Reason Versus Experience: How Can We Know God’s Truth?

Photo: grateful thanks to Simon Matzinger on Unsplash.

When Swami Kriyananda put together the commentaries on the Bible and Bhagavad Gita that we read at our Sunday services, he planned them as a fixed program for the year.

A problem we quickly noticed with the order of the readings was that Swamiji’s birthday, May 19, always fell close to the reading titled “Why Do Devotees Fail?”

It was mildly disconcerting, and it gave rise to the thought that maybe we should rearrange the commentaries.

It was Swamiji’s way to allow us, as far as possible, to try things out for ourselves. So we used the new order for several years, and then he quietly asserted that he preferred the original order, which we once again adopted.

Swamiji would acknowledge our need to learn our own lessons at our own pace, before we could move on, firm in our own understanding.

In a recent service, the reading was on “Common Sense.” Today’s topic is “Intuition and Reason.” And it seems that those topics deliberately follow each other so closely. Because it’s extremely important for us to understand the need for common sense on the spiritual path. As Swamiji often said, intuition without common sense is the death of spirituality.

Teresa of Avila

At the time when St. Teresa of Avila lived, in the 1500s, there really was no option, if you were serious about the spiritual path, but to separate yourself from the world completely. It was especially true for women, because in those times women were wholly subservient to their fathers and husbands, and a woman’s role was very strictly confined to keeping house and having children.

There was virtually no possibility for women to choose another destiny. And if they wanted to pursue the spiritual life in earnest, they had to separate themselves drastically from society.

This is why Teresa founded a series of enclosed convents where, once a woman had entered, she would spend the rest of her life there. Usually, from twelve to fifteen women would live together within the enclosed confines of the convent, but never more than twenty.

Teresa emphasized that great care should be taken in selecting the nuns, to ensure a harmony that would enable the convent to function. She particularly counseled the mother superiors to look, above all, for common sense. Because she said that every other quality, including the love of God, can be developed, but if a nun lacked common sense, nothing else would be possible.

People often imagine that the more wacky a statement is, and the more it goes against all common sense and reason, the more intuitively inspired it must be. And while it’s true that intuition sometimes defies reason, there is no real conflict between true intuition and common sense.

It was interesting to observe the way Swamiji worked with his intuition. In the early years of Ananda, from 1969 to about 1990, Swami tended to keep his inspiration a little bit under wraps. He did it on purpose, because if he had come right out and shared the full flow of his inner inspiration, at a time when the spiritual movement in America was getting started in the 1960s and 1970s, and hardly anybody understood what a spiritual life really looked like, it would have been absolutely guaranteed to be misunderstood.

The game of being a guru was very popular in those days, with lots of folks declaring themselves gurus, and many folks believing them. And Swamiji didn’t want to have anything to do with that scene, which looked to him more like a circus than a serious spiritual movement.

Also, there was a general mood of mindless acquiescence –  “Anything you say, sir, yes, sir, whatever it is, sir, yes, sir, I’ll do it, sir.” And it isn’t a helpful attitude when we’re trying to become Self-realized.

Self-realization is about expanding the capacity within ourselves to see higher and higher levels of reality. And while there’s a very real need to respect spiritual authority, there’s also a need to learn to base our respect on our own understanding.

When someone asked Swamiji, “What is the best yoga posture?” he replied, “That one which enables you to stand on your own two feet.”

Paramhansa Yogananda’s path is one of discipleship. And Swami was telling us that to be a good disciple requires that we develop a level of intuitive understanding that transcends blind obedience, on the one hand, and a blatant affirmation of the ego on the other – “Nobody knows better than I!”

Sri Yukteswar with Paramhansa Yogananda

I’ve had conversations with people who were so fixed on their inner directions that I finally had to ask them, “Do you really think that God is only capable of speaking to you and through you? Can you imagine, considering it purely as a theory, that someone might be able to receive a message that could help you? Are you the only one who is capable of receiving God’s true guidance?”

We don’t plan to fall into those attitudes; it usually happens more or less by accident. We’re going along, feeling nicely balanced in our spiritual life, and then – oops – we find ourselves slipping a little off to the side, and then a little more, until we realize that we’re way out on a limb, far from the center of truth.

