What Are the Understandings that Qualify Us to Enter the Spiritual Life?

Photo: Grateful thanks to Annie Spratt on Unsplash!

A fundamental principle of the path of Self-realization is that true spirituality emanates from inside of us, and that it cannot be imposed from outside.

And so the Bhagavad Gita tells us about the inner spiritual qualities that qualify us to receive these high truths.

The Gita tells us that the teachings should not be given to those who lack self-control, who lack devotion, who are unwilling to serve others, who are smugly self-satisfied with what they have, or those who are angry with God.

These deficiencies are quite humanly understandable – they are merely the natural expressions of our nature, until we reach a certain level of understanding.

There was a little girl in our community whose declared ambition was to be “the empress of the whole world.” Which seems a very valid aspiration, particularly if  you’re a small child.

I encountered another strong-minded little girl at Ananda, on an occasion when she was dressed in a beautiful Indian costume for an event at Spiritual Renewal Week.

I exclaimed, “My dear, you look just like a Rajputani princess!” And the little girl, who was probably six years old, replied, “No, I’m not!”

I said, “Yes, dear, look at you with all your sparkles – you look like a Rajputani princess!”

Very firmly, she said, “No!” And after a moment she added, “I’m a queen. Princesses have no power!”

She was the same little girl to whom I once said, “Happy birthday! How old are you – are you seven?” Whereupon she proudly drew herself up and said, “No – I’m eight! No one would think I was only six now!”

Children sometimes reveal attitudes that we adults keep well-hidden inside us – whatever children are feeling, they guilelessly and unselfconsciously put it out there for the whole world to see.

And so the Bhagavad Gita tells us who should not be given access to the teachings. And I think it might actually be more helpful to turn the discussion around and talk about the positive qualities that signal our readiness to receive the truths of the inner path, and how we can work to cultivate those qualities so that we can meet the criteria.

The first quality that Krishna talks about is self-control. The Gita says that, as we gaze across the gulf that separates us from the shores of ultimate peace and freedom, the first thing we need to do, before we can cross the gulf, is to rivet together the steel girders of our self-control.

And isn’t that interesting? It’s a particular paradox of the spiritual path that we often talk about the need for surrender and receptivity and devotion – these softer feminine qualities – whereas the Rainbow Bridge of Self-realization is built with the power of self-control.

And so the first need for someone who aspires to receive the teachings is to correct their lack of self-control.

We cannot be successful in the spiritual life without an absolutely essential element of stalwart determination. It’s why Paramhansa Yogananda gave us the energization exercises, and why he made them a cornerstone of this path. Because until we’ve gained a degree of self-mastery, the delusive power of Maya which is forever trying to draw us toward materialism, and toward the natural instincts of the physical body, and toward the emotional habits of centuries, will be able to pull us away.

They say that if you aren’t going forward on the spiritual path, you’re going backward. And I would say that this is the single most annoying fact of the path – the strange inner conflict between the truth that our relationship with God is eternal and unchanging, and the power of delusion inside us that is constantly trying to distract us from our goal.

Divine Mother is loving every one of us equally at every moment, but unless we exert every ounce of our will power to keep our attention focused on the highest reality, we can all too easily drift off into oblivion.

We carefully set aside a special time for meditation when no outer responsibilities will intrude, and where the only thing we need to do is concentrate our breathing, concentrate on the mantra, concentrate on the flow of energy, and concentrate on practicing Kriya Yoga to bring energy up through the chakras. And it’s agonizing to realize how the mind will want to go here, there, and everywhere.

Swami Kriyananda told the story of his cousin whose first child was born with a hole in her heart. And so they suddenly found themselves in the midst of this very intense and anguishing period, fearing that the child might not survive. And with tears in her eyes she confessed to Swamiji that even at such a trying moment, when she wanted more than anything else to be praying for the life of her child, her mind would wander to thoughts of what she should cook for dinner.

