What Does It Mean to Pray Believing?

Photo: Thanks to Simon Matzinger on Unsplash.

Our reading today includes a very interesting passage where the Bible tells us how we can get whatever we want from God.

“Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.” (Luke 11:7-8)

In another famous passage, Jesus expands on the promise:

“Jesus answered and said unto them, Verily I say unto you, If ye have faith, and doubt not, ye shall not only do this which is done to the fig tree, but also if ye shall say unto this mountain, Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea; it shall be done.” (Mathew: 21:21)

And again, Jesus promises: “And all things, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive.” (Matthew 21:22)

Paramhansa Yogananda told the story of a man who was upset because the view from his kitchen window was blocked by a mountain. Being familiar with these Bible verses, he told the mountain to be removed, and when he woke up the next morning and saw that it hadn’t budged, he exclaimed, “I knew you’d still be there!”

Master pointed out that the man had ignored the most important message of these passages, which is that we must “pray believing.”

Master told how he would take the boys from his Ranchi, India school for walks in the surrounding countryside, and how they would cross over the top of a dangerous waterfall.

“Do you believe in God?” he would challenge them. And they would shout back, “Yes, we believe in God!” And so they would cross over safely.

Later, when a young teacher tried to duplicate the feat, one of the boys slipped and drowned. It was a very painful way for the teacher to learn a lesson – we can feel what a horrible moment it must have been for the poor young man, who thought that he had the spiritual power, but didn’t.

Photo: Paramhansa Yogananda with students at his school in Ranchi, Bengal, India.

The point, of course, is that belief isn’t enough. Because, as Swami says in today’s reading, before we can have everything we want, we must develop the one-pointed concentration that leads to Self-realization, and the one-pointed concentration that causes all of our desires to be in harmony with God’s will. Because God isn’t going to allow us to act against the cosmic plan.

The lesson of the Bible verses, even more profoundly, is that we must have a deep desire to be in tune with God, and then we must always be telling the Divine Mother, who is the cosmic force, that it isn’t our wish to impose our will upon the world, but that we only want to act in concert with what God wants of us.

One of the biggest difficulties we face on the spiritual path is expressed poignantly in Whispers From Eternity:

Thy gentle voice saying, “Come home,” I often heard; but it was drowned in the noise of the wild cravings of many lives. Then I forsook the jostling crowds of desires. In the solitude of my mind, my devotion is bursting to hear Thy voice. Take away the dreams of earthly sounds, which yet lurk in my mind: I want to hear Thy quiet voice, ever singing in the silence of my soul. (Whispers From Eternity #139)

We hear the voice of God saying, “Come home!” But at the same time we can hear the tumult inside of us, of all our desires. And the great dilemma of the path is that these two opposing forces are forever dancing within us.

Click image for details and to order.

As the years roll by, I realize what an anachronism I’ve become. In a talk that I gave recently, I mentioned some of the experiences we had when Ananda was defending SRF’s lawsuit against us. I said that part of the problem was that in the beginning of the lawsuit we were thinking that courtroom dramas are like Perry Mason. And afterward the young millennials who do the technical work for my broadcasts were asking me who Perry Mason was.

Now, Perry Mason was a fictional lawyer and the subject of a hugely successful series of novels and television programs that I imbibed with my biscuits and milk as a child in the 1950s. In those stories, right always triumphs, usually in a dramatic way, and the courtroom scenes never last for years, but for just ten or fifteen minutes.

There are so many cultural references that become part of how we expect the world to be. But they are expressions of maya, the power of delusion that is always acting upon us. And if we can remember that our beliefs are being shaped by television, we may be able to distance ourselves from those fallacious beliefs.

But many people’s lives are molded by those false images of how this life is supposed to be. And we need to understand that everything outside of the still, small voice of Spirit is just the popular culture trying to capture our attention and persuade us of how the world works.

