(This article originally appeared on Heart to Heart With Asha.)
Our altar this morning is particularly beautiful – I’m imagining that we must all have paused to pay tribute to the pink roses. Aren’t they glorious? And aren’t we glad that they came to be with us?
There’s a rose bush next to the manager’s office in our Ananda Community, and as I was passing it recently I noticed that all of the roses had completed their life’s work except for a single, strikingly beautiful rose at the end of a high stem, and I realized that it was making a powerful statement.
I sensed that it was declaring that it had a special mission, and that it was proud and happy to be able to accomplish it alone. I was very happy to pay it homage by spending a long time admiring it and making sure that it felt my appreciation.
Flowers are living beings. Imagine how happy they must be to manifest what they are. Their lifespan is short, but time is not the issue – they’ve worked hard to be exactly who they are, and I imagine the nature spirits must be extremely proud of each and every flower.
There is a great deal in this world that speaks to us of God. In the book that I recently published about my life with Swami Kriyananda, there’s a passage where he talks about Yogananda’s mission in America. He points out that each country has its salient characteristics, and that those characteristics are determined to a large extent by the people who’ve inhabited the land for a long time. He talks specifically about the salient qualities of America that are part of our national identity. And one of them is a love of nature.
He also mentions practicality and cooperation, but attunement with nature, and an inclination to see God in nature is a strong feature of our national consciousness. And he said that it’s due to the legacy of the American Indians, because their relationship with God was through the natural world.
By the time the Europeans arrived, “the People,” as they called themselves, realized that they were a dying remnant of a greatness gone by. The world had not yet begun to emerge from an age which the Indian scriptures call Kali Yuga, when people’s consciousness is generally limited to believing that the material plane is the ultimate reality. And it was this consciousness, and a greed for material things, that resulted in the destruction of the Native American civilization.
Yogananda predicted that America would have to endure very serious economic hard times, which he said would make the Great Depression of the 1920s and 1930s “look like a tea party by comparison.” And he said that it was due to our national karma for have mistreated the American Indians. Driven by greed for economic gain, we obliterated them, took their land, and treated them as sub-human.
For a long time, I imagined that the hard times would be a karmic payment for the institution of slavery. But while Master did refer to that karma in other contexts, he emphasized the American Indians, because it was for material wealth that we destroyed their civilization, and he said that we would have to balance that karma. He added that America would then be able to stand in her rightful place in the world, and demonstrate the value of a balance of matter and spirit – of material efficiency and inner spirituality.
I’ve spent the last thirty years of my life here in Palo Alto, and I haven’t had the opportunity that I once had, during my first sixteen years on the path, to live close to nature.
Last summer, I was in seclusion for many weeks in a house near Ananda Village, finishing the book about Swamiji. And because I was living in complete solitude, and the surroundings were beautiful, I was able to recover my connection with nature. I spent time thinking about the consciousness of the American Indians, and their belief that the animals and plants can communicate with us if we will listen, and that we can learn valuable lessons by observing them. The natural world was rich with symbolic meaning for the original cultures of this land, and by spending time in nature you can begin to understand that dimension.
There were lots of wild turkeys living in the woods near the house. Turkeys aren’t terribly attractive, and the little turkey babies are stunningly ugly, to an extent that truly only a mother could love them. But a mother does love each of them, and she’s running around taking care of them with every bit as much devotion as if they were beautiful. And while I watched them I tried to put myself back in my American Indian incarnations, and understand what God might be wanting to tell us through these ugly little babies.
When I arrived, there were wild geese on a pond near the house, and after a week they had all left except for a single goose. He spent his days paddling around the pond, and whenever I went for a walk we would coexist nicely. But one day while I was walking by the pond there suddenly came screaming over the treetops another goose, shouting in goose language at the top of his lungs. And I was deeply curious to know what he was saying, because it was so clearly a message of great urgency.
The goose came shooting across the treetops and landed in the pond, and I immediately had the impression that they were partners. At any rate, it was obvious that they knew each other, because they were so excited. They were spinning around each other, honking like mad, and the male finally got so wound up that he couldn’t bear it, and he swam off and went spinning in little circles by himself.
They remained on the pond together for about a week and then one day they were gone. And I can only guess at what it all meant, but it was very real and vivid, and at once very not-human, yet perfectly divine.
Toward the end of his life, Swami Kriyananda made a wonderful comment. He said that he had reached a point where all beings, including the animals, looked the same to him, because he could see that we are all simply egos on the great spectrum between delusion and Self-realization.
