As spiritual seekers, we’re often forced to confront the uncomfortable fact that there may be a huge gap between our highest aspirations and our present degree of Self-realization.
And, well, this is the spiritual path – because, if there were no gap between our aspirations and our achievements, we would be Self-realized already.
Someone asked me recently if I had found the spiritual path more difficult in the beginning. I thought it was a very good question. Does the path get easier as we go along? And it made me stop and reflect.
I effectively came on the path on June 1, 1971, the day I arrived at Ananda Village. And when I try to remember if it was harder in the beginning, I find that I really can’t think of it as being hard at all.
I was so happy to have found a community, a true teacher, a liberating technique of meditation, and my spiritual family.
We were living in very primitive circumstances, with no money and no conveniences and no worldly future of any kind, but with all of these great people and with Swami Kriyananda, and it was heaven on earth.
It was a tremendously exciting departure from the sheer boredom of ordinary life, that I couldn’t find any place in my heart where there was a feeling of difficulty.
Of course, to be perfectly honest, I do remember occasional unhappy days, and I certainly remember many absolutely appalling revelations about my own nature that were stunning to contemplate in their awfulness.
But, even then, I’ve never considered it difficult, especially when I compare it with the thought of living without any idea of what this life is about, and without any sense of my relationship to a higher reality, and with no idea of how to cultivate those qualities in myself that are absolutely essential to my happiness.
To my way of thinking, that is the very definition of difficulty. And simply to have to face who you are, and to find out lots of uncomfortable things about yourself that you might not want to know – that’s child’s play, compared to the feeling of being hopelessly lost and adrift without a compass or a rudder.
Of course, the other side of it is that this life is never easy. It isn’t the spiritual journey that’s difficult, it’s life itself. And how difficult our journey will be, will depend on our karma.
In our Living Wisdom Schools, we talk about each student’s “specific gravity.” It’s a term that Swami came up with to measure each child’s essential level of energy and awareness.
When the dust settles, what is your essential nature? Are you heavy (pessimistic? sad? scared?) or light (optimistic? dynamic? happy?)? Are you eager for the next challenge? Or is your first response to pull the covers up over your head?
Swami suggested “specific gravity” as a useful way to look at our nature and determine where we’re standing.
The Bhagavad Gita speaks of the degrees of lightness as tamas, rajas, and sattwa. They are the three qualities of energy: darkening, activating, and liberating.
They are also the qualities of the four castes – the heavy energy of the physically identified peasant (sudra), the ego-active energy of the merchant (vaishya), the serviceful and self-forgetful, active energy of the warrior-administrator (kshatriya), and the refined energy and inner freedom of the spiritually realized person (brahmin).
Over the centuries, people’s understanding of the caste system devolved to the point where it became a repressive system of social exclusion. But in its original form, it was simply a very useful measuring stick for evaluating people’s essential consciousness, as a way to identify the role in life that would be most spiritually helpful for them, in keeping with their nature.
People whose nature is of the lowest caste, the peasant or sudra, are heavily identified with the physical world. At that stage, they define happiness as a state where they’re able to put out as little energy as possible. They believe that happiness will come by being left to sprawl in an easy chair with beer and chips and the television blaring.
If you’re in the peasant state of consciousness, how do you think to avoid suffering? You try to make yourself less conscious. If something is bothering you, you try to let your consciousness sink to a level where you’re no longer aware of it. When you’re feeling bad, you eat lots of ice cream or drink lots of beer or smoke marijuana or watch TV or go to sleep – anything to make you less aware so that you can avoid having to deal with the problem.
We all have these inclinations. When something is too much for us, we throw up our hands and go to the movies. And it isn’t always a bad strategy, if it gives us time to gather enough strength and inspiration to come back and confront the problem.
This is why, in our Living Wisdom Schools, we look very carefully at each child’s individual nature, so that we can help them grow by addressing their unique needs at their own, individual level.
The second caste, the vaishya, is where you’ve begun to put out energy in the pursuit of your own interests. The vaishya is willing put out energy, but always with an eye to what they’re going to get out of it in return. “I’ll do it if there’s something in it for me.” And they try to avoid suffering by getting the world lined up just right so that it will serve them.
The trouble is that the world resists remaining lined up; otherwise, it might be a great plan.