This is, in fact, a perfectly normal experience on the spiritual path, because God knows that we need to conduct endless experiments before we can really begin to know what’s true with our own understanding.

Even at the beginning of Swamiji’s life, and certainly by the time he was starting Ananda, he had long since earned the right to trust his intuition, and to judge the truth of the inspirations he received. He was a wonderfully intuitive leader who was very sensitively attuned to people’s needs.

In his book, The Art of Supportive Leadership, he says that the last recourse of a weak leader is to want to silence opposition by claiming access to special information that nobody else has – “You must do it my way because Master told me so.”

There were countless times over the years when we realized that he had been guided from a very high level of inspiration in the decisions he made. But if he had come right out and put it to us as the last word on the truth, it would have paralyzed our own powers of reason and prevented us from learning from our mistakes. And that was the last thing he wanted to do.

I remember an occasion when a friend made a decision that turned out to be very controversial within the community. Yet he insisted that God had guided him to make the decision.

I said to him, “Perhaps you could be a little less explicit and a little more humble in your declaration, because if anybody agrees with you they’ll be going against God, which is a very hard position to find themselves in.”

If you announce that you believe such-and-such, we can agree to have a difference of opinion. But if you’re insisting that what you’re saying is the absolute truth and that everyone should behave accordingly, you owe it to your friends at least to consider that you might be putting them in an impossible position, and depriving them of the opportunity to find out for themselves what’s true.

Swamiji would never put us in such a spot, even though he had every right to claim that he was speaking from the highest truth, because it would not have been productive for us.

He would say, “I’ve been thinking.” Or, “A thought came to me,” Or, “What about this?” “Do you think this might work?” “A few of us were discussing.” And then he would lay out a new idea for us to contemplate.

When I was growing up we were comfortably well-off, though we were by no means wealthy. My parents were not particularly materialistic, and we had utilitarian things, because it was the way they had been raised, and the way they raised us.

I remember accompanying Swami to visit a woman at Ananda Village. She owned a set of fine china teacups, and I had never drunk tea from fine china. When I picked up the beautiful cup and put it to my lips I thought, “Wow, it’s so fine and smooth, and it feels really nice on the lips.”

I said to Swami. “Oh, I see why people have things like this. It’s very nice.”

He said to me, speaking seriously, “Before you come on the path, you must have been very wealthy.” And he added, “Be very, very careful.”

Before you can even think of turning your back on the material world, and before you can be willing in your heart to turn toward God and away from the satisfactions of this world, you must have satisfied those desires to quite a large degree. And it means that you must have had incarnations of wealth, when you could buy anything you wanted. Because, as long as you’re still imagining that it will make you happy, your karma will compel you to keep testing that theory.

Nobody ever learns anything except from their own experiences. We have to test our every desire and find out for ourselves that it’s lacking, before we can let it go and move on.

It’s said that wealthy people commit suicide more often than poor people, because poor people are always imagining that they would be happy if they could have just a little bit more. But wealthy people have gotten it, and they’ve realized that it really can’t satisfy the longing of their hearts.

Swami was cautioning me not to start down that path again, because even though we may have understood, it’s not a guarantee that we’re safe against the temptation.

Oh, this is very pleasant, and if I had just a little more money I could have cups like these. And, let’s see, the only reason I don’t have more money is because I’m living at Ananda. But if I would take a part-time job I could make enough money to buy china cups. And there you go.

Master told the story of a sadhu who had nothing, just two loincloths. He washed one of them and hung it to dry in the sun, and a mouse came along and nibbled at the cloth. The sadhu thought, “If I had a cat, it would catch the mice.” So he got a cat, and then the cat had to be fed, so he got a cow so he could have milk for the cat. But the cow needed a field, so he had to buy land, and working the land was taking up a lot of his time, so he got a wife to help him. But it was too much work for her, so they had children to help them. And it all started with a loincloth. And the obvious point is that we aren’t safe until we’re free.

Photo: Ken Christon on Unsplash.

In Swami’s book The Promise of Immortality in the Bible and the Bhagavad Gita he expands on the Sunday service commentaries. There are just six months’ worth of them, because he was never able to go back and finish the book. But there’s a very interesting one on “How to Relate to a Spiritual Teacher.” And although the subject is how we should relate to the teacher, the discussion is all about intuition.

