Our subject today is reincarnation. And while there’s a great deal that we could say about it, based on what we’re told by the scriptures and the great masters, there’s also a way of thinking about it that will be immediately helpful in our daily lives.
People often protest against the idea of reincarnation, saying, “But I don’t remember.” Yet the fact is, we’re remembering all the time, because many of our feelings and habits and impulses were shaped by our experiences in previous lives.
Paramhansa Yogananda said that no one had crossed his path except by the will of God. So it was highly significant that in the 1930s he was received in the White House by President Calvin Coolidge. A great many karmic forces had to come together for him to be received by the president. And if we look closely at the character of Calvin Coolidge, we can speculate about the karma that enabled him to meet a person of Master’s stature.
At one point I became fascinated with Edgar Casey, the “sleeping prophet” who gave many psychic readings for people about all manner of things, very often referring to their past lives.
One of Casey’s closest friends was a man who became prominent in the American Secret Service. His name was Colonel Starling, and for several decades he was assigned to be one of the agents in the detail that protected the president. In all, I believe he helped protect five or six presidents. So it was a long run that began with Woodrow Wilson, and I believe he was still with the Secret Service during President Franklin Roosevelt’s first term.
He wrote a book about his experiences, and among the presidents he served, he said that it was Calvin Coolidge who most particularly stood out for him for the depth of his character, the purity of his heart, and his personal integrity.
I find it interesting to contemplate that even though all of the presidents he served were contemporaneous with Master’s life, only Calvin Coolidge had the grace and the good karma to be in the company of such a soul.
Paramhansa Yogananda left his body just after he uttered the final lines of a talk that he gave at a banquet in honor of India’s newly appointed ambassador to America, Sri Binay Ranjan Sen.
The date was March 7, 1952. India had gained its independence just five years earlier, in 1947. So an Indian man was representing India in America for the first time, and the power of that moment cannot be overestimated, in terms of what it meant for how the world had changed – to have a man who looked Indian, with dark skin, and who spoke English with an Indian accent, coming to America and representing his country after centuries of British rule.
On the day before the banquet, the ambassador came to see Master at Mount Washington, because in the Indian culture they understood who Yogananda was, even though in the West Master was just a tiny figure on the sidelines. But the point is that the Indian ambassador was linked by bonds of personal and national karma to a great world teacher.
Sarada Ma was the spiritual consort of Sri Ramakrishna, a great avatar who lived in the late 1800s. She was Ramakrishna’s divine partner, and she was, in her own right, an extraordinarily elevated incarnation of divinity.
Sarada was on pilgrimage in India, when she met a group of tourists from Europe or America at an ancient temple. And Sarada casually remarked to them that they had helped build the temple five thousand years earlier, and they had come back to see it again.
One of my friends, Ruhia, has traveled extensively since she was seventeen years old, at which time she left her home town in Wyoming to go and study in Leningrad, even though it was still behind the Iron Curtain. And we can only imagine what an extraordinary event it would have been at the time. But to her it didn’t seem unusual at all, because she was just going to a place that felt familiar to her.
Ruhia chooses her travel destinations on the basis of intuition – she’ll see a picture of a place, and it will feel like somewhere she needs to go, or she’ll see some photos of an obscure African desert tribe, and she’ll know it’s where she needs to go next. And, speaking for myself, I certainly have no such superconscious travel agent, but I’ve definitely experienced a strong feeling of affinity for certain places, as I’m sure many of us have.
In the early 1980s I visited an island in the Aegean Sea where we visited a very old Greek Orthodox monastery. We came to a bare stone cell with just a cold water pipe outside, and the way I felt about it, it might as well have been a five-star hotel, because I felt that it was the most wonderful little place, and when I entered the cell and sat there, it felt completely like home. My companions were eager to move on and see something more interesting, but I couldn’t have imagined anything more interesting than sitting in that little stone cell.
I had a similar feeling the first time I went to Hawaii, and I experienced it again at the Acropolis in Athens. They practically had to carry me out of the Acropolis, I was so unwilling to leave. And even though it’s a ruin now, it wasn’t a ruin for me, because it felt like home, and I knew intuitively that I had been very happy there.
My first friend at Ananda was Nalini Graeber. I don’t quite remember how we met, but we might have come to the Village on the same weekend in 1970. She was living in Berkeley at the time, and we began driving back and forth to the Village together. I remember remarking to someone, “I barely know this woman, but I would lay down my life for her.” And it wasn’t a sentimental thought, because there was a real bond, and a sure inner knowing.
Now, these stories of reincarnation can be lots of fun, but reincarnation also makes tremendous sense of that which is otherwise inexplicable.
I have a lot of intuition, and on several occasions I’ve had memories that seemed to be genuine recollections of events in my past lives. I particularly remember a dream that was so vivid that I had to believe it was based on a true past-life memory. When I mentioned it to Swamiji, he said that he believed it might well have been true. But there have been many dreams where I felt that I was experiencing something from the past, and that I wasn’t just making it up. And it might not have been happening in this life, but that didn’t make it any the less real.