In these extraordinarily dramatic times, when everyone is standing up and trying to assert their truth over someone else, it’s remarkable how we all make perfect sense to ourselves from the inside, isn’t it?

In the old days, when people wore watches instead of pulling out their phone to check the time, it was harder to know the precise time, because those old mechanical watches could be wildly inaccurate. And Sri Ramakrishna, the great Bengali saint, commented that everyone thinks their watch is right, and that’s how people move through the world.

The point is that we gradually realize, over many lifetimes, that our point of view is arbitrary, and that it’s based on the way we were raised, and the values that were inculcated in us, or that we’ve brought over from past lives.

And then we very slowly begin to get the idea, which comes first as a subtle feeling, and then becomes a deeper intuitive knowing, that there is a consistent thread running through it all.

And even if we can’t articulate exactly what the thread is, we begin to realize that that subtle intuition is true, and that even though I may have lived in many places in my past lives, and I’ve been born in many cultures, there’s a consistent thread running through it all.

When I was introduced to Self-realization and when I met Swami Kriyananda, I felt as if I had spent my whole life poised on the edge of truth, seeking that elusive thread.

I could feel that the thread was happiness, because I hadn’t yet considered that there might be a possibility of cosmic bliss. But I understood that there was suffering, and that the thread that I wanted to find and hold onto was happiness. But I couldn’t find anyone who had more than a vague, Perry Mason opinion of what real happiness was about.

We spend endless lives seeking that constant, reliable thread, until the process begins to assume what Paramhansa Yogananda called “a certain anguishing monotony.”

Those two words, “anguishing” and “monotony,” form a wonderfully accurate and evocative image. “Monotony” implies endless lives of excruciating boredom, and “anguishing” exactly describes the feeling of it.

It’s a subtle intuitive knowing, and it’s not easy to get a grip on it. But there’s an increasing feeling that “Here we go again, with yet another round of absolute tragedy.”

Here comes another war. Here comes another life where my house gets blown to bits, or where I’m orphaned. And the anguish just keeps rolling around in the same old familiar, monotonous cycle.

And then there’s a point where the Divine decides that it’s time to break through and help us, because we’re ready.

Before I met Swami Kriyananda, I was living in the Bay Area. I had begun to study the spiritual teachings, and once a week I would drive to East West Bookshop in Menlo Park, because it was the only place where you could find books on metaphysical subjects.

I was reading and reading, trying to break through, but I could never get anywhere with that approach. I believed in the philosophy, but I couldn’t cross over to the point where, as Swami Kriyananda put it, there was a real, living power behind the ideas.

Swami Kriyananda as a young man.

Then I met Swamiji, and I can think of many ways to describe my first impression of him, and what it felt like to be in his aura. But, above all, there was a real power that I felt from him. And it was no longer just nice words that I could believe in; it was the difference between saying “I believe” when you’re just thinking of the idea of it, and “I BELIEVE” because I KNOW that power.

The Bible is challenging us to seek the experience of that divine power. “Seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.”

It’s not inviting us to affirm superficially, “Oh goody, I’ll knock and I’ll have everything I want.” Because when you try it, you find that it’s a recipe for disappointment.

How many people have had their loved ones fall ill, and they’ve prayed desperately that they would recover, and they didn’t? How many people have had tragedy enter their life, and no matter how much they prayed and believed in the possibility of a miracle, the miracle didn’t occur?

And how will we react when those things happen to us? Will we doubt the promise of the masters? Will we wonder if they’re just giving us false promises to attract us to their church?

Swamiji wrote a comic song called “Jim Brown.” The refrain goes:

Oh, keep a level head, boys,
And preach the lighter news.
Don’t disappoint the gentle folk:
Our church needs better pews!

Those of us who follow Yogananda’s teachings have learned that we need to go along with the truth, because the truth isn’t going to change to accommodate our desires and opinions.