Our commentary today is about the passage in the Bible where Jesus challenges his disciples, “Who do you think I am?” And some of them answered him by speculating on who he might have been in his former lives, naming this or that prophet of the past that they believed he might have been.

The reference to Jesus’ past lives is an interesting topic in itself. It’s one of the Bible passages that they forgot to remove, in the sixth century when they decided to delete all references to reincarnation. But they missed a few, and this is a prominent example. At any rate, Peter answers Jesus very differently:

And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.

And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven.

And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. (Matthew 16:16-18)

Peter answered Jesus with complete simplicity: “Thou art the Christ.” And by his answer he showed that he had perceived the reality of Jesus through the penetrating power of spiritual intuition. It was a direct perception that came from Peter’s soul-knowledge and not from his reason. And Jesus acknowledged it by saying that Peter had understood truly, through an unshakable intuition that nothing could change.

When we know the truth with that level of deep, intuitive perception, nothing can sway us. And this was the rock of sure knowing upon which Jesus would build his church.

Swamiji tells us in his commentary that this is the level of intuitive perception that we, too, must achieve, because it will set our lives on a true course, and it can never be taken from us.

Peter’s former name was Simon Barjona – Simon, the son of Jonah – and Jesus now gives him the new name Petra, or Peter, “the Rock.”

I will build my church upon the direct perception that knows what I truly am, and that transcends this world and knows Eternity. He’s telling us about the level of deep intuitive knowing that we must develop, if we want to be truly anchored in the path.

One of the reasons Swamiji was careful not to allow us to fall into mindless acquiescence is that if we were to acquiesce mindlessly to him, we would be likely to acquiesce mindlessly to anyone who could speak reasonably, but whose understanding might be very questionable.

As many of you know, there was a period when Ananda was vilified in the courts and the local media because of SRF’s legal action against us. In the end we were judged guilty of every imaginable aberration that a spiritual leader could be accused of. It was a time of testing for us all, because it’s one thing to be the darlings of the spiritual communities movement in America, but it’s quite another to be suddenly considered the black sheep.

I was deeply involved with the litigation, and I was privy to many of the private documents, so I knew more than most people about what was going on. I knew a lot about both sides, and looking back, I see that it was a wonderful adventure. An adventure, in the sense that the soundtrack and script were worthy of an exciting Hollywood thriller.

When people would come to me, wanting me to persuade them that Ananda was, in fact, not scum, I would refuse to do it. Because if I can persuade you that we aren’t scum, and if you’re only depending on logic and reason, somebody else will be able to come along and persuade you that we are.

I would say, “I don’t know. What do you think?” My point of view wasn’t hard to discern, because I was representing our side from start to finish. I was completely and utterly knowledgeable about the mud that was being slung at us, and where it was coming from and why, and whether it was true. And I just washed my hands of all the logical, plausible-seeming arguments and kept going, anchored in my own understanding. But for the questioners, my point of view was irrelevant, because it was based on my own considerable experience of the case, and of Ananda and Swamiji. And the real question for the doubters was, “What is your experience?”

More deeply, the relevant question is, “Have you learned to trust your experience?” And, even more deeply, “How can you learn to trust your experience?”

How easy is it to shake us, and make us feel insecure about what we think we know? Are we convinced to the depths of our being, or will the mildest breeze be able to blow us away?

The events of our lives seem so real to us. And who would say that they aren’t happening? As Master said, the dream is real on the level of the dream. And we cannot say that it isn’t really happening, until we’ve experienced a higher level of spiritual vision. Yet it gradually dawns on us, over many lives, that the events of this world are not the whole story.

By the time we become deeply committed to Self-realization, it won’t be our first time around. We’ve worked hard for many lives to acquire beautiful china cups, and we’ve looked at them and held them and drunk from them, and we still aren’t perfectly satisfied.

So we get more and better cups, and we’re still unhappy. And when I say unhappy, it isn’t that we’re weeping and wailing. Because, as Swami often said, we learn more from having our desires fulfilled than from having them disappointed. If we’re disappointed, we’ll still be imagining “If I can just make it work this time, I’ll be able to feel all right.” And when it works out, we rejoice in how beautiful it is. But is it enough?

