The Interplay of Light and Shadow in This World

Orazio Gentileschi, “Young Woman Playing a Violin”

Paramhansa Yogananda said that the only difference between the worst rapscallion on the planet and the greatest saint is the way they behave.

It’s an interesting thought – because if a person is doing hurtful things and they suddenly have a revelation of a higher truth and they stop doing it, it means that they’re a good person. And it’s also answering a question that our service reading today is asking: “Did God create the world, or did He become it?”

The truth, as Paramhansa Yogananda explained it, is that God manifested this creation out of His consciousness. And because everything is divine consciousness, it’s all equally divine.

Our vision of the divine consciousness in creation may be clouded, but there is no difference in the essence of everything. It’s why the worst criminal can become a saint by simply changing the way he’s relating to his life, because the divine consciousness is that which most truly defines what he is.

All of the divinely inspired prayers in Whispers From Eternity are telling us, “I was confused. I made a mess of things. I suffered. And then I figured it out.”

It’s an extremely condensed retelling of a very long story. But the process of overcoming all suffering and finding perfect joy is all that is ever going on in this world.

And, as Master said: “The purpose of this creation is to entertain and educate us.” This creation isn’t there to frighten the dickens out of us, even though we may have come to think of it that way.

When we’re oriented toward the shadow side of creation, we become very nervous about our lives. Our happiness comes from the light, and when we become oriented toward the shadow, we forget that the light is there, and that it’s always ready to comfort us and dissolve our fears.

Saint Paul said, “Perfect love casts out all fear.” I first heard that saying many years ago in a book by Swami Vivekananda, the foremost disciple of Ramakrishna. It would have been the summer of 1965, when I was in my late teens. I hadn’t been raised on the New Testament; I was raised on the Torah, and on the principles of the Old Testament. So when I read Vivekananda’s words, “Perfect love casts out all fear,” I thought that it was a principle of Eastern religion, and I was quite surprised, later on, when I learned that it was from one of St. Paul’s letters. But all true teachings are the same, and it’s wonderful that they are all drawing from a common source.

Paul’s statement about love and fear affected me profoundly. I was nineteen, and I had just flunked out of my first and only year of college, and I wasn’t sure what I would do next. I did get reinstated, just to give me the option of going back to school – I finished writing some paper that I’d neglected to consider important enough to finish. But I never went back.

Our family’s way of dealing with things was always a bit nervous, and I believe I was born into that particular family because it suited me perfectly, since I was very good at being – the term I used was “high-strung.” And because I was a bit high-strung I was always aware of how fear played into things.

But even before I met the saints and the masters, I decided that fear was the only completely useless emotion I could think of.

Now, I’m not talking about having the common sense to get out of the way of a speeding automobile. But there was an all-pervading tension and nervousness that I thought was normal, and it didn’t occur to me that it might be possible to live any other way, even though I couldn’t see how the fear and tension were helping me in any way.

I remember how, in my first and only year of college, they invited the freshmen to come to the campus a week early to get oriented. I’m guessing that there were a thousand of us eighteen-year-old freshmen, and suddenly this incredibly huge experience of college was happening all around us. There were almost no mature individuals with us except for a few resident assistants, and we were all absolutely scared to death.

Even if we were putting up a show of bravado, we were all very nervous. So we found ourselves in a kind of social gridlock, where everyone was afraid to be the first one to do something that would show them up as stupid or not very likable, and it was safer to hold yourself in check than to dare to move.

I realized that somebody had to break the gridlock, so I made a decision to behave as if I wasn’t afraid. And it was very interesting to me, because as soon as I made that decision I met a woman who would become a very dear friend for life – in fact she’s still the only strong association I have outside of Ananda, other than my family.

As soon as I made the decision to think about other people’s realities instead of my own, all kinds of doors began to open for me, and I made a number of friends who were very important to me during that year, and a friend who’s been important to me all my life. And as I later realized, it was all because I chose love instead of fear. The fear was still present, but I chose to express love instead of fear.

I was listening to a television program that Swamiji created in India as part of a series called “Ask Me About Truth,” where Dharmadas and Nirmala are asking him questions. In one of the conversations, they’re talking about courage, and Dharmadas asks Swamiji, “What is the relationship between being discouraged, encouraged, and courage? And when you become discouraged, is it just a lack of courage?”

You’re going along with courage, and suddenly you’re discouraged. And it was an interesting question to me, because I had never thought of courage and discouragement as opposites.

I remember Swamiji talking about how we can tell if God is actually guiding us, or if our minds are just tricking us. He said that when Master was correcting the disciples, he would only use stern methods when they were really required, because he much preferred, as he put it, to work with love. But sometimes it would be necessary to be blunt in order to get a point across. And Swamiji said that no matter how firmly or sternly he spoke, you always felt encouraged afterward.

Paramhansa Yogananda. Click to enlarge.

Master loved them, and he loves us and believes in us, and he knows that we can succeed. So even when he has to tell us “No, you don’t quite have it right,” the power of divine love behind his guidance gives us tremendous confidence that we’re still able to go forward. And that’s one of the ways you can know if you’re receiving true guidance.