And of course, if you set cooking against the life of your newborn child, there’s nothing in you that would consider them equal. But without a strong habit of concentration and self-discipline, and of drawing the mind back from the peripheral to the central, it’s impossible to practice these teachings. And without the desire and the ability at least to try to do that, the teachings simply won’t make much sense.

Because just look at the world around us – it’s so obviously real. And look at the values of the world – they are so obviously right, because how could so many people be wrong? Yet, in fact, our entire educational system is being directed by some of the smartest people on the planet, who are systematically training young people to be unhappy. And how can the whole world be so misguided?

It takes a tremendous amount of determined effort to succeed in the spiritual life. And I’m not just talking about not eating too much ice cream, or how many hours you meditate. I’m talking about the constant understanding deep inside us, that delusion is trying to take me over, and that I must be always attentive to the fundamental premise of my life, which is that, as the Gita says, what is day to the worldly man is night to the yogi.

That is the central premise that we need to understand: that there must be a firm and constant resolution to redirect our energy. And, again, it’s why Master gave us the energization exercises, so that we can learn to use the physical body to train the will, and to learn to deliberately choose where our energy will go.

Because if we can learn to control where our physical energy is going, it will serve us as a powerful aid for controlling where our emotions are going, and where our thoughts are going, and where our desires are going, so that we can declare, with a conscious act of will, that I will gather my energy and focus it in the right direction.

Now, bear in mind, we don’t have to be perfect at it. We just need to believe that it’s what’s needed.

There are two forces that are trying to influence the world today. One is the thought that I’m describing – that we need to pull our energy away from our basest instincts and lift it toward our highest aspirations.

Meanwhile, the opposite energy is racing eagerly toward those base instincts, with the sexualization of everything, and the overconsumption, and the completely deluded ideas about how much is enough.

How much power do I need? How much money do I need? How many pairs of shoes do I need?

A story is told of one of the richest men in the world – he invented the duty-free shopping centers in the airports, and he’s famous for living in a very humble way. He has just one pair of shoes, because, as he put it, he has just one pair of feet.

This is being recorded at the end of July in 2020, and as I opened my closet this morning I saw all the shoes I have, which is more than I have feet, and I’ll just leave it at that. But it struck me that, at this time when we’re all sheltered because of the COVID pandemic, I’m hardly wearing my shoes at all. And I thought to myself that as the economy begins to shift, what need will I have for so many shoes?

I used to go to places where it might be appropriate to wear different shoes. But do I really need all of that stuff now? And the premise is that I’m at least thinking in terms of self-restraint and letting go of unnecessary things. And if I’m not yet perfect at it, nevertheless I do understand the principle.

And the second quality, the lack of which disqualifies us for the spiritual path, is devotion. And what Krishna is talking about here is the willingness to open the heart. Because, as Sri Yukteswar said, on the spiritual path you have to want the divine.

It’s not enough just to imagine theoretically that the idea of Self-realization might be attractive under some circumstances for some people. As Swamiji put it, you can be living next door to the greatest restaurant in the world, but if you aren’t hungry you won’t even think of going there.

So there has to be a power inside us that longs for something more, at a level that isn’t merely intellectual, but that is restless and never contented. Because we’ve begun to sense that the gaping hole in our hearts can never be filled except by an upward movement of our energy and consciousness.

Devotion is what gives us the power of self-control, because our feelings are what motivate us to act. If you don’t feel hungry, it really won’t matter what kind of food is placed before you. It may be attractive, and you may feel admiration for the people who made it, but if you aren’t hungry you won’t be moved to put it in your mouth.

And so we need to have an appetite for the Divine. There has to be something in us that is suffering, and that feels a level of misery, even if we might not know exactly what that misery is. And it isn’t that you’re necessarily depressed and unhappy, but there’s a deep feeling in your heart that is longing for something more.

And often what we’re longing for is love, and for the opportunity to love. Because we may long to be loved, but it’s the longing to be able to give love that moves us to act.

I came on the spiritual path before I was twenty, so I basically left my childhood behind and then quickly found my path. I had such a great desire to give myself to something, and to find something that I could truly believe in, and that I could give all my energy to, and that wouldn’t disappoint me.