Oddly enough, most political activism comes from the vaishya way of thinking. “I’m feeling uncomfortable because you aren’t behaving exactly the way I think you should.” It’s also why, once you begin to realize that this world can never make you happy, you’re less inclined to try to arrange it to your liking.
At the vaishya stage, there has to be something in it for you, or you won’t bother putting out the energy.
At the stage of the kshatriya, the warrior-administrator, you’ve begun to understand that there’s a far more satisfying kind of happiness to be had by working for the welfare of all.
If a kshatriya says to a vaishya, “You shouldn’t put toxic chemicals on your crops, because it will hurt the animals and poison our food,” the vaishya responds, “Well, I gotta use these chemicals, ’cause otherwise I won’t have enough crops to sell.”
When the kshatriya protests, “But you’re hurting the planet,” the vaishya replies, “Who cares about the planet? – I need to make a buck!”
The vaishya is always looking out for Number One, but the kshatriya is looking for a happiness that comes by including the happiness of others.
How does the kshatriya try to escape from suffering? At that stage of spiritual awareness, he knows, “I cannot depend on the world to give me happiness and freedom from suffering. I can only find happiness by expanding my awareness, which means that I must discipline myself and get control over my self-centered reactions to the world around me.”
The kshatriya is focused on developing the inner strength to keep his consciousness expansive, instead of trying to manipulate the pieces and build a reality that will only start crumbling from day one.
Finally, the brahmin understands that the greatest happiness comes by doing only what God wants, and that suffering vanishes when there is complete acceptance of God’s will. The brahmin knows that the way to supreme happiness comes by total self-offering to God.
In our society today, our educational system is conducted almost entirely along vaishya and sudra lines. It’s focused on the idea that if we can get enough money, power, and prestige, our reward will be happiness and freedom.
Our schools are based on external rewards and competing for outward fulfillments. We teach our children almost nothing about the inner rewards of living by high ideals and serving society, what to speak of serving God. The educational system is so anchored in materialism that we aren’t even allowed to mention those higher things.
Our whole culture is oriented this way, where our children are being taught that the goal is to put your life in order so that it will give you what you want, and that the way to avoid suffering is by dulling your consciousness or saturating it with outward things and excitements.
But dulling our consciousness works against who we actually are.
A woman friend of mine pointed out that no matter how unhappy and discouraged you are, it really isn’t all that easy to simply lie down and die.
You can lie down and resolve that you aren’t going to get up again, but then you become bored, or you start to feel hungry and thirsty, or your elbow hurts.
The reason we cannot simply give up is because there’s a force in our own nature that is forever pushing us to seek a greater happiness and freedom.
The unfortunate thing about committing suicide is that you’re still there. You can take yourself out of the body, but your life will not simply cease, because your consciousness goes on forever. And the only real solution is to expand your awareness until it embraces an eternity of bliss.
It’s an understanding that comes to us over many lives. And when people don’t want to believe that they’ll be reborn, or that there is any meaningful direction in life, the thing to tell them is: “Yes, absolutely! Go ahead and try it, and see for yourself how it works for you.” Because we only ever really become motivated to start expanding our awareness when we’ve realized, with absolute inner certainty, that it’s what we want to do.
I remember telling a healer about some dramatic events in my life, and all the burdens I was carrying, and how much I was suffering.
She looked at me very sweetly and said, “Well, how’s that working for you?”
It was a helpful response, because it made me look at what I was doing and evaluate the rewards. I realized that it was actually serving me very well in lots of ways. On the one hand, yes, I was suffering, but on the other, I was happily absorbed in how much I was suffering, and how I really didn’t want to face any of these issues, and how I could just keep busy suffering. So it was actually working quite well for me.
But, of course, not really, because the soul-force inside us will sooner or later make us so dissatisfied that we’ll have to face the need to keep moving forward.
Swami Kriyananda said, speaking of the years when he lived with Paramhansa Yogananda, that you’d think people would flock to this great master who had so much to give them. And you’d think that those who were with him would cling to him as the raft that could take them to their salvation.
But he said that Mount Washington, which had formerly been a fashionable hotel, was still functioning like a hotel, because the disciples would check in for a time, and then they would check out and go on their way.
