Some of you may have been here yesterday when we held an astral ascension ceremony for Kristy Norfleet Andrews. Whenever we celebrate the passing of a friend, we feel an enormous sense of authenticity that forces us to think deeply about the nature of death and life.
Kristy was a gifted musician and a brilliant songwriter. When Swami Kriyananda first heard her sing, he paid her a unique compliment. He said, “She writes music the way I do.” Meaning that she first felt the music deeply on an inner level, and then manifested what she was feeling. He didn’t add her songs to our Ananda repertoire because they express a reality that was uniquely her own, and it didn’t necessarily represent our work. Nonetheless, the integrity of her creativity was beyond doubt.
Through her music, Kristy tells us that this life is a journey, and that even as the curtain of life opens and closes, our reality is unchanging, and our goal is to find God – so let us embrace the journey with courage.
During her multi-year struggle with cancer, another reality came to the foreground. Naturally, she was concerned for her husband, and for her sons who were still in their early twenties and living at home. She didn’t feel that she had finished her mother’s duty.
While we might glibly say that death is inevitable, and that we are merely visitors in this world, Kristy was able to say these truths poetically and sing them beautifully. And yet, after all the words have been spoken, here we are. Here we are, with two young men who will no longer have their mother to guide them, and a man who waited for a very long time to meet the love of his life, who is gone.
I know the stories of many of you, and you know my story, because little is hidden in this spiritual family. We’ve witnessed our journeys together, and it seems we are always standing on the cusp between sadness and joy. Yet I remember hearing that, when Steve Jobs passed away, his last word was, “Wow!”
In these precious moments, the veil lifts and we are able to see what’s really there, and we say, “Wow!” And despite all of the wonderful medical progress that we’ve made, people still continue to leave their bodies.
There was a medical doctor in the news recently who was pronounced clinically dead, and yet he wasn’t – he came back and told everyone about his experiences after death. And what are we to make of all the living and dying? The most extraordinary part is that we exist on all of these levels simultaneously. Because, as the masters are endlessly at pains to remind us, we are beings who are living in this world, but not of it.
One of the most challenging experiences I had in my forty-plus years with Swami Kriyananda concerned the question of these diverse realities. Most of you know that Swami Kriyananda was a direct disciple of Paramhansa Yogananda, and that for sixty years he was absolutely dedicated to the spiritual path. And in my experience, I don’t know how a person could be more purely in God than he was.
But in the beginning of my relationship with him, I decided in my own mind that when you are able to live in God, you see this world as a dream, and you know only bliss. And so, whenever I would see him suffer, I could only shrug and throw up my hands, because it didn’t fit my mental picture of a saint. And there was more than a little wish-fulfillment and self-protection in that image.
I didn’t come to the spiritual path from suffering. I was a very cheerful person. As Swami put it, I have a buoyant center of gravity. When all of the chaos and troubles settle down, I find that I’m able to keep afloat, because there’s a lot of lightness in me, and I’m able to rise to the top of the waves and stay active and cheerful. I had a very good family life, and yet it was a little odd, because beneath the surface there was always this absolute desperation to ensure that I would be happy.
I remember saying to Swamiji, “Why this passion to be happy, when I was happy? Where does this come from?”
He said simply, “Past lives.”
And the truth is that we’ve been through so many difficult experiences that it can be a challenge to rise to the surface and keep floating cheerfully along. There’s a tremendous pull to see this world as the only reality – it’s rather like the movies, where our senses can easily become captured and engaged. I watched an entertaining film recently, The Man Who Invented Christmas, about Charles Dickens, at the time when he was writing A Christmas Carol. I won’t recommend it, but I will say that it was very creative.
Years ago, Swamiji remarked about a movie that he had watched that it was very well done. I said, “Oh, so you’d recommend that we see it?” “No,” he said, “I just said that it was well done.”
At the time when Charles Dickens lived, if you went into debt, you would be put in debtor’s prison. His father, who was a well-meaning but not a very effectual man, was unable to pay his bills, so the authorities came and took him away and put him in debtor’s prison, and as a young boy of eleven Charles Dickens suddenly found himself completely on his own.
