Balancing the Personal and Impersonal in the Spiritual Life

Swami Kriyananda’s birthday 1978 in the Birthday Meadow. How many faces can you identify? Suggestions at the end of the article.

The spiritual path is a curious blend of the need to be very impersonal with ourselves, and the need to be deeply personal with God. And it can confusing to understand how our own seemingly small and personal lives fit within the vast and very impersonal perspective of God’s infinite reality.

There’s a well-known verse in the Bhagavad Gita:

Of many thousand mortals, one, perchance, Striveth for Truth; and of those few that strive – Nay, and rise high – one only – here and there – Knoweth Me, as I am, the very Truth. (Chapter VII)

There’s no denying that it isn’t presenting us with a very cheery prospect. If, out of the untold thousands who enter the spiritual path with the greatest sincerity, almost all will fall short of the highest goal – what are our chances?

How can we reconcile the very long vistas of the spiritual path that the Gita describes, and the small and very personal perspective of our lives?

Speaking of that Gita passage, Paramhansa Yogananda said, comfortingly, “On this path our percentages are much higher!” He wasn’t saying it just to make us feel a better about our chances. He would never bend the truth, or give us an unrealistic impression of the difficulty of the path. But he was saying that Kriya Yoga is a special dispensation from God, and that, as he put it, it’s the “airplane route” that can bring us God-realization faster than any other spiritual practices.

It’s extremely important that we have a realistic understanding of where we are, and how we can make steady progress toward deepening our awareness of God.

It was only in the last three and a half years of Paramhansa Yogananda’s life that Swami Kriyananda became his disciple. At that stage, Master was expressing himself much more impersonally than he had in the earlier years, when he was outwardly very active and building his work.

Whereas Master’s relationship with the other disciples who came to him in the early years was more intimate and personal, his teaching of Swamiji was directed toward training him to assume responsibility for the “great work,” as he called it, of freeing his teachings from narrow institutional control and sharing them with the world.

In Master’s last years, a disciple asked him about a certain saint who had appeared to him at Encinitas. When Master asked which saint he meant, the disciple expressed surprise that there might have been others.

Master said very impersonally, “Well, so many saints come.” And when the disciple again expressed surprise, Master said, “Where God is, there His devotees come.”

Now, the fact is that he was speaking very impersonally, because he had dissolved his consciousness in God. As he said, “I killed Yogananda long ago. No one dwells in this temple now but God.” And while he could be very sweet and personal when he chose to, there was always about him, as he said of Anandamoy Ma, a sense of the “paradoxical isolation of omnipresence.”

Master told the story of a fully Self-realized saint that he met in India. His name was Yogi Ramiah, and he was a disciple of Ramana Maharshi who had become even more spiritually advanced than his guru. Master said, “We walked hand in hand around the ashram grounds, and if I had spent another half hour in his company I could never have brought myself to leave India.”

Swami Kriyananda with Yogi Ramiah in India, 1958(?)

It’s beyond the scope of my comprehension to know what it’s like for two masters who’ve realized themselves as expressions of the infinite consciousness to commune together in that way. But, nevertheless, it’s wonderful to contemplate.

Master tells in Autobiography of a Yogi about his visit to Anandamoy Ma, and how there was an instant recognition between them. She was normally very restrained in her outward expression, but there’s a photograph in the Autobiography of her standing very close to him with her hand on his shoulder, and it’s obvious that they had a special relationship. The disciples who had been with her for many years said that they had never seen her relate to anyone that way.

Swamiji tells how, after Master died, they were collecting his sayings, and when he offered the story of how Master had said, “Where God is, His saints come,” the SRF editor, Tara Mata, refused to print it that way. She changed it to, “Where a devotee of God comes, there his saints come.” Because she feared that it would seem too outrageous, if people thought that he was claiming to be God.

Speaking of that very misleading interpretation, Swamiji said, “I’m a devotee of God, too, and I can’t say that I’ve been similarly pestered!” Because it changed the entire meaning of Master’s words.

When Yogananda arrived in America in 1920, Swami Vivekananda had already taught in this country for many years, and Swami Rama Tirtha had taught here for a short while.

Vivekananda was the first great Indian teacher to come to America and live, and it was he who introduced India’s highest teachings to this country, around the turn of the 1900s. Swami Rama Tirtha came a little later and stayed for a couple of years. But Yogananda was the first to come as a young man and spend the rest of his life here.

Nevertheless, even though he wasn’t the first to come, he faced a steep uphill battle in trying to make the teachings of Sanaatan Dharma known in America.