Swamiji said that he watched the process carefully, and that it led him to an interesting conclusion. Very often, when people would leave the ashram, they would repudiate Yogananda. And Swami said that he realized it was because Yogananda was always radiating a tremendous light, and that everything that came within the nimbus of that light was highlighted, as it could not be when you were outside of that ray.
In Master’s presence, people would see their own nature in stark detail – they would see both their high potential and their hideous limitations. And it was themselves that they couldn’t face.
They couldn’t face the enormity of the spiritual work before them, and it was easier to repudiate the guru than to embrace the job at hand. And, really, the central problem is that even though Master was endlessly kind and patient and forgiving, we cannot always muster those same attitudes toward ourselves.
So, to return to the question of whether I found the spiritual path more difficult in the beginning – no, the spiritual path isn’t difficult at all. But the problem is that our lives are continually placing challenges in our path that we aren’t prepared to face with calm acceptance. And insofar as we are motivated by the sudra consciousness, we will resent the tests that God sends us, and we’ll get angry and want to run away. We’ll think it’s hopelessly difficult, and we’ll look for a way to escape our tests.
It’s helpful to remember that people don’t come on the spiritual path in a sudden flash of inspiration. “Bingo, here I am, and I think I’ll transform myself into God-realization.” You don’t just walk in, in a single lifetime, and grab the brass ring and never let go.
We have many, many lives, and even among those who have the tremendous good karma to spend time with a God-realized master, there will be very few who have the courage to stick it out to the end, and let him bleach the last vestiges of karmic flesh from their bones.
The spiritual path is very simple, and it all comes down to this: that the first requirement on the path is courage.
In Swamiji’s Handbook on Discipleship, he tells us that the first quality of a devotee is courage. And it’s something that we have to work at for a very long time. It’s no small thing, because what’s being asked of us is to repudiate all our customary ways of thinking, and to trust that an expanded awareness will bring us great joy.
There was a woman at Ananda Village who found herself working with a man who was challenging in many ways. She wasn’t enjoying the experience, so she wrote a letter to Swami enumerating the man’s shortcomings and describing her frustration in detail.
Swami said to her, “He just wants to be your friend.”
She said, “I don’t want to be his friend.” And Swamiji just laughed, because it was a perfectly honest answer.
Jyotish told us about a discussion he had with his son. When Mark was five or six, there was a boy who was behaving badly, being a bully and so on. And Jyotish said, “Just try to be his friend.” Mark thought about it for a moment, and then he said, “Daddy, I don’t want to be that good.”
We don’t, do we? Maybe we’ve come all the way up to the vaishya stage, and it’s been a great struggle, and we’ve developed a certain amount of self-confidence. “I know how to alleviate my suffering – you must change! And if I have the power, I’ll try to make you change.”
It’s something that little children understand instinctively. To get what they want, they’ll pick up a toy and hit the other kid. And it seems a perfectly reasonable solution. “He’s in my way, and I don’t like it!” And it’s how we’re tempted to behave a great deal of the time.
I’m thinking of a mother who told me that when her baby came, her two-year-old said, “Mommy, I think the baby is icky. Don’t you think the baby is icky?” The baby had taken his place, and he didn’t like it, so let’s just get rid of the baby.
The challenge is to realize that whatever comes to you, there’s no way you’ll be able to avoid it. And it’s very annoying! It’s terribly annoying that everything that happens to you is perfectly fair, and that it’s something you need.
It bothers me endlessly, and I’ve spent a great deal of time looking for loopholes. I’ve tried to think, well, everything that has happened to me has been appropriate – except for this. And I’ll have a long discussion with God and Guru about whether there might have been an error. But it has never worked out so far. Because you can go ahead and try to rebel against your karma – and how’s that working for you?
I’ve found that the simpler I can make my image of the situation, the better it works. We are meant to live in a contented center of attunement with God. And the Gita offers us an extremely useful insight for understanding the layers of delusion in which our essential divine nature is encrusted, and for learning to accept our situation by seeing it in very simple terms.
The Gita tells us that the small amount of delusion that veils the uplifted consciousness of the brahmin is like smoke that obscures the flames of a fire, and that you can dispel the smoke with a slight puff of air.
By contrast, the delusions of the vaishya and kshatriya are like rust on a mirror that requires a great deal of scrubbing to clear away.
The delusions of the sudra, the Gita compares to a baby in the womb that will only emerge in the fullness of time.