He was swept up and put to work in an awful factory, and the movie was filmed in such a dark way that I can’t recommend it. Everybody was being horrible to him, and they made it so vivid that I burst into tears. I’m very vulnerable to dark images of suffering. But then I thought, “Of course – we’ve all been through it.” We’ve all known the unbearable loneliness of being abandoned as a child.
Who among us is incapable of feeling the suffering of helpless abandonment? It’s why there was such a wave of outrage and dismay when we discovered that our government was separating illegal immigrant children from their parents. I absolutely couldn’t watch the news because it was so unbearable. And where does that level of fellow-feeling and compassion come from? How do we know what it feels like? Because we’ve been there.
We’ve been through it. On the one hand, the masters are telling us that there is nothing but bliss. And in my life, and in the lives of many of you, I’m sure that we’ve all felt a touch of that deeper reality.
We had Swami Kriyananda with us for a very long time, and we were able to observe him as he passed through a ridiculous number of challenges – they included betrayals, terrible health, financial difficulties, unappreciated work, and lawsuits. On the surface, it looks like a miserable life, except that he was adored by tens of thousands of people throughout the world.
His books have been published in thirty languages in a hundred countries. I love to think of people reading Do It Now in Japanese, or Supportive Leadership in Polish, or Secrets of Meditation in Chinese. And in the midst of the challenges, we were able to see how that tremendous spiritual energy could not be prevented from spreading.
I remember, years ago, reading that a group of city officials and wealthy developers had declared that El Camino Real would become “the street,” where everything that was old and funky would be torn down, and shiny new buildings would be put up in their place. It was the grand idea of the moment. So they began knocking the old buildings down, and our pleasant little shopping center now has five-storey parking lots, and a giant searchlight beam that tells you where you can go and get drunk and then go down and see a movie. And this is progress. And, on one level, at least, I can identify with the inevitable curmudgeonly old lady who’ll be darkly crowing, “Well, it used to be a lot better!”
When Swamiji was teaching in the 1970s and 1980s, he was the only one among us who had known Master, so he basically had to introduce us to Master. He was part of the great movement of energy in the Sixties and Seventies that was bringing the teachings of Self-Realization from India to America. And as the most publicly visible of Master’s disciples, he would speak with tremendous fervor. When he spoke of these great teachings, it felt as if he was addressing a hundred thousand people. Not that he was arguing with them, but there was such a force of inertia in the consciousness of the West, and it felt as if he was pushing against it with all the power of his voice and his will. He would talk so fast and with such power, and he would tell us so many things, and he would give so many classes, and it was always with great energy.
He was loving and kind, and he could be very humorous, and he was always completely natural. But as I came to understand the teachings, I realized that the great changes that he was initiating on Master’s behalf, and of which we all are a part, were happening on three levels. First you have the idea, and then you have to put out lots of energy, and finally you’re able to see it manifested on the physical plane.
Even so, somebody announced, thirty years ago, that they were going to tear down the old buildings and put up new ones. And somebody thought of having a movie theater where you could drink wine upstairs and then go snooze through a movie. I don’t know what the original plan was, but somebody had to think about it, and they had to spend years putting out the energy to build it. They had the idea, and they put out the energy, and finally it was manifested, and now you can go get tipsy and see a movie.
Now, because we’re constantly walking around in this world, we think that this is it, and we can’t always see what’s going on behind it.
Anandamoy Ma was a great modern woman saint of India who died in 1981 or 1982. She had hundreds of thousands of followers, and she was very female in her mission. In her essence she was neither male or female, but she was born in a female body and had a feminine mission, which manifested as her simply sitting with large crowds of people and radiating a great power of inspiration, rather than being outwardly active.
Swami Kriyananda had a very masculine mission. And it’s interesting that avatars such as Paramhansa Yogananda and Jesus Christ are always men. Their mission to serve as great world teachers isn’t necessarily a man’s job, but it’s a very masculine job, where they have to make a great many things happen outwardly. In contrast, Anandamoy Ma’s role was simply to radiate Divine Mother’s love, and by doing so, she changed hundreds of thousands of lives.
