Can We Ever Fail Irredeemably on the Spiritual Path?

In the last month I’ve had essentially the same conversation with two separate people who brought up an important issue.

I’ve given many classes on how we can receive a higher guidance and learn to trust it. And the discussion always seems to boil down to, “Well, this guidance could be true, but then it might not be.”

You can tell that your guidance is true if everything goes smoothly, but on the other hand you can tell that the guidance is true if there are nothing but obstacles.

You can tell if it’s true if everyone’s agreeing with you, and you can tell that it’s true if no one’s agreeing with you.

It’s just one more reason why the path of Self-realization can’t be reduced to fixed dogmas. And of course that makes it a lot more challenging, because it’s not as if we can simply figure out what we’re supposed to be doing and reshape our lives to fit the mold.

A friend of mine was in a very traditional monastery for many years, and she told me how, in the beginning, she tried to express herself creatively. But she quickly learned that it wasn’t what anybody wanted of her. So she figured out what the people in charge wanted her to be, and because she was good at it, she became popular and successful. Except that she wasn’t being true to herself, and after twenty-some years she had to withdraw.

When St. Teresa of Avila was establishing her convents, she decided that there would be twelve women in each of them, and she said to the mothers who would be setting them up, “Great care must be exercised in the selection of those twelve women.” And she added, “Look above all for common sense.”

She said, “Even devotion can be learned, but if they don’t have common sense it will be a source of endless difficulty for you.”

In the years when Ananda was still just a single tiny, isolated community, I remember how Swamiji began urging us to be more selective in who we took in. It was partly because we were still so small, and it made a huge difference when somebody new would come and live with us.

And then, of course, some of our people began to think, “Well, we’d better write down the criteria for membership – the new people will have to do such and such.”

But Swamiji said, “No, if you write it down and people can read it, they’ll know what’s expected of them, and they’ll simply behave that way. And it’ll lead, among other things, to hypocrisy.”

He said, “Just allow people to be themselves, and observe what their natural inclinations are.”

Now, as Swami pointed out, there are very few people who can manage their lives by pure intuition, because most of us need a few rules.

So we’re always performing a balancing act on the path, because if we aren’t able to go completely by our intuition, and if our intuition isn’t confirming whatever we’re doing, we’ll sooner or later find ourselves thoroughly confused.

I lived for sixteen years in that first, isolated community, and when I came into the very different environment of the Bay Area I was intensely curious to see whether the essence of the life we had at Ananda would transfer successfully. And I was enormously gratified to see that it transferred beautifully.

Swamiji saw it, too. He said, “The fact that you see the same spirit of dedication and devotion everywhere in Ananda, no matter the context, is a sign that the masters’ power is going with us wherever we go.”

Jesus said, “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Matthew 18:20)

During one of our celebrations of Paramhansa Yogananda’s mahasamadhi, the anniversary of his conscious passing from the world, Swamiji said, “We tend to think of Master as existing in that body at a particular point in time. But the actual center of Master’s presence is in our own hearts when we call on Him.”

Master’s presence is like a radio broadcast that goes out in all directions until we draw it to a focus in ourselves. And when we’re focused on his presence we’re as much with him as we could ever be.

Swamiji said, “Even when we were standing next to Master in his physical body, or near it, what Master was, was an emanation of divine energy that came through that body.”

Master said, “I killed Yogananda long ago. No one dwells in this temple now but God.” It was God who was animating that body, and it was God’s power alone that flowed through it.

To return to the conversations I mentioned at the start, both of them were with people who were worried that they weren’t very good at meditating.

Now, meditation is the defining reality of the path of Self-realization, so it’s a fairly big deal when we feel that we aren’t good at it.

When Swamiji was proposing to call Ananda a church instead of a collection of communities, he said that it would help people understand that they could be part of Ananda even if they couldn’t live in one of our communities. He talked about loving God as something we can do anywhere, and dedicating yourself to God, and doing something active to make the relationship more than an abstract idea in your mind.

Meditation is one of the more obvious ways we can make the relationship real. But because of the way we’re made, our natural orientation is outward. All of our senses are directed outward, and the outward focus starts from the moment we’re born.

It’s astonishing to see how babies will waste no time getting involved with what’s going on around them. They’ll crawl up to the mother’s breast so they can begin to feed, and they’re trying to reach out to the world in many ways.

