Throughout the ages, many intelligent people have tried to explain how this life works.
They’ve proposed religious, philosophical, psychological, social, and scientific explanations. And while some of their ideas haven’t been particularly valid at any level, many have been valid on at least some level.
Someone recently asked me what I thought of the teachings of various new-age figures who’ve tried to make sense of how the world works.
I asked him, “From what level are you asking the question? Are you a disciple of one of those paths? Because if you are, I would answer the question one way, but if you’re committed to the path I’m following, I would have a different answer for you. The answer depends on your understanding, and what’s meaningful for you.”
I told him that I felt there was nothing in those paths that I would object to, because as Swami often reminded us, a wonderful feature of Self-realization is that it is so all-encompassing. We acknowledge truth wherever we find it, and we recognize that truth can exist on various levels, from the mundane to the sublime.
During our Ananda pilgrimages to India, we would always visit the ashrams of various saints. And while I often found great inspiration in their company, and fascination in observing how they lived, I was always glad afterward that their path was not mine.
I never had the slightest feeling that they didn’t have anything to tell me that was spiritually true. In fact, I often found that there were small pieces of their teachings that were relevant to my life. But I very clearly knew that their way was not my own.
We can pick up truth from many angles, and we can find helpful insights coming to us from many sources, to which our own teachers are no doubt guiding us. But the masters themselves are beyond any need to grow in their understanding, because they have merged their consciousness with infinite Truth.
I remember asking a friend of mine, an Episcopal priest who has since passed away, certain questions about Christianity. I felt that there were contradictions between the position of the church on certain biblical events, and the way I understood them from the perspective of Self-realization.
My priest friend explained that the teachings of Jesus had to evolve for three centuries before they could be set down in the New Testament, and that the church fathers had to wait three hundred years for them to ripen. As he put it, Jesus himself knew only part of the truth, and it took three centuries for the rest of it to be figured out.
When he had finished speaking, I could only stare at him in silent wonder. I thought, “You’re telling me this seriously?”
We looked at each other for a while, and then I said, “You know, Jesus understood it all. And what actually happened is that it took people three hundred years to bring the teachings down to a level they could understand. It didn’t need to evolve – it devolved, and that’s what happened to it.”
He laughed and said, “My life was a lot simpler before I met you.”
One of the teachings in the Bible that the new age has delighted in throwing away is Satan. Granted, Satan isn’t an easy concept for modern minds to wrap themselves around. But there has been a great deal of truth in the Bible that has been thrown out, and that should not have been.
Bear with me, while I diverge to tell you a story about how ideas evolve.
Because I’m a Nayaswami, and I wear blue all the time, someone gave me a book about the color blue. It seems that in the middle ages there were separate guilds for each color of cloth. The red guild was extremely powerful, and when the blue guild began to gain traction, they did everything in their power to stamp it out. So the battle of the red and blue guilds raged for a long time, until some famous artist made the devil red and the Virgin Mary blue. And that was the beginning of the rise of blue and the decline of red.
The point is, the shift from red to blue didn’t happen as the result of some great revelation, but because of a simple economic conflict. I mention this because it shows how people’s ideas generally evolve – not as the result of some great inspiration from above, but because of mundane changes that don’t necessarily have anything to do with a higher truth.
In the earliest days of Christianity, the Gnostic Christians believed that the true source of inspiration was individual, while the position of the church was that inspiration had to be passed down through the proper lines of authority.
In the end, the church prevailed over the Gnostics, and this is why Christianity has been defined by church authority ever since.
Today, we find ourselves in a similar battle, where Self-realization has come to replace institutionalism. So it seems that we’re fighting the same battle all over again, between the Gnostics and fundamentalists, except that this time we’re apparently going to win.
You can see what an enormous difference it makes, whether you subscribe to one or the other of those opposing interpretations of Jesus’ teachings. Because if inspiration must be passed down through lines of authority, the implication is that only a few people will be able to commune with God, and everybody else will be dependent on the institution as an intermediary.