When we bring reincarnation into the picture, our special affinities and aversions, and our subtle memories of past-life influences begin to come together in a way that makes perfect sense to us, where those inclinations might otherwise just seem like a random mess. And that would be very disconcerting.
The reason we’re drawn to try to understand these things is that it’s extremely distressing to us to think that we’re living in a world that is just a big, random mess. But if we can see a meaningful pattern in the picture, and if we can gain an intuitive understanding that God really knows what He’s doing with us, it begins to make sense in a way that’s very reassuring.
“Oh, yes, I needed this experience. I needed to suffer in this particular way because I had an inclination not to be compassionate. And even though this experience seems completely unfair, at the same time I can feel that there’s something not at all unfair behind it, and that it’s a karma that’s coming home to roost. It’s a boomerang that I sent out at some time in the past, and now I need to learn the lesson.”
When I’m not feeling a sure intuitive understanding of certain events in my life, I sometimes find it very useful to write out what I call an apocryphal explanation. “Apocryphal” means that it might not be true, but it could be. And I’ve found that it can be very helpful when I’m trying to extricate myself from the mess that is sometimes my internal reality, to write an apocryphal story about it.
When I find lots of powerful reactions and responses and rebellious feelings at war inside me, and they’re resisting the basic principles of God-realization by which I want to live my life, and they’re testing my will to see if they can win me over to their side, a little apocryphal story can sometimes be very helpful.
“Well, you know, maybe I was an unappreciative daughter, and I hurt people without meaning to. And now I need to understand what it feels like to be unappreciated so that I can develop more compassion.”
Everything is about compassion. Everything is about breaking our limited ego-identifications and beginning to understand the consequences of our actions, by experiencing them for ourselves.
We see people doing certain things, and we wonder how in the world they could possibly think it’s a good idea. How could they not know what the consequences will feel like, of making a decision like that?
But we don’t know it until we actually know it, and it’s why Divine Mother gives us so many chances to learn. And it’s also why reincarnation is not only fascinating and fun, but it’s absolutely essential if we’re going to understand the spiritual life, and if we’re going to find the heart to persevere in our search.
In the early days at Ananda Village, Halloween was a major event, where the whole community would get together and go all-out for the children. It was a big event for us adults, too, and I think it’s probably because we had so few opportunities for having fun.
In the first ten years at the Village we had no money, no cars, no place to go, and nothing to do. And while we were always desperately trying to realize God, every once in a while we needed a safety valve, and dressing up for Halloween was a major outlet for us to relax and have fun together.
Swamiji would get into the act – he would appear as an Indian raja, or an Indian Babu, a comical self-important businessman with a big pillow stuffed under his shirt, and he would act the part for the whole evening.
I once dressed up as a court jester, which was really quite close to who I was. I had a little hat with bells, and it was my favorite costume from that time.
I had a treadle sewing machine in my little trailer, and I sewed the costume. And then on Halloween Swami happened to be sitting on a level that was slightly elevated, which he would often do so that we could see each other or he could read to us. I don’t think he was dressed as a king, but I took the liberty of lounging at his feet like a court jester and making witty comments.
It was a costume that came very close to the mark, but at the same time the whole scene seemed very, very real to me, perhaps because of my memories of having been with King Henry I of England, who Swami was in a previous life. And, who knows?
Swamiji would often get up early in the morning to meditate, and then immediately start writing, and he would often be in his pajamas and bathrobe until late in the afternoon because he hadn’t stopped working.
So his “business attire,” as he joked, was a silk bathrobe. He had a number of silk bathrobes that he liked, and once when we were shopping and we weren’t finding anything particularly interesting, I said, “There’s a silk fabric store, and I can sew. Let me sew you some silk bathrobes.”
So I sewed him several bathrobes, and some of them were quite elaborate. But as I was fitting one of them on him I lost all sense of time, and all of a sudden we were in China, and he was some kind of nobleman and I was his little seamstress crawling around on the floor putting in the pins.
When those intuitive memories come, they transport you to another place, and then you realize with a start that you’re not actually there. Even small things can trigger those memories, like scooting around on the floor pinning fine silk fabric on this man with whom I’ve obviously had countless incarnations, and only God knows what they were.
And now, here’s why it matters. The goal of life is perfection. We read in the Bible, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48) And it’s a fairly tall order. But there it is, and it’s unequivocal.
Jesus didn’t say “Be a little bit perfect,” or maybe be perfect, or be sort of perfect, or be semi-perfect, or just be okay and do your best not to be an embarrassment to your dear old dad.
We can be tempted to take it down a notch, but Jesus didn’t take it down at all, and it’s absolutely unequivocal – “Be ye therefore perfect!” And, again, he said, “Him that overcometh will I make a pillar in the temple of my God, and he shall go no more out.” (Revelation 3:12)
And we can get very stressed about the demand for perfection. I’ve had more than one friend who tried to come onto the spiritual path but found after a time that the stress was just too much, because they felt that everything they did had to be measured against the standard of absolute perfection.
