When We Live for God, His Liberating Help Is Just a Heartfelt Prayer Away

A Theater Magic production of the life of George Washington Carver at Living Wisdom School in Palo Alto, California.

In my talk today, I’m going to pay no attention to the assigned topic. For those of you who are accustomed to how I’ll usually wander around and eventually bring my talk back to the main subject – be forewarned, because this time I’m never coming back.

I believe that our life together has reached a critical juncture regarding one of the major responsibilities that have been placed in our hands for Paramhansa Yogananda’s world mission.

Don’t worry – it’s not a crisis or a catastrophe. In fact, quite the opposite, it’s a wonderful opportunity.

When we were starting the first Ananda community, we had seventy-two acres of land that Swami Kriyananda purchased in 1968. It was a very quiet and remote property, and he felt that we could start a meditation retreat and community there, and then as we got more established we could move the community aspect to a separate location.

Seventy-two acres seemed like a lot of land at the time, and it was easy to envision a quiet retreat where families could also live.

But the problem was that one of the first families who came included a four-year-old little girl named Ceci, and no quiet meditation retreat and Ceci could ever have coexisted, even on a thousand acres.

Ceci would often come over and visit Jyotish, and one day while he was at home he heard her approach. The first step up to the porch was quite high, and he heard Ceci trying to scramble up. And then he heard her say, very loudly, “This is going to require my FULL BLAST!!” And she ran and launched herself through the air onto the porch.

The upshot is that it didn’t take us very long to realize that we needed to have a separate place for the families. And in 1971, by God’s grace, a large piece of land became available where the families could live and the children could be themselves.

Here in our Palo Alto Ananda congregation, many great souls have dedicated their energies to establishing the most recent aspect of our expression of Paramhansa Yogananda’s ideals, in the form of a brand-new Living Wisdom High School. And I think it’s time that we started giving it our full blast.

Most people, when they start a large project, will work in the usual worldly ways. They’ll make five-year plans, they’ll create spreadsheets, and they’ll hire professional fundraisers.

But one of the things that successful people also do is that they leverage their contacts. They call in favors, and they ask for help from their friends in high places. And we are fortunate to be in a position to call in lots of favors, and we have plenty of friends in high places. So that’s what we need to begin working with. And after service today we’ll get together and talk about how we can focus our energies, laser-like, on the new high school.

In the meantime, I want to have a conversation with you about what Ananda really is, and why we’re doing this aspect of Master’s mission, and how it all relates to our personal spiritual life.

When I moved to Ananda Village in 1971, I had known Swami Kriyananda for about two years. Many of you have heard me tell the story of that first meeting, and how, because of certain past-life associations – there’s really no other explanation for it – the moment he walked in the door I instantly knew that he was my destiny. I knew that he was my spiritual teacher, and I knew that my life would be defined by this person. And I made that decision in about ten seconds, even though I had yet to hear him speak a single word.

Of course, to worldly ears it sounds completely crazy, if you imagine that we were meeting for the first time. But it’s not crazy at all if you realize that we’ve just been separated for a short while, and that we’ve completed the process of growing old enough to be able to make our own decisions, and now we’re just picking up where we left off. Because that’s how the flow of incarnations works. And when I met Swami, there was a feeling –  “Oh, there you are again! Oh, this is what I’ve been waiting for, and now my life can begin.”

I had been very intellectual in my spiritual search, and very much a purist. So much so, in fact, that the first time I tried to read Autobiography of a Yogi I didn’t like it. All that devotion! All those miracles! And what did this have to do with the austere yogic path that I felt I was following?

But when I met Swami Kriyananda, I’m not sure exactly how it happened, but he was the intermediary for me, and I suddenly found the Autobiography utterly fascinating, and I couldn’t understand why I hadn’t realized it before. Because my connection with him automatically put me in tune with Paramhansa Yogananda at a deep vibrational level.

When I moved to Ananda Village, I was entirely focused on Swami Kriyananda. And because of my one-pointed dedication, he responded – because, as he always trained us, you need to work with the people who are interested in what you’re doing. And I was intensely interested, and so, within a month of my arrival, he asked me if I would work with him as his secretary, and he invited me to the small gatherings he had every week, and the rest is history. And it never stopped for all the forty-two years that I was with him.

But I had certain reservations in the beginning. I loved that we had a community, and that we had a retreat, and I felt that it was perfectly marvelous. I began serving in the kitchen, and I started making all the food for the people who lived in the community at the time. But I still held a certain disdain for it all.