There’s an astonishing photograph of a baby that needed surgery after it had been in the womb for seven months. They took out the womb and opened it and operated on the tiny infant, and then they put it all back together. It was a huge undertaking, as you can imagine, and a photographer was present. And at one point the baby reached out and grabbed the doctor’s hand. So there’s a photo of the tiny hand holding onto the doctor’s finger, and the description tells how nearly everyone in the operating room completely lost it and had to gather themselves to finish the procedure. And the surgeon commented that he felt the infant was saying, “Thank you.”

We’re looking outward from the beginning, and there’s actually a very good reason for it.

Swamiji brings up this point in The New Path, where he talks about the great spiritual nations that rise up over many lives around the masters.

He talks about Yogananda’s family as one of the great spiritual nations, and how it’s so large that within his family there many subgroups. Thus Daya Mata had her group, and Swami Kriyananda has his group, and there are disciples who aren’t part of Yogananda’s family, but they’re part of Lahiri’s or Babaji’s.

And Swamiji said that one of the reasons these great families develop is because it’s necessary not only to spiritualize our relationship with the Divine, but we also need to spiritualize our relationship to the objective world, and particularly with each other, because these relationships help us develop unconditional love.

We can have an abstract affection for all God’s children, until one of them spills coffee on us. And then, as Sister Gyanamata said, our spirituality is tested in the cold light of day.

So our outward focus works to our benefit, by giving us real-life interactions that can help us find out just how calm and peaceful and loving and accepting we really are, and how much actual faith we have.

So our habit of outward attention plays a useful role. But, of course, it can also lead us astray, if it tempts us to believe that our true reality is outside.

I had a friend many years ago who wasn’t on the spiritual path, but who was very dear to me. We enjoyed our philosophical discussions, but we would always reach an impasse, because his essential belief was that the outside world is the real world, and the greatest wisdom is to be able to adjust yourself to it.

I had already come to the point where I knew that that my reality emanated from inside, and that the way to adjust to the world is to attend to my inner consciousness. But he was simply not a meditative person, and the idea of closing his eyes and being in silence and trying to withdraw his thoughts from external activity was lunacy to him. It wasn’t just that it would be difficult; he thought, “What could possibly be the point of that?”

There’s a dividing line where we gradually begin to understand that our reality is all about our consciousness. And once we’ve understood that our happiness grows when we expand our consciousness, the decision for how we’ll go about it may manifest as meditation, and it’s very wise for it to manifest that way. But the decision to meditate requires that something fundamental has to come first, which is the understanding that I’m responsible for my consciousness.

In his poem, “Samadhi,” Master describes his first experience of cosmic consciousness in that lifetime. He tells how everything that he thought was solid turned into shimmering light, and how he was able to look through the garden wall and see a cow ambling down the lane. And after describing this extraordinary reality, he says:

“I cognized the center of the empyrean as a point of intuitive perception in my heart.  Irradiating splendor issued from my nucleus to every part of the universal structure.  Blissful amrita, the nectar of immortality, pulsed through me with a quicksilverlike fluidity.  The creative voice of God I heard resounding as Aum, the vibration of the Cosmic Motor.”

Even as he’s seeing the entire manifested creation, he realizes that the whole thing is emanating from a point of intuitive perception at the center of his being.

To want to meditate, and to have it even cross your mind that you need to separate yourself from this world, is to turn away from this outward plane of reality and seek the source from which it’s emanating, at a point of intuitive perception in your heart.

I was riding in a taxi in Chicago, and the driver asked me what I did. When I told him that I’d come to teach a meditation seminar, he said in his gruff Chicago way, “Oh yeah, I tried to meditate – I tried it, but it didn’t work.”

I thought, “Wow, I bet it didn’t.” I suggested that a little instruction is helpful, but the conversation didn’t go any further.

A little instruction can help, because when we’ve decided that we’re going to try to reverse the current of energy that’s been flowing outward for many incarnations, that energy will simply laugh at us.

It’s like saying, “I think I’ll be an opera singer.” Or, “Dentists make a lot of money, I think I’ll be a dentist.”

There’s a great deal that has to happen in between, before we can realize the benefit. People who have the benefits in this life have gone forward step by step toward the goal, and if they appear to have a knack for it when they’re born, it’s because they’ve put in the work in other lives. And there are no shortcuts, ever.

So we’ve decided that we’re going to meditate, and we get some instruction, and we try it. And I’ll be darned if it isn’t all that easy. But the mistake is to think that because I’m not terribly skilled at one aspect of the path. I’ve failed at the spiritual path altogether.

It doesn’t really matter how well you can meditate. You can be the world’s worst meditator, and maybe your meditation is just thirty seconds in the morning and thirty seconds at night. And that’s a hundred million times better than the single thought that you’ve failed on the path.

