Out of a thousand people in this world, so the Bhagavad Gita tells us, only one will seek God. And out of a thousand who seek God, only one will find Him.
Paramhansa Yogananda said that on our path the percentage is much higher. But nonetheless, it’s still a very small number of people who are seriously interested in their liberation.
There are good reasons why this should be so. First, of course, because it’s difficult. But also, it runs completely counter to what the world all around us holds dear. And, furthermore, it runs counter to what we ourselves have held most dear for a very long time.
If just one in a thousand is interested in Self-realization, and if just one of those few will persevere to the end, the unavoidable question becomes, “Why do so many fail? And what is the secret of attaining the glorious goal?”
Now, when the Gita tells us that only one spiritual aspirant actually attains God-realization, it’s referring to the people who are living at the present moment. Because we will all get there eventually.
And, in any case, it’s really not a matter of statistics. As Swami Kriyananda said, there is no such thing as statistics, because there is only our individual karma.
It doesn’t matter what the odds are against something happening – what will come to you, despite the odds for or against it, is your own karma, and nothing more.
You aren’t going to get what you desire just because you’re the eighth person standing in line, and the statistics say that every eighth person will get it.
It doesn’t happen that way. What we are continually compelled to work with is the incredibly complicated, self-contradictory and endlessly annoying mess of ourselves, composed of all the accumulated habits, attitudes, self-definitions, and self-identifications we’ve formed in countless lives.
If we think of our painfully slow rise through the mineral, plant, and animal stages of existence to the human level, and then through the countless degrees of human evolution that we see mirrored all around us, the picture becomes even more complex and daunting.
Here in Silicon Valley, we find ourselves living in the midst of an extraordinarily refined environment where there is tremendous energy and alertness, and a constant feeling of “I am awake and enthusiastic!” Living here, it’s impossible not to feel that we are surrounded by people who have traversed a great distance in their spiritual evolution.
Of course, it doesn’t mean that they are saintly or free, but only that they are very impressively wide awake. They are energetic, creative, and able to operate a tremendous number of the divine laws, all of which makes it great fun to live here.
Everywhere you turn, in this corner of the world, you find people very energetically doing extremely interesting things. Whereas if you visited other parts of America, or other countries, you might find great masses people, equally divine and equally belonging to God, and equally loved by Him, who may be working at very different stages of understanding.
In India they have the caste system, which has become corrupted over time, to the point where it is now an instrument of social oppression. But the ancient principle of the castes is very valid, because it simply describes the natural evolutionary stages of human consciousness: from being completely physical and motivated only by the threat of punishment – where our idea of happiness is “The less energy I can put out, the better I’ll feel” – to the point where we are willing to use our energy, but only so long as we’ll receive something in return.
“If I work a little harder, I’ll get a little more money, and if I get more money I’ll have a little more control over my life.” And it’s very important to realize that it’s not merely a deluded and self-defeating worldly attitude – it’s actually spiritual progress.
Greed and selfishness are a big step forward from the lowest state of consciousness, where you’re too dull even to want to work to get what you want.
Some years ago there was a movie that Jyotish described as “the touching story of a shudra becoming a vaishya.” In India, the lowest caste of mindless passivity is called shudra. And the vaishya cast is where we’ve begun to be ready to work hard to get whatever we want, but we won’t work unless we feel that we’ll be getting something in return.
In the movie, the main character had awakened to his own higher potential, at least to the degree that he was willing to summon the energy to be selfish.
And, make no mistake, God cheers you on when you reach that state. And then we get to be energetically selfish for a very long time. And that’s really where our country is right now, in its essential consciousness.
Most of the people in charge today are energetically selfish. At the vaishya stage, it’s not as if you might not have great intelligence and will power, but you’re only willing to use those qualities in service to the thought of “What’s in it for me?” And “I’ll give only as much as I’ll get in return.”
