Keys to Spiritual Progress — Understanding Where We Are, and Where We’re Going

Photo: Johannes Plenio on Unsplash
Photo: Johannes Plenio on Unsplash

From my earliest days at Ananda, I observed that Swami Kriyananda was always practical in the way he worked with us.

It’s one thing to have lots of lovely ideas about how a spiritual work should evolve, but it’s quite another thing to be able to manifest it in the real world.

Swami described his method as “responding to the opportunities that are in tune with what you are trying to accomplish.”

This was how Paramhansa Yogananda worked. He spoke of how he had “planted a blueprint in the ether” for the development of his work. And, while Self-Realization Fellowship has tried to make it seem as though the blueprint was a list of detailed instructions that he gave exclusively to them, Swamiji said that the blueprint was, in fact, “a vibration of a certain ray of divine grace that through this line of masters has been offered to the world.”

Swami told us that Master would never decide in advance which steps he would take to spread the work, but that he would respond to opportunities that were consistent with the ray of divine grace with which God had empowered him.

From the very beginning, I saw that this was always Swamiji’s way. Whenever people would propose a new project, or when a new opportunity would present itself, he would judge it according to whether it was in tune with the vibration of Master’s ray.

The opportunities that presented themselves over the years tended to be colorfully diverse – from starting a magazine, to buying opals in Australia and selling them in America to raise funds for the work.

Now, you might look at those two projects, opals and magazines, and wonder about the business plan behind them. But if Swami felt that an opportunity was consistent with the vibration of Master’s ray, he would give it his full energy.

For us as disciples, it suggests an interesting way to think about our role – that in whatever we’re doing, our highest duty is to attune ourselves to Master’s vibration.

Swamiji made several comments over the years about the role of the music in our work. He would often talk, for example, of how the music would help us all stay in tune with Master’s ray.

monks_chanting1He pointed out that in the early Christian era, when the monks and nuns sang the Gregorian chants every day, those chants expressed the exact vibration of what they were trying to accomplish.

He added that singing the chants in some subtle way helped them to stay in tune with the work that God wanted them to do. But as the practice of chanting waned over the centuries, the spirit of the work gradually shifted toward more institutional and dogmatic ways of thinking, and away from inner attunement.

Throughout his life, melodies for songs always came easily to Swamiji – he said that so many of them came to him that he paid them little attention. And it wasn’t until he was on his own that he began to understand the value of music as a vehicle for spreading Master’s work.

In the early 1960s, after he was expelled from SRF but before he started Ananda, he was camping in Yosemite when one evening he came across a group of young people who were playing guitar and singing, and he joined them.

He knew Master’s chants and some Indian bhajans, but the only song he knew that seemed appropriate to the occasion was “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” So he sang it, and it was a great hit. And that was when he realized what a beautiful thing it was to share music with people, and how wonderful it would be to share Master’s vibrations through music.

He was looking for Master’s guidance about what he could do with his life, and he thought, maybe I could write my own songs. And in that moment the words and music for a mystical love song about the Divine Mother came to him, “Farther Away than the Stars.”

By the end of his life, he had composed over 400 pieces, and he would often talk to us about the importance of the music as it related to Master’s mission.

Master had told him repeatedly, “You have a great work to do.” And after his passing, his chief disciple, Rajarsi Janakananda, said to Swamiji, “You have a great work to do, and Master will give you the strength to do it.”

I remember sitting next to Swamiji during a performance of his Oratorio, Christ Lives. During a break in the program, he leaned over to me and said, “When Rajarsi spoke of Master giving me the power to do the work, he was referring to this music.”

Isn’t that interesting? That the power of this great work is in our music, and that the music can give people a direct experience of what the work is about, because it can transmit that divine vibration in a very immediate way that people can feel and understand it for themselves.

On another occasion, he said, “This music is not my music. It’s not our music. It is a new consciousness coming into the world as music.”

We are living in an extraordinary time of transition from a lower age to a higher age. Paramhansa Yogananda spoke of a very long series of ages on this planet that proceed in repeating cycles of about 24,000 years. This is history on a much grander scale than they teach you about in school, where they’re just picking tiny fragments out of these long cycles in the overall evolution of the consciousness of the planet.

yugasThere’s a wonderful book, The Yugas, that presents fascinating evidence for these repeating historical cycles, and I urge you to read it. But the point is that we are living in a time of transition from an age of matter-awareness to an age of energy-awareness. We are emerging from a lower age when people’s consciousness was limited to thinking in terms of material forms and rigid definitions, to a higher age when energy will be the touchstone for how people will think about everything.

