The Path from Suffering to Happiness

Swami Kriyananda in India in his later years — always fully aware, always a disciple.
Swami Kriyananda in India in his later years — always fully aware, always a disciple.

When I went to India in 1986, as part of Ananda’s first organized pilgrimage, it was the first time I had traveled to the developing world.

At the time, India was still closed to foreign corporations, due largely to the influence of Gandhi, who had wanted to keep the country isolated from modern influences and maintain the purity of life in former times.

When we returned the following year, India had opened its doors. In the interim Pepsi-Cola had held major launches at the site of the Taj Mahal and in Varanasi, the oldest inhabited city in the world, and a very holy place of spiritual pilgrimage.

Some of the boats that take pilgrims out on the Ganges were plastered with advertisements for Coca-Cola. And I remember thinking, “In this world of maya, there’s no way that anything can ever remain unchanged.”

Twenty years earlier, in the early 1960s, Swami Kriyananda had taught in India, when it was much less influenced by the West. And when he moved to India in 2003, some of us naturally wondered if he might be nostalgic for the past.

But Swamiji said, “No – India is much too important to the future of the planet for it to be held back. It has to take its place in the modern world.”

He said that the emphasis on material development was a temporary phase that the country would have to pass through, but that its underlying spirituality would protect it from the worst excesses of materialism.

Having grown up in America, and having traveled only to Europe, I wasn’t prepared for a culture that was so starkly different. And one of my most powerful impressions was the reality of overpopulation.

It’s a concept that you can’t truly understand, until you’ve ridden across the Howrah Bridge in Kolkata on a bus so jammed with people that your personal space is limited to about four inches all around. In all directions you’re seeing every possible form of locomotion: motorcycles, bicycles, pedestrians, pushcarts, donkey carts, huge buses, old cars, new cars, trucks, and small cars – all flowing together in a completely chaotic and unfathomable maelstrom.

Howrah Bridge
Howrah Bridge

When Paramhansa Yogananda’s nephew, Hare Krishna Ghosh, came to America for the first time, he and his wife, Meera, were very eager to see the sights, so we took them to the Golden Gate Bridge.

Cars were streaming across the bridge at rush hour. And Hare Krishna turned to us with a perplexed expression and said, “Where are all the people?”

We said, “They’re inside the cars.”

He couldn’t fathom it, because in India rush hour meant that people would be flowing through the streets shoulder to shoulder amid a bedlam whirlpool of bicycles and carts and animals and cars.

I remember watching the crowds from the window of my hotel room in India, and reflecting that we have all of the technology and resources we would need to solve the world’s material problems, and no lack of creativity and energy to get the job done, but the real problem is that people don’t actually want to solve them.

It’s not just that there are entrenched social classes that don’t want to give up their wealth and power, but that each of us has a certain reality that we cannot escape, and that we must live through and work with, if we’re to learn and grow. And there’s absolutely no possibility of speeding up the process, and no use of trying to dictate people’s behavior, or trying to force them to grow.

I remember an amusing incident that happened at the Grand Hotel in Kolkata. To get to the  hotel entrance you had to cross a vast forecourt, and the best beggars in Kolkata knew that it was where they could approach the richest tourists. So it was a mob scene – we were literally mobbed by hoards of professional beggars, all trying to get money from us.

There was an elderly couple in our group, and the husband had been a soldier. At one point, someone very foolishly pulled out their wallet and opened it to give the beggars some money, and a beggar reached out to seize the wallet. The elderly former soldier had been trained in hand-to-hand combat, and he grabbed the beggar’s hand and said, “I wouldn’t recommend doing that!”

I thought, “My goodness, what a clash of universes!”

What an endless variety of karmas! The unfortunate thief’s nature compelled him to try to steal the wallet, in the presence of this old man who looked like a pushover, but most definitely wasn’t.

It struck me that everyone in our tour group had to struggle to establish a relationship to what we were seeing – so much poverty and chaos, compared to what we were used to in the West. I could sense that we were all struggling with our very individual reactions to the suffering. And the way I finally reconciled it for myself is that we are all bound to suffer, and that it is suffering that finally drives us to seek God.

In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna says to his beloved disciple Arjuna: “Get away from my ocean of suffering!” The spiritual meaning is that this world will sooner or later break your heart, and when your heart has been broken often enough, you’ll begin to long for something better.

When Yogananda came to America, he brought with him a little book that he had published in India, called The Science of Religion. It was based on an extremely simple principle that lies at the foundation of his teachings: that everyone in this world is motivated by just two fundamental desires – a longing to experience greater happiness, and a corresponding longing to escape from suffering.

It was his way of reducing the ancient teachings of India to their simple essence, and making them practical for modern minds. Because, in fact, if we examine our underlying motivation for anything we do, we will always find these two simple desires at the core.

As Swami often said, even the murderer believes, however mistakenly, that his act will relieve him of suffering and give him happiness. All of our actions are motivated by the desire to relieve the uncomfortable feeling that we haven’t yet attained the perfect fulfillment that our hearts instinctively know to be ours, and to relieve the pain of suffering and separation.

