June 1, 1976 was a landmark in my life – it was the day I came to live at Ananda Village and study with Swami Kriyananda.
At the time, the property that would eventually be called Ananda Village was just an undeveloped piece of land that we called the Farm. We also had the meditation retreat on 12 acres of land six miles up the road, and a small property in the woods called Ayodhya where Swami Kriyananda’s house was, about a mile and a half from the main “downtown” portion of the Farm.
Today, there’s a big garden and a complex of buildings at Ayodhya, including the Crystal Hermitage, the chapel, a guest house, and the Paramhansa Yogananda Museum. But in 1971 the only significant structure was Swamiji’s house, which was a simple, very rustic geodesic dome.
We had no electricity or TV or radio. We had battery-operated cassette recorders for listening to Swami’s talks, but there were no telephones or other means of immediate communication with the outside world. And it was heavenly.
It was the very picture of what you’d think of, if you imagined renouncing the world. We were living in extremely primitive circumstances, with very little money. We had the land, which gave us somewhere to live, and we were growing a major portion of our food. But we only had a handful of automobiles, and we hardly ever left the property.
At least once a week, Swamiji would give an evening satsang at his dome. It was gas-lit, with a big window through which you could watch the rain and snow in wintertime, and on summer evenings you could see the moon and the dimly lit hillside on the far side of the canyon.
In that atmosphere, high above the river in Swamiji’s dome, time would seem to stand still and past-life memories would surface, especially after dark.
It was very liberating to the spirit to live in that level of isolation and simplicity, which we enjoyed for nearly a decade, because it suggested to our minds that this world is not at all what it seems.
In the life that we have today here in the Bay Area, few of us ever have the opportunity to enjoy that degree of seclusion. Our lives are much more complex – we can go to a nice restaurant after service, and we’re constantly reminded of the all-pervading belief in our society that this is the real and natural world, and that we have a duty to relate to it.
Those of us who follow the path of Self-realization may appear to be out of step with the world, but most of the time it doesn’t show. I remember sitting in a restaurant in Sacramento with my dear soul sister Seva, years ago. The atmosphere in the restaurant seemed particularly materialistic on that day. I remember watching a man who was being served a steak, and I was so embarrassed for him. I had been a vegetarian for a long time, and I thought, “In the privacy of his home, maybe – but in public?” And then, of course, I had to adjust my thinking and realize that he thought it was wonderful, and that the people with him were pleased for him.
I remember turning to Seva and saying, “If we looked as different as we are inside, with the way we view the world, people would probably run screaming from the restaurant because we would seem so alien, like creatures from a science fiction film.”
It’s very hard to break the hypnotic suggestion that we must relate to this world the way everyone else is, as if it were the only reality.
Those of us who had come to Ananda to study with Swamiji had turned our values upside down. As the Gita says, “What is night to the yogi is day to the worldly man, and what is day to the yogi is night to the worldly man.”
At any rate, summer or winter, rain or shine, we would walk through the woods to Swamiji’s dome for satsang, wearing a rain suit and boots and carrying a flashlight. And I thought it was the best life in the world.
I remember walking through the woods in the dark while it was snowing, and thinking how completely fortunate I was to be going to my tiny trailer that was without running water or a kitchen, because I felt that I had everything a person could ever want. I remember thinking that as I got older, I would have even less, and I would be even happier.
It was completely the opposite of the prevailing way of thinking. And when we were with Swamiji, his consciousness would sometimes take us to places we were not able to access on our own.
I’m thinking of a particular evening when he went into an unusual state. In his later years, he would more often go into those bliss states in public. But for perhaps thirty of the forty years I was with him, he contained his consciousness.
The inner bliss was always there, but he deliberately contained it, and I suspect it was because he had a great work to do, and he didn’t want that kind of superficial attention. But also, he wanted people around him who were able to understand what he was doing, working hard to bring his Master’s teachings to the world.