She expressed the Divine by means of something that I believe they call a kaol in India, which translates roughly as an divine inner impulse. There is no equivalent word in English, but she would be in her ashram, and whenever the divine impulse would seize her, she would get up and walk out the door to the train station and ride to a certain point and get off, with her entire entourage scrambling after her. And if you wanted to go to India to see her, you would have to consult the spiritual grapevine in order to find her.
Now, she remarked that she would sometimes move in this way because of wars that were being fought on the astral plane that required her to be in a different physical location so that she could add her light force to the side of dharma. And what might seem to her disciples to be pure whimsy on her part – “Who knows where she’s going?” – would, for her, be a perfectly logical manifestation on a continuum that reached into subtler realms, so that by the time it manifested outwardly, a tremendous amount of energy would already have been generated.
Ananda is about to celebrate its 50th anniversary, which seems like a very long time. It’s been long enough for generations of people to grow up in our Ananda communities. But in the beginning, when only Swamiji and a bare handful of others were there, there was nothing – no great work, just a small plot of land, even though he had already started to emanate that power on the causal plane of ideas.
There were just a few of us living up there at Ananda Village, making compost and writing letters and cooking and putting up a few buildings, and we were taking the first steps to manifest the energy of Master’s vision on the physical plane.
And the process is the same for the people you see building somebody’s dream up and down El Camino Real. At first it’s just an idea, and then people have to add their energy to it, and pretty soon there’s another new building. Because this is how all of creation works. And as devotees, it’s important that we understand this.
While we were conducting Kristy’s astral ascension service, it would have been easy to say, “This life is just a dream. We are in this world for only as long as God wants us to be here.” But it was a great deal more difficult to think of it with that kind of philosophical detachment when we could see her sons sitting there before our eyes.
It’s not as if it isn’t the essential truth, because it is true that we are here for only as long as our karma dictates, according to God’s law. But the intensity and totality of the experience was on a very different level.
Being with Swamiji in the early years, I imagined that coming onto the spiritual path would spare me from having to remember being in the workhouse as a child in another lifetime. Because this is how we try to cope with the hard realities of these lives, by trying to find a way to be rescued.
We have this idea that we’ll somehow be magically rescued from it all. And it isn’t the same thing as being saved by a miracle. A miracle comes by God’s grace, but the dream of being rescued is merely an expression of our own hopes and fears, and our longing for it to be different than it will have to be.
I remember a period of about twenty-four hours in 1993 when it seemed that I might be transferred back to Ananda Village. And I was really happy about it, because I wasn’t happy to be here at the time. And when Swamiji asked me what I thought about moving back to the village, I said, “There is a God! And He hears my prayers!”
We were just starting out in the Bay Area, and I was miserable about having to live apart from Swamiji, after working closely with him for many years. So there was this twenty-four-hour window when I was elated. And when the window opened and closed, I realized what a great part of me was just waiting to be rescued.
It was not as if there was anything wrong with my circumstances, because it’s been glorious to find so many friends and accomplish so much together. But I was hoping that the spiritual path would allow me to avoid remembering that I had been a child in the workhouse, and to forget that whatever I had of God’s blessings had come, to a very large extent, as the result of a great deal of hard struggle.
As I pondered my own reactions, it was fascinating to see how many things I was refusing to deal with. It extended even to small things, such as the garden I was trying to make in our little patio, and the spot where nothing would grow, and it was such a relief to feel that it wasn’t going to be my problem anymore. Or a closet that I didn’t want to clean out. Or people that I didn’t know what to do with. There was a thought, which I’m sure we’ve all had, “You don’t please me, and I want you to be different.” And now I could think, “Oh, goody, I won’t have to deal with you anymore.”
And in all of these ways, we imagine we’re going to be able to get out of it. But when we see real bliss, and of course I’m thinking of Swami Kriyananda, the truth is that he was not waiting to be rescued from anything – not one thing.
When we were in the midst of an absolutely miserable situation, probably during the lawsuit, I remember saying, “I’m so glad that I’ve had other experiences on the path besides this one.” I was thinking that if I had started on the path amidst so much ugliness, I wasn’t sure I would have been able to stay.