We all spend a great deal of time working through these various levels of consciousness. And our habitual way of behaving – in our relationships, our work, and so on – will reflect our natural caste.
But bear in mind that while the idea of the castes can make our spiritual progress seem neatly cut and dried, our inner life is actually quite a mess, and we don’t actually fit into neat categories.
Even when we finally reach the stage where we’re energetic enough to be selfish, there will still be large parts of us that are thinking that it’s just too much trouble, and we’d rather be – what’s the phrase? – “binge watching.” It’s where you start watching Season One and you sit there like a vegetable because it feels good. And in our own little sphere of things, it can actually seem quite pleasant to exist like that for a while.
At the shudra level of energy and consciousness it feels really good to eat a big, heavy meal and then be completely slothful while we’re binge-watching.
To some people, it’s a recipe for the perfect weekend. And then others will have enough energy to put in the time and hard work to make something happen. And at that stage you gradually realize that it’s really fun to be putting out energy, and to be making things happen.
But then we begin to discover that it’s even more fun to be making things happen for other people. And we cannot learn that lesson just by being told.
If you tell somebody who’s at the shudra or vaishya level, “You’ll be a lot happier if you work selflessly for other people,” they’ll either turn over and go back to sleep, or look at you as if you’re crazy.
First we have to become energetically selfish, and only then can we gradually realize, by having our own experiences, that even though it’s fun to get for myself, it’s even more fun to get for others.
We start with our own family – we take care of our children, and maybe we accidentally take care of one of our neighbors’ children, and we discover that it isn’t so bad. And maybe we reluctantly, somehow end up helping a friend, and we begin to get a taste for a more refined level of enjoyment.
Our spiritual progress through these many lives is all about increasing our awareness of a very pleasurable and positive inner state of awareness. Because that’s the only reason we ever do anything.
Nobody ever does anything unless there’s something pleasurable in it for them. Now, “pleasurable” is a relative word. Because being in complete torpor and putting out no energy at all is no longer satisfying for those who’ve discovered a higher kind of inner pleasure. And, again, being selfish is very satisfying to lots of people, but only until they discover the greater joy of integrating their desires into a larger reality.
Every one of the castes, if you look at it closely, is motivated by the thought that “I’m willing to put out energy if I can get something for myself in return.”
The vaishya thinks, “I’ll be happy when I have enough money and power to be able to control the world around me.”
They’re thinking that what they really want is money. But money for most people represents power – the power to buy my own land, to own my own house, to set my own work hours, to give to my children and make them attached to me by buying their loyalty – whatever it might be. We crave to have more control over the world around us, and we work long and hard for many, many lives in our eagerness to get that kind of control.
At the shudra level, we gradually begin to be uncomfortable with the feeling of powerlessness. And, in time, we awaken enough to want to figure out how we can get more power for ourselves. And all of that is progress.
We realize that getting control over the world requires that I be awake and energetic and concentrated and that I work with great force. But the real problem with seeking our happiness by controlling our outward circumstances, as we gradually realize, is that it simply doesn’t work.
As Paramhansa Yogananda said, the problem with the world is that it almost works. It would be a great system if it worked, but it doesn’t work. Our bodies break down, our children betray our hopes for them, people let us down, volcanoes explode, hurricanes come, and we get hit by a car.
In the 1960s and 1970s, when we were beginning to eat healthy, there were hundreds of wacky theories going around. Actually, today there are thousands of wacky theories, thanks to the internet. But back then one of them was the mucusless diet, where all of our life’s problems are caused by an excess of mucus. I’m not quite sure what mucus is, but it sounds icky, and nobody likes it. So this man wrote a series very convincing books that described in gross detail the consequences of too much mucus, and how if you went on this diet, which was primarily fruit, you would feel so much better. It was a very big thing, and this man was a powerful example of the mucusless diet – he was as strong as he could be. And then he stepped off a curb and got hit by a truck.
It wasn’t that I was happy to see him die, but really, you can only go so far with the mucusless diet, or any other solution that depends on rearranging your circumstances in this world.
