First Step to Spiritual Growth: Accepting Ourselves Exactly as We Are

Photo: Grateful thanks to Nick Grappone on Unsplash!

Paramhansa Yogananda’s chief disciple, Rajarsi Janakananda, wanted to buy his guru a new winter coat. And because he was a wealthy man, and in the habit of buying the very best, he picked out an extremely fine coat and matching hat.

Master said that when he realized that he would have to own this expensive garment, he was appalled. But because his beloved disciple wanted to buy it for him, he graciously accepted the gift. Still, in later years he expressed how uncomfortable it had made him feel to own something so luxurious.

As a world-renouncing monk, his sense of what was appropriate for him to own was very different from the mass of people, who work hard to secure a few belongings that they consider rightfully their own, and the finer the better.

Finally, Yogananda prayed to Divine Mother to take back the coat. And on a day when they planned to go out to a restaurant, he received an intuition that Divine Mother would be answering his prayer, so he emptied the pockets, and while they were eating someone stole the coat.

Master was very relieved. But then he prayed, “Divine Mother – You forgot to take the hat!”

In India, they tell the story of a priest who was in charge of a temple that had many valuable objects that were used in the worship ceremonies, including a number of gold cups and dishes. The priest was very uneasy about having to be responsible for these costly items. And when a thief came in the night and took most of them away, the priest grabbed up the remaining objects and ran after the thief, shouting, “Stop! Please take these things that you left behind!”

Swami Kriyananda had an affection for watches. Over the years he tried many watches with different features until he felt that he had found the perfect watch. It was thin and lightweight, and it never needed to be wound. The numbers were large enough that he could see them without his glasses, and it glowed in the dark – so it was perfect.

And then the husband of a friend of his in Rome died. He had owned a very expensive gold watch of an exclusive brand, and his wife, who was a devotee, hid the watch from her son so that she could sneak it out of the house and give it to Swamiji.

Swami found that the watch was completely unsuitable. It was heavy, it didn’t glow in the dark, he couldn’t see the numbers, and it had to be wound. So it was absolutely everything he didn’t want. And except for the fact that it was immensely valuable and had huge status attached to it, the only advantage he said it had for him was that the only exercise he ever got was lifting his watch when he turned over in the night, and because this one was heavier, he got a better workout.

Which all goes to say that there are enormous differences in how we relate to the world, and what we imagine will make us happy.

When we moved into our Ananda community in Mountain View, there were just three variations on the basic floor plan¸ so we all had essentially the same closets, the same windows, the same carpets, and the same yards. Whenever someone would move in, we would stroll around the community ringing bells and waving incense and singing chants to welcome them and spiritualize the apartment where they would be living. And along the way we got to see how each of the people who had started out with the same basic apartment had turned it into a completely new and unique reality, according to their individual tastes.

In my very early years on the path, I had an extremely Zen attitude toward outward possessions. I lived in a tiny cabin at the Seclusion Retreat, and on my bed I had an army blanket from my childhood that I liked, but other than the blanket there wasn’t a single decorative item in the place. I remember a friend walking in one day and saying, “Ah, yes, it’s your unmistakable design signature – nothing!”

I looked around my little cabin and said, “Yes, that’s right. Nothing!”

Swamiji encouraged me to let go of that attitude, because whereas our actions may reflect an actual consciousness of detachment and inner freedom, they often just reflect our fear of making mistakes, or of getting involved.

On the one hand, I was saying “I don’t want to be bothered with the outward trappings of this world.” But on the other, there was a fear of what people might think, and a fear of becoming entangled with the world in ways I might regret. And, better to stand on the sidelines and present an appearance of detachment, than jump in and have to become engaged and strive for the real thing.

There’s a stanza in the Bhagavad Gita that asks a question that is so fundamentally important to the spiritual path that it cannot be over-emphasized.

Even the wise act according to the dictates of their own nature. All living beings obey the dictates of Nature. Of what avail would be mere suppression? (Essence of the Bhagavad Gita, 3:33)

The insight that it’s offering us is that suppressing our desire for something is very far from the same thing as actually becoming free of it.

