village full-time, and it ripped my heart out to move away from where he was.
I knew that it was my spiritual obligation, but for the first two years I loathed it. I participated with good spirit and did everything I was supposed to, but deep in my heart I wasn’t fully here. And every time Swami would come to visit, which thank God was often, and when he would leave, I would cry for days.
And then after about two years, and I’m not proud of how long it took, I woke up one morning and said, “But God wants you to be here.” I knew that I could have a hissy fit and rail against the divine will, and that Swami might relent and take me back where I had loved to be. But I thought, “If God wants you here, do you think you’ll be happier anywhere else?”
And, of course, it was the likes and dislikes of the heart, struggling to survive. There were so many logical, rational reasons why living close to Swamiji was the better choice. But those perfectly logical arguments were all based on the restless feelings of the heart, and its dissatisfaction with what God had given me. And if you insist on having your way, how will you ever know the joy of coming into oneness with Him?
“The carping spirit” is simply a bad attitude, amplified many times. It’s a pernicious habit, where no matter where we’re looking, we always have a “yes” or “no” response. And here is the final secret of how we can overcome the carping spirit. It’s by intuition – or “calm inner feeling,” as Swamiji defined it. Because it’s only in that state of calm, uplifted feeling that true intuition and true knowing can come.
What blocks our intuition, time after time, is that deep in our hearts we don’t really want to know.
I had an experience, years ago, where I had to make a difficult decision. As a devotee, I very sincerely wanted to do what God wanted, but I couldn’t figure out what He wanted me to do. So I took my dilemma to Swamiji. I remember how I found him seated in an armchair in his dome. There was a hassock in front of him, and I sat on the floor and leaned against the hassock and poured out my tale of woe, super-dramatically.
It was my deeply dramatic version of “Listen to me! Listen to me!” And Swamiji was very kind, as he was always very kind. When I had finished, I put my head on the hassock and lifted my tear-streaked face and said, “It’s so hard to know what God wants!” And Swami said, barely moving his lips, “No, it’s not.” And then he indicated that the interview was over, and I got up and went back to my little trailer.
My first thought, which I arrived at by some creative remembering, was that he had meant, “It’s not hard for me, Swami Kriyananda, to know what God wants.” Because of course he could know God’s will, and it was just me who couldn’t know it.
I went along with that line of thought for a while, and then, thank God, truth piped up and said, “That isn’t what he said. He wasn’t talking about himself. He said very impersonally that it isn’t difficult to know what God wants.”
And then I got mad. “Well, that’s some advice! How helpful is that? I’ve been struggling with this, and it’s really hard, and why do you give me such crummy advice?”
And then truth piped up again and said, “Has he ever given you crummy advice?” “Well, no.” “Okay, so let’s think this through.”
Do you see how the heart confuses the mind, saying “No, no, no, no, no, no, no! I don’t want this explanation!” The heart gets swept up in a great wave of emotional desire, fighting for its life. And if you aren’t wide awake, you’re almost certain to get sucked down the rabbit hole of emotion, and you won’t even realize it. “Why didn’t you tell me I shouldn’t marry him?” “Well, I did.” “But I didn’t want to hear.”
Finally, as I sat there in my trailer, I got calm enough to ask, “Why?” And I was able to ask it a little more even-mindedly, with a degree of open acceptance, and less reactive emotion.
I said, “If it isn’t hard to know what God wants, why is it so hard for me to know what God wants?” And because I was feeling fairly calm at that point, my intuition was able to start talking to me. And it said, “Because you don’t want to know.”
“Yes I do! Yes I do!”
But maybe I really don’t. And in that moment it became crystal clear which path I needed to take. And I really didn’t like it. My feelings were shouting a super-big-time “NO!” to protect me from having to accept the truth and deal with it.
Why was Swami’s mind so brilliant? Because he didn’t have preferences. Why was his intuition so clear? Because he didn’t have personal likes or dislikes one way or the other. His heart was completely open to the truth.
To develop your intuition so that you can always know what God wants, the first thing you need to do is to get over the carping spirit that is constantly reacting with personal emotion, saying yes or no.
