The Hidden Simplicity of the Spiritual Path

Swami Kriyananda with Asha, early 1990s. Click photo to enlarge.

We celebrated Swami Kriyananda’s birthday yesterday, and I thought I would take time to talk a little about Swamiji.

In his last years, as he became more and more incapacitated, a woman named Narayani took over the responsibility of caring for him. She became his interface with the world and was constantly by his side.

In the last month of his life, Swamiji asked Narayani to write about her experiences with him. And because English isn’t her first language, she asked me to go through the manuscript with her to help her clarify the language and decide what she should include.

I had a very interesting time with Narayani, because she was in a minute-by-minute relationship with Swami for a long time, and although I was close to Swamiji for many years, no one ever had the same relationship with him that she did.

My Heart Remembers Swami Kriyananda is a short book that wasn’t meant to be a comprehensive story of the latter part of his life. It’s a collection of her personal reminiscences, and I give it my heartiest recommendation.

It’s somewhat similar to the book that Swami asked me to write, but whereas her book is entirely subjective, the assignment that he gave me was to create an objective record of his life since the founding of Ananda, from my particular perspective.

All of which is by way of saying that I’ve been spending a great deal of time in recent months thinking about who Swamiji was.

I’ve recently been remembering a very significant and defining time in the 1990s, when we were being sued by Self-realization Fellowship in their effort to try to keep exclusive control over Paramhansa Yogananda’s teachings.

The courts determined that the laws of this country don’t support the creation of religious monopolies. And after SRF had lost ninety-five percent of issues in the lawsuit, according to the federal judge in the case, they resorted to a desperate strategy to see if character assassination would do the job.

Character assassination is the last resort when you’re intent on wiping somebody out, especially if they’re a spiritual leader, because all you have to do is hint at impropriety and your claims will be protected against the libel laws. So you can say pretty much whatever you want in your lawsuit, however scurrilous and untrue, and the newspapers can pick it up and print it as a strong suspicion. And if you were to list the most heinous crimes you can imagine involving money, sex, power, abuse, slavery, and so on, you would have a fairly accurate picture of the accusations.

We were ultimately judged despicable – “morally reprehensible” is my favorite phrase. And because it was all so ludicrous, we didn’t take it seriously enough at first, because we couldn’t imagine that anyone could look at us and come to a conclusion like that.

But, God bless the American justice system, they did. And in the midst of the situation, many people at Ananda were rattled, because it’s no small test when everybody is telling you that you’re a fool and that you’re being taken advantage of, especially in America, where just about the worst thing you can be accused of is not being shrewd.

So people were freaking out left and right, because the power to stand strong in what you know is no small spiritual accomplishment. And in the midst of it all, Swami said something that very vividly put the matter in its true spiritual perspective.

He said to all of the Ananda members, and to the whole world, “Have I ever asked anything of you?”

It was an extremely acute question that cut right to the heart of the matter. Have I ever demanded anything? Have I demanded your obedience or cooperation? And it certainly made you stop and think. Because the fact is that Ananda was built and has always operated on the sincerity and the individual enthusiasm and commitment of its people.

You didn’t have to pass through an airlock to get into Ananda. You didn’t have to sign over anything, and you didn’t have to make any promises. It was all based entirely on your own, individual commitment.

Swamiji said, “I have lived my life with enthusiasm and invited anybody who wanted to, to join me.” And my thought is that it was not only a perfect answer to our accusers, but that it’s the essence of spiritual teaching.

Decades ago, when we were starting Ananda, people had no idea what this path was about. And this is what great souls do for us – they live their lives with enthusiasm, in tune with the highest truths, and they invite us to come along and join them.

When there’s a strong flow of energy and enthusiasm, it draws people to get behind what you’re doing, and it’s the quality of a person’s energy and enthusiasm, more than their ideas, that tells us that they’re doing a good thing.

Swamiji gave me the honor of using me as an example in his material success course, at a point where he talks about how to work with people.

Forty-three years ago, in 1976, we were trying to get our first master plan approved at Ananda Village. The county government was unsophisticated at the time, and the planning director was a secretary who had risen up the ranks, even though she had no formal education in the field.

So we innocently came to her with a master plan for this totally radical, out-of-the-box cooperative community, and there was no place to fit us in.

At the beginning, in the late 1960s and for the first seven or eight years, the only authority over us was a man named Hal Cox who was the county sanitation officer. Hal would come out and make sure the outhouses weren’t going to make anybody sick. He had worked in Africa and other third-world places, so he had a very open and reasonable standard. And by the time anybody with a more rigid outlook saw us, we were pretty much established, and because we were grandfathered-in legally, they had to deal with us.