It was so interesting to see how Swamiji would relate to this world. He wasn’t an “animal person,” or obsessed with nature. But his life was completely devoted to asking, “How can I serve? How can I help?” He was utterly dedicated to helping those who wanted what he had. And, traveling all over the world with him, I saw that he was completely open to give to whomever he was with.
There were lots of people who didn’t particularly want what he had to offer them, of course. And even when we were in “spiritual” company, if people just wanted to argue, or if they weren’t in tune, he would become quiet, because he had no need to dominate the scene unless people were drawing something out of him.
But if he was with a group that was eager and receptive, he might hold forth for hours. He would never do it because he needed to, but only because it’s what we wanted from him. And he was that way with everyone – with taxi drivers, store clerks, and whomever he met.
We visited Goa, on the southwest coast of India. Goa is a major tourist destination, and when Kashmir was having political troubles, there were many Kashmiris who came and settled there. The Kashmiris are very good at business, and they have wonderful crafts, but the Goans are a little more laid-back, because Goa is a tropical place and they don’t have to work as hard. So they aren’t as driven to start a business as the Kashmiris are. And when the Kashmiris came they quickly became a major economic force.
We were in a taxi with a Goan driver who was taking us to a Kashmiri shop, and he spent the entire time complaining about how the Kashmiris were taking over. We used the same driver for several days, and finally Swamiji asked him. “Are there any handicrafts native to Goa?” He started a little conversation about it, and then he began to suggest that maybe the Goans could start to develop their own handicrafts. “And I’m sure people would be very interested in buying them.” The taxi driver wasn’t terribly receptive, but it was so interesting to me that Swamiji had applied himself to try and think of how he might help this man move forward in his thinking. It was obvious that he wasn’t much interested in spiritual things, but God had brought them together, and Swamiji was there to give him whatever he could.
It occurred to me that it was a perfect example of what God is asking of us all. The outward trappings of religion – the buildings, the rituals and ceremonies, and the communities – are just containers for a wisdom that can tell us how to attune our lives to the inner presence of God and see Him reflected in the world, whether in the form of an ugly baby turkey, a beautiful pink rose, the person you’re married to, the baby you’ve given birth to, or the stranger you meet at the store.
When I was in my teens, I worked in retail for a time. And I remember how, if just one person came in and realized that I was an actual human being that they could relate to, it would make my day.
To be seen and to be recognized was such a startling and wonderful event that it was always a special moment. And the point is that we hold in our hearts and in our words such a power for good. We imagine that we don’t have much power to bless others and help them get through their day – that we’re just stumbling along like they are, wrapped in our issues and doing what’s necessary. And it’s because Maya is confusing us and distracting us and trying to prevent us from keeping our priorities straight.
At this point in time, our Ananda Community in Mountain View is in a tenuous position. We’ve never owned the property – we lease it from a group of owner-investors, most of whom are our gurubhais. And for a number of reasons the arrangement is no longer workable, and a new arrangement needs to be made. The obvious one is that we will begin to buy the community, and that we will own it.
However, we’re located in Silicon Valley, where land is priced by the inch, and each inch is worth thousands of dollars, and there are so many zeros in any reasonable purchase transaction that you have to stop and count them twice to make sure you’ve put in as many as you need.
Up to this point, we’ve been little church mice, working at our ordinary jobs, and none of us are wealthy. So it’s not as if we can go get some zeros and pay for it in a trice. But we’ve made an offer which we believe is fair and respectable, although it’s not as big as it might be. So we find ourselves in an interesting place, and if you’d like to know more, we’ll be happy to talk with you about it. But we do need your prayers, not to mention any donations or loans that you might feel inspired to give.
I have a particular reason for mentioning our situation, quite aside for asking for your help. It’s because I’ve been quite nervous about it. The community represents thirty years of my life’s work – but that, too, is not the real point. The point is that the community is Paramhansa Yogananda’s work. And you can say that God has a plan, but I have seen, so far, no signs that He might be proposing an alternative to holding on to what we have. And, believe me, we’ve explored the alternatives.
So we can only keep standing fast, and believe that we will find a solution. But when I wake up at two in the morning, it isn’t so clear, and when I’m reading documents and exchanging emails, it’s not terribly clear. And I’ve spent considerable time fretting about it.
I was out walking with Karen the other day, and she suggested, “Why don’t you sing?” She specifically said, “Why don’t you sing ‘Little Kathy.’” She didn’t mention that she was on the schedule this Sunday to sing it with David. But she said, “When you sing, you breathe. And the vibrations that Swami put into the music are very healing, and all of the songs are healing.”
Later, while I was riding my bicycle to the YMCA to swim, I spent the time holding extremely intense imaginary conversations with the people who are involved in the discussions about our community. And then I interrupted myself and started singing Little Kathy. And, what do you know? It’s pretty hard to worry, and at the same time be singing –
Lara la liri,
Oh, lara la lay,
Little Kathy went dancing,
Her heart was so gay.