Freedom comes by transcending our desires and realizing, with a sure inner knowing, that we want something better. But mere suppression, as Swami often said, tends to create a whole raft of problems in its wake. Because not only do you still have the underlying desire, but you’ve created a big complex of guilt and shame on top of it.

Even as you’re still feeling the desire, you’re feeling terribly guilty and confused for feeling it. And it’s not really an option to simply satisfy the desire and learn the lesson so that you can move on, because the vortex of guilt will remain and continue to create tremendous anguish and confusion for you.

Swami said that despite the many misunderstandings people have about the nature of true happiness, it’s really straightforward, because it’s a simple question of learning from our own experiences, and not of trying to think our way through it.

Master said that you will not be able to overcome a desire until you’ve experienced its potential to make you happy. He went so far as to say that before we can be inwardly free, we have to test every possibility for finding happiness that this world can offer us. And if you do the math, it’s more than a little daunting.

Rather than become discouraged at the prospect, it’s far more helpful to put our attention on the microcosm of our lives, and deal with the realities immediately before us.

Do we ever take anybody’s word for anything – truly, seriously, deeply? Do we ever change our opinion because someone tells us how we ought to be thinking and behaving?

When my nephew was three or four, he was riding in the car with his mother, and he somehow got his hands on an indelible marker. And, as my sister told me, instead of stopping the car and taking it out of his hand, she made the terrible mistake of saying, “Don’t mark your shirt, because it won’t come out.”

Of course, that was a very intriguing possibility for this curious and energetic little boy, and he immediately marked his shirt because he simply had to find out for himself if it was true.

He wasn’t being malicious or disobedient, it was just that he’d been offered an interesting proposition, and he had to test it for himself and find out if the ink wouldn’t come out. Which, of course, it didn’t, and it led to another cycle of unfortunate experiences.

Little children demonstrate this quality so beautifully for us – they are absolutely driven by a powerful urge to find out for themselves. And we are essentially the same. It’s what teenage rebellion is about. The parents are saying “This is how it is,” and the teenager is saying, “Well, yeah, maybe, and maybe not, and I choose to find out for myself.”

A young friend said to me, “Much of what my mother fears is going to happen to me actually happens. And it’s not that her fears are unjustified, it’s just that she considers it a catastrophe and I consider it an adventure.”

We have very different points of view about whatever we’re doing. And the purpose for which God gave us free will is so that we can find out for ourselves and learn from our own experiences.

Another young man described the immoral norm of the world he was living in, now that all of the rules have come down. In fact, there are no longer any rules, and I was horrified at first by the things he was telling me. But I strive not to be one of those prissy old women who delight in being offended, and who insist that the world should conform to their ideas of the way things ought to be.

So I exhaled, and I thought, “What’s the bright side of this?” And I realized that whatever values you and your peers come up with, they’ll be your own, because you’ve been given nothing to believe in, and you’re going to test every experience and find out for yourself. And while the road may be rocky, particularly for your parents, in the end you will know.

We go through a tremendous number of experiences simply because we have to find out for ourselves. Just think of the difference between all the things you’ve experienced and rejected, and that you positively know are not for you, and the things you wish you didn’t want anymore, but you still do. And, how are you going to transcend those desires, except by arriving at a sure inner knowing?

We come to a point, after many lifetimes, where we’ve learned enough to be able to extrapolate from our experiences and figure out which desires aren’t going to give us satisfaction. But then fresh desires arise, and we’re always having to stand at the edge and gain the experience to be so unshaken in our inner knowing that nothing can budge us.

Suppression is when you secretly think it would be great fun, but you feel that people would think ill of you if you went ahead and did it. Or you’re afraid that you’ll get caught. But if you knew that you could get away with it, you would do it because it still feels like happiness to you.

But there’s a part of you that is slowly beginning to understand, “Oh – the downside of this will be so much longer than the front side, and I really don’t think I want to do it, even though it feels like I do.” And this is the front line where you have to keep fighting the battle.

Somebody asked Swamiji, “How much discipline is enough discipline?” He said, “Anything that you can do with joy, you should do.”

Now, of course, joy isn’t the same as pleasure. Sometimes discipline is unpleasant, because the monkeys of our frantic desires are beating against our innards, and we’re holding ourselves against them. But we know that the caged monkey is our enemy and not our friend. And the only way we can learn these things is by bitter experience.

