“Getting the Point” in the Spiritual Life

Photo: Grateful thanks to Paul Rysz on Unsplash.


Swami Kriyananda’s mother told him about a sermon that the minister in her church gave in which he expressed his awe at the heroism of the saints, because they loved everybody. And not only did they love the crabby neighbor next door, but they loved the curmudgeon who lived across the street, and when they’d recovered from that tremendous effort, they were nice to the nasty old spinster on the other side of town. And the minister was expressing his wonder at how, by a tremendous act of will, the saints were able to master their inherent aversion and be kind to everyone.

And of course it’s a great accomplishment when we can avoid being at war with everyone or always judging them. But at the same time it’s a classic example of what Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras calls “missing the point.”

It’s what happens when you get hold of a little piece of the truth and you take it in a wrong direction, because you’re overlooking the fundamental premise.

Many of Jesus’ followers were not immune to the error of missing the point. They had felt his great spiritual power, and many of them had translated it into terms that they could understand. So their impression of him was not that he was the least among them, as he had said, but that he was the greatest. Because, after all, he had performed miracles, and he had great wisdom, and he loved them in a way that they had never imagined it would be possible to be loved.

They were hoping that he would manifest worldly power, not necessarily for themselves, but so that the oppression of the people at the hands of the Romans would be lifted, and his teachings would be widely recognized.

So they were thinking in terms of his greatness. And when he told them that when they helped the beggar and visited the imprisoned and comforted the sorrowful they were serving him, it was not an easy teaching for them to accept.

They had fallen into the trap of missing the point, which it’s all too easy to do, and even more so today, after generation after generation of ordinary people have interpreted Jesus’ teachings according to their limited understanding.

In The New Path: My Life with Paramhansa Yogananda, Swamiji talks about how utterly charming Yogananda was, and what a wonderful loving friend, and what a joy it was to be in his company. But then he says, “Too often the disciples, reveling in the bliss of the Master’s company, failed to perceive the magnitude of the revolution of consciousness to which he was calling them.”

The masters see this world very differently than we do. When we look at the world around us we see countless gradations of acceptability and lovability and dharma and kindness, and our hearts are drawn to that which vibrates with our own preferences. We have our own little circle of likes and dislikes, and we’re attracted to people with whom we have a certain affinity, because it’s easier to love God in those who are like us.

But the revolution of consciousness to which God is calling us is to realize that He is equally present in everything and everyone. And even more powerfully, that everyone is equally loved by Him.

God cheers for the villain when he becomes a tiny bit less villainous, just as He cheers the saint who finally realizes Him. And the difference is not in God’s love for us, which is constant and unwavering, it’s in our ability to receive His love.

Now, the greatest misery of our existence is when we close our hearts to God’s presence within us. And as our vision expands we become acutely aware of the anguish of forgetting Him. And so we’re able to see what a tragedy it is for those who are unable to feel the divine presence at all, and who as a result are behaving terribly in this world.

They imagine that they can get power in this or that form, and that they can get pleasure in many different ways, and they work very hard to inflate their egos so that they can use their egoic power for self-aggrandizement.

We don’t have to look very far to see it, because we’re living in the early years of Dwapara Yuga, and it isn’t a very uplifted or inspiring age.

Nayaswami Devarshi was driving with a friend when they passed a theater that was advertising some terrible movie. The classic awful movie title is “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” But whatever it was, Devarshi said to his companion, “Imagine a planet where they make movies with titles like that. And just imagine, we’re living on it.”

And, really, how did we get here? And, well, it must have seemed like a good idea at the time. And in fact it is a good idea, because it’s challenging us to see that God is seeking His eternal bliss wherever we’re casting our gaze.

And that’s the revolution that’s being asked of us, not that we master our aversions, but that we abandon all aversion. Because wherever we look, we’re seeing the power and presence of God that is seeking to express itself, even if it may be temporarily seeking in misguided ways.