Later, he would share his inner bliss more openly, especially when he was in India and Italy. And, again, I believe it was because so much of his life was spent in America, and although Americans are deeply spiritual, they don’t let it show. Whereas the Italians were able to understand with open hearts what a saint is, and the Indians would respond with their whole being, because they could feel intuitively what he was. So he was able to be himself and to be understood when he began spending more time in Europe, particularly in Italy, and even more so in India.
But even in the early days we would get a glimpse of it on rare occasions, and this was one of those times. He sat in front of the big window, and you could tell from the feeling in the room and from his expression that he was somewhere else, and that he was seeing us all very differently than we were seeing each other.
There were perhaps thirty or forty of us in the room, and I remember how he looked at us with so much compassion. And, seeing how Maya had us in its thrall, he said reassuringly, “You’ll get it right sooner or later.” And then with great compassion he added, “But why waste a few million years?”
He said, “Just wake up in God now.” And there was a sense of tremendous possibility. But then, of course, your life takes over, and your desires and fears and longings distract you from the goal, because you’ve let them come in and define you.
I remember how he said, on another occasion, “Whenever I see people suffering, I think – ah, how much sweeter it will be when they finally wake up in God!” He removed the element of time from the equation, telling us that the suffering now will be the bliss thereafter, and it will be so much more welcome because of the suffering.
Swamiji once described the spiritual path as a giant warehouse filled with furniture. He said, “And everything on this side of the room has to be moved to that side of the room, but you have to move one item at a time, and you can only move it an inch or two.”
You move a couple of pieces, and you move a couple more, and that’s what the spiritual path is like for a long time, until late in the process when, as Master said, it becomes “effortlessly liberating.” But we’ll all get it right eventually, and we’ll get our furniture moved to the other side. And, in the meantime, we must deal with the extraordinary complexity of the unresolved issues from our past lives that are keeping us looking outward for our fulfillment.
And then, as it says in the Festival of Light, “Ever and again through your awakened sons the answer comes.”
When we die and we enter the astral world, we’re a little more conscious, because the weight of the physical world is lifted from us, and we are able to see and feel more clearly. But merely to go into the astral world doesn’t advance us spiritually. As Swami said, both comfortingly and appallingly, “Nothing happens when you die.”
He said, “You’re just yourself, but you’re without a body.” And being without a body, we’re a little brighter, but then the compelling force of our karma eventually drags us back into this world.
I’ve often marveled at how easily we become distracted. You have the evening free, and you plan to have a long meditation. But then you think, “I’m feeling a little hungry, and there’s nothing in the house. I’ll go across the street and get a pizza and I’ll come back and meditate.”
But then you run into a friend who invites you to sit and talk, and hours later you return to your meditation room and you realize what happened. And I imagine this is what happens to us in the astral world, when we begin to feel restless because of our unfulfilled longings and regrets. Swami said that the desires that bring us back, time after time, can be summed up as longing and regret. In the astral world we’re still bound by our longings and regrets, and then we find ourselves being reborn so that we can work out those karmic dramas.
We suddenly find ourselves on the outside once again, separated from the astral heaven. We wake up in a little infant’s body, and Master said it’s why babies cry when they are born. “Oh dear, here I am again – back in a physical body!”
A friend of mine who’s a very serious yogi said that he became much more dedicated after his son was born. Seeing that little form, he realized what it meant to reincarnate, in a way that he hadn’t quite understood it before – seeing that helpless infant, and thinking about all that the child would have to experience. And he said that he had never missed a meditation since his son was born.
I was with friends when their little daughter was born. The baby had some slight distress, and the doctors took it from the mother. The father went along, and I went with them, and I remember how the little girl, who was barely a minute old, saw her beautiful loving papa, and she was so happy, and she reached out for him. And of course he was crying, and I was crying. Her papa was a great big man, and she reached up and grabbed his big finger, and I felt that it was so precious and so terrible at the same time.
Here I am again, and I’m going to take whatever I believe will make me happy. I have a loving daddy who’s going to adore me, and he’s going to do everything for me. He’s my servant, and I’m going to hold his hand, and pretty soon I’ll wrap him around my finger, which she proceeded to do in the most beautiful way, and she still holds him. And here we go again.