He came at a time when there was no Internet and no capacity, such as we have today, to link up different cultures all over the world. And with his long hair and his orange robe and turban, he presented quite a novel sight for the Americans.

Dr. Lewis was Master’s first disciple in America. He was a dentist from a small town in Massachusetts, on the East Coast, where people can be very insular and narrow in their views. In the 1920s the East Coast was even narrower, and when Mrs. Lewis caught sight of this strange character crossing the square of their New England town, she spoke of it with some outrage. Later, when Dr. Lewis met Master and spoke to here glowingly about him, she still didn’t want to have anything to do with this heathen Hindu who had come to their Christian country.

So Master had to start from scratch. There was barely a hint of awareness of the Eastern teachings here, and for all intents and purposes what he brought was completely new, and it made him seem even more exotic.

But despite the great differences, he was completely unintimidated by the surrounding culture, or by the fact that the society was far more materialistic than India’s. It was simply an outward condition that he had to relate to, but it had nothing to do with what he was inwardly.

His mission was not to be an exotic teacher who would float in for a while, and then swiftly fade from memory after he was gone. He came with a special dispensation from God to help those who had the great good karma to cross his path. He was sent, not to try to become integrated with the prevailing culture, but to change the culture by bringing a teaching that was new and revolutionary.

He had no karma, even as the Bible says of Jesus that he had “no sin.”

“And ye know that he was manifested to take away our sins; and in him is no sin.” (1 John 3:5) Among traditional Christians, there’s been a great deal of confusion about that passage. It simply means that while the vast majority of us are compelled to incarnate because of our karma, Christ was free of any touch of those unresolved experiences, feelings, and misunderstandings that keep bringing us back, time after time.

Master came to help Americans understand how they can return to their center in God. And, again, his life and message had two dimensions: he came to inspire us to seek our unqualified oneness with God, but he also came to help us deal with our circumstances exactly where we’re standing, and find God’s presence in our daily lives, and learn to participate wisely in this world.

Of course, we really have no choice. We’re in the astral world for a time, and then we’re back here to work out our desires and find our freedom.

Swami said that the astral world is a lot like a vacation in Hawaii. Swami was friends with a man named Michael Toms who started New Dimensions Radio, which was a major instrument for communicating new ideas in the 1960s and 1970s. Michael lived in the Bay Area, and at one point he decided to move his operation to Hawaii because it seemed more congenial. So, at great expense and with a great deal of trouble, he began doing his radio program from Hawaii, but after six months he brought it all back again.

He said that if he had stayed in Hawaii, he would not only have lost all his ambition and forgotten what he was doing, but he wouldn’t even remember why he had ever wanted to do it in the first place. The atmosphere in Hawaii was far too relaxed and permeated with “aloha” for what he was trying to do.

Everything in Hawaii is so beautiful, and you feel that you could exist very happily by eating the fruit that falls from the trees. And why would you want to try to change the world?

When our friend Linda Gerber died, Swamiji said a lovely thing to her. Linda had a tremendous sense of beauty. She would single-handedly decorate the temple whenever she had the opportunity. She had a great big aura, and this room was just about the right size for her. She would decorate the temple for Christmas and for many of our parties, all by herself. And when we went with Swami to see her at the end of her life, he said to her, “Now, Linda, you’re going to love the astral world.” He said, “But don’t stay there too long.” Because she would have so much fun manifesting beautiful things just by thinking about them, that there was a risk that she would forget the deeper purpose for which she was living.

When we’re in the astral world, we get to rest and be with our friends from past lives, and we get the satisfaction of manifesting whatever we want without having to work too hard at it.

Swamiji said, “The reason we have this community that we’re trying to manifest here is that it’s the same community we’ve had in the astral world.”

We have a memory of how beautiful it is to have a community like this, and we’re building temples and decorating our homes and creating wonderful events because we remember what it was like when we were living together in the astral world.

In the early years at Ananda Village, we got the idea that we should celebrate Swamiji’s birthday in a special way. In India, they only celebrate the guru’s birthday, because nobody else’s birthday is considered important.

We wanted to celebrate his birthday, but we didn’t have an appropriate facility, so we began creating wonderful astral realities out of nothing.

There was a lovely small meadow in a fold the hills not far from where the Expanding Light would be built years later, and it became known as the Birthday Meadow. We would bring everything we needed, and we would put up a pavilion and serve food and have a wonderful celebration. We would set it up in the morning, and we would celebrate Swami’s birthday in the afternoon, and then we would make it all disappear, and it would return to being an isolated and uninhabited meadow again.

