How to Face Life’s Unavoidable Changes

My first Christmas at Ananda was blissful.

We hadn’t yet purchased the farm, so the “community” was the little 12-acre plot that would eventually become the Seclusion Retreat.

It was six miles up a rutted dirt road. When it snowed, we had to hike up the last hill, because it was too steep and slippery to drive.

Ananda Seclusion Retreat Temple in snow.
Forty-four years later, the Seclusion Retreat is as blissful in winter as it was in 1969. (Click to enlarge.)

There was a great deal of snow that year. It was beautiful. It felt very remote and isolated, and as a result we were able to create a blissful reality of our own. It wasn’t meant to last forever, but, my, it was lovely while it lasted.

I had experienced a significant loss in coming onto the path and moving to Ananda. Something I was very attached to and thought would be part of my life forever was dissolving like sugar in water.

At the same time, I felt that I’d come home in a way I’d never imagined possible. I had found a polestar for my life, in my guru Paramhansa Yogananda, in the path of Self-realization, and in Swamiji and Ananda.

I would forever recall that first Christmas as a high point of my life. Spiritually, it was a most blissful time, as I was introduced to Christ and Christ consciousness.

For years, whenever people would ask me about Ananda, I would urge them to come and spend Christmas there. I said, “it doesn’t matter if your parents disinherit you – come, because it’s worth everything.”

I talked to many people in that enthusiastic way, feeling again and again the bliss of that Christmas and wanting them to have the same deep experience. Then one day, about eight years after I came to Ananda, I was repeating the same exhortation when I suddenly saw an image of myself that I had completely forgotten: during much of that first Christmas I was sobbing my eyes out.

My first job was managing the retreat kitchen. I was responsible for creating an Indian banquet to be served on Christmas day, and for preparing food for the Christmas Eve celebration.

I have this melodramatic image of myself standing on a step stool and stirring a huge pot in the kitchen. With my right hand, I’m stirring this gigantic pot, and in my left hand I’m holding a wad of paper towels to dab my eyes and blow my nose while I cook and sob.

Another scene that stands out was Swamiji and Kalyani singing Christmas carols together. The temple was gas-lit, their voices sounded like angels, and it was a marvelous Christmas mood. But in my memory I see it as if from a distance, because I wasn’t truly there. I was standing against the wall, half-hidden by the giant oil heater, with my ever-present wad of Kleenex, sobbing my eyes out on Christmas Eve because of all the changes in my life that seemed so devastating.

I had completely forgotten that part of it! Ego pleasure and pain come and go. Soul bliss is forever. My ego suffered, but my soul rejoiced. And, almost immediately, I forgot the suffering and remembered only the bliss.

The single most reliable fact about our life is that it’s going to change. The power of cosmic delusion is clever, in the way it persuades us that things will remain the same, and that we can’t be happy unless they do.

A friend of ours lost her husband recently. She has remained spiritually strong, and she’s been very honest about her feelings. Waves of emotion assail her from time to time, and she never knows when they will come. Then she gradually becomes balanced and steady again. As she was recovering from one of these bouts of grief and was feeling a bit more detached and calm, she said, “it’s a great temptation to become sad.”

There’s a certain comfort in sadness, isn’t there? But she perceived it as a spiritual temptation, like an alcoholic who wants to overcome his drinking, but won’t let go of the bottle.

We’re tempted to fall back into the darkness. “If I go back into the darkness, I won’t remember the light, and I’ll be in a place that’s comfortable and familiar.”

Maya, the cosmic delusion, makes us imagine that this world is real. In fact, the masters live in the only world that is truly real. In a chant of his, Yogananda calls it “the land beyond my dreams.” It’s the real land, because it’s beyond all dreams of fleeting, superficial fulfillments and change.

In the Indian tradition, Maya is portrayed as a sorceress. Delusion is considered a feminine force, because it tries to lure us through our feelings. We become bewitched by Maya’s call, which persuades us that our body and our outward experiences define us, and that life’s unending changes affect us personally.

Yogananda described how we should face the changes in our lives, including the tragic ones. Speaking of death, he said: “We are separated from someone we love by the laws of nature.”

Change is simply nature’s law. The material body lasts for a time, then it goes away. Maya tempts us to take life’s changes personally. It’s a temptation that the devotee must fight against at all times.

We must be absolutely sincere about what we’re experiencing and feeling. We can’t pretend we’re different, just because we imagine it’s how we ought to be. Self-deception is the death of true spirituality. We have to be exactly as we are.

At the same time, we must recognize that it’s a spiritual mistake to give in to the thought that our only option is to suffer – or that God doesn’t love us, or that He isn’t looking out for us anymore. If we fall back into the darkness, we will just have to fight our way back up into the light again.

Don’t ever mistake the weakness in you for your true nature. Don’t imagine that you are powerless before life’s tests. It may take many lives, but we must learn to surf on maya’s waves, get up again and again, until we fully absorb the lessons God wants to teach us.

Change is constant, and suffering is inevitable, until our desire for joy grows stronger than any temptation. Then we will live in this world like the great ones. We will experience our lives fully, rejoicing and suffering, but it will have nothing to do with us. Inwardly, we will be merged with the Infinite.

(From a Sunday service talk on January 19, 2003.)