It’s helpful to remind ourselves that there is only one reality that is our birthright, and that is the consciousness of the brahmin. It’s the understanding that I am now and I have always been one with the Infinite Spirit. And if I will allow the Spirit to guide me, without interposing my own likes and dislikes, I will always be able to find the answers I need, and I’ll realize that I am always where I was meant to be.
We were sent here to be fruitful and multiply, and to share with all the gifts we have received, because we are a part of all that is. And that is our mission.
But this world is extremely alluring, and we realize that we can have so much fun in this world. And we start to feel our own power, and we take great enjoyment in how we can push and pull and grab and eat and own. And we say, “This business of acquiring – I love it! But this business about sharing, I’m not so sure. Because what else is wisdom, if not to keep what is mine for myself?”
So we enter the second stage of the soul’s long journey away from its home in God, which is called the revolt. And this is the stage where we add layer upon layer to our list of desires. I want a spouse, I want a family, I want a home, I want more money, I want power. I want this one to go away and I want this one to come to me. I want to be taller, thinner and more beautiful. And now the mind is oscillating like crazy, and we’re frantically reaching out to resolve our desires.
In recent weeks I’ve been playing out an internal drama. And, really, it’s a drama of my own making, because I’ve allowed myself to get caught up in it.
I got a letter from someone about a policy that I’m not fond of, and I’m experiencing a truly appalling amount of oscillation in my mental processes over this little policy that I’m not enamored of.
It’s hideous and unspeakable, and as I keep trying to come back to a contented center, it begins to wiggle and oscillate again and again. But what we have to understand is that we’re imagining that our fulfillment can be found somewhere outside of us. And at least we aren’t trying to sink beneath the test, as the sudra would.
Through many incarnations, we repeatedly reach out and get our hands on something we imagine we want, and then we breathe a sigh and hold onto it as if it represents our greatest happiness. But then we invariably lose it, and so we gradually learn where our happiness truly lies.
They say that you can catch a raccoon by putting bait inside a cage, because the raccoon will reach into the cage and take the bait in its paw, and it will refuse to let it go even if you pick up the cage and move it. And it’s exactly what we do; and not even physical death can separate us from our desires, because their vibrations are preserved in our spinal chakras until we release them in the full understanding that they cannot give us what we’re looking for.
God is always trying to bring us back to our center in Him. And our karma, and even our desires, too, are part of His call. God guides us to marry – not only to teach us the futility of trying to fulfill our desires outwardly, but because we need to experience the happiness of serving, and of expanding our consciousness to include others. He guides us to have children, and to make art, and to create businesses, and to build beautiful homes, all for the same essential purpose. There is nothing inherently wrong in these worldly involvements – they are simply the job that God has given us, as part of our mission to be fruitful and multiply.
God asks us to multiply our talents and energies. And bondage really only results when we reach out and say, “This is who I am. This is what I want. This is what I must have. This is mine.”
And then Divine Mother says, “I really don’t think that’s going to work for you.” And She pries our fingers loose, and She shows us that the fruits of our desires are bitter. And this is how our karma gradually pushes us back to our center.
And how much we will suffer, and how long it will take, is up to us. It’s up to us to decide how long we want to keep clinging.
And this is what the saints mean when they tell us that everything happens as it was meant to happen.
So, let us be fruitful and multiply. Let us live as God inspires us, but in the awareness that we are not doing these things for the illusory rewards we imagine they can give us, but purely because it’s what God wants us to do.
Someone said to Mother Teresa, “Surely government agencies could help people more effectively than you can. Do you really think your methods are working?’ She was a very down-to-earth person, and she said, “I’m not helping poor people. I’m doing what Jesus asked me to do.”
It makes a world of difference when you have that perspective. Whatever you’re doing, don’t think that you’re doing it for personal reasons. Just always remember, “It’s what God has given me to do, and for as long as God asks it of me, I will do it. Meanwhile, I am always holding God in my heart.” When you live with that spirit, nothing can touch you.
Become the brahmin who says “Whatever God gives, that is what I want. There is no suffering in doing God’s will.” Because when we know that there is no alternative to doing His will, we will find our lives dissolving in His bliss.
God bless you.
(From Asha’s talk during Sunday service at Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto, California on August 20, 2017.)