Learning to Play by the Right Spiritual Rules

We recently had the performance of our annual Living Wisdom School play, a theater extravaganza where each of the seventy-five children in the school from age four to fourteen plays a part.

The subject every year is the life of a great soul, either a saint or some other inspiring historical figure. This year the play was about Abraham Lincoln.

Theater and children and costumes are among my favorite things. My part this year was to make the costumes and enlist others to help. Unfortunately, we didn’t receive the costumes for the youngest children until a day or two before the performance, and it was a source of great anxiety for the little ones.

With the performance fast approaching, they hadn’t even seen their costumes, and some of the more determined young children were asking me at every opportunity if the costumes had arrived. And when I would assure them that they hadn’t, it would be no more than five or six minutes before they would be asking me again. And I, very misguidedly, responded with adult logic: “Well, we’ve been sitting here together, and have you seen them arrive?”

When I mentioned it to our school director, Helen, she pointed out that very young children have no sense of time. For them, everything is happening in the present moment, and they were thinking that because a little time had passed, maybe the answer in this moment would be yes.

In our scripture commentary, Jesus says, “No man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven. (John 3:13)

For Jesus, the meaning was perfectly clear, but because his disciples sometimes had trouble understanding him, he gently chided them: “If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things?” (John 3:12)

Over the centuries, people have come up with all sorts of reasonable explanations for these passages. And from the perspective of the saints, it must be every bit as exasperating and comical as when a child asks us, every five minutes, if the circumstances have changed.

There’s a great dilemma that we face on the spiritual path, of finding out what is really true. The masters assure us that in our true nature we are divine, yet our own experience tells us that we really don’t seem to be all that good. And it’s as troubling for us as it is for a child when the costumes haven’t arrived after five or six minutes.

We ponder the question of our already existing perfection with our rational mind, and we refuse to accept the simple, straightforward statement of every saint and every scripture that we are children of the Light.

In our Festival of Light each Sunday we hear:

O Children of Light, forsake the darkness!

(To the congregation.)

Please stand.

Know that, forever, you and He are one.

Raise your hands, and, chanting AUM, ask that the power of God replenish you in body, mind, and soul.

Swami Kriyananda included that part of the ceremony so that we could re-affirm every Sunday the truth of our essential nature as children of the Light, and that we want to forsake the darkness.

The full consciousness of Spirit is within us, and the full spiritual intelligence is present in us, and the only thing that’s missing is our capacity to perceive our soul nature in the midst of the swirling currents of this world.

When you spend time with children, the first thing that strikes you is how totally individual and completely themselves they are. And then the thought of “children” as an impersonal category begins to fade, because it’s obvious that you’re dealing with highly individual souls who just happen to be going through a phase in their growth where they aren’t yet able to understand the rules.

One of my devotee friends had an exceptionally clear memory of the first days and weeks of his life. He was the firstborn in his family, and he could remember his mother holding him for a while and then handing him off to his father, and his father holding him and handing him back to his mother. And after he’d been passed back and forth a few times he remembered that it crossed his mind, “They have no idea how to take care of me.”

They were hoping that the other would know how to comfort and care for him, and he said that he could remember how nervous it made him feel, to find himself in the hands of these not terribly competent people.

Children do perceive these things, because they are aware, even if they don’t have the language to think about it rationally.

Paramhansa Yogananda talks in Autobiography of a Yogi about his memories of lying in the crib as a baby, and how, out of the multitude of all the languages whirling in his consciousness from his past lives, he gradually figured out that these people were speaking Bengali, and so he began speaking Bengali to them, even as he could feel the currents of all the other languages.

On the subject of language, I read about a boy who was born into the family that founded the Berlitz School of Languages. And because the family enterprise was languages, the child was raised in five languages simultaneously. His mother and father, his grandmother and grandfather, and his aunt, I believe it was, would each address the child in a different language and expect to be answered in that language. And when he was about three, he drew the very interesting conclusion that everybody had their own language. So he began answering them in a hodgepodge of words that he had made up, because it seemed like the obvious and intelligent thing to do, and it took them a while to persuade him that he really didn’t have to invent his own language.

Dharmaraj Iyer is an Ananda friend who’s now living in India. His father is from Chennai and his mother is American, and as a young child they would take him to India to visit his relatives. And he said that in his family they all spoke the native language of the area, and they spoke it very loudly.