We don’t enjoy the emptiness and dissatisfaction we feel, yet there it is; and if we didn’t suffer, we wouldn’t feel compelled to seek God. If we were perfectly contented, we wouldn’t feel motivated to look for anything higher.

We all suffer, but many people don’t yet feel the pain keenly enough to seek an alternative. Yet the soul will never be satisfied until it can find the perfect bliss of God.

The wisdom of the universe is acting through us, playing out the drama of our lives. Divine Mother is whispering to us through our souls, and pushing us toward Self-realization, just as the parents will give the child the lessons it needs.

There was a little girl at Ananda Village whose mother was in the habit of telling her stories about the saints, especially stories of children who had had the vision of the Virgin Mary – the children of Fatima, Lourdes, and Medjugorje, and others.

One day the little girl, who was about seven, announced to her mother that she wasn’t going to school, because her life’s ambition was to have a vision of Mary, and the people to whom Mary had appeared were simple folk and shepherds.

Market scene, Kolkata
Market scene, Kolkata

Children resist their parents’ guidance. “Why do I have to go to school? Why do I have to practice piano?” And events are bound to occur that the child will resent. “Why does Daddy have to go to work? Why is Mommy sick?” And always it’s the Divine Mother, pushing us toward our own highest happiness, even though it might not seem like it at the time.

The people in our pilgrimage group were given an opportunity to witness suffering in the form of poverty, disease, and a lack of physical comfort that loomed particularly large for the Americans. And it threw some of them into a near-panic.

It wasn’t easy to predict how a given person would react. But I arrived at a simple understanding: if they had accepted that suffering is a necessary part of the path to freedom, they would be able to observe it with a certain equanimity. But if there was still a great deal of fear around the need for suffering, it was likely to overwhelm them. Because, how can I see these things and continue to believe that Divine Mother is in charge?

At the time, I didn’t have the answers, because I was by no means immune to the anxiety that was troubling the others.

To witness so much suffering was a tremendous challenge to our faith. But if the law of karma is true and just, it must be true everywhere, without exception. And it simply isn’t possible that some souls will be able to stand outside the process that’s driving the rest of us toward our freedom.

Also, it’s not just those who suffer who are experiencing the karmic law. Those who display a callous disregard for the welfare of others are bound to experience the working of the karmic law. Attitudes of selfish indifference are pandemic on the planet at this time, and those who manifest contractive attitudes will have to learn their karmic lessons.

To my mind, there are two spiritual principles that stand as God-sent pillars that were meant to preserve the sanity of this world. One is the law of karma, and the other, perhaps surprisingly, is the Yugas.

The lawful progression of human history in 24,000-year cycles of clearly defined ages, or Yugas, is described in the scriptures of ancient India. It explains why some planets are more weighed down by suffering than others. And it gives deep meaning to the seemingly aimless meanderings of human history. But, rather than launch into an explanation of the Yugas, I’ll simply refer you to an inspiring book by two Ananda members, The Yugas: Keys to Understanding Our Hidden Past, Emerging Energy Age, and Enlightened Future.

In simple terms, the progression of the Yugas says that the planet is always moving toward or away from a tremendous source of energy at the center of our galaxy. And as the earth moves toward the galactic center, human consciousness becomes more energized and refined, and as it moves away, the consciousness of the planet becomes duller.

But the final truth is that this earth is not our home. We are born on a particular planet where we can learn the lessons that will push us toward our greatest happiness in God. And depending on our karma, we may be born on a planet where we will know suffering, or a planet where we’ll be able to live a joyful life, perhaps to encourage us to keep moving forward.

I had the blessing to live for four decades in close association with Swami Kriyananda. I observed him and experienced his friendship and witnessed his genius in countless situations. And the most astonishing aspect of his nature that I observed was his complete acceptance of other people’s realities.

I’ve been reviewing the notes of my conversations with Swamiji, and I’ve been reflecting on how he would respond to people who weren’t at all interested in what he had to offer them spiritually. Because in that case, there would be no basis for a relationship. If they didn’t understand the spiritual help that he could give them, the simple fact was that he had no other purpose for living, and no other reason for relating to people.

Throughout my years with him, I observed that his constant reality, from the moment I met him, was that he projected an upward-moving current of spiritual energy that was magnetic rather than coercive.

No matter how much you try to push people – “You must complete this task, or I’ll give you a negative performance review!” – they simply aren’t going to change until they’re ready. As Swamiji says in his book Out of the Labyrinth, people aren’t going to change until they know “with inner knowing” that it’s what they want to do.

In talking with parents who are thinking about placing their children in our Living Wisdom School, we often find that they have a hard time trusting that we’re actually educating the children, because the children are so obviously enjoying themselves. And if they aren’t stressed and scared out of their minds, how can they be learning?