I was here for God, and even as a great deal of intense activity was swirling around me, I was perfectly happy to take the benefits of it and to live from the fruits of other people’s efforts. But I always felt myself to be a little bit above the need to take it seriously.

At the time, Swami Kriyananda drove his own car, and I remember sitting in the back seat one day while we drove through the community. Swami’s house was maybe a mile and a half from the “downtown” part of Ananda, over winding dirt roads, and I was sitting in the back, and Swami and my dear friend Seva were in front.

I always felt like a child in Swami’s presence, right up to the end of his life, when I was very far from a child’s age. But in his presence I always felt like a little child, and as I sat in the backseat of the car looking out the window, I was feeling that I was about six years old, which was probably my spiritual age. At any rate, I was looking out the window, and I was observing how much of a community had been carved out of the wilderness, where there had been nothing at all before.

Ananda Village in the early years, circa 1971-73.

I remember how one of our guests came up from Los Angeles, and how surprised she was to find that we had paved the roads. She was driving with friends who didn’t understand how significant this was, because in most places you take it for granted that the roads are paved. But as she pulled onto the Ananda property and saw the paved road, she stopped the car and got out and lay full-out, flat on the pavement and exclaimed, “Paved road!”

Her friends, of course, were astonished. “What are you talking about?” And she explained, “You have no idea what it has taken for these people to be able to pave the roads.”

Because once it’s done, it’s just there and you don’t take any special notice. And maybe you weren’t around while the people were dragging it up out of the mud.

I’ll give you another story. When we were filming the movie about Ananda, Finding Happiness, which many of you have seen, we had a professional film crew from Los Angeles, and the female lead was played by a well-known actress, Elisabeth Rohm.

In the movie, she plays a reporter who is on assignment from a magazine to write a story about Ananda. And at one point in the filming we were at The Expanding Light with the crew and the actors, because the reporter would be staying there during her week at Ananda.

For the filming we had given her the absolute best room at The Expanding Light. And among the things that made it exceptional was that it had its own bathroom. It was a major event for us – as in, “Can you imagine – its own indoor bathroom!” And when the director came in and looked around, he was silent, and then he pulled the artistic director in and they looked at it together, and they said, “Do you have anything better?”

We were thinking, “What’s better than this?” But the director was gracious, so I tried to look at it from his point of view. And of course it was built as cheaply it could possibly be, and I was seeing it for the first time the way it would look to the audiences who would watch the movie and wouldn’t be able to understand.

I said to our director, “We dragged this up inch by inch out of the wilderness, and when we got this far it was like we had reached the summit of a mountain that had taken tremendous heroism to climb. So it looks very different to us.”

But that’s why, when you watch Finding Happiness, you see the actors walk into the room, and Elisabeth’s character looks around and says, “Well, it won’t hurt me to live like a monk for a week!” Which was a line that Ted insisted on putting in the script, because that’s how it looked to him.

Anyway, I’m in the car, and Swami is driving, and I’m looking out at the community, and I’m realizing how much effort it has taken to get it this far. And I’m absolutely devoted to Swami Kriyananda, and he is my best friend on a level that I never imagined would be possible, a friend who was utterly, unconditionally loving and wise, and I was so devoted to him in the sense that I was doing whatever I could for him, including his secretarial work, and cooking for him as often as I could. And I realized that Swami Kriyananda was devoted to this project, and that he was pouring out his life’s blood, dragging the community inch by inch out of the wilderness. And in 1970, 1971, or 1972, it really didn’t look at all like what it looks like now, even though it was beyond all imagination of expectancy for us at the time.

He was, day after day, hour after hour, despite health issues, despite money problems, despite antagonism, pouring himself into it. And I’m riding along in the backseat, taking what I can, because I’m too spiritual to participate.

And the thought suddenly came, “There’s something super-wrong with this picture.” Because what do I know about what “spiritual” is? I’m here to find that out from him. That’s why I came, and if I didn’t need to learn from him, why would I have come?

And how did he know? Because he had learned from his master, Paramhansa Yogananda. And what had Paramhansa Yogananda done? He had left India and come to America and sacrificed everything. He had given his life’s blood to establish an entire new reality in a country that didn’t really care, and that was completely alien to everything he was trying to do.

Swami Kriyananda hands sweetmeats to his guru, Paramhansa Yogananda, to give to the Indian ambassador Sri Rajan Sen.