During that cycle, Swami went to the dentist, and when the dentist announced that he didn’t have any cavities, he said, “At least my dental report was good.” I cheerfully remarked, “Thank the Lord for small favors!” Just a little cliché. But he became totally serious. He said, “I thank Divine Mother for everything.”
I thought, “Wow.” Because I was trying to find a way to avoid having to face the present realities, and hoping that Divine Mother would do it my way. But She wouldn’t. And the inescapable truth is that we have come to this path because we have suffered, and we have suffered because in one way or another Divine Mother asked more of us than we were willing to give. And by following our own way and being unwilling to give, we found that we just ended up suffering, because we weren’t able to see Her guiding hand behind the scenes, trying to lead us out of suffering forever.
Now, is it easy to follow Her guidance always? Oh, my, my, my, it isn’t easy. But this is what we are here for.
It’s Christmas, and a very cheerful time. But it’s also an extremely tumultuous time in the world, and I have a feeling that it isn’t going to get better.
One of the celebrations we have at this time of year with the children in our school is called “A Wide Variety of Talent Show,” on the Friday before winter break. And I think it’s a brilliant name.
Gary, our middle-school teacher, auditions the children to make sure the performances won’t be completely unthinkable. But let’s just say that there’s a broad spectrum of performances.
In our school concerts, we try to keep a refined standard, and we try as much as possible to maintain a little bit of innocence and purity. But then, of course, the children go home, and they have computers that are connected to the world, so it’s not as if they don’t know what’s out there. And at the Wide Variety of Talent Show there will be performances that we probably wouldn’t put on the stage if it were entirely up to us.
I was in the balcony, messing with Christmas costumes, while the children performed, and I suddenly heard a wailing female voice singing about the unbearable anguish of some guy who either did or didn’t love her. It was one of those super-dramatic, impossibly soupy songs, expressing a vibration that would be a nightmare to anyone with the slightest spiritual sensitivity. And these young girls were doing what they always do when they hear that kind of music, willingly joining in with this extremely histrionic emotion which was almost impossible for me to bear. Not because I didn’t respect the singer’s talent, but because it was expressing a state of unresolved anguish that could never be relieved. So I watched these poor little eleven- and twelve-year-old girls not only listening to it, but making their bodies move in response to it.
We’re training children in these ways that nobody even thinks of as bad anymore, but that are symptomatic of a downward-spiraling vibration that I believe will get worse before it gets better. And if I were to come out and openly campaign against that kind of popular music, I’m sure I’d be called a lunatic.
Ananda has occasionally taken a hard line with some of these things, against this very negative, ego-centered, downward-pulling trend in the arts. Because, as I remember saying to Swami, “It makes us bedfellows with people that we really do not want to be associated with.” The only people today who are trying to hold the line against that vibration tend to be a great deal more rigid and dogmatic than we are. So it’s just not a place where we can take a stand at this time.
And, of course, there are lots of worse things going on in the world, and we naturally want to know what we can do about it. But everything, every positive and negative movement of consciousness, starts on the causal plane and moves to the astral plane before it manifests on the physical plane. And the cause of things is not the eventual thing that we can see with our physical eyes. The cause is the originating idea, which manifests as a direction in which people can pour their energy. That’s how this world works, and it’s a process that we can access. It’s the world that we are living in, and that we can effectively change, by working to change the world in the right way, by starting with the right, expansive originating ideas.
Now, let me change direction. There was a woman called Rani Bhan that Swamiji met in India, along with her husband, Dr. Bhan, and her son, Indu. And when Swami was in India from 1958 to 1962, he lived in their home for much of that time.
Rani Bhan was a very refined, deeply spiritual woman. Most of the well-known Indian spiritual teachers had lived in her house at one time or another. And at a time when she was feeling particularly distraught about the world situation, in 1958, she had a vision of Babaji. She asked Babaji, “Why?” And Babaji said, “It is not my job to suppress the darkness.” He said, “It is my job to increase the light.”
Now, when we pray for peace and harmony in this world, we are very often, in our minds, trying to suppress the darkness. We’re trying to wipe away these dark, hard things. But Babaji said that it isn’t his job, and of course it makes it difficult to think of it as our job.