Instead of reacting “I want it! I don’t want it!” you have to get to a place of calm receptivity where you can ask with un-deflected honesty, “But what is true? What is trying to happen? What does God want?”
As I followed that line of intuitive feeling, I was very interested to see where it was leading me. I was heartbroken, but well, truth is truth, and if it breaks your heart to look at the truth, you aren’t going to be able to spare your heart with a lie. All you can do is postpone the reckoning for a time, and then it will be a lot harder when the heart finally cracks open, because not only will you be disappointed, but you’ll feel stupid for not having listened.
I said, “Why don’t I want to know?” And I had to face the answer in all its simple clarity: “Because I am afraid.”
So I asked myself the most important question, “What am I afraid of?” And those answers were really interesting, because I could think of lots of things I was afraid of.
The likes and dislikes of the heart are always built on fear. If you trace them to their source, it always comes down to fear. The opposite of fear is love. And when you’re resisting the truth, it’s always because you’re afraid to give love, or afraid to receive love, or to perceive God’s love.
Sometimes people think that intuition is the only path to truth, and that if they’re pursuing the answer with the rational mind, it’s the opposite of intuition. But that isn’t true. Because very often, when you’re actively pursuing the answer with your intellectual self, you’re really just trying to clarify and more deeply understand a strong intuitive feeling. And it’s a very good use of the intellect, because it’s a way of starting to know what’s true, separate and apart from your emotions. It’s what I did when I sat in my trailer and used my rational mind to look deeply and objectively at why I was afraid.
People often resist taking it that far, because if we could know very clearly what we’re afraid of, and why this is hard for us, we might find the right way. And people very often prefer to wallow in their emotions. But if we genuinely want to know what’s true, we need to ask those questions with the mind, because the feelings are too muddled and unclear.
You can’t sit there hoping that your feelings will magically sort themselves out and become clear. You have to apply energy from somewhere else. And very often that “somewhere else” is to ask, with great mental energy, “Why am I so muddled? What am I afraid of? Why am I not listening? Why am I so anxious? Why do I always have to find fault?”
Many times, over the years, I watched people respond to Swamiji with their emotions, out of a feeling that they needed to make him wrong. They needed to find some little fault, or some little reason that would prove he didn’t really know what he was talking about. Because if he did know, they would have to listen. And it’s not always easy to be open and receptive to the truth.
Swamiji said that it’s easier for most of us to be devoted to Paramhansa Yogananda because we don’t have to live with him. We don’t have inconvenient encounters with the guru, and we don’t have to face his reprimands. We don’t have to face the confusion that we might feel in the presence of his unbounded consciousness and his tremendously energetic personality. We don’t have to face the reality of what he is, compared to our little convenient images of what we think he is.
I was very fortunate in my relationship with Swamiji, because even though there were lots of things that I needed to work on, doubt wasn’t one of them. So I could always work out my issues from a firm basis of knowing, with a clear intuition, that what I was seeing in him was spiritually “the real deal.” And if he contradicted what I thought he should do, I had the clear awareness to be able to step back and ask if it was my own concept that was wrong. And then I could use my mind to work through it and understand it, because that part of my feeling at least was very clear, that I knew what we had in him, and that he was coming very impartially from the highest attunement with truth.
To come back to the challenge of overcoming the carping spirit, we need to remember that at any moment of our lives our consciousness can either rise or fall. Last week we talked about how God waits patiently for us to find our way. He has all eternity to wait. Time means nothing to Him compared to eternity, and He loves us and will wait for us to get it all sorted out.
And then Krishna says to Arjuna, “Now I can help you, because your mind is calm, and you are no longer trapped by your emotional need for truth to be one way or the other. Not only can I teach you now, but you will be able to receive the truth.”
Remember Swamiji’s wonderful words, that it’s easy to know God’s will. When you find yourself lost and confused, just ask God, “What is it that I don’t want to know? What am I afraid of?” And then pray to Him, “Give me the courage to face the truth exactly as it is.”
God bless you.
(From Asha’s talk during Sunday service at Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto, California on September 17, 2017.)