I loved those celebrations, because they felt much more appropriate than holding a birthday party in some big, heavy physical structure that was permanent and that would last. We would take all of our spirit and all of our love and express it, and when the celebration was over we would withdraw all of the outward traces as if it had never existed.

I mention it because it’s similar to the astral world, where we’re able to have a wonderful time, until our desires begin to make us restless and we have to come back here to try to fulfill them.

It’s the same restlessness that compels us to keep changing our homes and our relationships and our jobs, because there’s a nagging feeling that something isn’t quite right. There’s a sense of lack that makes us restless for something better, and we put out lots of energy to try to fix it. And when we’re in the astral world, it’s that restless feeling that makes us want to come back here, and before we know it we’re back in a little baby’s body again.

Swami said that the reason a newborn baby cries is that it realizes, “Oh, my goodness, here I am again!” And that the whole cycle is starting over.

We’re happy because we know we need to be here, but at the same time there’s an incredible sense of confinement, after the freedom of the astral world – to be suddenly in a baby’s body and unable do anything for ourselves, and to have to lie there for a long time and wait for somebody to do something for us.

We find babies so adorable, but when you think about it from the baby’s perspective, it’s extremely confining to be in that situation, where somebody has to do everything for you, and all of these adults are hovering around and you never have any privacy.

So it’s a paradoxical situation – we’re happy to be here, and we need to be here, but it isn’t always terribly pleasant.

At any rate, when Master came into this world, it was in a very different way. First of all, it was his extraordinary compassion that drew him to come here, born of his own long experience of the soul’s journey. The masters have been through the entire agonizing cycle that we find ourselves in, and they have great compassion for the terrible conflict between our longing to be free, and our very weird disinclination to embrace our freedom.

This is the work of Maya, the temptress. Maya it is who bewitches us, and it isn’t something we can explain away by logic or dispel by the power of the rational mind. It’s a force in our lives that is always there, and the masters have been through it. They’ve transcended it, and now they are able to feel from their infinite consciousness the tremendous pathos of our situation.

We are wrapped in our desires and our longings and resentments, but the masters have transcended it all, and this is why they are able to view our situation with so much compassion, and why they are so eager to help.

Our positive and negative impulses bring us back again and again, and if you’re angry at someone, you’ll get to be reborn to try to get your vengeance. If you’re disappointed, you’ll get to come back and try to be fulfilled. And if you’re ashamed, you’ll get to try to make it right.

But what the master feels, once those desires have been resolved, is an all-consuming compassion and an eagerness to help others become free.

Speaking for myself, it wasn’t Master who drew me to this path, it was Swami, because Master assigned him to take care of me.

Swamiji said, very beautifully, that the infinite consciousness embraces not only the infinite, but also the infinitesimal; not only the inconceivable vastness of the  universe, but each grain of sand.

In his poem “Samadhi,” Master says that his consciousness has expanded to embrace the thoughts of all men. And even long before we are ready to become disciples, there is something in us that craves the perfection of divine joy.

You hear someone make an unkind remark, perhaps unintentionally, and if you’re sensitively aware, you’ll see the hurt on the other person’s face, and you’ll feel for them and you’ll want to help.

When I help create the costumes for our school play, I’m always impressed by how the children have learned to be aware of the impact that their words can have on others. Still, while we’re dressing them, some of the less thoughtful children will say, “Oh, wow, you look really weird in that costume!”

To me, “weird” is almost a compliment, but to the children, it isn’t. I would rather be weird than be always conforming to some artificial norm. But because children are so transparent, you’ll see the look of sadness cross their face. The child was feeling so happy, and some other child has crushed their spirit. And if you’re sensitive, you’ll be touched, and you’ll think, “Oh, my word.” You can see that look on the faces of your friends, and among married couples, when one of them will drop a careless remark, and you’ll see the look of hurt in their eyes.

And, unfortunately, there’s not much we can do to avoid being hurt in those ways. So we have to learn to take it and be strong in ourselves. Let me just say that in the past I tended to have a sharp tongue. I’ll put it in the past tense as an affirmation. But I can see how I’ve let a careless remark escape me, and later I’ll remember the look on the person’s face. And, oh my goodness, what have I done?

Until we become aware that the answer to all our pain and suffering is God-realization, we’re caught in an endless cycle of open, hurt, open, hurt, open, hurt. And even if we haven’t realized the answer, we’re telling ourselves that there has to be an answer.

And just by itself that realization is so profound. Because how do we know that there is an answer? We know because there’s a level at which we know who we are. Although we may have forgotten our inner connection with the perfection of happiness that is in us, we instinctively know that this hurt is not what we were made for, and that it isn’t our final destiny. And this is why a prayer of love goes up, to which God responds by sending His enlightened sons to show us the way.