Paramhansa Yogananda told a story of meeting a health food nut in Arizona. This man came up to Master and proclaimed, “I cheated St. Peter three times with carrot juice!” Meaning that he would have died three times, if he hadn’t cheated St. Peter three times with carrot juice. Master said, “My friend, when St. Peter wants to take you, you can bathe in the stuff and it won’t save you.”
The problem is that no matter how long you try to make yourself happy by gaining control over the world, in the end it doesn’t work, because it doesn’t give you the happiness you’re seeking. And all of us here today have noticed this to some degree. No one comes to this temple until it has crossed their mind that what they are seeking is not outside themselves but somewhere inside.
And now the transition from the vaishya to the kshatriya caste begins. The kshatriya caste is where you develop the qualities of the warrior, administrator, and king – where you’re acting for the good of others. And the transition is about realizing that the real battle is not to control the world around you, but to control your own consciousness, because that’s where your happiness is.
It’s a revolutionary shift. And the difficulty is that we’ve spent untold numbers of lives getting to the point where it has begun to occur to us that all of the skills we’ve developed for gaining control must now be subordinated to the search for a higher pleasure that can only come by gaining control over ourselves and helping others.
It isn’t easy to let go of what was almost working for us for such a long time. Whenever we set a great deal of energy moving in one direction, the tendency is to think that even if it isn’t working right now, all we need to do is to do more of it.
It’s been said that the definition of being crazy is to do the same thing over and over in the expectation of a different result. We think, “Well, maybe this time…” And we continue to do it for many incarnations.
Master said that the deviousness of maya, or delusion, is not that this life is horrible, but that it’s almost good enough. And maybe almost everything worked out very nicely this time around, except that I was a little too fat or a little too skinny, I was a little too male or female, or I wasn’t artistic enough. And if I can just tinker with these few little things it will all be so much better next time. So we come back and try again and again, and it almost works.
If it failed completely, we would figure it very quickly. But the problem is that we’re almost happy, and we have to go through being almost happy thousands of times before somebody can finally tell us about spiritual truth and we’ll stay awake and be interested instead of just falling asleep.
How can we even begin to believe it? What to speak of knowing what to do?
How can we truly hear the message that our happiness doesn’t depend on any outward condition in our life, and that we can have a state of absolute happiness and freedom within?
When people hear that message, most of them immediately translate it as “Ah, I can have anything I want!” They hear, “You are the master of your own destiny, and you can determine your own happiness.” And they’re immediately thinking, “Oh boy! It means I can get all the money I want. I can get the right relationships, and I can make it all work!”
So they take high spiritual principles and translate them into something they can understand with their vaishya consciousness. And to a certain extent, that’s progress.
A great deal of the extraordinary creativity we see in this area, with the wildly innovative ideas that are popping up in all directions, is being generated by people who are standing somewhere along the vaishya spectrum of spiritual evolution and expressing their energy in that particular way.
At that level we may start out with a generous, uplifted idea, and then you see what happens as these companies begin to grow. From what was originally a few people having a really good time, they get bigger and bigger, to the point where it looks like something very different, and it comes to be based on selfishness and greed.
But when we enter the stage of the kshatriya, the spiritual inner warrior, we’ve begun to understand that it’s myself that I need to conquer.
When I came onto the spiritual path, I decided for some reason that it would take me five years to finish the race. Where that number came from, I have no idea. Master said that we carry within us a portable paradise. He was so colorful in his language, and “a portable paradise” was a phrase that stuck with me. I could see it as a big garden somewhere between my heart and my tummy, and I was sure that in about five years I was going to live there all the time.
But it didn’t happen. Because every step I took toward finding my portable paradise, I was still there. All of the “me’s” that I had developed to that point were still tagging along.
And so we get into this strange relationship with ourselves, where we’re being tugged in different directions. And of the thousand who seek God, what happens for the other nine hundred and ninety-nine is that it takes a little longer than five years.