And it’s a terribly unfortunate misunderstanding of the path, because reincarnation saves you. Yet it’s such an easy thought to fall into.
I feel that I’ve made a lot of progress in this lifetime, and I fall on my knees and thank God every day, because I would be dead in a ditch if it weren’t for this path. and that’s the absolute truth of it. Or I would be back in an asylum staring at the walls and not knowing what to do with myself.
We get to live deeply meaningful lives because of the spiritual path. And yet there’s the constant thought that we need to rise to the level of absolute perfection, and it’s pretty darn challenging.
“I was born into this world, and maybe I’ll get a few more decades out of this life. But am I where I hoped to be? Is this it? Oh, thank you, God! Because, no, there’s a lot more to come. And it’s not as bad as it used to be, even though it’s not as glorious as I know it’s going to be eventually.”
And maybe I’m a little closer to the end of this life than to the beginning. But do you know what? It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter at all! And when I observe all of the strange creatures that are still living within me, and all of the weird things I still think would be a good idea, I can get quite nervous, because they have a certain power and momentum of their own.
But it doesn’t matter. None of it matters, because we are eternal, and we have all the time in the world, very literally. And every experience that we still haven’t finished, we’ll get to figure it out in time.
And maybe the system is both a curse and a blessing. But the lesson for us is that we don’t have to do violence to our nature, and we don’t have to live in fear that some restriction is going to be imposed on us before we’re ready for it, or that some responsibility is going to be asked of us that we aren’t actually prepared for.
Don’t worry – China today, Hawaii tomorrow, and maybe some obscure African desert tribe where you’ll get to live in a completely strange way. And, who cares?
Once we’ve planted our feet on the path, that’s the part we have to look at. You don’t have to care where you are, and you don’t have to care how far you’ve come or how far you still have to go. You have to use every experience for just one purpose: to persuade yourself that this is the road to freedom, and I will not do anything but this, no matter where it might take me.
“My Lord, I will be Thine always.” That’s a favorite line of a favorite chant. “I may go far, farther than the stars, but I will be Thine always.”
“Devotees may come, devotees may go, but I will be Thine always.” And, “When I die, look into mine eyes. They will mutely say, ‘I will be Thine always.’”
These are powerful truths, And when I come to the last line, “I may go far, farther than the stars,” it’s very comforting to me. Because when I think of this wild journey, I don’t really know how many more unfinished stories there will be. But with every story that comes before me, I will certainly apply myself assiduously to finishing it. And what finishing it means is to see the Divine in it, and to let go of shame, guilt, attachment, fear, and longing – all of the positives and negatives that keep us bound.
I still want this, and I don’t want that. I’m ashamed of this and I’m hoping for that. And it’s all so exhausting. But thank God for His grace, because otherwise we would never have a chance. And whatever stories are awaiting me, it just doesn’t matter. Because here we are, and everything that happens, let it be an affirmation of our ultimate freedom.
I was answering questions yesterday, and at least half of them were variations on “I feel terrible, what can I do about it? I’m frightened, what can I do about it? I still worry, and what can I do about it?”
Well, we can’t change the past that brought us to this point. Whatever we’ve done up until this moment seemed like a good idea at the time. And it’s not silly, and it’s not stupid. We are intelligent people, and we’ve devoted ourselves very diligently and industriously to becoming this confused. [Laughs] It was really hard work, and we put in the hours. We put in the hours to build up this delusion, and there’s nothing foolish about it. Because it was all a very necessary part of the process.
And so this particular delusion of ours keeps wanting to assert itself. We control it during the daytime, but then it comes out in our dreams. We’re steady until just before we fall asleep, and then the subconscious reaches up and grabs us with one of its worries.
And it’s not usually possible at that moment simply to shoo it away. But don’t think that you’re failing if you can’t do it. Every time your consciousness slips into a state that is less than ideal, just use it as a powerful incentive to say, “I will persevere until I am free.”
Rather than get upset that we’re not free, say, “There is only one way out – God alone! God alone! God alone!”
“I may go far, farther than the stars,” but I will cling to this path. So maybe we have to reincarnate a few more times. Maybe we do, or maybe we don’t. I would be delighted to discover at my last breath that I didn’t have anything more to do. I’m not counting on it, but I’m more than willing to accept it if Divine Mother is holding it as Her secret that She will reveal to me at the last.
But if She says, “Okay honey, we have a few more lives,” just say, “Fine. I may go far, farther than the stars, just take me wherever I need to go, so long as You’re coming with me, because I’m never letting go.”
There’s just one way to freedom, however long it may take me, and I will keep walking on that way, because when I’ve overcome I will become a pillar in the temple, and we will go no more out.
The masters are watching us. They know. And when it’s time for us to know, we too will know. Until then, love God, love God, love God. Don’t give up. Believe. Trust. Hope. Divine Mother is there. God bless you.
(From Asha’s talk during Sunday service at Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto, California on November 22, 2020.)