I’ll say to the parents, “If you were scared and uncomfortable, would you be able to do your best work? How open would you be to learn, if you felt that the slightest misstep would bring down an anvil of disapproval on your head?”

One mother said that she loves our school, but that she sends her son to math tutoring, because she isn’t sure how much he’s learning. But she said that she had doubts about sending him there, because the energy was so uncongenial compared to our school. And she concluded, “Well, he’s going to have to face the need for hard knocks at some point in his life.”

I said, “Yes – I’ll plant an apple tree, and I’ll tell the tree that there’s bound to be a drought someday, so I’m not going to water it.”

 We know that if you water the tree and nurture it with loving care, its roots will go deep in the soil, and it will grow strong and healthy. And when the drought comes, it will be ready. But for some strange reason we imagine that coercing and scaring people is the way to get them to change.

Swami radiated a flow of awakening energy that inspired us to stand up a little straighter, smile a little brighter, and feel hope in our hearts. In his company, you would feel, “Ah – there’s hope for me! I can do it! And I want to do it, because this is my path to freedom. This is my escape from suffering, and my portal to joy.”

There’s another reason why magnetism works better than coercion: because we simply cannot grow any faster than we’re able. And no amount of impatience or distrust or disrespect will make us move forward one whit faster. We can only unravel our karmic knots at the pace of which we’re capable.

I’m helping create the costumes for the children in our school play. This year, many of the children have pajama-style pants, and we had a problem with the little actors pulling the drawstrings out of their pants, so we had to switch the drawstrings for elastic. The problem with drawstrings is twofold: they can exit the pants at an inconvenient moment, and then the child is in real trouble; or they can get tied in a knot, and the poor kid can’t tighten them or get out of his pants. So I found myself spending a great deal of time with these tiny strings, trying to pull them apart. And the spiritual image was clear to me. We take some little experience and tie ourselves in knots over it, and no matter how long we keep tugging at it, we aren’t able to escape, until we can muster the spiritual strength to cut it with the sword of wisdom. And then there’s a wonderful sense of freedom that comes.

Scene from Yogananda play by children of Living Wisdom School, Palo Alto. A wealthy disciple shows up at the last minute with a donation to help the Master purchase his Mt. Washington headquarters.
Scene from the 2017 Theater Magic play presented by the children of Living Wisdom School, Palo Alto, March 2017. A wealthy disciple shows up at the last minute with a donation to help Paramhansa Yogananda purchase his Mt. Washington headquarters.

We’ve chosen to be born on a planet that could certainly be more supportive of our spiritual efforts. But living in this kind of environment is good for us, because it gives us an incentive to keep moving, and it doesn’t give us a chance to settle down.

I once said jokingly to Swamiji, “When you incarnate next time and we all come with you, why don’t we wait for a higher Yuga?”

His first response was, “I don’t ever intend to come back.” But he modified that statement toward the end of his life. He would sort of sigh and say, “Well, I know myself. I know I’m going to want to help you all.”

I said, “That’s the only reason you came this time, isn’t it?” And he quietly said, “Well, yes.”

He said that even though it’s wonderful to be born in the highest age of Satya Yuga, it’s still an existence on this material plane. He added, “But people like us are in charge.”

I said, “So the whole world is like one big Ananda?” And he said, “Yes.”

He said, “But it still doesn’t satisfy.” Because there are still all of the little nuisances that keep driving us forward. And this is what our Sunday service reading today is about – the bits of our consciousness that are lagging behind our aspirations, and keeping us from being free.

Maybe we’ve trained ourselves not to commit murder, but the impulse may still be lying there dormant inside us. And who suffers from those negative vibrations? We suffer not only when we act on the impulse, but when we feel those states of mind. Because it’s no fun falling back into those contractive attitudes that squeeze our hearts.

You may project that consciousness outwardly, and do evil deeds, but in its purest form that consciousness is still there in your heart. And when you’re alone, and you’re trying to meditate or go to sleep or enjoy a walk in the woods, there’s no escaping those dissonances.

There’s absolutely no escaping from our individual consciousness. But when we’ve suffered enough, and the dissonance within us becomes unbearable, that’s when we set out to climb the mountain of Self-realization.

I observed in Swamiji that he was always so kind, and so conscious, and so completely aware of the realities of everyone’s consciousness.

He once said, “Just a glance into a person’s eyes and I can see it all.” He didn’t often talk like that, but every once in awhile he would reveal a little.

He knew us better than we knew ourselves. But he was there only to help us, and he knew that even the slightest breath of impatience, what to speak of judgment, or a lack of compassion or support on his part, would only hurt him.

So the real question is, “When will we decide that we’ve suffered enough?” When will we finally know that being God-like, and merging with Divine Mother’s love and compassion for each other is the only real choice, because every other choice will only end in misery? And maybe the knot of our karma is tied very tightly, but if we will just keep pulling, with God’s grace we will be free.

God bless you.

(From Asha’s talk during Sunday service at Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto, California on March 26, 2017.)

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