Institutional religion isn’t defined by the big, imposing churches that are designed to intimidate you with their weight and beauty. Institutionalism is the idea that you need to have something outward in place before you can transmit the teachings properly – the right ceremonies, the right priests, and the right dogmas.
When the church elevates itself above your individual relationship with God, that’s when it becomes institutionalism. And one of the things the institutional churches have very strongly insisted on is the idea of the devil.
If you’re trying to impress people with your authority, the threat of eternal damnation is a powerful tool. And it will help you keep them in line if you can get them to believe in a being called the devil who is continually threatening to pull them into actions that will condemn them to eternal damnation. The image of the devil will help you keep them in the fold, and you won’t have to answer a lot of pesky questions, because you can simply threaten them with hellfire and damnation if they stray from the established dogma.
Teresa of Avila was persecuted by the church, and it was only after she became widely recognized as a great mystic that the church turned around and canonized her, in the usual way of things.
When Teresa was eight years old, she realized that there was a shortcut that she could take to salvation. She thought, why risk an entire lifetime during which you might do something that will condemn you to eternal damnation? And because it was generally thought that the quickest way to salvation was to be martyred, she persuaded her younger brother to set off with her to find the Moors. They would go into the camp of the Moors and declare themselves as Christians and have their heads cut off, and they would have eternal salvation. An efficient plan!
Fortunately, their parents found them and brought them back, and Teresa had to take a more normal route. But in the background of the story we find the threat of Satan who is constantly trying to make you do the things the Church says you shouldn’t do, and that your own conscience might be telling you not to do.
Satan is red only because he was depicted that way in the classical paintings. But the image of the devil is a convenient way to think about the force that is trying to lure us from the path to freedom.
The physical image of the devil was useful in an age when people were limited to thinking in material terms. But now that we’ve entered a more imaginative, energy-aware age, people are turning against the old, rigid forms. And this is why the so-called new-age teachings insist that we need to throw away the old superstitions. Because, if there is no longer an outward authority to restrain us, and if there isn’t a red devil with horns and a long tail, we can have it all.
It’s basically telling us that we can do whatever we want and get away with it. But in the process of throwing away the image of Satan, a valid principle has been lost. Because the idea of Satan is not ultimately about the authority of the church, but our own experience.
I don’t know how you feel about this, but the reality that I’m faced with is that I am not a fully integrated person. I came to this path when I was nineteen because I was deeply concerned about my inability to know the goal of life. And I was even more concerned about my seeming inability to keep moving toward the goal. Because, no matter what I believed with my rational mind, there were so many conflicting cross-currents in my own nature.
It doesn’t take a lot of introspection to see how often our highest ideals are in conflict with our desires.
“There are four cookies in the jar, and I’ll eat one – or maybe two – and why not three? And now there’s one cookie left, and why not finish the jar?”
It isn’t a great sin – it isn’t going to damn you for eternity. But it’s fascinating how often we set our sights in the right direction and end up going somewhere else.
I’m going to the family reunion, and no matter what Uncle Mort says, I’m not going to react. No, no! And then I suddenly find myself reacting, and where did it come from? And, oh boy, here we go again.
I was in seclusion for eight weeks recently, writing a book, and it became crystal clear to me how many “me’s” there were, not all of them wanting to go in the same direction.
Whenever people stumble over the weaknesses in their own nature, or when they make some super-colossal spiritual mistake, I often see them falling into an unfortunate trap. I see them becoming paralyzed by the thought “I should be better! And why can’t I be?”
You end up not only with the inclination to eat the cookies, but you’re building up a complex on top of it, of how terrible I am. And whenever you find yourself having to deal with your failures, whether large or small, I would like to suggest a response that has worked extremely well for me. In a nutshell, I’ve learned to say: “The devil made me do it.”