I don’t even want to even think of how long it takes. Although it ultimately doesn’t matter how long it is. But it’s a very big project, and it can’t be rushed just because we’re impatient.
The Gita describes the castes with a series of very helpful illustrations. First it describes the highest brahmin caste, and how the consciousness of the brahmin is like smoke that obscures a flame, and just a little puff of air is enough to blow the smoke away.
And then it describes the kshatriya stage as like the rust that obscures the mirror, which means that you have to work really hard to scrub the rust away. Still, if you apply your effort, you can rub it clean. But at the vaishya stage you’ll have to scrub a lot harder and longer. And then it describes the delusion of the shudra as being like a baby in the womb.
Now, I’ve never been pregnant, but I understand that it gets a little tiresome. I see ladies in the last stages of their pregnancy who look really uncomfortable. But no amount of determination on the mother’s part is going to get the baby out of the womb any sooner than it’s destined to come. So there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it, because there’s a greater destiny at work. And for the shudra, only time will very slowly and gradually awaken him to the realization that he can improve his situation with a bit of creativity and energy.
Really, the reason so many people have difficulty with the spiritual path is that, first of all, it’s absolutely humiliating. Well, “humbling” is a nicer word. But “humiliating” is what it feels like. Because when we finally step into the kshatriya level, and we really begin to do battle with ourselves, we realize that we’ve never had anything like the illusory control and freedom that the vaishya aspires to.
The way Swami described it is that we have countless mental citizens. We have a whole metropolis of mental citizens, and just think of how many things are going on in even a small town. And that’s what we’re challenged to try to take control of inside ourselves at the kshatriya stage.
Some parts of us are still binge-watching, while other parts are trying hard to serve and to do Kriya. And it’s all happening simultaneously.
So we scrub hard at the mirror where we can, and we puff a little where the energy is already flowing nicely. But then there are parts of us where a change can only come by waiting for the baby to emerge in the natural course of things.
This is the reality of our situation, and it isn’t a curse or a failure. And if we’re smart, it’s not even a surprise.
People come to me for counseling, and they’ll start off by saying, “Well, I know it’s stupid to feel this way.” “I know I have this feeling, and I know it’s stupid.” “I know I really shouldn’t be feeling this way, because it’s stupid.”
That’s the word people seem to like – “stupid.” And I’ll say, “Actually, it’s not stupid at all.” You’re a brilliant, marvelous, strong aspect of God, even if you may be pretty lousy at realizing it right now. Because, you know, you’re trying. You’re doing this spiritual work and you’ve spent endless lifetimes developing these attitudes, and at the time when you developed them, they served you very well, and they were not a mistake, but a great victory.
Swami said about education that we should never ask children to do things in school that they will later be embarrassed by. He said that, at the child’s level, you should always be offering them noble truths.
You can dress your little children like pumpkins and have them make pumpkin noises and sing dumb songs, and it may be cute, but it’s also embarrassing, so that when they’re older they’ll look back and think, “Well, I learned nothing, and I just felt silly about it.”
He said that you should honor the divine in the child in everything they do, and even at their child’s level they should have the dignity of their soul, and what you give them should express a higher truth that they can understand.
Swami said that when he was a child, they were taught to sing a song, “Climb, climb Sunshine Mountain, faces all aglow.” He recalled how they had to sing that song when he was six, and he said that a child does not think of his face as being all aglow, he thinks of it as covered with sweat from climbing. So you really shouldn’t impose these sorts of pretty ideas, because children are just as vulnerable as we are to the indignity of being made to feel small and silly.
And so, when we decided, a long time ago, that it would be a really good idea to be selfish, and to fight to get all of these things for ourselves, and to hunker down and hide from the challenge to change, it made a great deal of sense to us, in the context of our consciousness at the time. Because if it didn’t, we wouldn’t have done it. But in doing it, we dug deep grooves in our consciousness.