Now, on the one hand, this is a God-given event, because how else will we learn? We need to have these experiences, and there has to be a complete commitment to being who we are.
We often have the false idea that we can overcome our limitations by pretending that they aren’t there. We think we’ll be free if we can just squeeze ourselves into a spiritual image and hold ourselves tightly in that imaginary form.
Among Swami Kriyananda’s many other qualities, he was very, very relaxed. He didn’t carry a lot of tension in his body. His will was powerful, and it might give you the impression that he was tense or tight, or that he was tightly wound. But he was not, because he could move from one thing to the next with perfect relaxation.
I have an extremely active mind – it’s always doing six or seven things at once. And when I first heard the term “multitasking” I realized that it was tattooed on my arm.
But Swamiji only ever did one thing at a time. And when I worked with him, I remember how annoying it would be for him whenever I would expect him to do two or three things at a time.
When Swami was reading a letter, he would read the letter, and if you said something to him, it was as if he didn’t know you were there, and he would concentrate entirely on what he was doing. Even in the worst periods of his life, when we were in litigation and he was being persecuted by the very people he had hoped would understand him, he was able to write wonderful books and beautiful music. He would say, “You know, I’ve done some of my best work in this particular period.” And it was because he was able to be fully in the now.
If there’s a problem over there, but it’s not over here, we tend to get all alarmed and excited, and we try to bring it closer so we can fret and worry over it, don’t we? But for Swami, if it wasn’t here it didn’t exist, and when it was time to deal with it he would give it his full attention.
The complete absence of a feeling of being stretched between the past and the future, and his ability to be fully in whatever reality was immediately before him, made him very relaxed and very courageous.
He had a brilliance and an intelligence that I greatly admired, and that I felt was a wonderful bonus in being with him. He was so clear-minded, and it used to puzzle me, because I was bright, but I wasn’t clear-minded, and my thoughts would go in many directions.
Swami was almost never rude to me, but once or twice he was. Rude isn’t exactly the right word. “Blunt.” Many of you have probably heard me tell this story, but I had two friends, two very close gurubhais, and I had a tremendous affinity with one of them, and the other one I couldn’t stand, even though we were dear sisters. I felt that her personality was terrible, and she felt the same about me. We disliked each other intensely. And because the three of us were often together with Swamiji, it wasn’t easy for him. So I was always trying to sort it out.
One day I said to Swami, “The problem is that we’re supposed to be even-minded, and the difficulty here is that I love this one so much and I dislike this one so much that there’s too much of a gap. So I’m going to love this one less, and then there will be less of a gap.”
Swami looked at me for a moment, and then he said, “That’s the stupidest idea I have ever heard.”
But then he explained it in a way that was deeply compassionate. He said, “Those gifts of love like that, they come spontaneously.”
We’ve worked at those hard-earned friendships. We’ve learned to love certain people, and now that level of love is there for us. Swami said, “Those are given to you to show you what your capacity is. And they’re not meant to be the exception in your life. They’re meant to show you what you need to be in all circumstances.”
He said, “So, obviously, what you have to do is bring this one to there.” And I understood.
This is why we are compelled, because we think we’ll be able to find a degree of inner freedom if we can just hold ourselves together. But freedom is actually the ability not to need to hold yourself together, because everything has been resolved. And then what is there to protect?
That’s what I saw in Swamiji, and it puzzled me for a long time how he could be so insightful, and how he could see situations so clearly, and how he could put ideas together in ways that made them crystal clear.
Like many people at Ananda, I was used to being one of the brightest people in the room, but Swamiji just put me in the shade with his relaxed, perfectly natural and very impersonal brilliance.
In the summer of 1976, we were in Hawaii while Swami was editing The Path. Kalyani and I were with him, and she persuaded him that we should go on a boat ride so that he could rest his brain, because we’d hardly stepped out of the apartment.