But the planning director’s idea was that she would be a super-bureaucrat, and she would stall and stall and stall and stall and stall until we went away. But of course we had no intention of going anywhere. And when we sat and explained to her who we were, she finally pulled out a big regulation book and declared that we were a condominium.

Of course, we were not a condominium, and Swami was astute enough to realize that we were never going to be able to build Ananda, and that we would be dead in the water unless and until we could get her fired. The grand jury had recommended that she be fired because of her incompetence, but the supervisors had ignored the finding. So in 1976 Swami started what he called the Bicentennial Liberty Committee to restore freedom to Nevada County.

He wrote a petition where he started out by saying that we, the residents of Nevada County, believe in the values that created America, and that too much government is wiping out our liberties. And because the county was a rough-and-ready area that still had some of the spirit of the Gold Rush era, you could get lots of people behind that idea.

Meanwhile, the whole Ananda community basically thought that Swami had lost his mind, and that this was the craziest thing they’d ever heard of, because he had skipped about fifteen steps in the usual bureaucratic process.

Swami knew that we would never be able to get anything done through this woman, and he knew a great deal about human nature and bureaucracy and government and so on, because he’d been a king in many lifetimes. So he wanted us to start this grassroots movement and become political for a while, which we had never been. And at first nobody would touch it except me.

Later, he said, “I couldn’t get anybody to do it, but there was one person I knew if I appealed to her sense of humor she would want to join in.” Which was absolutely true.

He said, “So I characterized the whole thing as a madcap adventure and got her on board.” He said, basically, “I have a loony plan. We’re going to be the Bicentennial Liberty Committee, and I’ll be chairman and you can be secretary.” And then he sent us to town with these petitions.

We ended up getting 4000 signatures, even though it was a small town in a rural area. Later, he said, “I was in dead earnest, but I presented it to you that way because I knew you would get it.”

I figured what the heck, Swami wants me to do this, and that’s what I’m here for. And of course I was enthusiastic because I thought it was so completely goofy, and what did we have to lose?

So I drew everybody into it by my enthusiasm. I told them, “It’ll be lots of fun – we can go out and get behind this wacky campaign.” And we did just that, and we got her fired, and then somebody competent came in and we got our master plan approved.

But by then I had become so visible that the people who had supported the Bicentennial Liberty Committee wanted me to run for county supervisor.

I said to Swami, “Do I have to do this?” I was willing, but it really wasn’t funny anymore, because I had attended those meetings, which were death by boredom.

He said, “No.” He said, “We’re not looking for power. We had a specific objective, and now that we have it, we’re not political.”

As I look back on my life at Ananda, especially the early years, I find that not everybody was living as I was, with so much enthusiasm and faith in Swami and commitment to helping him build Master’s work. But it’s how I lived from the moment I first saw him in 1969, because I could see that he had something I wanted.

He was different than anyone I’d ever known. And even though it was extremely rustic up there in the hills where he was building this community, he had tremendous enthusiasm for what we were going to do, and it wasn’t just based on some random idea that had struck his fancy. He was a direct disciple of a great master, and he had an absolute conviction that Ananda was something worth doing, and that it was far more worthwhile than anything else that was happening at the time. And it was by his sheer enthusiasm that he was able to pull these people together.

When Swamiji was expelled from SRF in 1962, he had absolutely nothing. He had lived as a monk for fourteen years, and he had no experience of adult life outside of the monastery, and then he found himself suddenly expelled and out on his own at age thirty-six. He stayed in the guest room of his parents’ house for a time, with no friends, but he had absolute faith in his guru, and he had a tremendous inner determination that serving him was what his life was about, and that he would die trying.

So he went forward, step by step. And, of course, he was a free soul, and he had an inner power that none of us had, and he had that level of absolute conviction.

I have a certain energy and determination and a desire to do something worthwhile. It’s something I’ve always had since I was very young, but for a long time it was an aimless desire because I couldn’t find anything that I could really get behind and believe in.

I had all the energy and enthusiasm in the world, but I had no place to channel it until this man walked in, and he was convinced that God-realization is the answer that we’re all seeking, and he was absolutely certain that Paramhansa Yogananda was a true master and that the ideals he had laid out for society and for the individual were true, and that if we followed them the promise of those principles would be realized in our lives. And when I first laid eyes on him I knew right away that he was a fulfilled expression of the promise of those teachings.

I hadn’t read Yogananda, but I had read a great deal of spiritual teachings, including Ramakrishna and Vivekananda, so I wasn’t completely uninformed. But I had never seen what the teachings looked like when they were actually lived.