We often don’t even know what we’re being tested on, and it’s just one more aspect of the spiritual path that makes it tricky. Because we’ll never have the security of an absolute, certain, rational knowing to protect us. “If I pass this point, I’m in.” And then I can get a bishop’s hat, and after that I can be a cardinal. And it’s all very clearly set out for us: “You’re behind me, you’re ahead, and I’m standing here because I’m this good at it. And maybe I’m not as bad as you, and I’m not as good as those others.”

We spend our lives weighing and measuring. An alternate translation for Maya is “the measurer.” We’re forever trying to measure our lives against a carefully calculated yardstick that has no relationship to our actually reality.

It’s great if you can meditate well. Meditation is nifty. It’s terrific. It helps you very much to be able to do it well. But being nice is also good. Loving other people is good. Staying calm, and not getting hysterical about things – that’s also good.

But none of them, in the end, makes any difference at all, because they are just means to an end.

Years ago, when I was living with a group of women in the convent at Ananda Village in the 1970s, one of our sisters was a feisty sort. All my sisters were feisty sorts, but this one stood out, and there was a fairly long period when she was particularly crabby, and the nuns finally designated me to talk to her, because we were close.

I said, “You know, you haven’t been as much fun as you can be. This hasn’t been a happy time.” And she said, with great seriousness, “I just am having so much trouble meditating. It just isn’t working.” And she’d become, as we all can become, extremely intense about it, and justified in her sense of despair. Because, after all, meditation is so important on our path.

I looked at her and I said, “When I’m having trouble meditating I try to do everything else as well as I can.” But in her mind her impatience and unpleasantness were justified, because, after all, she was failing in a fundamental way in the spiritual path, so her darkness was warranted and thoroughly reasonable.

I said, “If I’m failing in a fundamental way, I try to make the rest of it as good as I can.” You know, just deal with reality and retrieve what you can from the mess. And it’s not that I was always so aware of what’s required, but in that instance I understood the truth of it.

There isn’t actually any way to fail on the spiritual path. Comparatively speaking, the closest you can come to failing is to forget that you’re loved by God unconditionally, and to forget to rejoice at all times in the fact.

Anything that you’ve done, or that you’re doing, no matter how egregious, that persuades you even for a nanosecond that you are justified in being unhappy because you’re separated from God – that is the only error there is.

Which, of course, means that we should be happy all the time, no matter what.

Now, just think of that word, “unconditional,” and what it means when the master gives us his unconditional love. “Unconditional” is an extraordinary word. It means that there are no conditions that can possibly interrupt his love, no matter how stinky we behave – and all of us are stinkers sometimes. We’re stinkers privately, or we’re being public stinkers. And the most amazing thing about Ananda is that nobody ever goes away.

Most of the time, when people have a big catastrophe in their lives, they have the option to change cities or countries, or at least churches. But we’re stuck. We’re the only Ananda church in this area, so you can’t go somewhere else, and you just have to hang around and be mortified. And now that we’re global, we have the internet, so everybody knows.

And what’s the best response? It’s: “So what?”

Satan has just one trick. He clothes it in a thousand guises, but Satan is basically our own false reasoning. And he’s very clever, because he gets inside our mind and uses all of these beautiful brain cells to persuade us that this time – this time! – we’re the only being on the planet that isn’t loved by God, and it’s a fact. Because, after all, I’m not doing this or that thing that I believe God expects of me.

What difference does it make? You’ll get it right eventually. We can waste a few million years, and maybe it’s unpleasant to contemplate, but we’ll eventually get it right. Because if you know even to a tiny degree that you’re loved by God unconditionally, worlds may crash around you, but when you hit bottom you find that even deeper, in fact deepest of all, is God’s love.

Corrie Ten Boom

This is what Betsie Ten Boom said to her sister Corrie, when they were incarcerated in the Nazi concentration camps as Christians who had helped the Jews. They ended up in a place that was as close to a hell as this world can offer, and Betsie died there.

Betsie told Corrie, “After this is over, you will travel the world, and you’ll tell them that no matter how deep the darkness may appear, the love of God is deeper still.” She added, “And they will believe you because you’ve been here.”

That’s why we suffer, because we’re being helped to know that nothing in this world is bigger, stronger, more true, or more real than the fact that God is always loving us unconditionally.

So don’t try to take a free ride. Do your best. But if your best is thirty seconds in front of the altar saying, “I’m so glad You love me no matter what,” that’s enough. If that’s your best, just remember that your own best is all that God is ever asking of you.

God bless you.

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

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