So the family was sort of loud, and when he spoke English he would talk in a normal voice, but when he spoke the Indian language he would shout, because that’s how he thought it was supposed to be spoken.

We come into this world all shiny and new, and we make up our own rules, and the rules we make up seem perfectly reasonable to us. And then we have companions who reinforce the rules because they’re playing the same game with us. And so the cycle gets carried on for incarnations, where we’re living by the rules as we understand them, but just beneath the surface we’re always trying to understand, “Where is happiness?” “Who am I?” “What is right behavior?” “What is a proper moral code?” “How do I get what I want?” “What is okay?”

These are very long cycles, and we can look around us and see how many different sets of rules people are playing by.

I saw a woman on the street who was almost as old as I am, and it was clear that the last time she’d had a concept of a beautiful woman was maybe twenty-five or thirty years ago, and she hadn’t noticed that her attire and makeup were no longer appropriate. So she was dolled up in a way that might have suited a woman of thirty, but wasn’t ideal for someone in her later years. But they were the rules as she understood them, and I’m sure they made perfect sense to her.

A peculiarity of the false rules we latch onto is that we hope they will give us positive experiences that will be immediately pleasing to us and will bring us lasting happiness, even though they don’t last.

If you follow a poor diet for most of your life, the chances are that it will catch up to you. It doesn’t always, perhaps because of good karma, but there are fixed rules in the natural order of things that we cannot bend to our own whims and desires.

The Festival of Light tells us that we are on a mission from God, and that we were meant to be fruitful and share that which we receive. But then the experience of personal power becomes terrifically exciting to us, and we begin to think, “Why should I give away what I’ve got?” As the Festival says, “What else is wisdom, if not to keep what is mine for myself?”

So we justify our selfish actions, and if we’ve taken the last cookie, what else is wisdom except to keep it for ourselves?

Somewhere along the line, we’ve become persuaded that fostering the interests of this unique entity according to what the ego tells us is pleasurable and positive is a perfectly reasonable thing to do. Because what else is wisdom, except to keep what’s mine – my talents, my identity, my money, and so on.

But the problem is that we’re working against a greater reality, and the greater reality always wins.

It might not win in the short term – we see lots of scoundrels who die rich and surrounded by their families, without being exposed for what they are. So the karmic accounting doesn’t always fall due in the short run. And it’s why people can have catastrophic experiences, and if they aren’t thinking in terms of karmas that can take more than one life to resolve, they can’t understand why it’s happening to them.

The greater reality is that we are a part of all that is, and we have to go through each of the stages of our divine mission, including the first stage of rebellion against the mission, and the third stage, which is the quest to understand and align ourselves with that which is.

God lets us declare our own reality for a very long time, and if we’ve developed sufficient power and determination, or if we’re simply so stupid that we don’t notice the consequences of our actions, we can play out that particular delusion for many lifetimes.

But sooner or later the bruises will accumulate, the bruises to our heart, mind, and soul, and in our next incarnation we may not be quite as stupid, and it won’t take us as long to figure it out.

I know that I’ve followed this path many times. I would have to have done so, to have found it so early in this lifetime, and to have recognized it as completely as I did. And what it tells me is that this isn’t the first time I’ve been here, and I’m picking up where I left off, and I just had to wait to be old enough to follow this path.

But when I was a child I didn’t have any context for the principles of Self-realization. I vividly remember staring out the picture window of my parents’ home at 3809 Hillcrest Drive in El Paso, Texas. I was ten, and I had a feeling that if I stared long and hard enough at the man who was mowing his lawn across the street, the veil would crack. I didn’t have the word “veil,” and I didn’t know what it would crack into. But I knew that what I was looking at wasn’t real, and that there was something behind it, and that maybe if I just concentrated hard enough my gaze would penetrate the veil.

And where does that knowledge come from? It comes from having lived through it before.

Many people have come back from near-death experiences and proclaimed that the rules are very different than we imagine. They tell us that the greater picture is not about getting for ourselves – it’s about love, and it’s about wisdom. And what’s important is not what you think is important – it’s about your consciousness, and the way you express it in the smallest moments of your life.