When I heard the story it made me do some hard thinking, and I began to understand it from a subtler point of view. For example, the idea that darkness is expressed by the wrong actions of individual souls who have the free will to make a choice. Today, millions of people are acting-out the darkness, and by their free will they are setting a pattern for the way the world looks at this time.
We are given the free will to decide, will I be in tune with the light or the darkness? God has sent us with a mission to be fruitful and multiply, but we’ve wanted to have it all for ourselves, even though, as the Festival of Light says, we’ve repeatedly lost everything we had. We’ve been slow learners, insisting on doing it our way. And you can see this also in people who hold great power, and who are doing it in their own, absolutely horrifying ways.
But even Babaji will not force the issue. He will not magically wipe away the darkness. Because the drama of this creation is not about war, peace, prosperity, famine, or climate change. That’s merely the backdrop for the true drama, which is that every individual soul, you, I, and everyone on the planet, is learning, step by painful step, the difference between what appears to be fulfilling, and what is genuinely fulfilling; what appears to be bringing us happiness, and what will actually bring us lasting happiness in the end. And how would Babaji be serving us if he were to interfere with our learning the lessons that will eventually set us free?
He cannot; it would be against the divine law. How would we learn, if we were not given free will? In the Festival of Light, we are told that we are equal with the saints. And it’s pleasant to hear that we can think of ourselves as being equal with Jesus and Babaji, and that we are all equally loved by God. But the truth is that those horrible dictators are also equally loved by God, and that Babaji has as much respect for their free will as for ours.
Now, how do we change? We change by having our own experiences and coming to understand for ourselves very clearly that the fulfillment we are seeking will only ever come to us through the light and not through the darkness. Think of all the ways you’ve learned this lesson, and how, almost always, you’ve learned it by having a one-to-one experience with someone who shared the light with you.
Isn’t it so? The tremendous drama of God’s creation comes down to somebody being kind to you in a moment when you were longing for a touch of compassion. And then it occurs to you, “Oh, that was lovely!” And so you turn around and you’re a little nicer to the next person. And we think that nothing really very important has happened, but that is the level on which change always starts. It starts with a tiny beam of light that we choose to pick up and put our energy behind, and soon the world around us begins to manifest a little more of the light.
And then great souls like Jesus come, and each year at the time of his birth the world seems to get little brighter, doesn’t it? And it begins to occur to us that this is where it all begins, with a tiny babe in a manger. We don’t come to understand the light on some big, abstract philosophical level, but in the details of our lives. As Master says in his poem Samadhi, “I cognized the center of the Empyrean as a tiny point of intuitive perception in my own heart.” And when we feel a touch of that great light, we understand, “Oh! This light is what I’ve always been looking for!”
The light is born in us as a result of our own experiences. And as we start to put our energy in the service of the light, we find ourselves being lifted onto a higher level in the vast plane of God’s consciousness.
We have an enormous responsibility, not to build big theaters, but moment by moment to choose the light. To hold the light and offer it to each person standing before us. That’s how change happens. And when God calls us away, as he called Kristy, we will understand and follow the light.
Our friend Linda Gerber died ten or fifteen years ago, and she, too, had a long bout with cancer. She had young children and a husband and a beautiful home. And on the day the doctor told her there was nothing more he could do for her, I went to see her, not really understanding why I was going. I would rarely visit her without telling her I was coming, but I walked in right after she had hung up the phone, and she was weeping. She was looking at her beautiful home and the pictures of her children, and she said through her tears, “How can I leave this?”
I said, “Well, I think you have a wall of fire to walk through, but on the other side you’ll find what you’re looking for.” And some weeks later, when she was on her deathbed, she said, “You were right.”
When Linda asked Swamiji what she should do, he told her, “Focus on the light. Don’t worry about death and leaving your children and your home. Just focus on the light.” And that’s what she did; no matter where she was, she looked for the light. And when we live in this way the path becomes very simple.
There is a tremendous amount of chaos in the world right now, and I believe there will be more. Just look for the light: the light of Jesus, and the light of Christmas. It will never be easier than it is right now. Just look for the light. God bless you.
(From Asha’s talk during Sunday service at Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto, California on December 16, 2018.)