When we see people in tragic circumstances, the law of karma demands that we understand that it is never a mistake. This is why so many people don’t like the law of karma, because not only is it challenging us to see the fundamental fairness of the karmic law in other people’s lives, it’s super-challenging for us to remember that it’s fair when we’re experiencing our own karma.

We have to overcome the idea that our karma is unfair, or that it’s meant to punish us, and realize that all of the events in our lives are unfolding in the only possible way to bring us back as quickly as possible to our inherent state of bliss.

The greatest anguish is to be unable to receive God’s love. And we have to keep walking down that path of anguish until the pain of our separation is worse than the effort that’s required to come closer to the Spirit.

And we must remember that it’s the same for everyone, everywhere – that there’s a divine force that’s pushing us all through millions of incarnations and through many, many odd and dark byways. And what we must eventually realize is that everyone is just the same, because we are all longing for bliss, and everyone is equally deserving of our compassion and care.

That kind of love is indeed heroic, but not in the way the minister was thinking. And it’s absolutely essential that in every moment we must be generating the energy to reformulate our sense of self and our expectations of the world.

So much is written about abandoning our expectations and our attachments and desires and so on, and every word of it is true. Because we have no choice but to keep moving forward, step by step. And whatever we might want to hold back, God will sooner or later pry it out of our hands.

Now, I know that this sounds like really bad news, but it only looks that way until we’ve had the opportunity to taste the fruits of our spiritual efforts.

We’re now in the midst of the Christmas season, the time when Christ was born. And on the one hand there’s the physical reality of the story, where the baby Jesus was born in a manger, and Mary and Joseph were with him. And it’s a beautiful story that has been refined and elevated and celebrated through the centuries until it’s like a beautiful piece of music that in its harmony and its heavenly melodies and its aspiration is so touching that the mere sight of the characters in the story continues to exert a power over our hearts.

On our altar today we’re celebrating Mary and the Angel Gabriel, who came to tell her that she would bear a holy child. But what we’re truly witnessing in the story of his birth, and the extraordinary drama of his life, is the fulfillment of our own destiny.

When we celebrate the birth of the baby Jesus, the symbol is obvious – we’re celebrating and affirming the first stirrings of the Christ consciousness in ourselves. The inner story of Christmas is that the angels are announcing the birth of the Christ consciousness in us, and that it will be fully given to us by the Divine Mother Herself. Because, as Swami Kriyananda’s oratorio, “Christ Lives” tells the story, “through Mary the Light descended.”

And then Jesus confounded everyone’s expectations when he refused to become a worldly king, or to cultivate the wealthy and the powerful, or even to seek anything at all for himself. And instead he spent his time associating with low-caste people and fallen souls and the poor and the meek, while refusing to honor the powers of this world. Because he was loving with complete purity and self-surrender to the Divine, without any effort of his own.

I’ve had a hard time enjoying nearly every movie that I’ve seen about Jesus’ life. Some are better than others, but too often the story is told in the manner of those paintings where Jesus is turning the water into wine, or he’s raising Lazarus from the dead, and they make him look like he’s just run a marathon, where he’s perspiring and exhausted from the effort of turning the water into wine, and of loving the poor.

And, again, it’s missing the point, because when we’re able to see the world as it truly is, by feeling the reality of it within ourselves, we realize that we no longer have to try to give our compassion and love, because in that exalted state we cannot do anything but love, and we cannot but feel blessed.

At the end of Swamiji’s life he would often talk about an experience that he had in Italy. He was staying in a hotel in Florence, and he woke up in the middle of the night with a deep realization. He wanted to write about it, but he couldn’t find any paper in the hotel room, and finally he found a doily that someone had already used as a notepad, and he turned it over and wrote on the back, “Everyone is seeking bliss. And therefore everyone is just the same and equally lovable.”

When you understand yourself truly, you understand everyone at their innermost heart of hearts, and you realize that we are all the same. We are all well and truly lost and wandering, and grasping at straws and soap bubbles, hoping to find something that we can never find there.