Some of the darker episodes of Paramhansa Yogananda’s life were only told for the first time in the movie Awake. There was a period in the early years where he was touring the country, and when he tried to speak to integrated audiences in Miami he was summarily thrown out of town, because who wants to hear a colored man talk about God?

And then one of his close disciples betrayed him and ran off with all the money. And over the years many students disappointed his hopes for them.

His mission was no easy undertaking, and after that particularly devastating betrayal he simply threw up his hands and went to Mexico, because he’d had it, and he said that he might never be coming back.

In response to his prayers, Divine Mother said to him, “For this were you born.” And why did he willingly lead a life of such profound sacrifice? Well, for you and me, and for the countless thousands who’ve been blessed by this work. And, finally, because his mission was to create a revolution.

It’s the most desperately needed revolution that it’s possible to imagine, and it’s not about guns, political power, money, or technology.

The masters care about this planet because of those of us who have to live here in order to work out our karma, and because it give us opportunities to grow. But it’s not our role to be only taking.

“Greater can no love be than this,” as we hear in the Festival of Light, “from a life of infinite joy and freedom in God, willingly to embrace limitation, pain and death for the salvation of mankind.”

The Festival describes the four stages of our spiritual journey. The first stage is where God charges us to learn the lessons that this earthly life can teach us. “Ours was a holy mission. You charged us to learn great lessons from life: to be fruitful in the gifts You had given us; to expand and multiply them.”

The second stage is where we rebel against our God-given mission.

For the young bird, in flight for the first time, gloried in its new-found strength. It began to think, “How foolish I would be to share my strength with anyone! What else is wisdom, if not to keep what is mine for myself?”

And so we, like that bird, entered upon the second stage of the soul’s long journey away from its home in God: the stage which is called, The Revolt.

And when we’ve suffered long enough, we enter the third stage – The Quest.

We, now, like that little bird, have come to realize that buffeting winds are life’s way of giving us strength and courage; that even fear, like shadows on a statue, gives light and substance to hope.

And now the most pressing questions of our existence begin to occupy our minds and drive all our actions: Why were we born? What is the goal? And what how can we find the perfect freedom and joy of the masters?

And here is the fourth and last stage

Of the soul’s long journey through time and space:

The Redemption.

Lord, we offer up the little light that is in us

Into Thy blazing light of Infinity.

Grant us the grace to know Thee.

And make us ever-increasingly

Pure channels of Thy love to all.

Now, we may not feel that we’ve reached the fourth and final stage. We may feel that we are still trapped. Why aren’t we enjoying the freedom of the masters? And how can we obtain that freedom for ourselves?

Jesus said, “You call me Master, but I call you friend.” It’s a wonderful statement. And Jesus explains: the  servant does only what he’s told to do, and no more, but he never embraces the master’s cause. But a friend understands: “Your need is my own.”

Jesus wasn’t complimenting his disciples. He was commissioning them: “That which I do, ye shall do also, and greater things.” And that is what I figured out while I was riding in the car with Swami. “Oh, my goodness, this isn’t Swamiji’s project – this is my project. This is my salvation!”

If I’m going to walk in the footsteps of the masters, I must put my feet in their footsteps and walk with them. I can’t walk to the side, or sit idly by and comment on what they’re doing. I have to put my feet where they have put theirs.

Master’s first public work, after he finished his training with Sri Yukteswar, was to start a school. Because even in the early 1900s in India, he was appalled by the growing materialistic orientation of the schools, and what it was doing to the souls of the children, and ultimately to the culture of the country.

Now, regardless of the formal system of education, there will always be wonderful teachers who embody high principles and who are able to guide the children in the right direction. I want to say this first, because I know that there are many noble, high-minded, deeply dedicated people working in education. So I’m not talking about individuals, but I’m talking about widespread cultural attitudes.

The condition of education in the last century, and increasingly today, is moving farther and farther away from what young human beings actually need. And, quite apart from God-realization, how valuable would it be, merely to be able to teach children how to have happy relationships, and how to have kindness and confidence?

It’s the accepted belief in high school today that if you can cope with the Impossible stress of it all, you’ll succeed. But too few people in education are willing to step back and ask, “How did we get here?” How did we get to the point where hiring more mental health professionals for the high schools is universally considered to be the right way to fix the mess we’ve gotten ourselves into?

Living Wisdom High School students with teacher Shanti Naia Pollacek.

Soon after a recent suicide in the local school system, a woman wrote a wonderful and very revealing article.