We can go for lifetimes with a sort of tenuous connection to truth, where if we begin to feel that God is disappointing us we’ll turn away in rebellion. “I’ll show Him – I’ll abandon Him! No more donations to Your temple, and I won’t be coming there anymore!” So we become stalwart foes of whatever we feel has failed us.

But then the sheer anguishing monotony begins to get to us, and we begin to question more deeply, “What am I not understanding?” And we begin to open our hearts to the truth.

And that’s when the admonition to “pray believing” comes front and center. Master beautifully exemplified it for us when he knew that he was able to take the children safely across the dangerous waterfall because he was filled with God’s power.

There’s a clear feeling that you get when you know that the divine power is with you. And whereas belief is just a set of words with all kinds of relative meanings that you have to juggle, there’s a feeling that tells you when you’re truly moving with the Spirit. And it’s only when that sure feeling is present that we can know the right way forward, and we’ll know that it can be done.

During the SRF lawsuit, there were many times when we had to struggle with the difference between what we thought with our minds was a good idea, and what really had the power of Spirit behind it.

At one point we had the idea, which originated from our Mountain View Ananda community, that we would mount a major public event. We would go to Los Angeles where SRF was holding its big annual convocation, and we would stand on the sidewalk and pass out literature and talk with people about what was really going on with the lawsuit.

Some people were thinking of it as a demonstration, but we called it an educational project, and it was exceedingly controversial within the world of Ananda. Just stunningly so, because it was so aggressive.

And as this big controversy was swirling, Swamiji stood at the center of the whirlwind of people’s ideas about whether it was a good idea. And he was being vintage Kriyananda, in the sense that he supported everyone, and their ideas were always secondary to his support for them.

When people would complain or raise doubts, he would say, “I understand why you feel that way.” And isn’t that perfect? Because he did.

So there was lots of lively discussion to and fro. And finally we were on the phone with Swamiji, and we said, “Sir, do you think we should do this, or should we not do it?”

We went back and forth with that for a while, and then I said, “Swamiji, the idea to do this” – and this is the phrase I used – “came to me in that way.” I said, “It doesn’t happen to me all that often, but it came in that way, where I knew that it would work.”

He had expressed a concern that it wouldn’t be effective for various reasons, and that if it failed it might create a serious loss of faith among some of our members.

But I said, “It came in that way, that I knew it would work.” And it was very interesting to me, because Swami’s entire demeanor immediately changed. “Well, then,” he said. “Of course, you have to do it.” And it was as simple as that. So we did go forward, and it did work, because it had come in that way.

Now, I’m standing here after decades of the spiritual life, and I can tell you that most things do not come in that way. But there are times when we know that it’s no longer a question of belief, in the casual sense of batting around ideas, but there’s a sure knowing that the divine power is with us, and that if we remain in tune with that power, it will work.

But by no means does the fact that it came in that way guarantee that it will work. I’ve had dramatic experiences where it came in the right way, but then I managed to mess it up completely. Because there’s no guarantee, and the inner attunement that’s required is a moving target.

This is what the Bhagavad Gita is telling us today, that even if we want to offer our attention to the Spirit, our tumultuous thoughts and desires and the noise of the world will try to come in and distract us, over and over. And even though we think we’re still headed in the right direction, we’re actually just listening to ourselves, and we’re no longer listening to the inner voice.

But we only need to have a single experience of what it feels like to truly know with that level of inner certainty, and then the promise of the Bible suddenly makes perfect sense to us. And that’s why Swami said many times that even the most seemingly impossible things become possible when we feel that it’s coming from God, so long as we can hold onto the inspiration.

For years, Swamiji had wanted to write a melody for the beautiful “Canticle of the Creatures” of St. Francis. And when he came across the original Italian words, he wrote a lovely a capella melody for them.

At about the same time, a popular singer named Donovan wrote a simple melody for a song called “Brother Sun, Sister Moon” with his own English words for a film about Francis. And what’s remarkable is that the four notes of both songs are identical, and the first measures are very similar.