Swami said that whenever you feel discouraged, that’s when Satan gets ahold of you. And in his Lessons for Disciples, he says that the first attitude that’s essential for success in the spiritual path is courage. I first heard him say that decades ago, and because of my predisposition toward tension, it struck me very strongly – the courage to persevere, and the courage to believe.

Courage comes from the power that faith gives you to know that everything that’s happening is part of God’s plan, and that He became this world, and that nowhere, in anything that happens on this planet, is there an absence of God’s consciousness. There may be a powerful shadow over His presence, but a shadow can be dissipated by an increase of the light.

So it’s not as if the reality of this creation has ever changed, because it’s only our ability to perceive the divine reality that changes. And this is the entirety of the spiritual path. Because when we look at the world outwardly, we’re looking at a reality that is only apparent. As Master said to the monks, “If you could see yourselves as I see you, you would realize that you are nothing but beautiful light.”

And maybe I’m looking in the mirror and it’s not what I’m seeing. Much of the time I look at the world and it’s not what I’m seeing. But the masters tell us that what determines our ability to see the light is our own capacity.

The opposites that we are working with are shadow and light, fear and love. And what is it that we should love? Because there’s a lot in this world that isn’t very lovable.

I remember how it was a big trend, years ago, to talk about loving yourself. In fact, it’s very important to love yourself, because we, too, are manifestations of God. And none of us can say that we are the single exception in the cosmos, and that God became everything excerpt for this particular unit of His consciousness in which we’re moving.

I am equally divine, and it’s very important to honor the fact and love it. Because otherwise we are consumed by fear – fear of failure, fear of falling due to our ego-attachments, fear of catastrophe. If I don’t love the God in me, I’m consumed with fear that I might not have His love and protection. And it’s highly unfortunate when it happens, because it doesn’t bring us what we want.

In the 1970s, and into the early 1980s, Swamiji was engaged in a number of major conferences where many New Age teachers would come and speak. It was part of the revolution that was taking place at the time, and some of the teachers would talk about loving yourself, and they would tell everybody to give themselves a big hug.

I remember how Swami remarked at the time, “Of course you should love yourself.” Because it’s self-evident, and we shouldn’t be cynical about it. “But,” he said, “the only way to actually, really love yourself is to have a clear conscience.”

I remember thinking, “Yes, that’s true, isn’t it?” Because we do know, in a subtle way, who we’re supposed to be, and we can sense what our divine potential is, even if it’s clouded over, because we have that reality at the heart of us, at our point of origin. And until we can learn to live in harmony with the highest that is in us, there will always be that conflict between love and fear.

When we look at the world around us, it’s easy to get caught up in the fear, because we’re living in a tumultuous time, and even though we keep wanting it to change and heal and unify, it keeps fracturing and fighting.

I remember a touching experience with Swamiji. For a number of years he would take a group of us on holiday with him to a lovely resort in Goa where he liked to go, and where people would come from around the world.

We were in the dining room one day, and Swami heard a language that he didn’t recognize. And because he had travelled widely and spoke eight languages, he was curious, so he got up from our table and went and sat with them.

There were two couples and a single man, and Swamiji talked to them for a while, and then he came back to us. It turned out that they were speaking Farsi, and they were from Iran.

The next morning he chatted with them again. He had a college roommate who was from Iran, and he asked them about the man, because he had seemed like someone who would become famous. And as it turned out, he had become famous in his country.

Swami said to his new friends that his roommate had been a good man. And they said unequivocally, “The government declared him to be a bad man, so all the people knew that he was a good man.”

When Swami came down to breakfast the next day, he went over to the family and sat with them for a few minutes. He had a little bag with him, and he came back without the bag. He told us that he was conversing with them, and he took a little present out of the bag and said, “When good people have bad governments, there’s very little that the citizens can do.”

In other contexts, Swami said that countries have karma, and it isn’t the leaders that create the karma, but the leaders become the instruments for the karma, and those of us who choose to be born in a culture or a country for reasons of our own karma have to absorb some of that national karma, too. So we have to live through the circumstances that the national karma creates. And because America was in an antagonistic position with their country, he said to them, “But at least those of us of good will can love each other.” And then he gave them the present, and when he came back there were tears running down his face. Because what can we do? We can love. We can love and not fear.

Now, Swami would not have given the present to a man who had a bomb strapped to his body and was about to kill himself and all of us. Because the power of the shadow would be greater than a simple, small act of kindness could overcome. And the love can be there, but the action will have to be different.

Swamiji was never so naïve as to believe that we can simply love the shadow away. The shadow may have deep karmic roots in those who choose to live as expressions of it.

All of us, to the extent that we are not Self-realized, still have some roots in the shadow. And that’s why, in Whispers From Eternity, Master is teaching us to pray that God will change our misunderstandings into the right understanding. And so, piece by piece, the light will drive out the shadow. And in the meantime, I, at least, can stand forth as an expression of the light. Because in this world there is always a play of light and shadow.