She told how she had dropped out of the same prestigious public high school thirty years earlier, and how even at that time the school culture had been crazy for grades.

She told how she and the other girls would sneak into the bathroom and sniff cocaine before their tests so that they could do better. She was a top student from this highly regarded school, and she described how the culture was all about what you could achieve, as measured by your grades and test scores.

One of the local private schools boasts that it offers “self-esteem through achievement.” And when we translate it, it’s saying, “Bring your six-year-old or your four-year-old to our school, and we’ll give him/her self-esteem through good grades and test scores.”

But what will happen if the child is unable to achieve by those rigid outward measures? What will happen when your life suddenly turns on you, and you find yourself in situations where book learning doesn’t work? Because from age four you’ve been so busy building your resume so you can get into the right high school and college and get the right job, that at no point have you cultivated your soul qualities, what to speak of your creative spirit and the qualities of your heart.

This woman wrote in her article, addressing her words to teenagers today, “If you think that Palo Alto High School is killing you, it is.” And she told how she had quit and traveled around the world. Because she said that there are many, many ways to be intelligent and successful and educated, beyond simply getting a 4.5 grade-point average at one of the top ten high schools in the country.

We are so much more. And, thank God, there are teachers in our schools who are nurturing those very necessary human qualities in our children. But a revolution is needed. And revolutions never look like very much when they start, because they must start from nothing.

We’ve been running our elementary school for over thirty years. And if you visit the school today you will see photos of former students on the wall, and you can read the captions – “Graduated in mathematics from Cornell.” “Earned her doctorate in this or that.” Which is all to the good, but what it’s really saying, behind the words, is “Happy and well-adjusted child who learned about life very early and was brilliantly prepared for what came later.”

When the school started, we found ourselves in an amusing situation, because we had absolutely nothing. I remember sitting in the living room of our apartment, talking to a group of parents about starting a school. And in the process I discovered that parents are extremely protective of their children, especially their very young children.

We were essentially saying, “We’re going to be starting a school, but we won’t actually have one until you give us your child. So please give us your child so we can make a school.” And it was a hard sell.

I remember sitting there, looking at a blank spot in the carpet, and how I suddenly realized what was going on in the room. Because I had been part of Ananda for long enough to understand how revolutions are created.

I said, “Oh, I see. You’re looking at the blank spot in the carpet and you’re seeing a blank spot, whereas I absolutely know there’s a school there.

One of the prospective parents was a successful entrepreneur in the high-tech industry, and I remember how he was asking David about the school, and how David described how we were going to finance it from the church, and it would probably take twenty-five or thirty-thousand dollars to launch it in one small classroom. Which was a lot of money thirty years ago.

David felt intuitively that he was talking to a kindred spirit. And, sure enough, as soon as the man understood that we had nothing, but we knew what we were doing, he signed up both his kids, first his daughter and later his son. Because he understood that if you’re a visionary and you have energy and experience and a track record and good sense, and if you have the will and the commitment, and if you have friends in high places, you can do it.

We have to finish the high school, because high school is where it really comes apart for kids. And it’s very hard for parents to turn their children over to the traditional high schools. But if we could take them from kindergarten to twelfth grade, we would be able to feel that we had done what we are here to do for God.

I read something interesting that Swami Kriyananda said about Education for Life. He said that Master came to the planet with many missions, and one of them was to give energy to an interesting cycle in the history of religion in the West.

The Jewish concept of God, which was appropriate for the time, was of divine law, administered by a fair judge. And so the Jewish tradition, which was originally a true expression of Sanaatan Dharma, gradually devolved into a rigid system of inflexible laws.

When Jesus incarnated for the Jews, he spoke not of the law but of the Father. Because even though the Father is exacting, we are His dear children, and the Father loves you first before He judges you, and we can know His love.

The judge is impersonal, but the father is your own. And when Master came he talked about God as a Divine Mother, because one of his primary purposes for coming to this country was to speak about God in terms – and these are the words Swami used – of compassion, kindness, and mercy.

We think of those qualities as feminine. And this is, in fact, why we’re seeing such a strong ascent of women in public life, because it’s a time for compassion, kindness, and mercy. And it’s why women make a very grave mistake when they try to be the judge and the father, in terms of what the world and our own culture needs today.

But Swami said that Education for Life is an education in compassion, kindness, and mercy.

Think of what our planet needs at this time. Compassion, kindness, and mercy. And how much of these qualities do we see being expressed?