People ask me, “How do you find your spiritual path? How do you recognize your guru?”

In the early days, there was a lot of conversation at Ananda about whether Kriyananda was in charge or Yogananda was in charge. Lots of people were thinking, “I follow Yogananda, but I don’t listen to Kriyananda.” And my answer was always, “The difference between masters isn’t discernible to me, but the difference between Swami and me is so obvious that I’m going to cross that gap first and wait to worry about the one that comes after.”

I knew that he had what I wanted. And maybe I couldn’t parse the details, but I saw a person who had energy, intelligence, and the discipline and capacity to work, and who was having so much fun doing it.

There was a period in my life when I carried a little recorder around with me and made lots of recordings of our get-togethers at Ananda, because I felt that it would be terribly worthwhile to have a living record of what we were doing and what we were about. In time, the recorder began to get in the way of my life, so I put it down. But when I listen to those recordings today, what strikes me very powerfully is how much we laughed.

We laughed all the time. And I remember how it was a defining feature of Ananda when we were being sued by SRF, and when all these terrible things were happening, and how we always managed to find something funny in it.

On the worst day of the character assassination trial, when Swamiji was being excoriated by these horrible attorneys, I remember how he walked out of the courtroom, and a big crowd from Ananda surged around him.

Someone said, “How are you doing, Swamiji?” And he said, like a debonair James Bond in the movies, “Stirred, not shaken.”

We were all standing in the courthouse hallway, and the people who were upset with us were gathered at the other end of the hallway where they could see us swarming around Swami. And then they saw him make some brief remark, and suddenly maybe thirty-five of us were roaring with laughter. Because even in that moment, what’s the point? The point is that we are living for God.

God puts us through troubles and we suffer for a while, and then God takes away the troubles and it’s a little less bad. But through it all what are we really living for? What are we enthusiastic for?”

Swamiji’s enthusiasm was for fulfilling his Master’s commission to him. Master had said to him, “Every man has disappointed me, and you must not disappoint me!” And Swami said that Master didn’t mean that the men had all disappointed him spiritually, but that none of them had understood the great mission for which he had come, and the world-changing work that he was doing.

And, wow, look at the planet today. If there was ever a time when something new was needed, it’s now.

Seeing all the terrifying and bewildering developments around the globe has had a marvelous effect on me spiritually. Because whatever made me think that this was my home?

When I’m having a good time with friends, and I’m feeling enthusiastic and witty and we’re all laughing together, I’m comfortable calling it my home, and for a time I can imagine that I belong to this planet. But then God shows us the horrors, and whatever made us think that we belonged here? We were not created simply to exist here. We are on a mission from our great master.

The ones who are really running this world are the avatars. We are in a war between an expansive way of thinking, and those contractive attitudes that are screaming, “Don’t you threaten my little piece of the world!”

And for God only knows what reasons, the demonic forces have been given a lot of power right now, and we’re walking around sharing space with a great many really odd people.

I remember watching a person who was listening to some truly spine-shattering so-called music on a “boom box.” I said to Swami, “I can’t understand why they’re listening to that, because they look like a perfectly nice person.” Swamiji got very serious, and then he said, “Ah, if you could see the consciousness.”

So here we are, and we’re here for a reason. And it all started because God decided that Paramhansa Yogananda would be born in 1893, and that he would come to America in 1920, and that Swami Kriyananda would be born in 1926, and that he would start Ananda, and that we would show up to help him.

Surely it would have been nice to have an easier life than this one. But here we are, and what are we supposed to concentrate on? What should we have enthusiasm for? Where do we find our strength? What do we believe in?

It’s interesting to me to see how our worst qualities are very often our best qualities, carried just a little bit too far. I’m sure that if you watch yourself, you’ll see how you’re really good at something, but when you take it too far it no longer serves you.

I’ve always had tremendous confidence, just an absurd amount of confidence in my own point of view, which is a great quality, and I really do believe in it. But if I take it too far, it can make me a little disrespectful and not so kind toward others, which has been a quality that I’ve had to become aware of and deliberately pull back from. But once I’m convinced that something is true, I’m not intimidated. Which, of course, has served me terrifically well on the spiritual path. Because Self-realization, the understanding of what we are really doing in this life, and what our lives are really all about, needs at least some of that kind of energy.

We are living in an environment that is deeply hostile to our core beliefs, in terms of the popular definitions of physical beauty, and how much stuff people think they need, and how we’re educating our children, which is a nightmare for the children.

There are so many ways in which people today are deeply confused and really have no idea what they’re doing. And I don’t care how many degrees they have, or how many people are agreeing with them.