A friend of mine went through a period of shadow for several years. She had picked up a parasite that debilitated her for a long time, until she was eventually able to overcome it. She had always been a very hardworking, exceedingly productive person who really liked to work. But one of her wonderful characteristics is that she’s very good at accepting what is. And when all her opportunities to serve as a beacon of light were taken away for several years, she didn’t know if it would be indefinitely.

She told me, “During that period I said to God, ‘Well, even if I can do nothing, I’ll be one more person on this planet who’s on Your side.”

And isn’t that wonderful? I thought, that’s very, very important, because all that we are ever experiencing is the interplay of consciousness. And, far more than we can perceive with our physical senses, this world is all about the forces of light and darkness, and how they are constantly going forth, and we pick up on the ones that we are in tune with.

So even the people that are behaving very badly, if they would stop behaving that way, would suddenly become good. Because this world is like a radio station, where you click the dial and that’s your reality, and if you click again, that becomes your reality.

And what is it that motivates us to shift from the shadow to the light? What causes us to shift is suffering.

We read in the news that somebody has done something that didn’t work out the way they expected – they drank too much and had a terrible accident, or they discharged a firearm in a moment of passion, and somebody accidentally died because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time, and now they’re suddenly in the hands of the police, and in an instant everything is different.

And I think, “Oh, my, here we go again. This poor soul’s karma has come home to roost.”

Or you see someone getting away with it, which people can do for a long time. Master spoke of the thwarting cross-currents of ego, and how a person who’s very strong in the shadow force can be using the divine force to create even more shadow, because they have strong will power, and they have determination and courage. So they have power, and it can take a long time for their karma to turn around and come back to them.

I realized, “Oh, they are people whose lives will be made terrible later on, and I should have compassion for them now, too.” Because if you’re creating shadow, you will receive it. And what we all have to work with, all the time, is that the light came, and the darkness comprehended it not.

The light was there, but the darkness was so busy being its shadowy self that it was wholly bound up with its own thoughts. And that’s what blocks the light – it’s our thoughts.

As I’m standing here on the dais, there are bright lights shining on me so that you can see my face. But if I put my hand up so the shadow falls on my face I can no longer see the light. And it has nothing to do with the light; it’s just that for the moment I’m refusing to comprehend the light, and I’m refusing to accept and receive it.

Now, once we become devotees, and once we’ve learned that perfect love casts out all fear, we begin to understand that even though the countless gradations of shadow and fear and darkness may manifest differently, it’s all part of the same one thing, and they exist only because we aren’t loving enough.

And that doesn’t necessarily mean that I should walk up to the darkest, worst evil-doer I can find and shine a light in their face.

Our tour guide in Israel was an American who’d been living in Israel for decades. He’d been in the Israeli army, and he’d been trained as a medic. And as an immigrant he was a very avid, determined Israeli, and a powerful man. He was heading to his favorite falafel shop on his lunch break one day, when a bomb went off. And because he’d been trained as a medic he rushed in, and there appeared to be only one person who was terribly injured. So he did everything he could to try to save the man’s life. And when the ambulance came they realized that this was the bomber, and that he was the only person who’d been hurt. And even as our friend was trying to save his life, he was thinking, “If I had seen him going in with a bomb, I would have killed him myself. And here I am trying to save his life.”

And he was subtle enough to realize what a divine play was happening. As it happened, the man’s injuries were grave, and he died. But there our friend happened to be, and in that moment, what did he feel? He thought, “Here is a suffering fellow human, and let me love him.”

Everywhere we look, wherever we see the shadow, all we’re seeing is a suffering human. But our friend’s love would not have been enough to get the man to unstrap his bomb.

We have to be realistic. And also, Divine Mother is the one who loves us most of all, and She is the one who inflicts the punishment, because sometimes it’s how She must express Her love. We aren’t here to be allowed to run with our ignorance; we’re here to transcend our ignorance, and to develop the courage to triumph over our ignorance, and to come out of the shadow into the light.

This is not a simple issue. These are not simple teachings that we can dogmatize and whittle down to four little rules that we can memorize.

Perfect love casts out all fear. And we should not be afraid of the darkness. The shadow is part of the story, and good people have bad governments, and good people will have bad neighbors. And by good, I mean those who are instruments of the light.

We have to love Divine Mother’s creation. She made it, and we shouldn’t be afraid of it. I don’t find any of these truths easy. But I find that it helps to know what I’m here to do. And I can always pray, “God, if I can’t do anything constructive, I’ll be one more on this planet who’s on Your side.”

That’s all She’s asking of us. And when we can perfectly love everything that Divine Mother gives us, and we’re never discouraged, and we’re never afraid, it all becomes very simple. The problem is that it isn’t easy. But it’s the only path to find everything that we’re seeking. And so we will move together ever more boldly toward the light. And the joy of it is that Divine Mother has Her arms outstretched and She’s pulling us toward Her.

God bless you.

(From Asha’s talk during Sunday service at Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto, California on January 10, 2021.)

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