For a time, years ago, I had a recurring dream. I had done something catastrophically stupid that had disastrous consequences for my life. And no more than a minute after the die was cast and the catastrophe was mine, I would be telling myself in my dream, “I cannot believe that I’ve dynamited my happiness so completely!” And I would be devastated.

I believe those dreams were based on real past-life experiences. I would be so devastated, and when I woke up – oh! – I would be so happy.

I don’t know if I’ve ever felt such relief and happiness as I did after waking from those dreams. Because, ah, yes, I’ve done it, but now it’s just a memory, and it’s no longer mine.

This is the edge of discipline where we’re meant to be playing the game. Because the renunciation may be painful in the moment, but it isn’t a fraction as painful as it would be if you went ahead and acted out the desire, with all its consequences for your health, or your reputation, or your family life, or simply your happiness.

What we have to do is be utterly sincere and absolutely unafraid of whatever karmic position we find ourselves in right now. Because it’s bad enough that we’re feeling this way, and we don’t want to add all these levels of guilt and shame, and fear of public opinion, and of losing our reputation, which are infinitely harder to work our way out of, because they’re fantasies of our own making.

We cannot control what other people will say. We don’t even really know what they’ll say, and we can’t control their behavior. The only part we can control is our response.

In the early years at Ananda, we used to say that it’s better to sin enthusiastically in public than to do things in secret and hide for fear that someone will discover us. Sinning enthusiastically in public isn’t necessarily a great lifestyle, but it’s better than the alternative. Because, you see, the understanding in your heart that would allow you to do that includes the simple faith that God’s love for you is unconditional.

When we’re bound up with complexes of guilt and shame, this is the understanding that we’re trying to run away from – the sure knowing that no matter what I do, my relationship with God is untouched. Because whatever the consequences might be, it won’t be my relationship with God that will ever be affected.

God gives us free will, and then He watches us patiently as we learn. “Well, my child, what kind of mess have you gotten yourself into today? Tell me about it, and let’s see how we can sort this out.”

God gives us the free will to test the waters in every imaginable way, and then he patiently waits for us to learn. And no one will suffer the consequences in the same way we will. The public whose opinions we fear won’t suffer. If our actions are thoroughly misguided, they may roll out in ways that affect other people’s lives. But the effects of our actions are always most powerful at their source. And even if you aren’t feeling particularly remorseful, the karmic consequences will be strongest for you and nobody else.

The unfortunate fact is that even if we can put off the consequences until later, when “later” comes, it’s now. And that’s the tricky part. We feel that if we can just postpone it a little longer, we’ll be able to come back and deal with it with greater understanding. But when later comes, it’s now, and the karmic consequences can be every bit as dark as if we hadn’t tried to postpone them.

But it’s a beautifully liberating realization to know that God’s love for us has never depended on our being good enough to live up to a certain fixed standard.

Think how distressing it is to have people in your life whose love is mercurial and unpredictable. One minute they’re being very loving toward you, but then it’s “I don’t like you today because you didn’t bring me my coffee – you’ve disappointed me terribly, and I want you to feel how much you disappointed me.”

What kind of friendship is that? I hope you all have friends who, no matter how much of a mess you’ve made, the only thing they’re going to say is, “How are we going to sort this out?”

Isn’t that a touching experience? These experiences of loving human friendships are given to us so that we can begin to understand what God is like. Isn’t it touching when you’ve made a complete mess and your friend says, “Well, what are we going to do about it?”

I vividly recall the first time it happened to me. I only really began to understand what real friendship is like after I got to Ananda, and the first time I experienced it was when I had made a big mess. My friend said to me, “Well, what are we going to do about it?” In my memory I can still hear her voice as she said “we.” And it meant everything to me.

Now, imagine a divine friend who is unfailingly loving us this way. This is why we pray to God as father, mother, friend, beloved. Too often it comes out in a rush of formal words, “friend-beloved-God,” but the true emphasis is always on the Friend and Beloved who will never desert us.

It’s a wonderful exercise to think of God as the dearest friend. Imagine the worst you could do, and remember the worst you’ve done. And just know that God’s view of your actions is abidingly that of a loving friend who’s putting His arm around your shoulder and saying, “What are we going to do about it?”