And now we aren’t in kindergarten anymore, and it doesn’t mean that what we did back when we were six was inappropriate at the time. It wasn’t stupid when we were six, because it was exactly the right thing to do.
A friend of mine said that when she was having her second child, her first child was about three, and she was worried that he would be jealous of the baby. And then the little boy said to her one day, “When the baby comes, I’m going to eat him.”
The mother thought, “Oh, no, even before the baby comes it’s begun!” But she remained calm, and she said, “Why would you want to do that, darling?” And he said, “So he can come out of my tummy, too, just like he’s coming out of yours.”
You see, the child’s point of view is entirely different. And when our consciousness was spiritually that of a child, our point of view was entirely different, and we made the best decisions we could make at the time. And they weren’t stupid. But now we need to put them behind us. But you can see how very compassionate and respectful it is to understand it in that way.
All that I was saying about not setting up children to feel humiliated later on – its better if they aren’t, but within ourselves we do look lovingly on our children, don’t we? We look lovingly at the adorable things they say and do.
When I was ten years old – and this is a true story – I had taken up with bad companions as far as my parents were concerned. They happened to be the most interesting friends I could find at age ten, and my parents thought that they were a bad influence. I was a very small but very feisty person, and I remember planting my feet and announcing to my parents at the age of ten, “The die is cast! I’m either a good kid or a bad kid, and there’s nothing you can do about it now.”
In retrospect, I was telling the truth, and I knew it. I knew that I was living with them, but that they were not defining me, and that I was stronger in myself than their influence. But I was also telling them that I’m going to play with these kids whether you like it or not. And I can imagine how my parents must have died laughing after they walked away. Can you imagine a kid declaring like that? But it was wiser than they might have realized, although I think that as this life progressed, they could understand it.
But, still, we are just what we are, and we’re doing the best we can, and we should be proud of what we’ve done. But now that it’s time to repudiate it, its claws are sunk pretty deep into us.
And just the thought that I don’t want to be that way anymore, and that it’s agonizing for me to be this way, is extremely valuable to us. And if there’s a little bit of smoke over the flame, we can just give it a good puff and it’s gone, but if it’s the baby in the womb, we don’t want to lose everything by losing all hope.
You see, it’s bad enough that we have these delusions. But if we make a huge complex out of them and let ourselves begin to despair, and if we’re no longer able to cooperate with God and keep moving forward, but we’re in constant conflict with ourselves, and laying a huge complex of unworthiness over what is already the very big task before us, we are in serious danger of becoming one of the nine hundred and ninety-nine, at least for this incarnation.
In forty-five years of watching people on the spiritual path, I’ve seen that the ones who gradually develop the portable paradise are not necessarily the most talented, or the most extraordinary, or the most this or that. They are the ones who’ve been the most humble and sincere and who haven’t given up.
Patience is the fastest route to God. And the advice I offer to people on the spiritual path has evolved to where it has become utterly simple. I could go into the complexities of everybody’s reality, as I still do with my own. But in the end, I have just two words of advice: “Don’t quit.”
Think about it. We cannot actually quit anyway, because all we can do is delay. But just don’t quit. If you fail a bazillion times, it’s just the baby in the womb, that’s all. “Oh, I thought it was the rust on the mirror, but it turns out it’s the baby in the womb, and no amount of scrubbing will remove the rust for now.” But the baby will eventually emerge.
That’s what the Gita promises us. That’s what God promises us, and it’s all we ever need to remember. Don’t quit. Just don’t quit.
Just persevere. I was told that Master said, “Those who persevere to the end, I or one of the other gurus will be there to greet them when this incarnation is over.” And I’m told that he said, “You don’t have to march triumphantly across the finish line. You don’t even have to crawl across the finish line. You can slither across on your belly.”
Just don’t quit. That’s all that matters. God bless you.
(From Asha’s talk during Sunday service at Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto, California on August 26, 2018.)