Swamiji felt that he had heard St. Francis sing the melody, and he was kind enough to say that he thought Donovan had heard Francis sing it, too. But the difference was that Donovan wasn’t able sustain the inspiration all the way to the end, and as a result his song lost energy after the first few measures.

The point is that it isn’t enough just to receive the first inspiration from God, because we have to remain in tune. It’s not enough to be inspired by Yogananda and decide that I can take the boys across the waterfall, because I have to raise my energy to receive the inspiration at every step of the way, and I have to keep asking, “Is this the right thing?”

In 1981 we made a big effort to turn Ananda Village into a legal California city, because we wanted to gain control over the use of our own land. And the only entity in California that had that kind of control, besides a county, which we couldn’t be, was a municipality, a city. So, as ludicrous as it sounds to take 700 acres of land with just 250 residents and call it a California city, we discovered that we would be well within our legal rights to try to do so. And it wasn’t until the very end of the process that I realized that we were going to become a California siddhi. Siddhi is a Sanskrit word for spiritual power, so that’s what we began calling it – “Ananda Siddhi.”

At any rate, it was a tremendous effort that lasted eighteen months, and it ended in a big hearing with eight hundred people in the room, and everybody was against us.

Six of the seven board members voted against us, so it was a total collapse, and it was legally wrong and unfair, because they had violated our legal right to freedom of religion.

So we planned to sue. And then, two days later, a camera crew came up from Sacramento to talk to Swamiji. I drove them to his house, and on the way I was explaining how we were going to sue and take this and that action in protest. And then Swami sat in front of the cameras and said, “We’re not going forward anymore. This was really the right decision.”

So I had to take the camera crew back, and as we were driving along I was telling them, “Of course it was the right decision. It was just what we should do. Why would we sue?”

There were no telephones or email at Ananda, so he’d had no way of reaching me. And of course the news reporters didn’t flinch, because they interview politicians all the time, and it doesn’t mean anything to them if the politicians are suddenly talking out of the right or left side of their mouths.

But I drove back over the hill and I said, “Swami, why aren’t we going forward? We were going to take it all the way to the Supreme Court if we needed to.”

He said, “Well, I was meditating and I asked Master whether we should go on, and Master said no.”

I said, “I’ve been working on this full time for eighteen months. Why didn’t Master say that to me?”

Swami said, “Did you ask?” And I said, “No, Sir. I just assumed it.” And then I said aloud, “Serious mistake, huh?” And he said, “Yeah.”

It’s not enough to be given the power at the start, because we have to keep tuning into that power moment by moment.

Now, it’s not like you plant a seed and then you have to keep digging it up and holding it up to God and asking if He still wants it to grow in the ground. But even as we’re moving forward, we mustn’t presume, and at every step of the way we have to be walking in the light. And this is why the Gita says, “The mind focuses, but then it gets pulled away.” The teacher in Ranchi thought that he could do it. But was he standing in the divine power? Clearly not.

Is it easy? No, it isn’t. It’s why they call the state of perfect attunement with that power “the pearl of great price.” But is it worth every ounce of our energy? Is there anything else worth doing? Is there anything else more valuable or ultimately more beneficial for our lives?

What we’re talking about is very simple. It’s attunement. Are we living for ourselves, or are we living for God? And even after we’ve decided to live for God, how determined are we to keep going in the same way?

How many times will we let the mind and heart, wild and wavering, wander away? And then we have to keep pulling our energy and attention back until what seemed like day to the worldly person becomes night to the yogi, and we find ourselves transformed into something else.

Nothing in this world is fixed, least of all our consciousness. And there is ultimately only one reality, which is the power and presence of God within us. And everything that we are truly seeking, that alone is where we will find it.

God bless you.

(From Asha’s talk during Sunday service at Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto, California on November 8, 2020.)

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