Of course, the devil isn’t literally making you do it. It’s just a convenient and very helpful response to couch it in those terms: “The devil made me do it.”
Swami Kriyananda would play a game with us that was simultaneously amusing and very helpful. He would exaggerate our attitudes and tease us about them.
There was a woman in the community who had a highly exaggerated idea of romantic love and relationships. And I remember how Swamiji sang the entire song “Love Is a Many-splendored Thing” in her presence. And not in a manner that was the slightest bit suggestive of an uplifted or ennobling kind of love. It was just about the smarmiest rendition you could imagine. He was taking her dreamy inclinations and pulling them way over the top so that she could look at them and see them for what they were.
We were laughing hysterically, but it was a very helpful kind of teasing that was absolutely on the mark, because of the way her mind was working, and how it wasn’t helping her to let herself drift with those dreamy images of romantic love.
Whenever Swamiji saw a car that he thought was attractive, he would often assume the attitude of a prophet making a grand pronouncement from the mountaintop, and declare that he approved. As if the auto industry was waiting with baited breath to hear what Swami Kriyananda thought. And of course it was ridiculous. But don’t we often feel as if the world is desperately waiting to hear what we’re thinking? Swamiji would tease us so that when we were inclined to fall into those thoughts, we would remember and be a little more cautious and detached and maybe even amused.
I find that when something is compelling me, whether it’s coming from my karma, my delusions, or my psychology, that there’s a separate Self that is always able to stand back and calmly observe. And when we’re talking about the devil, this is the duality that we’re working with. Because, yes, it is most definitely true that I’ve become temporarily confused about my real nature. But it’s a wonderful practice to find that part of yourself that knows better and isn’t affected.
Someone told the story of a lion cub that was left with a flock of sheep. So it grew up thinking that it was a sheep, and it was only when it met another lion that it realized what it was. The moral is that we are beings whose true nature is pure gold, but we’ve been frolicking in the mud for so long that the gold of our nature has become obscured, and we’ve forgotten the glory that is in us.
A magnificent thing about the divine gold of our nature is that no matter how long it remains buried, we only need to wash it off to find that it is as pristine as ever, because nothing can ever make it what it is not.
These images are spiritually useful to us, because they convey deep truths with a depth of feeling. And it’s harder to grasp the truth if we’re only working with the rational mind.
These images that can help us understand that my true self is one with the infinite power – that, in fact, I am that power which understands that error is misery, and that no matter how long I imagine I’ll be happy if I eat all seventeen cookies, I’m actually going to feel sick. And Satan is simply the force that tries to persuade us otherwise.
There was a little girl in our kindergarten who was a real firecracker – she was a powerful small person, and at school one day she was using her will in unconstructive ways. Finally, the teacher took her aside and said, “What’s happening?”
The little girl said, “Well, every day I have a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other, and they talk to me. I usually try to listen to the angel, but today I’m listening to the other one.”
If you think, “The devil made me do it,” and you know that he isn’t part of your true nature, it makes it easier to repudiate your wrong behavior without feeling that your deepest nature is dark.
This is why the concept of Satan is an important part of the spiritual teachings, because it helps us to impersonalize our behavior, including our unfortunate tendencies and karma, even though our karma is undeniably ours, and we must take responsibility for it.
We can approach the path from many angles, but there will always be a force that is trying to pull us down. And another reason why it’s important to be very aware that that force exists, is that you cannot let yourself imagine for a moment that you’ll ever be able to find pure happiness by simply drifting along.
That counterforce is always trying to thwart our efforts to rise. And whatever name you give it, you need to be aware of that force, if your goal is to find the pure gold of God that is in you. You don’t need to think of a red devil with horns and a forked tail, except as a convenient image. You simply need to be able to say “The devil made me do it,” and blame that force, instead of blaming yourself.