When I called to make the reservation, the woman at the other end said, “How many adults and children will there be in the party?” And I almost said “One adult and two children.” But it occurred to me that when we showed up they wouldn’t be very eager to give us a children’s discount, even if I explained that there really was just one adult in our party, and that Kalyani and I were his thirty-year-old children.
When I finally figured out why Swamiji was so brilliant, I realized that the brightness of his mind came from the clarity of his heart.
He was not afraid of anything. He wasn’t afraid of physical pain, he wasn’t afraid of mental pain, he wasn’t afraid of public humiliation, and he wasn’t afraid of revelations about himself that had been hidden to himself. He wasn’t afraid of other people’s suffering, and he wasn’t afraid of their delusions. By no means was he immune to the feelings of those who were suffering, but he wasn’t afraid of those feelings. He wasn’t threatened by them.
Everyone on the planet has the potential to enjoy that degree of freedom. And remembering how I couldn’t get along with that woman – why would I expect her to be different?
Swamiji said, “It’s very tempting to wish about your friends that this one had the qualities of that one, and that one would have the qualities of this one.” And he said, “Don’t do it.” He added, “If I expected perfection of my friends, I would be a very lonely man.”
But he wasn’t afraid, because the only thing he ever wanted was truth. That’s all. He just wanted truth.
Gary McSweeney is our middle school teacher, and he has a very wise and skillful way of dealing with the children. There was a girl in his class who was extremely smart – she was one of those super Silicon Valley children who are clearly destined for success. It was obvious that she would go to a prestigious university and that she would excel in whatever she did. And somewhere along the way, this thirteen-year-old girl decided that she was an atheist. And, just imagine being an atheist in our school – I don’t know how she was able to pray every day, as we do in our classrooms.
At any rate, Gary was talking casually with her, and he said, “Maybe you are an atheist, but what I see in you is that you’re a truth seeker.”
It was a perfect answer, because it gave her an option to describe herself in a more constructive way. I’m not going to make up my mind until I’m perfectly satisfied that I know what’s true. When Gary told me about the conversation, I thought, “Oh, thank you, God.” Because, just think of the difference it will make for her, to have that shift in perspective.
But, you see, Swami was always a truth seeker, and that’s the impression we always received from him.
He told us how, when he was three years old, his mother was sitting in front of the mirror, and he said, “Mommy, please don’t be vain all the time, like Mrs. Martin is.” He had noticed that Mrs. Martin was vain about her looks, and he didn’t want his mommy to be like that, because he could tell that it wasn’t right.
In The New Path he tells how his parents were away, and his mother wrote to the governess, “Please tell Donald to be very good because that will make us happy.” She added, “He’s sure to find a flaw in that argument, but you might try it.”
She knew that he would ask, “How will my Mom know if I’m good? And will she really be happy?” He was always wanting to know what was true, and it didn’t matter what it might affect or what it might change or what cherished idea it might dismantle, or what hopes it might destroy, because the only way to freedom is by following the truth.
Years ago, I had a crisis of some sort, where I had to make a decision, and I was trying to do what God wanted, but I wasn’t able to feel what He wanted. So I had a big emotional scene with Swami, and I don’t know how he put up with me. I was sitting on the floor, and I put my head against a chair and wailed, “It’s so hard to know what God wants!” And Swami said, completely calmly, “No, it’s not.”
So I had to sort it out, and in my mind I changed his words to “It’s not hard for me to know what God wants.” As if he was claiming a power that I didn’t have. But something in me knew that it wasn’t right, and I was forced to recall his actual words: “No, it’s not.”
I was thinking, “But it’s very hard for me to know.” Because I was always flailing about trying to know what God wanted, particularly in that situation. So I asked myself, “Why is it so hard for me?” And I heard Swami’s voice say, “Because you don’t want to know.”
I thought, “Why don’t I want to know?”
“Because you’re afraid.”