When we’re finally willing to consider that what we’re seeing all around us might actually be no more than a thin veneer over something much deeper, that’s when we begin to hear the whispered voice of Spirit. All of you have come to that point, where something has happened in your lives, dramatically or mildly, to tell you that there is another reality.

You cannot find your way to that penetrating vision by reason alone. Reason can support it – we can reason that these beautiful china cups are destined to be broken, that our joy in them will fade, that the china cups will turn out to be fakes, that somebody will have better cups, and that in the end we’re going to die anyway, and we won’t be able to take them with us.

So reason can help, but reason and logic alone can never give us that unshakable level of intuitive certainty.

I’m thinking of an insurance company that promised to help you leave all your money to yourself in your next incarnation.

It’s the kind of perfectly reasonable scheme that Americans would think up, and I applaud our American creative ingenuity. It’s why we’re a rich country, because we are so endlessly creative in these material ways. And the rational mind will tell you that it’s perfectly logical – but what a scam!

When you know with a deep intuitive certainty, you simply know. And this is the bedrock of true understanding that Jesus was urging us to develop. It’s not about clear-mindedness, or clear thinking, or common sense. It’s about knowing in such a deep way that whatever happens to us, and whatever anyone might say or do doesn’t make the slightest difference, because we simply know.

Whenever a fragment of that higher intuitive certainty begins to penetrate the facade that we’re always carrying around with us, of our personality and our self-definitions and our thoughts and feelings, we need to grab it with all our might and hold onto it and put it in our hearts, and take it out and look at it and contemplate it, and do everything we can to make it the center of our lives.

I’ve mentioned an early period in my life at Ananda Village, when I lived in impoverished circumstances; although I never felt the slightest bit impoverished, except for one brief moment.

I was living in a tiny trailer and earning $50 a month. I served as Swami’s secretary, and at the beginning of the month he would open his wallet and hand me two twenties and a ten, and I kept it in a jar, and it was always enough because I had no significant expenses. It’s very easy to have no money. Having a middle amount of money is trickier, because you can buy things, and then you have to decide what to buy, and worry about it. But when you have no money, you can’t buy anything, and it’s a very relaxed position.

When Nitai left his job as a public school teacher and moved to Ananda Village to start a school there, he made just $25 a month. He supplemented it by working in Jyotish’s little incense business. And when his mother asked him about his new job, he said, “I’m still teaching. I’m starting a school.” And it sounded really great, unless you knew that he was teaching school in a former chicken coop with six children. But Nitai said, “I’m starting a school. I’m still teaching.” “Oh,” she said, “what’s the salary?” He said, “Twenty-five.” And she said, “Oh – $25,000 a year, that’s very good!”

Nitai said, “I hope God forgave me, because I didn’t correct her.”

At any rate, there was a moment when I was living in my tiny, rather cramped trailer, and I began to think that maybe it wasn’t good for me anymore, and that I needed a more expansive reality.

I’ve always been capable of making money. I have no formal education, but I’ve always had great confidence. So it was really just a matter of finding a way to make more money. And for a moment I wondered, “Should I go out and do something to get more money and fix this?”

But then the thought came immediately, “To do that would be to turn my back on my dharma, which is to live for this path, and to live for God, and to serve this work.”

Now, reason has a way of coming in with lots of nice-sounding justifications. But that was the deep, intuitive core of the matter – that there had been a call from God at a level that had nothing to do with reason and logic, and I had done the work to maintain the freshness of that reality and to make that rock the stable core of my life.

So I could only say, “I can’t.” It may be a true intuition that something needs to shift, but I cannot and will not shift it at the expense of this very powerful core of my existence which is the basis for my entire life. I said, “God, if you want something different You’ll have to do something.” And a year later I found myself in completely different circumstances.

“Upon this rock” of intuitive perception we build our own increasingly sturdy church of commitment to God, until no power in heaven or earth can shake it. It’s a gift, but it’s also a great decision on our part, to recognize the power that enables us to know the precious Christ child within us, and to know that we must protect it and raise it until God Himself will smile at us and say, “Thou art Peter. Thou art a rock, and upon this rock I will build my church of Self-realization.”

This is our destiny, and let us lovingly embrace it.

(From Asha’s talk during Sunday service at Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto, California on March 12, 2017.)

Leave a Comment

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.