I had a dream that came with a powerful feeling of being a true memory of a past life. I dreamt of a long-ago life when I had behaved in a less than exemplary fashion, and where others had responded in a terrible way. I don’t mean that they’d merely been unkind, but that they had manifested brutal, life-destroying, torturous, and murderous behaviors that would be difficult to imagine.

Even though those dream memories were hundreds of years old, they accurately reflected the qualities of a difficult relationship that I had with another woman at Ananda in this present life.

Swamiji realized that these memories were giving us more and more reason to be deeply upset with each other. And he changed our whole understanding when he very sweetly said, “But all of you have learned from those experiences, and you would never do such a thing again.”

It was undeniably horrible when it happened, but it was no longer attractive to us, and it wasn’t something we would ever want to do again. And Swamiji was urging us to take our minds in any direction other than what we had done in the past.

It’s a very useful exercise to imagine something you might not ever dream of wanting to do, or a horror story you’ve read about in the newspaper, and imagine that you’ve acted it out. And then imagine a friend who’s so dear and so understanding and sympathetic that even that behavior would never separate him from you. That’s what we have in God and Guru. And, to a very large extent, it’s what we have in each other.

I’ve never heard of another family like Ananda. The degree to which people in this family are able to say “All right, now what are we going to do about it?” is deeply touching. Because once we can come into that reality, it’s the beginning of intuition and freedom and actual spiritual progress.

This is who I am, and no matter how pleasant it would be to have someone else’s karma, it simply isn’t an option.

The Gita tells us that we can never have another person’s karma. Consider how differently we’re made – male and female, and from so many cultures, with so many inclinations. And it’s fantastic to contemplate.

We make so much sense to ourselves, and everything we do is obviously the way we think it ought to be done. And the fact that you would do it very differently is just amazing. I suspect that in the privacy of your meditation, you make perfect sense to yourself And God is watching all of us.

Our potential is infinite, but at this point God isn’t imposing on us a single reality. We don’t even impose a single reality on our kindergarten kids. And why would God impose it on us, when we’re approaching the center from so many different directions?

Especially in the beginning, we tend to think of the spiritual path as a straight line. Here’s where I’m standing, and here’s the goal. But when you start taking steps forward, you find that the Infinite is indeed at the center, but that the paths aren’t remotely like the perfectly straight spokes of a wheel. It’s more like wild spaghetti turnings, where we’re crossing each other, and were going up and down, and some of us are writhing around and making the biggest mess you can imagine, and one of them is you. And you cannot get to the center except by starting from where you are and following your own path through the labyrinth.

And what’s so glorious about it is that God is actually enjoying Himself through the process. As Paramhansa Yogananda said, God sought to enjoy Himself through many. Swami remarked that God doesn’t seem to be enjoying himself through very many, but nonetheless He’s intrigued by the creativity of our delusions.

Master said of one of the disciples that he was like hot molasses – too hot to swallow and too sticky to spit out. Because the disciple was thoroughly eccentric, but he belonged to Master, and that was enough. Master said of him, “Divine Mother said that he will be liberating in this lifetime – I don’t know how, but She said so, so it must be true.”

As Master says in Whispers From Eternity says, “Naughty or good, Divine Mother, I am your child.”

There was a woman at Ananda who was behaving in ways that were creating a big commotion in the community, and as a result a lot of negative energy began to be directed toward her because her behavior didn’t fit the norm. One day the woman, to her credit, marched into Swami’s room and boldly said, “I am this way and I am part of this family, and you’re just going to have to put up with it.” And Swami said, “You’re right.”

Of course she was right. There’s no question about it. And then he said, “You could make it easier on the rest of us.” But implicit in those words was, “Even if you don’t, you’re right.”

Meditate on that in your private heart. Be like hot molasses if you have to, and stand before God and Guru and say, “This is how I am, and you’re just going to have to put up with it. And if you have some suggestions for how I can make it easier on all of us, I’ll listen, but I can’t promise.”

We have to be ourselves and have the strong faith that God loves us, and that He will wait. Bear in mind, we don’t get to stay this way forever. But He will always love us, no matter how long it takes.

(From Asha’s talk during Sunday service at Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto, California on September 10, 2017.)

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