We get to the point where we recognize that declaring our own reality, no matter how powerfully we’re able to do it, doesn’t work. And because we’ve been following a false path for so long and we’ve suffered, we begin to understand that suffering is inevitable when we try to make up our own rules. So we develop a little humility, and we begin to be interested in what actually is.

It may not be a gigantic suffering. It doesn’t have to be leprosy, or an early death, or a tragic accident. Yogananda says in Autobiography of a Yogi that what really begins to get to us is the “anguishing monotony” of it all. Because tragedy can be energizing, if it forces you to work hard to keep from going under. But it’s the anguishing monotony that finally moves us to seek something more.

And that’s where I found myself just before I discovered Ananda.

Thoreau said, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.” And that saying scared the living daylights out of me. I didn’t even have a very clear idea of what it meant, but I could tell that it wasn’t good, and I was very concerned that most people lived that way.

I remember staring out another window when I was nineteen. It was the back window of my apartment in San Francisco, and as I looked out at the gardens, I knew that just staring at it wasn’t going to change it or allow me to pierce the veil.

And then Swami Kriyananda came into my life, and for the first time I realized that I was looking at a human being who was a living manifestation of what I wanted to be.

I didn’t even know the right words. “Happy” was good enough for starters. But I could feel that he was living something that was true and that would endure, and I knew that he had picked up his life by the right thread.

So we’ve found a true path, and we’re eager to get started. But we still have the countless memories of it not working in the past, where we tried so sincerely, and it ended in anguishing monotony or outright catastrophe. And now we’re carrying the weight of all that baggage, and the result is a profound and almost overwhelming insecurity. And the insecurity is based on our very real experiences of being deeply wrong so many times in the past.

Swamiji once described all of human life as a hospital. In the early years I used to think that Ananda Village, this chaotic but nonetheless marvelously exhilarating and fun adventure, was a sophisticated experiment with lunatics. As if there was a fence around the property and we were being observed and studied to see what would happen if you threw a bunch of clueless young people together and let them have their way.

Swamiji had no choice but to give us responsibility, even though we were highly unqualified for it. And that’s why I thought of it as an experiment with lunatics. Of course, I was joking, because it was all so much fun, but it did often seem fairly chaotic.

We carry a tremendous sense of it not having worked out countless times in the past, because in all our incarnations until we become connected to God, we really aren’t operating with a full deck. We’re operating within our own self-enclosed ecosystem, or ego-system, where we’ve either blocked out the greater reality, or we don’t know how to relate to it. We imagine that we’re strong and we’re in charge, and it’s a complete fallacy, and because of all our past failures we’re carrying that fear and insecurity around with us now.

I had a very brief career as a corporate trainer. I actually led four or five programs, but it was an exceedingly short phase, because I wasn’t allowed to say the things that really mattered to me. Others have had fine careers sharing Master’s teachings, appropriately translated for that environment, but it wasn’t for me.

It all came to a head in 1989, when there was a major earthquake and large sections of the Bay Bridge and the nearby double-decker freeways collapsed, and a number of people died in their cars.

The company that I was working for wanted me to come and talk to them, because the wife of someone in the company had been crushed on the bridge, and there was a fearful energy in the company, and they wanted me to come in and reassure them.

The friend who’d hired me was a devotee, and we had talked about the language that was acceptable in the corporate world. So when she invited me, I thought about it for a moment, and I said, “I can’t reassure them unless I can talk about God. And I can’t talk about God.”

I said, “The only possible way to deal with the fact that your relative was on the bridge at that exact moment is if you have a picture of a greater reality.”

She said, “But can’t you just help people believe in themselves?”

I had to say, “No, actually, I can’t.” Because not one of them would have had the power to prevent that tragedy, or even to understand why it happened.

Your life is going along just fine, and then your wife is on the Bay Bridge at the precise moment when the upper deck collapses. So we become terrified, and then we direct that terror toward ourselves, because we’re sure that we must deserve it.

But for those of us who’ve come onto the spiritual path, we understand that we are part of a greater flow of energy, and that we’re a bubble in the sea of Infinity. And we understand that our life is a manifestation of a karmic flow, and that this is our purpose within the greater reality.

But the anxiety stays with us for a long time, because of the subtle memory of our countless failures, and of so many heartbreaks, and of having completely misjudged so many situations, and of clinging to our mistakes. You can make your own list, and it will probably look a lot like mine, because we’ve been doing this together for a long time.

