What Is It Like to Be a Master? (And to Be Our Own Best Self?)


From Whispers from Eternity.

Perching in the trees of many Lives, I sang Thy songs

“I, the nightingale of heaven, perched on the boughs of many lives, singing Thy songs.

“My clear song reverberates over soul-leaves that flutter with Thy life. It thrills the night air in the private gardens of centuries, where many sleep, dreaming sweet fantasies or, again, nightmares of delusion. It wakens some of them with soft touches of Thy reverberating, cosmic song.

“I fly everywhere, and give concerts to express Thy joy in bowers of receptive hearts. Oh! I will come again and again to lure all souls with my songs, and to teach them Thy songs, and invite them all to fly, like me, in Thy skies of cosmic freedom.”

In the poem, the speaker is Paramhansa Yogananda, describing how he travels from life to life, offering freedom to those who will attune themselves to the divine song.

I remember a presentation that Swami Kriyananda gave in San Francisco in the late 1970s. He had created a slideshow for the event, and in those days we would set up a pair of slide projectors and an audio recorder with a separate dissolve unit to coordinate the images with the sound. It seems ridiculously primitive compared to what we can do now with computers, but we were at the cutting edge of technology at the time, and it was a little more than most of us could manage.

On this occasion, I, of all people, was elected to push the button to start the show, but even though I pushed it several times it didn’t seem to be working. And then a high-pitched squeak came out of my throat and announced, “It’s gonna be all right! We’re gonna make it work!”

Swamiji walked over very calmly and saw that instead of pushing the Play button I had pressed Record. So, not only was nothing playing, but everything that had passed over the recorder heads had been erased and the tape now carried my voice squeaking, “It’s all right!”

The next day we were with Swami in the San Francisco ashram while he re-recorded the part I had erased. And not only did he have to record it again, but we had to listen to me squawking, over and over, “It’s all right!” Finally, Swami remarked that I sounded like a tour guide in the African jungle, surrounded by cannibals, and I was desperately trying to convince them that it would be okay.

We were all laughing hysterically, because it was just the funniest and stupidest thing in the world. But what I mostly remember was the night of the presentation, and the way Swami looked at me so calmly and said, “You pushed the Record button instead of the Play button.”

Nothing more – no superfluous emotional reaction, just a calm observation about what had happened. And he never reprimanded me or said another word about it.

Someone suggested that Ananda should start a cartoon series called “It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time.” Because we would have enough material for centuries.

None of us ever does anything unless it makes perfect sense to us at the time. We don’t actually go out and try to make trouble for ourselves. And this is one of the great mysteries that the Bhagavad Gita repeatedly addresses.

There must be a special lesson for me in the Gita verses I’ve been talking about in recent weeks, because I find myself coming back to them again and again. And the condensed version is that the Gita lists all of the reasons we seem to have trouble understanding what a really good idea might be.

I’ve been extremely fortunate to have friends who are very different than I am, but who love me anyway, even though I’ve often pressed the Record button in their presence. And how often have we pushed Record? And here we are again.

I’m thinking of the period after Swami was expelled from SRF but before he started Ananda, when he was trying to figure out what he was supposed to do with the rest of his life.

His tremendous dilemma was that Yogananda had commissioned him to spread his message and serve his work, and Swamiji knew in his heart that he was born for that great commission, but his gurubhais had taken a stand against him – they had thrown him out of Yogananda’s organization and had declared that he was entirely mistaken in his perception of the Guru’s will.

Swamiji wanted to move extremely carefully, because he had always looked to his gurubhais to help him know what was true. And now he found himself standing alone, and the only guidance he had was from his Guru inwardly, and there was no one in the world to whom he could appeal for confirmation.

For many years, Swamiji took a very understated role as the leader of Ananda, because he wanted to be absolutely certain that if he developed a following of people who were looking to him for spiritual inspiration, and to be a channel for Master, that the responsibility was being imposed on him by God and Guru, and that he wasn’t seeking it.

Now, our topic today is the ego, and how to tell if it is our friend or our foe. And Swamiji was most careful and humble about wanting to be sure that his decisions were not coming from the ego, even though he had more right than anyone I’ve known to stand firm in his inner guidance.

Sometime in that period when he was out on his own, he went to Arizona for a period of seclusion. On his return, he stopped at a motel, and in the dining room that evening he met a man who was traveling from California to Texas with his wife and mother-in-law. And as the man later revealed, they had been fighting the whole trip, and it was a nightmare.

The man ended up sitting at Swami’s table, because it was an inn rather than an ordinary restaurant. So all of the people at the table were chatting, and he happened to overhear Swami talking about spiritual things. And as he later told the story, everybody at the table was behaving as if what was going on was perfectly normal, but he said that Swami’s words sounded like thunder in his ears, and everything he said reverberated with the voice of God. He had never met him, and he didn’t know anything about him, but as he put it, he felt that this man was “the real deal.”