Although we’ve barely entered the age of energy, we’re already seeing a breathtaking explosion in our ability to manipulate energy. A wonderful example is the evolution of computers, where the huge computers that were used to manage the first space launches sixty years ago were less powerful than the watches we wear today.

These outward manifestations reflect the transition from a time when people believed that for something to be powerful and important, it had to be really big and massive, to an understanding that things that are invisible to the naked eye can have great power.

In the field of spirituality, we’re moving away from rigid forms and dogmas, to an understanding that energy is the link between our bodies and our consciousness and Spirit.

In the highest age, it will be universally understood that all of the energy in the cosmos is coming from Spirit. And, even now, everyone who is powerful in this world, including people who are powerfully evil, have captured some of that energy.

Swamiji said that although isn’t good karma to be evil, evil people can sometimes be more spiritually advanced than people who, as he put it, are simply too lazy to sin. It isn’t that they’re good, but that they don’t have the energy to manifest much of anything.

Swamiji told a story of Swami Vivekananda, who was a foremost disciple of Sri Ramakrishna. A man came to Vivekananda and asked him, rather limply, “Can you help me to realize God?” And Vivekananda, who was a powerful figure, demanded, “Can you lie?!”

The man protested, “I would never tell a lie!”

Vivekananda said, “Can you steal?!”

The point is that the man didn’t have the energy to be truly good, and he needed to raise his energy and have his own experiences so that he could understand the consequences of various ways of living. Because only then would he be ready to begin to refine his consciousness.

There were people at Ananda who were impossible for anyone to work with. But if they had energy, Swamiji would take them under his wing and work with them. I believe I was Exhibit A in that regard. I believe he swept me into his aura because I couldn’t have functioned very well anywhere else. He kept me pretty close for most of his life, and I won’t comment about that. But I did have energy, and it was something we could work with.

It’s important to remember that although Babaji revived the ancient science of Kriya Yoga, and although Paramhansa Yogananda brought it to the West, neither of them actually invented Kriya Yoga.

During the lower, matter-bound age of Kali Yuga, Kriya Yoga had to be kept secret, because most people weren’t interested in inner development, and there was too much evil in the world to have that kind of power distributed openly. And then, as the world began to enter the energy age, Lahiri Mahasaya re-introduced Kriya, and Master brought it to America. But at no point did they invent it.

Kriya Yoga is a timeless spiritual technique that is based on how the human body is made. Master said that all of the great spiritual teachers have taught Kriya in some form, because our spiritual anatomy never changes. The kundalini energy must always be raised up the spine to give us enlightenment. The breath, the mind, and the energy in the body are always linked in the same way, and if we want to grow spiritually, we must always interiorize and elevate our energy and our consciousness.

All of the inventions that we credit various individuals for having discovered have actually been based on their realizing what was already there. Nobody can make anything new in this world. Those discoveries were waiting to be made, and the inventors simply saw what was there.

Nobody can invent Kriya Yoga. Most of what Master taught – watching the breath, listening to the inner sounds, working with the inner energy – is based on methods that have existed since the dawn of time. But there was one technique that Yogananda introduced, based on his perception of what was there, and that is the energization exercises.

If you aren’t familiar with them, they are thirty-two exercises that show us how we can use our will power and concentration to gain control of the energy in the human nervous system. Those exercises give us the experience of energy as the link between body and Spirit. And once you have control over your energy, you have the keys to the kingdom.

As Swami pointed out, all successful people have extraordinary concentration and energy. Every true spiritual teacher is bursting with energy, and this was Swamiji’s defining feature until the very end of his life. I remember coming into his home at eleven or twelve o’clock one night and seeing sixteen people engaged in projects that he had created. Somebody was working with slides, somebody was repairing the building, someone was painting, and some were working on his books – all toward manifesting, focusing, and expressing energy.

Energy is the nature of this new age we’ve entered, and energy is the nature of our path, and what Ananda is about. It’s why Swami Vivekananda said that realizing God takes energy, and it’s why Paramhansa Yogananda tells us that we must put our full concentration and energy into everything we do.