The most powerful tyrant in the world is just as lost and lonely, grabbing at soap bubbles. He may have the karma and the egoic strength to exercise his delusion with tremendous power, but alone in his heart he’s exactly the same as everyone else, lost and lonely until he seeks his true home in God.

St. Augustine said, “Thou hast made us for Thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in Thee.”

When a touch of the Divine comes and shows us what real love is like, and where real bliss comes from, it changes our perspective on everything. It doesn’t always change it in an instant, however, because we must keep fighting the battle to return to that state.

And what we finally want to understand is that we are everywhere. This is why the Bhagavad Gita tells us, “For one who sees Me everywhere and sees everything in Me, I am never lost, nor is he ever lost to Me.”

And isn’t that everything we want? It’s such a simple instruction – just see Him everywhere.

There’s a beautiful documentary film about Mother Teresa of Calcutta. There’s a scene where she’s on the city streets and she comes across a poor person who’s dying of some terribly disfiguring disease. And everything about the person would evoke our instinct not to get too close because of the physical disintegration. But Mother Teresa went right up and put her arms around him, and moved him into her house of the dying.

She said to the filmmakers who were following her, “You must wonder how I can do this.” Because Mother Teresa was a very straightforward person and not at all pretentious. I had the opportunity to meet her several times briefly, and she was one of the most businesslike people I’ve met, in a spiritual sense, because there was no space in her life for any pretense at all.

“You may wonder how I can do this, because you see a maggot-infested dying beggar,” she said, “But I see the face of Christ.”

You think I’m picking up a dying beggar, but I’m picking up Jesus and I’m carrying him into his home.

That was not pretense. That was not affirmation. That was exactly how she saw the world. And this is what’s being asked of us. Whether we’re serving the poor or we’re living alone in a cave, it’s the revolution of consciousness that we’re being called to.

The constant experience of God within, and the perception of God everywhere – that’s what the Bhagavad Gita tells us is required. And the end result is utterly predictable – that we will be with God everywhere. That’s what will happen. And it’s not really so mysterious, but of course it isn’t easy.

So many of our beliefs about where our happiness comes from have to do with the likes and dislikes of the heart, and the expectation that others will fulfill our desires for us. And then comes the crushing disappointment when the world fails to do it for us, over and over. And then we try desperately to arrange our lives on earth so that it won’t happen again, because very few of us can grasp the magnitude of the revolution to which God is calling us.

It’s why Jesus came and lived a life so contrary to everyone’s expectations, and contrary to what most of his followers were longing for.

Jesus tells us that if someone slaps you on the right cheek, you should turn to him the left cheek also, and if someone asks of you your cloak, you must give him your coat as well. And whether or not we’re doing it outwardly, he’s telling us that the likes and dislikes of the heart must be overcome.

Because no matter what this world looks like to us, it’s just a play of light and shadow, and in the end, as Paramhansa Yogananda says in his poem “Samadhi”: “Vanished the veils of light and shade, lifted every vapor of sorrow, sailed away all dawns of fleeting joys. Gone the dim sensory mirage of love, hate, life, death, health, disease.”

All of it goes away. And even as we’re driving down the street and it seems so real to us, in our heart of hearts there must always be just one perception and one reality: God alone. Om Guru. God alone. This is the work to which Jesus is calling us. And this is what Christmas is asking of us.

It’s going to be a peculiar Christmas this year because of the pandemic. So it will be somewhat different, but it has the potential to be all the more deep because so much of what we prefer is being taken from us. And will we continue to reach out for it and try desperately to hold on? Or when someone asks of us our cloak, will we give him our coat also?

At this time of year it’s the baby Jesus that we’re celebrating, and although we’re aware that the great King is coming, the whole of Jesus is present in that little form. And if we will open our heart and our mind and our spirit in a prayer for love and courage, the birth of Christ will be more than a beautiful symbol – it will be the beginning of our inner spiritual revolution and our freedom in God.

God bless you.

(From Asha’s talk during Sunday service at Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto, California on December 13, 2020.)

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