Some of the graduates of our school recently returned and talked about what it’s like to be a student in the local high schools – how they have to go between classes when the bell rings, and how they have to steel themselves to make it through the indifferent or even openly hostile crowds and walk down those barren hallways lined with steel lockers and make it to their next class.

Compassion, kindness, and mercy. Swamiji said that Education for Life, which is what we call our method, is meant to bring Divine Mother back into the culture. Because that’s what we’re doing with these children. We’re treating them with Her compassion, Her mercy, and Her kindness.

What we need is not hundreds of millions of dollars for more mental health professionals, or the invention that a young boy made that can block the classroom door against school shooters, and he’s going to be a millionaire before he’s twenty by selling these steel door blocks.

There has to be a revolution. In 1998, at a meeting of the leaders of the Ananda colonies, Swamiji said, “Not every community can do everything that’s part of Ananda.” He said, “Maybe we should think about specializing.” And I recall him saying, “Palo Alto should specialize in education.”

LWHS Students

Because if we can make the Living Wisdom Schools successful, virtually across the street from Stanford University, and if in this highly educated area we can stand up with the best and measure up academically and in any other way you might gauge success in life, we will have planted a very important seed for Master’s work.

When we were starting our community, we said to Swami, “Should we ask God whether he wants us to do this?” And he said, “Of course He wants us to do it!”

He said, “Don’t spend any energy wondering whether this is God’s will. Just say, ‘We’re going to do it – show us how.’” And that was before this church and community were even a dream.

People come into this church as if this building were a given. But how do you think it got here? It was by everybody who came before you, including many of you here today, who inch by inch, with absolute determination were saying, “I will be not merely a disciple and a devotee, and I won’t just come to get what I want. I understand that the fourth stage, the Redemption, means that I must give my all.”

This is not a fundraising talk, because it’s not money that we need. It’s magnetism, it’s power, it’s commitment, and it’s to get our highly placed friends involved because they know we mean it.

I’m going to tell you a personal story. My mother had Parkinson’s for the last fifteen years of her life, and when she became ill, my father, who was a Virgo, went to the library to learn everything he could about what was going to happen, and what he discovered was very, very sad.

He realized that the disease progresses first through your body, and then it goes to your brain and you start having seizures. Thank God, that didn’t happen to my mother until the very end. She was mentally astute right to the end, but then she started having seizures, and I happened to be there at one of those times.

They were living in Los Angeles, and I was in the emergency room, and in my memory it was a great big room, and they had given my mother something to calm her down, and she was just a tiny lump in the bed.

I thought, “This can’t go on. This is not an option.” And so I called in all of the gurus, and in my mind’s eye they were sitting in chairs in front of me, and I said, “I have done a lot for you, and I am going to call in a favor.” I said, “This is not an option. This absolutely cannot go on.” And I just told it to them straight. I didn’t threaten to quit, but I said, “You owe me – you really owe me, and I want it now.” And she had just one more seizure, and two weeks later she was gone.

I had left the country, and my sister called and said, “Mom died.” I said, “Good for her.” It was an unusual response, but it was time, and good for her.

Because when we really set our will to do something, the masters are with us. And can you imagine what it would mean to all of those children if we could say to them, “You can come to our high school where you’ll be treated with kindness, compassion, and mercy”? And if we actually have a high school, and we can eventually get a campus where we can have K through 12 in one place?

Can you see it? Think of what it will mean for your children, and for the future of the planet, and for us when we reincarnate and we need a school that will encourage our highest aspirations.

Kindness, compassion, mercy. This is our duty. We need children to come to this high school and experience what a real education is like. It’s very simple. We need children and their parents. Because it works two ways. The children feel the call, and especially at that age, they are able to feel the inner longing for something more. And then the parents need to have the courage to follow their intuition and know that this is not merely an all-right choice, this is God’s choice. This is what’s needed.

Now we’ll go on with the rest of our service. But at the end we’ll come back and have a fire ceremony and affirmation, and we’ll call in all the favors we can, and we’ll say, “We’ll do our part, Lord. Now You have to do Yours.”

(Readers can visit the websites of Living Wisdom High School and Living Wisdom School in Palo Alto. The latter website includes links to two inspiring books about the revolution in education of which Asha speaks, based on the 30-year experience of the Palo Alto Living Wisdom School, with stories, photos, and conversations with the teachers.)

(From Asha’s talk during Sunday service at Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto, California on March 11, 2018.)

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