Swamiji was so energetic! In his home at Ananda Village, there’s a little closet that, in the early days, served as his meditation room. Somebody had conceived the idea that you could soundproof it by gluing egg cartons to the wall. But Swami said that he could feel those little points when he was meditating, and that they weren’t harmonious. So one evening Seva and Swami and I ripped it all out and cut a bunch of styrofoam and put it on the walls instead, and I believe we hung some blue curtains.

We worked from dinnertime until three in the morning. And I mention this because it shows how, whenever Swami would put his mind to something, he wouldn’t stop until it was finished. It didn’t matter what time it was, only that this needed to be done, and that we were going to put out our full energy to do it. And we did – whoosh! And I thought afterward, “Whoa – so that’s what it means to work.”

In 1973, Swamiji took a group of singers to Los Angeles. Somebody had offered us the use of a recording studio, which was a great boon because we had little money. So Swamiji went to LA with about a dozen people.

I wasn’t among them, but I heard the story afterward. They all stayed together in a house, because they couldn’t afford a hotel. Swami had a private room, and the others slept anywhere they could. A dozen people had to share one bathroom, but they managed just fine.

Haridas said that Swami would wake them in the morning to meditate together, and then they would head off to the studio for hours and hours. And when they weren’t doing that, he would hand them stacks of books and send them out in cars to sell his books all over Los Angeles. Later, Haridas, in his humorous way said, “I believed in the path of moderation. I thought I could kind of ease my way into God-realization.”

But Swamiji showed them, absolutely not! Because we have to become one with the power that is manifesting the entire created cosmos.

Haridas said that Swami never stopped. He described how they would be flaked out, sound asleep on the studio floor, and how Swami, who was twenty-five years older than any of them, never stopped working. And that’s the state that we’re trying to achieve.

Now, our reading today is very simple. It’s talking about putting first things first. And it’s challenging us – What are we going to do with our lives? Where are we going? What are we trying to accomplish? How will we get there? And these are important questions.

The thing about Self-realization is that, because we’re working with our consciousness, it’s never a question of meeting some external standard. Rather, it’s a matter of starting where we are and moving in the right direction.

Here in Palo Alto, we’re trying to get accreditation for our new high school, because it will be important for the school to be accredited when the children apply to college. Otherwise, I don’t think we would bother, because we know what we’re doing, and we don’t need anyone’s approval.

At any rate, there were nineteen pages of questions that they were asking us to answer, and they were about as convoluted as they could make them. I don’t know why people try to make these official documents as incomprehensible as possible. But in the end I realized that they were just asking us to tell them what we’re doing. And we know what we’re doing – we are truly taking care of the children. We are giving them a real education, and we know how to do it.

But there is this consciousness that you have to fill out all the proper forms, and you have to make a detailed plan, and you have to measure the outcomes. But, no! That’s the old, materialistic consciousness with its rigid outlook. But the simple fact is that we love these children, and we know how to take care of them.

We need to narrow the purpose of our life to answering a few simple questions, because when we boil it down to its essence, Self-realization is very simple. It’s about working with our consciousness. And is there any time at which you are not in a state of consciousness? Is there any moment when you can separate yourself from your project of Self-realization – of expanding your consciousness?

And, well, this is why so few are making the effort, because it’s a big job. And yet it is inescapable.

People would ask Swamiji, “How can we succeed on the spiritual path? How can we keep from quitting? How can we stick with it?” And, among other things that he might say, he would remind us that it’s a matter of life and death, and that it isn’t optional.

It’s not that you need to start with that thought in mind. You don’t have to go about it in fear and trembling. But sooner or later it will cross your mind that all I ever have is my consciousness, and all I’m ever experiencing is my own consciousness. And I can let myself get lost in fretting over who did what to me, and why, and the impact it had on me. And I’m not mocking that, because it’s very real, and traumatic things will happen to us in these lives, and to the people around us.

But Swami humorously expressed the right attitude toward our difficulties: “Help me to enjoy the comedy of this world.” Because when I realize that the only lasting reality is God, I will be able to gain a certain distance from the troubles of this life.