But that realization has to be coupled with a powerful dedication of our will: “Now I am willing to change.” I am willing to do anything to obtain that inner freedom for myself.

It’s self-evident to me that I was born with yogic samskars. It’s no great mystery, because I was on the path in a very serious way when I was nineteen, and since then I’ve never done anything else.

But when I was younger, I was very lost. I was wandering around, wondering what would happen and how my life would turn out. But, even then, as I look back, it’s clear to me that I knew there had to be something more, and I had a tremendous sense of waiting.

During my one year of college, I remember how I would try to help people. My problem was that I didn’t really know anything, and it’s a little hard to help people when you’re completely ignorant yourself. But I knew a little bit. It was a women’s dorm, and I decided that eighteen-year-old college women were the unhappiest demographic I had ever encountered, and that I wasn’t doing much better. But I was trying to discover what I needed to do to change myself. And I observed that everyone else around me wanted to be happy, but that most of them were just wanting to rearrange their circumstances in a way that they were sure would bring them happiness.

They weren’t thinking “I need to change.” At that age, it was often an unrequited passion for someone who simply wasn’t interested, and the goal was to try to figure out how to get them interested, and not how to release what was never going to be a fulfillment in any case.

It’s all part of the unavoidable process where, at a certain point in our existence, we begin to learn the lesson, and to know that there is an answer, and that we’re ready for the answer. And then the course of our existence changes, and everything begins to ripple out from that realization. And maybe we don’t meet the avatar, but maybe a book will fall in our lap, or a friend will hold out a hint of our next step. And it’s all part of the great awakening that the Festival of Light speaks of: “A prayer of love went up from Earth, and You responded.”

Swamiji said that when Master came to America, he knew that it wouldn’t help people to emphasize his own state of freedom in God’s bliss. He didn’t want to make a point of telling us how hard it is, or how slim our odds are of making it all the way to the end in this lifetime.

Swamiji said that Master made it seem like anyone could get there – that if I’ve realized God, you can realize Him, too. Master said that in India, where they’ve always known about these teachings, they’re interested in realizing God, but maybe in some future life. Because, gosh, with all my karma it’s going to take me a long time to get started, and what can I really do about it now?

He said that because they know how difficult it is they don’t try as hard. But in America, where we don’t have any idea how hard it is, we’re more likely to say, “Realize God? Why, sure! We can do that!” He said that because of that attitude our percentages can be a lot higher, and he loved that American can-do spirit.

Swamiji said that Master presented himself as if he was a lot more like us than he actually was, because he wanted to create a sense of unity with us.

He said that many of Master’s early disciples revered him in that more personal way, because even though they knew what he was, he deliberately kept an aura of humanity around him, until the end of his life, when Swami came. It’s one of the reasons Master related to Swamiji in a very different way than he did with the disciples who’d come earlier. He wanted to charge Swamiji with a sense of responsibility for the great mission that he would be putting in his hands. It’s why he spoke more impersonally with him. “Write down my words,” Master told him, “because I don’t often speak from this level of impersonal wisdom.”

Swamiji said that he realized, in his own later years, that a great deal of the difficulty between him and his gurubhais was because Master had related to them so very differently than he did with Swami. Of course, it was also because the master gives each disciple exactly what he needs, and what he gave to Swami was different from what he gave to the others.

I’m going to digress for a moment. Catherine Kairavi’s father was a protestant minister, and both her parents were training to be missionaries. There was a famous pastor that they met, named Frank Laubach, who wrote a book called Letters By a Modern Mystic, which is absolutely worth reading.

Laubach was sent as a missionary to an island in the Philippines where there were lots of Muslims, and they weren’t the least bit interested in hearing about Christianity. So he tried to think of how he could be useful to them, and he started teaching the children to read. And because not much else was going on in his life, he decided that he would try to be aware of the presence of Christ on a moment-by-moment basis. And in consequence of this practice he became a very saintly man.

Frank Laubach visited the place where Catherine’s parents were training to be missionaries, and at one point they asked him to lead them in prayer. And whereas when people pray aloud there’s usually a beginning, a middle, and an end, her parents said that Frank Laubach simply opened his mouth and made audible the conversation that he was always having with God, and when he was done, he simply stopped.

And, in that spirit, I will do likewise.

God bless you.

(From Asha’s talk during Sunday service at Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto, California on April 30, 2017.)

People in photo: Swami Kriyananda, Jerry Haslam, Lila Devi, Kara , Devarshi, Vimala, Gomata, Pradeep, Gyandevi, Jenny, Muktan, Madhava, Maria McSweeney.