I wanted to be a devotee. I wanted to have something to be devoted to. And that’s what devotion is – it not just a feeling of love, it’s a high aspiration.

I remember the day I arrived at Ananda Village, in August of 1970. I had met Swamiji not quite a year earlier, and when I came to the Village for the first time, it was in the final days of Spiritual Renewal Week, and I remember that it was a hot summer day, and all of the roads were covered with a fine red dust.

I remember that I was wearing leather sandals that looked sort of biblical, which lent a dramatic touch to the event, and how I opened the door of the car and set my bare foot in its leather sandal on the dust, and how the dust rose around my foot. And just as that happened, an inner voice said, “This place is true, and it will never disappoint you.”

The deepest fear of my heart had been that it would not prove true. I had complete trust in Swamiji, but I just didn’t know. And as I touched the soil of Ananda, the holy ground of Ananda, a feeling of devotion opened in my heart, where formerly I had held my heart closed, because where could I give it? And now I felt all of a sudden that I could.

The third quality that disqualifies us from receiving the teachings is an unwillingness to serve anyone but ourselves. And, again, these qualities that the Gita is talking about are intuitive understandings that we need to develop through our own experiences. And one of the most important is to realize, “I am part of a greater reality,” accompanied by a desire to share with others. As the Festival of Light puts it, “even as we have shared with you, for you are part of all that is.”

This is the message of the Divine – that we are part of all that is, and therefore the wish to separate ourselves and be focused on protecting the small self will not serve our true destiny. Because what serves my destiny is to open up and give.

And so if people are still hoarding for themselves miser-like, and if they are only wanting to make themselves secure by piling up more and more things, they won’t be ready to receive the higher teachings.

I had a very unusual, completely uncharacteristic flash of feeling recently. I was thinking about money, and about having money and needing money. And there’s a deep closet under the stairwell in the house where I live, and I had a sudden desire for that room to be filled with valuable things. I wanted jewels, I wanted gold, and I wanted to be able to walk in there and see lots of valuable stuff. And it was as if God was opening a past-life memory for me. And then I had a feeling that, my goodness, this must be how people feel. They must feel, “I need more, I want more, I want to hold more, I want to have more for my own.”

But then another part of us begins to awaken, and we realize that no amount of worldly treasures will ever make us secure, because the power of God can take it all away in an instant – in a flash flood, a fire, or a nuclear disaster – just vaporize it, or arrange to have it stolen by unscrupulous people.

The truth is that the only thing that really makes us secure is the presence of God within, and the only thing that truly gives us joy is to serve God in everyone.

Because that is the freedom and security we’re looking for. It’s not about getting everything fixed just right and holding onto it. That just creates more tension, and more anxiety about all the stuff in the closet, and it can never be enough.

But when we let go of those things and realize that everything that belongs to the infinite is ours, that’s when we begin to know a happiness that can never be found in the things of this world.

I often think of how I haven’t really maximized my earning potential in this incarnation. A great many of us who’ve given our lives to God haven’t maximized our financial potential. And in that connection I remember a conversation we had years ago, where we got together and were wondering, what are we going to do when we get old? And what will Ananda do for us? That was the topic of conversation. And I remember how Nitai listened patiently, and then how he finally spoke up and said, “I have served God through Ananda, but Ananda doesn’t owe me anything.”

He said, “I’ve given my life to God. And if at the end of my life God decides that I have to live under a bridge and beg for my food, I will trust that that is the fruit of my lifetime.”

I’ve always remembered that conversation, especially when those fears begin to come. People are feeling quite insecure in the world today, and we don’t know where it’s all going. But the fruit of a lifetime of living for God is the joy of living for God.

Who knows what will come? And what choice do we really have? This is who we are, and this is what we were born for. And if we don’t understand that serving others is serving God, and serving others is serving ourselves, then these teachings won’t make any sense to us, and there will be no point to it. And the other side is that the more we can live that way, the more God will come to us.

And another disqualifying factor, according to Krishna, is that you’re completely self-satisfied just as you are – “I’m fine exactly the way I am, and what do I need of anything else?”