Yoga tells us that the tendencies of our nature, including our unhelpful habits and unresolved issues and karmic debts of the past, are held in the whirlpools of energy in the spine. You might have done these things in some past life when you thought you got away with them, but now you’re getting caught, even though you didn’t do it this time around.
Years ago, I found myself accused of having done something of which I was absolutely innocent. And yet it was clear to me that the only reason I hadn’t done it was that I hadn’t had the opportunity, and the probability was that if I had been given the chance, I would have been inclined to do it.
It was like being getting my karma before I had a chance to err. I got blamed, quite possibly because I had done it at some point in the past, and I imagined I’d gotten away with it.
People sometimes describe their karma as “unpaid bills.” You did something that was dissonant with your true nature, and the bill came due. You might have done it this time around or in another life, but the consequences didn’t catch up with you until the time was right.
Thinking of unpaid bills is a good way to come to the absolutely crucial understanding that we are never being treated unfairly. You may not remember when you set those karmic currents in motion, but your chakras remember, because the energy of the events is stored there.
Whether we call that power the devil, Satan, or something else, there’s a conscious force that is intent on distracting us from our spiritual goals. As Master said, “I used to think that Satan was a myth, but I add my testimony to those who have gone before me that Satan is a real force.”
This material world is an outward manifestation of subtler energies in the causal and astral worlds. The causal is the world of ideas, and the astral is the world of energy, and then here we are in the material world at the end of the chain. The divine light is trying to draw us back into itself at each of those levels, and at each level the conscious satanic force is trying to hold us in darkness.
Swami gave a fascinating explanation for the persecution of saints. He said that it’s due to the total spiritual “wattage” of planet Earth at any given point in time. During the materialistic age of Kali Yuga, and at the stage where we now find ourselves, in early Dwapara Yuga, the spiritual wattage of Earth is quite limited compared to the higher ages. At this time, it’s a mixture of darkness and light, with more of the darkness than we would find in the highest ages. And so, whenever the light begins to shine brilliantly over here, the overall balance of light and dark on Earth at this time tries to re-establish itself by suppressing what it perceives as an excess of the light over there.
What it means for those who are seeking to advance into the light is that we need to be tremendously vigilant, and exercise an enormous amount of intelligent, patient, persistent, unrelenting and determined will power. Because we really don’t have the option to stand still.
The current of our lives is flowing forward, and if we give in to the urge to stop swimming and simply float along, we are sure to be carried away from our goal.
It’s extremely useful to understand that this is God’s plan. Because the level on which true freedom and happiness exist is a level of very high energy, and we must work hard to develop the ability to live with that kind of energy.
It’s not that God is punishing us, or that we must earn His love, or that He wants to withhold His love from us. It’s that we must become transformed, and we must do a great deal of the work of transformation ourselves. Paramhansa Yogananda said that the spiritual path is fifty-percent God’s effort, twenty-five percent our effort, and twenty-five percent the Guru’s effort on our behalf. It’s a wonderfully encouraging statement, but he reminded us that our twenty-five percent requires one-hundred percent of our effort.
The experience of God’s power and freedom and bliss will come to us when we have mastered these forces in ourselves. And we won’t get mastery by lying down and wishing for it. We must work with our energy, and mightily resist the urge to give up.
That’s how we become strong, and how we acquire the ability to offer ourselves wholly to God. And it is our own growing confidence in our ability to tune into that higher level of consciousness that will carry us to our bliss. At that point, we will have the confidence to know that no matter what comes, we will be able to handle it.
I had a lesson that was trivial in itself, but that has remained with me, because it was spiritually important. Years ago, I got the idea that I wanted to learn how to do some home repairs. I can’t imagine anyone who’s worse at home repairs than I am. I do have certain aptitudes, but home repair isn’t one of them. But I was determined. So I went through a cycle of discovering, for example, that I could bang a hole in the wall and fill it with Spackle and paint over it. I learned a lot about home repair, and as a result, I had some very poor home repairs that I had done all by myself. But in the process I learned an extremely important lesson, which is that the patient application of will power will conquer any obstacle.