Sooner or later, we have to figure out that all of the energy that we’re expending to try to get this world to work for us, and to get it to conform to our expectations, is in vain, and that there is no exception.

My father was a Virgo. I know very little about astrology, but it was a revelation for me to understand that he was a Virgo. Because he was a very intelligent man, and he liked to analyze things down to the last dot, and he liked to see if there was any little exception.

He was always pushing the limits of what he could understand by analyzing things. And while it was sweet in its own way, and he was a very dear person, it could be a bit annoying at times. And then, virtually in a single afternoon, his mental functioning declined, and the most interesting thing happened – he suddenly forgot what he was worried about, and he became so sweet.

He forgot that he had to be the Virgo always analyzing everything, and he remembered that he was a dear loving, wonderful man. And sometimes that which we think of as negative isn’t negative at all, because when his intellectual powers began to fail him, he was able to manifest the side of him that was so sweet. He had always been sweet, but he became even sweeter when his mind stopped tormenting him.

Sooner or later on the path, we realize that all we ever have is our consciousness. And whether we are happy or sad, cheerful or energetic, or depressed or angry or feeling mistreated, where is it happening? It’s all happening inside our head, isn’t it?

There are countless stories of people who’ve endured terrible circumstances, and who’ve been able to experience a completely different reality in their heads. And that’s what Self-realization is about – Self-realization is about changing our inner reality. And at some point in our soul’s long journey from darkness to light, that perception becomes our entire reality. And then we understand Jesus’ words, “But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.” (Matthew 6:33)

Now, it doesn’t mean that you’ll suddenly be given all of the stuff you ever wanted, and it certainly doesn’t mean that your karma will suddenly be finished.

In the early days at Ananda Village, the dome where Swamiji lived leaked like a sieve when it rained. I’ve mentioned how there was a trapdoor in his living room that led down under the house where the firewood was stored. The roof leaked so much that we had to lift the trap door and sweep the water out.

It was horrible, and at various times they tried to fix it, by putting a plastic coating on the roof, or repainting it, but it just kept leaking, because the surface had been sprayed on, and every little change in the temperature would make it expand and contract, and it was always cracking.

I remember how Swamiji pleaded so humorously and beseechingly, “But Lord, I’m so sincere!”

I’m so sincere. I’m trying so hard. Just make it stop leaking!

He would joke about attitudes that we might be inclined to take too seriously. “Lord, I’m so sincere, and why aren’t you fulfilling my desires? Why can’t you give me what I want?”

Why can’t you make my life easier? Why can’t you make it so I don’t have to put out so much energy? Because that’s what it comes down to, isn’t it? It always comes down to whether I can generate sufficient energy, and concentrate sufficiently to face the realities I’m facing, and keep going with the integrity that the spiritual path demands. But God is our Divine Mother, and She gets it. She understands when we can’t always pass Her tests.

When I was seven, I went to sleep-away camp. I was the youngest kid in the camp, and I loved it. It was great fun, but I was too little to do some of stuff they were teaching us. They showed us how to weave potholders, and I couldn’t do it because my little hands couldn’t figure it out. So when the parents’ visiting day came, all of the other children had potholders hanging on their bunks, and I didn’t have any. But the kid sleeping above me did, so I took a few of hers and put them on my bunk. And of course she wasn’t pleased.

I don’t remember the details of the altercation, and I don’t know why my parents didn’t condemn me for lying, because they were very strict about that. But I remember saying, “They fell! They fell!” I remember trying to convince my parents that I didn’t take them. And what I remember most vividly is how my mother understood, and how she held me while I was sobbing because it was all so very tragic. I was fortunate to have a mother who would do that for me, and maybe not everyone has had that experience. But we all have a Divine Mother who does that for us all the time.

And that’s the important point. Even when we fail and we say, “They fell, they fell! It wasn’t my fault! I’m so sincere!” Divine Mother says, “That’s all right.” And She waits until we can get ourselves organized, and then She says, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God.”

I will muster my energy. I will find a way. God will give me the power. I will sing the music. I will practice Kriya as much as I can. Because I know that all I have is my consciousness, and what will it serve me to compromise that?

It will serve me in every way never to compromise my consciousness. That’s what Jesus wants us to know. And let us always do our best to remember. God bless you.

(From Asha’s talk during Sunday service at Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto, California on October 21, 2018.)

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