The family were engaged in a fundamentalist lifestyle, and the man was on his way to Texas to enroll at a Bible college and become a Pentecostal minister. And he said that from that moment he and his wife and his mother-in-law stopped fighting, and the rest of the trip was harmonious. But he knew that he was not going to become a Pentecostal minister, and he re-directed his life.

He didn’t become a disciple of Master, but he found another way to align himself with a more inward teaching.

He eventually had a church of Religious Science for many years in Reno, Nevada, and from time to time he would invite Swamiji to come and speak. And on one of those occasions a little group of us went with him.

Reno is Reno, with its bright lights and gambling casinos, but there are lots of people living out in the desert who have a metaphysical orientation. People who aren’t living in the mainstream of America, obsessed with making money and all of that, tend to find a more peripheral place to live, and there are lots of them in Nevada. So there was a very solid group of very serious metaphysicians in the church.

Swami gave a beautiful talk, and I very vividly remember how wonderful it was, and how he was lifted, as he often was, into another state of consciousness.

There were perhaps fifty people in the audience, and after the talk he stood to greet everybody. I found an unobtrusive spot close enough that I could watch him as the people came up to greet him. And then they would move aside and the next person would come forward. And because I was picking up on whatever Swami was experiencing, it suddenly felt as if the walls of the building had fallen down and the everyday parameters of our lives were swept away.

At the start of my talk today, I read Paramhansa Yogananda’s beautiful words: “I, the nightingale of heaven, perched on the boughs of many lives, singing Thy songs.”

The nightingale sings its divine song, calling us to come away from our sweet dreams and dark nightmares. And the nightingale is Master, who is ever eager to awaken us from the illusory sweet dreams and nightmares of this limited world which we imagine to be so real, and he invites us to soar in the cosmic skies of freedom where he lives.

As Swami greeted the people in the church, we were transported to a place that I’m sure we all had been before, and I found that I was riding with him. There were no visions – I didn’t see Egyptian pyramids or the ancient land of Atlantis – nothing like that, but we were not where we usually were.

You may well wonder if my personal feelings are distorting the reality. But I can confirm it by saying that I included the story in the book Swami Kriyananda As We Have Known Him, and Swami and I sat side by side with the manuscript, and he read every word and corrected anything that he felt needed to be set right. But he didn’t correct this story. And what I felt was that these people were all connected to him, though not as I was, in the sense that he was the polestar of my life, and wherever he went, it would also be my road.

But they were souls who had a connection with him through their minister, who was Swami’s friend, and as each one came forward and stood before him, he would give them as much as they were able to receive of expanded perception, and an awakening call from God to realize the true and lasting purpose of life.

Swami didn’t talk much, but they would exchange pleasantries, so there were a few words, but beneath it there was a vibrational flow that was so real that you could almost see it. The stream was running and the cup would fill, and the person would step aside and the next cup would come forward. And it was all deeply impersonal, because it was happening by God’s will.

Being associated with Swamiji for as long as I was, I began to understand the extraordinarily interesting reality of being ourselves and yet at the same time not being ourselves at all. It’s still mostly words to me, but I’m beginning to understand that what happens as we advance spiritually is that there are fewer veils of separation.

The other day I ordered a plastic bucket from Amazon, and soon a box will arrive. But the life force itself, and the impulse to want a plastic bucket, and the intelligence to know where to find it, and the hands that will open the box – where does it all come from?

I wake up in the morning and think of what I’m supposed to do during the day, and how I can immediately orient myself in a proper relationship to God. And where do these impulses come from?

They are given, and we can’t avoid working with them. But by the grace of God through the practice of yoga and meditation and Kriya and prayer and energization and Whispers From Eternity, I’m learning to mold those energies in a direction that is a better idea than some of the lamentable ideas I’ve had in the past.

But I don’t own the force itself, and when I die it will very impersonally exit this body.

Master said that the baby cries because it realizes, “Here we go again.” There’s a favorite photo of mine where I’m maybe nine months old, so I’m at a stage where you can raise yourself off the ground a little, and I’ve pulled myself up. And a baby’s eyes are so big, because their heads are little, and when I look at her I can see that she’s ready to go – she’s ready to crawl and to walk, and she’s certainly looking to talk. And you can see it all in the photo.

But where does it come from? And that’s what we gradually learn – that I am the vehicle for it all, but this is something completely other than me. And my assignment is to use this little stream of energy that has been given to me, and I’m supposed to use it however it wants to go. And the process of the spiritual life is about becoming more and more aligned with where that energy is wanting to flow.

And what I saw in Swamiji, as a complete contrast to myself, is that he accepted with confidence and courage where it was trying to go. And whereas I was always second-guessing where it was trying to go, or putting on it my own “What ifs?” And “I can’ts,” and “That frightens me,” and “What will we do?” and “I want!” – in stark contrast, Swamiji just arrived. He arrived and he waited to see what that great power of life was going to do.

In the scriptures it’s called not having vrittis in your chakras – it’s a state where there are no longer any desires churning to be satisfied. And that’s a very high level of realization. But it is the destiny of us all.