I remember how intrigued I was, when I first heard Sri Yukteswar’s definition of tapasya. Tapasya is a Sanskrit word that people tend to translate as extreme renunciation.
I remember how, in the early years at Ananda Village, we would joke that when Swami gave you a spiritual name, you wouldn’t want to it to have “tapasya” in it.
In fact, the most inaccurate, worst definition of tapasya is “suffering.” “I’m doing tapasya” – meaning, I’m suffering for God. Another interpretation is “penance,” which isn’t terribly accurate or pleasant to contemplate, either. But at least it means that I’m able to use my will power to attain some worthwhile goal.
But Sri Yukteswar’s definition was surprising to me. He translated tapasya as “patience.” In other words, it’s the even-minded, determined patience to wait it out until you’ve gained the victory.
It’s good to remember that tapasya doesn’t mean patiently sitting and waiting for your circumstances to change. It’s a dynamic kind of patience that is grounded in a firm inner understanding that the goal you’re seeking is there, and that no matter how hard the wind may blow against you, and no matter how the devil may howl at you, you know with unswerving inner certainty that it is there, and you will stand firm until it comes. And while I was doing my little home repairs, I knew, with a sure inner knowing, that at some point it would be done, and all I had to do was not quit.
No matter how terrible your experiences are, and no matter how many times you set out to do the right thing and end up doing the wrong thing, you must find the assurance deep inside yourself that your highest bliss awaits you.
How do we develop that sure inner knowing, and the patience to persevere? In Loved and Protected, a book of stories of divine grace that I published, there’s a story of a man who was addicted to drugs. He was addicted for a long time before he became a disciple, and long after. He said, “You won’t be surprised to hear that one of my favorite sayings of Master’s was, ‘Even if you’re going to do the wrong thing, take me with you.’”
He said, “So I took Master to a lot of places I don’t think he would have gone on his own.”
The climax of the story is that he was arrested and thrown in a jail cell, stripped to his underwear. And he said it was one of the happiest moments of his life.
He said he recommended becoming a drug addict and being arrested and thrown in a cold jail cell in your underwear and having your whole life taken away. Because at that point he knew very powerfully that the tide had turned. He had held onto his discipleship despite all of the things the devil was making him do, and finally there it was, the point where he knew that the light had begun to dispel the darkness.
Tapasya is about having faith in the positive outcome. And this is the most extraordinary aspect of the spiritual path. Everybody talks about it, but the longer you are on the path, the simpler it becomes, because of that increasing inner assurance that as long as I don’t quit I will succeed.
When you have that understanding, who cares what you might have to endure? Because at that point tapasya is no longer a penance to be dreaded and endured, but a sure and certain knowing that I will be free, and that so long as I don’t quit, I will succeed.
I have a friend who’s going through some experiences that I wish nobody ever had to go through. She’s miserable, and there have been tear-streaked days and nights. And, on that level, at least, you couldn’t say that she is winning. But as we talked, I could see that she was absolutely victorious already, because there was no possibility whatever that she would quit. There is no way in the world that she will ever believe for a single moment that this is not just another step toward her freedom.
The idea that there is a being whose job is to try to thwart us changes the way you relate to the spiritual path. It tells you that all of your tests and trials and temptations are simply means to an end.
None of our experiences in this world mean anything at all, in and of themselves. This whole world, and all of our experiences in it, are a dream, and they will all disappear when we find our freedom. But, in the meantime, we must engage with this life, and we must hook into it in the right way. And knowing that the devil is over there, and that if you aren’t vigilant he’s going to make you do it, and that it isn’t he who will suffer, is a very useful thought.
You are the one who will suffer. And you need to keep asking yourself, “How much longer do I want to feel this way? How much strength can I bring to bear to break free?”
God bless you.
(From Asha’s talk during Sunday service at Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto, California on August 13, 2017.)