You’re afraid that some cherished desire will be taken from you. And we have to decide, are we going to be truth seekers, or are we just going to be dogmatists working for our own protection? And, believe me, being a truth seeker is a lifelong practice. It’s not as if you can just quickly grasp the principle and scribble it on the refrigerator, and there you are. No, the attitude of being a truth seeker takes a long time to cultivate, and it’s a lesson that we will need to repeat again and again.
In 1976, when Swamiji was writing The Path, we weren’t yet in litigation with Self-Realization Fellowship – they didn’t sue us until 1990. But at that point he had already spent fourteen years in a continuous struggle with his gurubhais over the legitimacy of what he was doing. Because his fellow disciples did not consider him to be behaving as a disciple should, and Swamiji had staked his whole life on the assumption that what he was doing was what Master wanted.
I was his secretary at the time, and every afternoon at around four o’clock I would go over to his house and type his manuscript. He would work on it during the day, and I would come and type it in the afternoon.
When I came in that day, there wasn’t a single piece of paper on his desk. We would usually sit and have tea before I started typing, and when he came in and sat down, he said, “I didn’t write a word today.”
He was working on the chapter where he would have to talk about his separation from Self-Realization Fellowship, and how they had expelled him.
He said, “I sat in my chair and I stared at the wall.” He said, “I went through the whole experience from beginning to end, to see if there was something I could see that told me that I was wrong.” And he said, “I was fully prepared, if I felt that, to go to Los Angeles and go to Daya Mata and repudiate everything I’ve done.”
In the end, he had to say that he couldn’t see how he could possibly have behaved differently. But it was an absolutely sincere attempt on his part to see the truth. Because no matter how far he had come, and no matter how completely he had put himself forward to the whole world while feeling righteous in his actions, he was completely committed to follow only what was true.
Now, all of these qualities – truth, light, wisdom, God, Divine Mother – all of these things are the same reality. And either we live in acceptance of that reality, or we allow ourselves to play the game that everybody else is playing, and that they consider perfectly natural – that my happiness will come from money and status, and from having my children do exactly what I want them to do.
But to come back to Swamiji and his relaxation, it wasn’t that he was courageous because he wasn’t committed. Many times people will have courage because they aren’t really committed. As long as they’re holding back, and as long as they can keep a shield of indifference around their hearts, they can appear to be brave, feeling that it isn’t going to touch them. But when you give your heart completely, it’s a very different story, and a very different kind of courage, much deeper and more real. As a song by Swamiji says,
Give life your heart! Bless everything that’s grown;
Fear not the loving: all this world’s your own.
Make rich the soil, but once the seed is sown
Seek freedom, don’t linger: Go on alone!
That is what we are seeking. Think of how the masters live. “From a life of infinite joy and freedom and God, willingly to embrace limitation, pain, and death for the salvation of mankind. Such ever has been the sacrifice of the great masters for the world.”
And then the next line from the Festival is, “Here, then, is the fourth and last stage of the soul’s long journey away from its home in God – the Redemption.” Where you’re no longer holding anything back, and you’re fearless in the giving. Because we are no longer living in this world, but in the light. And if the light is going to come into this world it needs instruments.
Swami said that there are many great and beautiful things that God would give to the world, and that are never expressed for lack of willing instruments.
And who are those instruments? They are you and I. And we must be truth seekers. We’re going to get it right sooner or later. And we have to give ourselves one-hundred percent.
Father, now that I wander with Thee,
Flow’rs and fields are alive with Thy joy!
All that I owned to Thee I’ve given,
Now I sing: In Thy love I am free!
It doesn’t mean that we are seeking perfection in this world, but we are seeking a perfection that is already in us. And in being one with that perfection we will be able to say, “Yes, I feel your suffering, but how much sweeter it will be when God comes.” Knowing that truth in ourselves, we will know for everyone that they’re going to get it right sooner or later.
There’s a beautiful truth that I love: “If the ending isn’t happy, it means we haven’t reached the end.”
Because when it all finally ends, it will be a happy ending and it will be forever. This is God’s promise, and the greatest truth.
God bless you.
(From Asha’s talk during Sunday service at Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto, California on June 30, 2019.)