But those memories cling to us, and in my experience the single hardest point to understand on the spiritual path is to realize that it’s all just fine. It’s just fine because we are children of the Light. And the very idea that anything bad ever happened to us is an illusion.

Not that we didn’t suffer, but the fallacy is that we think the suffering was pointless, or that it was our fault, or that it happened for no reason. When, in fact, it was a necessary part of the cycle, and the whole point is to bring us to a point where we can surrender it and see who and what we really are.

We are children of the Light. We have never been anything but children of the Light, and all of the mistakes of the past are utterly trivial by comparison. And yet they loom so large in our mental skies that they infiltrate everything we do.

I can’t tell you how many times people have said to me, “I just don’t know if I’m doing it right.”

Am I doing enough for Master? I made a mistake. I spoke wrongly. The relationship collapsed. My children won’t talk to me. My finances didn’t pan out. My health is shattered.

These things are very real. And then we insist on saying, “It must be my fault!” Instead of stepping back and saying, “I am a child of God, and He is taking me wherever I need to go, and this is my path to freedom.”

The inclination to make it our fault and to suffer for it is strong in us, owing to the many lives when we thought we were in charge.

We are so committed to blaming ourselves, and we’re so wrong. We’re just so totally wrong.

Master put it simply. “If you have joy in the moment, you have God.” And the promise is so simple that we refuse to believe it. We think, “But it can’t be that simple!” But it is.

Jesus said, “The world will hate you, because you’re repudiating everything they stand for.” And of course most of Jesus’ disciples had a pretty rough time. They got fed to the lions and martyred, and there were some very tough experiences. But Jesus consoled them, “The world will despise you. The world will hate you.” And then he added, “But be of good cheer.”

I love that saying, “Be of good cheer.” And he added, “Because I have conquered the world.” Meaning, “I, the infinite Spirit” with which he was fully identified.

This world is a shadow. It’s a dream. It’s not as if we haven’t failed to understand the greater reality and we’ve suffered accordingly. We did suffer. We had a terrible time.

If you think that someone has betrayed you, and you go through a horrible experience of feeling deeply upset over it, and then you find that it was a simple misunderstanding, there’s a tremendous sense of relief, and a great sense of inner release and freedom.

Did the person actually do anything to you? And that’s exactly what our life experience is telling us. We only get so confused because we’re stupid, and because somewhere along the way we’ve misunderstood.

When we finally begin to see the little pinpoint of light, and we begin to follow it, we find that we’re dragging all of that stuff from the past. And even though grace has come, it isn’t effortless, because we have to work hard to stay open to the light. We have to do our sadhana. We have to pray. We have to discipline ourselves. We have to be kind.

We have to attend to many things continuously. But the main point of it all is that we have to get rid of the thought that we aren’t good enough. And we have to work hard to realize in the end that we don’t have to work at it at all, because God is doing all of it, and we are one with Him.

The primary discipline required is that we must hold at bay the thought that God cannot possibly love us unless and until we’ve done so and so. And even then, we imagine that His love is conditional, because we project upon the Divine and on the masters the worst of our qualities, imagining that they are measuring and judging and rejecting us.

Not at all. God is our Father. God is our Mother. If you ask of your Father a loaf of bread, will He give you a stone? If you’ve squandered your divine inheritance like the prodigal son, and now you’ve returned to your Father, will He reject you, or will He celebrate your return?

And then in time we’re able to open our eyes wide enough to see that the whole thing was nothing but a colossal cosmic joke. At the end of Yogananda’s poem “Samadhi,” in which he describes the experience of cosmic consciousness, he concludes:

A tiny bubble of laughter, I
Am become the Sea of Mirth Itself.

What a way to end that long, deep, and exhilarating description of his experience of cosmic ecstasy! – that in the end it has all just been a huge cosmic joke. And it may be hard to arrive at that single point of cosmic perception, but it’s worth trying, isn’t it? And it’s worth remembering those simple words as the answer to everything that ails us.

I thought that I was a miserable sinner, but guess what? I am a tiny bubble of laughter, and I am become the Sea of Mirth Itself.

(From Asha’s talk during Sunday service at Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto, California on April 8, 2018.)

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