I was told recently about a statement that Sri Ramana Maharshi made. Ramana Maharshi was a very great saint who died in 1950, and Master visited him when he went to India in 1935. He was a very, very advanced soul, and when he talked about what it felt like to be him, he described a force field that moved through him, and he was the force field, and there was no longer any personal self that was saying yes or no to the force field. There was just absolute faith in this force that was running through him.

I remember when I was with Swamiji in the 1980s and we were doing a little political action, which was something very unusual for Ananda. The planning director for the county wasn’t competent for the job she had, and Ananda was the breaking point for her, because you needed to be a high-level planning professional to know what to do with our “mixed land use.” That’s the official term, but the issues were straightforward. Nevada County was a rural backwater and she had been promoted from a secretary until she ended up leading the department, because all she ever had to do was issue building permits. And then all of a sudden there we were.

Swami was astute enough to realize that she had absolutely no idea how to deal with us, and that the only way she could think of to deal with us was to try to get rid of us, and she was going to stonewall our development forever, or until we went away.

Others thought we might be able to win her by being nice, but Swami knew that wasn’t the case, so he started this political action which coincided with America’s 200th anniversary in 1975 and 1976.

As Swami later wrote, he got me involved in the campaign by characterizing the whole thing as a madcap adventure, and by appealing to my sense of humor.

The woman had already been condemned by the grand jury, but the county had ignored their decree, so we were on solid legal ground. But Ananda had never done anything like this before, and almost no one in the community saw it the way Swami did.

We were very young, and we didn’t know; whereas Swamiji had run countries in many lives and knew what was going on. So we did a political action that Swami called the Bicentennial Liberty Committee, which I’ve written about in Swami Kriyananda: Lightbearer and Swami Kriyananda As We Have Known Him, and I can heartily recommend that you read about it in those books, because it’s highly entertaining and very instructive.

Swamiji unrolled a strategic plan that worked exactly as he hoped, and eventually she got fired and a competent professional came in, and Ananda managed to develop in the way we’d wanted. And through it all I served as Swamiji’s helper, even though I had no grasp of the bigger picture.

Swami would say, “Write a letter to the local newspaper about the building inspector’s prejudice in favor of certain things against other things.” And I would say, “How nasty, Swamiji?” And he would say, “Medium nasty,” and I’d write a medium-nasty letter.

Then he would say, “Write one about the county attorney.” “How nasty?” And he’d say, “Top nasty.” Okay, very nasty, and I would do it, and it created an incredible kerfuffle that resulted in her eventually getting fired. There was a lot more to it, but for now I’ll just direct you to the books.

I didn’t know, at the time, that Swami had been King Henry I of England and King Alfonso X of Spain. So, while I thought it was such an incredible thing we were doing, he looked at me and said, “A tempest in a teapot.” Because it meant nothing to him by comparison.

When it was all over I asked him, “Did you know how this was going to come out?” Because one thing just seemed to play perfectly into another. And he said, “No, not at all. But I’m not surprised.”

And that, to me, was very interesting, because it clued me to something I had observed and confirmed many times: that Swami truly didn’t know.

You would see him do something that would work beautifully, and I would imagine that he’d figured it all out in advance and knew what would happen. But he never calculated – he trusted. And if the impulse was coming through him from God and Guru, he would know what that felt like, and he would go with it.

And that’s the energy that we are working with. We are not working with a really smart or well-organized ego, or an ego that has managed to figure out all the rules and knows exactly what the boss wants and will do it. It’s not that we’ve figured out the rules of the spiritual path, because what we’re dealing with is a total transfer of our self-identification from the limited to the unlimited.

A surfer gets up on his board, and he knows what he has to do, but it’s the wave that provides the power and the overall direction. You can put the surfboard on the beach, and in spite of all the skill in the world nothing will happen, because you have to go out in the ocean and find the wave and ride it. And the surfer doesn’t know where the wave is going, but he has to try to do what’s exactly right in each moment, and he has to be absolutely attentive and committed, but what he’s committed to is the wave.

Now, that’s the path of yoga. That is our destiny, and that’s the challenge and the spiritual opportunity before us.

Swami writes in The New Path: My Life With Paramhansa Yogananda about how Master was so lovable and charming and such a friend, and everything about him was so wonderful. And he adds that it’s one of the reasons many of the people who met Master, including many who lived with him, failed to appreciate the magnitude of the revolution to which he was calling them.

And that’s us. We’ve been called. The nightingale has lured us with its song to fly away from our sweet dreams and nightmares, and it’s inviting us to soar in cosmic freedom. Perhaps not today, perhaps not tomorrow, but as Lahiri Mahasaya said, we can give ourselves to that power step by step, as God invites us to do so, and then – “Banat, banat, ban jai!” – “Striving, striving, one day behold – the divine goal!” And before very long that day will be now.

God bless you.

(From Asha’s talk during Sunday service at Ananda Sangha on September 6, 2020.)


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