I often say to myself, “I hope this isn’t the apex of happiness. This is pretty good, but I’d like there to be a little bit more.” And every time we find God giving us difficult challenges and karmic lessons, and sort of flipping over the basket of our comfortable little world, we need to be prepared, because we’ve cultivated these divine qualities.

I ask myself, was I perfectly happy before? Do I have faith that Divine Mother is with me? Can I imagine something greater than what I know?

And if I can, why would I mind if God starts weaning me from the narrow, and opening me to the greater?

There was a pop psychologist who had an aphorism that I love: “If you defend your limitations, the reward is that you get to keep them.”

If we’re going to be forever clinging to who we already are, and what we already have, there’s not much that God can do for us, and He’ll let us keep doing it. If we insist that this is the most we can ever experience of the Divine, and this is good enough, we’ll get to keep it.

I made the mistake with a relative of mine, an older man, of trying to encourage him to a broader understanding. I said, as if it was self-evident, “Don’t you want to grow?” And he said, “No! I’ve had enough troubles in my life.” He was basically saying, “I just want to hunker down and last to the end.”

It was a Gita moment – because I realized, “Oh, I shouldn’t be saying this to you, because it’s not just that you’re self-satisfied, it’s that you’re not able to think beyond. So I’ll leave you until your experience gives you something else.”

The final disqualifying factor is a very interesting one, which is that we are angry at God.

We blame the Divine, and we blame other people, and we’re just not interested in hearing any higher explanations.

“If I were God, I’d be running things differently.” “How can there be a divine plan? Just look around – look at what a mess the world is in today!”

You’re angry at the way the world is, instead of trying to understand how to change yourself. And there’s no place for that attitude on the path.

Now, we all have our moments. God knows we all have times when we’re exasperated with the world. “Ugh – really? Is this really what’s going to happen?” Is this really what we have to go through? Is this really Your plan? Can I talk to someone else? Is there no better option?”

I remember a time when I was mad at God and Guru because I realized I was going to have to grow, and it made me madder than anything – that I would eventually have to face this. And if I thought that I had a choice I wouldn’t have been so irritated, but I knew I didn’t have a choice. So it’s sort of like the way lovers quarrel, but not exactly, because Divine Mother is in fact taking care of us all the time.

But still, we can protest a little now and then. “Is there no other choice?” But that’s all right, as long as we understand, “But Thy will be done, Lord.” Because deep in our hearts we aren’t really angry at all, and we have nothing but gratitude.

Master said that Divine Mother doesn’t appear to most people because she knows they just want to argue with Her. And that’s a profound way of putting it, isn’t it? “I want it to be different. Please, can’t it be different? I really think this is one of your laws that’s a bad one. Have you considered amending it to make it a little more favorable to delusion? Perhaps if we could talk about this.”

And maybe it’s just how we are. But truth is inexorable. Because there’s a very fine line of divine attunement.

Attunement is a single pure note. When you’re singing a duet, you can’t just sing a note that’s pretty close to the note that will harmonize perfectly. You have to find the exact tone. And when you find the right toneyou’re your voices are blending perfectly, there’s nothing like it.

And, well, the Divine is always singing an extremely exact tone, and what we find is that the closer we attune ourselves to it, the more blissful we feel.

Master told us, and Swami tells us, and all the great masters tell us, that when the game is over and when the veil is finally lifted and we stand in the truth of our own nature with the Divine, it never occurs to us that it wasn’t worth it. All we can feel is that bliss, and we can see that everything that led us there was perfect.

For us now, it may be only an act of faith to visualize that final state of perfect attunement. But it’s a faith that’s based on the experience we’ve had so far. And every time I step into attunement with the truth, and every time I surrender to the truth, and every time I say “Divine Mother, whatever You want,” and whenever I find that exact tone and sing it with Her, the joy that comes is greater than any other joy I can know.

God bless you.

(From Asha’s talk during Sunday service at Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto, California on July 26, 2020.)

Leave a Comment

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.