Please don’t ever watch a live session of Congress, because it will make you so depressed. You’ll see people with no light in their eyes and no warmth in their voices. And it makes you wonder, “These people are in charge?” We’ve had some better folks, but this isn’t generally one of our best periods, and the gross majority are self-interested and self-serving.

But when you come right down to it, who cares what they imagine is important? What gives our lives value is God-realization and Master’s teachings and Swami’s expression of them. And what did Swami do? He lived his life with massive enthusiasm, and he cut a swath of light through all of the darkness and confusion and delusion.

I said to Swamiji once, “Next time, Sir, can we wait until a higher age before we come back?” We were talking about how things are so icky now – and shouldn’t we wait for a higher age to be reborn?

He gave me two answers. He said, very emphatically, “I never intend to come back!” Although he later modified it. “I know myself,” he said. “I’ll start feeling compassion for all of you.”

I said, “That’s the only reason you came this time, isn’t it?” He looked a little abashed, and he said, “Well, yes.” No karma of his own brought him back. But he said, “Even in Satya Yuga, the highest age, it’s still the material plane.”

It’s still never going to give you what your heart desires, which only God-realization can give you. “Except,” he said, “In Satya Yuga people like us are in charge.”

I said, “So the whole world is like one big Ananda.” And he said, “Yes.” It runs on trust, it runs on understanding, and it sounds pleasant, doesn’t it?

He said, “But it’s still the material plane.” Which is to say, the heart longs for a perfection and a unity of which there is a great deal more on Earth in that highest age, but it still isn’t enough.

Once, when Swami and I were talking about reincarnation, he said, “What causes you to reincarnate is longing and regret.”

Those longings that were unfulfilled, you’ll get to come back and see if you can fulfill them. And that which you regret, you’ll get to come back and see if you can fix it. He said, “Those are the two things that bind you and bring you back again and again.”

I thought for a moment, and I said, “Well, Swami, those first ten years, fifteen years at Ananda village, I would come back and do those in a heartbeat. It was heaven on earth.”

He said so sweetly, “Oh, that was different.”

That was us working for God. That was us putting God first, and just day after day having this wonderful childlike freedom to live that way. For the first fifteen or sixteen years when I lived at Ananda Village, it was heaven on earth. That was before we were sued, and other things happened. That was before adulthood set in.

I always say that I grew up at Ananda. I grew up in the sense that I had a childhood and adolescence in my father’s house, but my adult life began when I was offered the meaning of life. And then somebody was suddenly telling us that we weren’t right. And the legal system and the lawyers and the judge and the government and who knows what else – how do they know?

How do they know? Listen to the voices of those people. Look into their eyes. If they don’t have the light of God, if they don’t have that loving warmth, if they don’t have that wisdom, it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t love them and care for them, but don’t listen to them.

Listen to the Divine within. Listen to God and Gurus. Listen to Swamiji. Listen to those who are what you want to be. Because the stream of energy that you follow is what you will become.

I met Swami just before Thanksgiving in 1969, and I was initiated as a sannyasi just before Thanksgiving in 2009, forty years later. And I thought, isn’t that beautiful? And I realized that I had always had just one thought, which I continue to hold today – that it really doesn’t matter how well or badly you do. First of all, because we are very, very bad at evaluating ourselves. And second, because the only thing that matters is – don’t quit.

My spiritual life has become so simple. Just…don’t…stop. Keep trying in the right way for the right things, which are deeper faith, deeper commitment, more selfless service, more courage, more enthusiasm.

Day after day, just say, “I am the disciple. I have a great Master.”

Swami was so dear in his life, and I had the good fortune to be with him in many places, but it was in India that he could say it all so much more easily.

I remember being in the AUM Bookstore in the Metro Mall in Gurgaon. We were standing in the little metaphysical section, and an Indian man walked over and reached out for a copy of Autobiography of a Yogi. He took it in his hand, and Swami said, just like a little child, “I was his disciple. I lived with him for the last four and a half years of his life.” And this man didn’t quite know what to do. But I was so touched. I thought, it’s the very definition of everything that has happened in Swami’s life. “I knew him. I was his disciple.”

That’s who we are trying to be. Because in the end it will all go away, and you’ll go into the light, and the light won’t ask if you were popular. It won’t ask how many votes you received. It will ask, “How much did you love? How loyal were you to Me, and to that which you knew to be true?” How much of your true Self did you live?” And, in the end, that’s all that counts.

God bless you.

(From Asha’s talk during Sunday service at Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto, California on May 21, 2017.)

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