Swami Kriyananda sings Little Kathy, Spiritual Renewal Week at Ananda Village, September 1979:
On this planet we find ourselves immersed in a vast ocean of diverse vibrations, and if you are on the spiritual path it would be well worth your while to consider very carefully what sorts of vibrations you’re going to allow to run through your body and mind.
When I had finished singing Little Kathy, I returned to my inner conversations. But while I was singing that simple children’s song, a suggestion of a different consciousness was able to enter my mind, with the vibrational flavor of a higher reality.
Many of you may have met Narayani Anaya, or perhaps you’ve read her short book, My Heart Remembers Swami Kriyananda (book is out of print; link is to audio book; donation requested). If you haven’t, it’s available in our church boutique, and it’s a treasure.
Narayani came into Swami’s life about ten years before he passed away. She followed him all over the world, and as he grew older and needed more help, she became his personal assistant and caregiver. In the final years of his life, she hardly ever left his side, except when she had to return to Spain to get a visa or deal with other matters. But otherwise she was with him day and night until he took his last breath.
Not long after she met Swami, she was diagnosed with a very serious thyroid cancer. She was in Spain, enduring a horrible course of chemotherapy, and at first she decided that she wouldn’t bother Swamiji about it; but then an intermediary said that she really must tell him. And when she did, he said, very simply, “Listen to my music.”
I visited her in Spain a couple of years ago, and we went to her father’s home where she showed me the room where she had stayed when she was sick. It had been her father’s meditation room, and for months she lay there, barely coping because of the severity of the treatment, and always listening to Swami’s music.
She played it all night when she slept, and all day, and she was healed. You could say that the chemotherapy healed her, or that it was the radiation, but she is firmly convinced that it was the vibrations of the music that put her own vibration back in balance.
In his book A Tale of Songs Swami talks about how people will speak of the transforming power of his music. And he says, “I encourage you – I plead with you – don’t just listen to this music, but sing it. Let it run through you.” I’m paraphrasing, but he adds, “Because everyone who does says that they are transformed by it.”
Now, of course this is a big plug for the music, and I’m a huge fan of Little Kathy, and it was perfect that Karen and David sang it today. But what I’m talking about is spirituality as a vibration of consciousness. Because true spirituality is not a building or an outward affiliation. It is nothing that you can put on or affirm with the mind, because it is only and entirely about your vibration.
You can have all of the symbols of spirituality, but your vibration is what makes you what you are.
I looked at the baby turkeys and wondered why on earth a soul would want to be born as a baby turkey. And I’m sure that Divine Mother is looking at me and asking the same question. I probably look about as attractive to Her in this human form as those baby turkeys look to me, but with the difference that Divine Mother and the masters see beneath the surface and know us for what we truly are. And, who are you? What are you trying to become? How are you going to know it? And what are you going to be an instrument for?
We are nothing but the vibrations that are running through us. Paramhansa Yogananda said that the only difference between a saint and the worst human being is how they behave. There’s nothing inherently different between them; it’s just that one person attunes himself to an evil vibration and behaves evilly, and the other attunes himself to a divine vibration and behaves divinely.
One person attunes himself to a generous, giving vibration, and the other is always vibrating with the thought “What about me?” Yet in their essential nature they are exactly the same. And if this one will change his vibration he will become every bit as saintly as Saint Francis was.
Our spiritual practice is very simple – it is an irreducibly simple matter of asking ourselves, minute by minute, “What kind of vibration am I attuning myself with?”
Paramhansa Yogananda said that you don’t have to pass your tests riding a prancing and bejeweled white stallion triumphantly down a broad and beautiful boulevard – that it’s sufficient if you can barely crawl over the last barrier and extend a quivering finger over the threshold – because that is victory.
Over the weeks and months that this challenge has confronted us – thank you, God! – I’ve examined the spectrum of all the ways I could respond. And it was most amazing to me to go out on my bicycle, and to be channeling my anxieties and my incredible commitment to words, and my consuming belief that if I could just explain my thoughts clearly enough to the people I’m talking with in my head, they would surely understand. And then all of a sudden I began singing Little Kathy, and nothing changed except the vibration that I was channeling.
Of course, I had to come back to the practical issues, because they were still waiting to be dealt with. But it was a fascinating experiment to see how, by singing a simple children’s song that Swami Kriyananda had pulled from the divine consciousness, I could enter an entirely different reality and be bathed in body and soul with a vibration of God’s healing love and light and joy.
And that is the choice that we are continually being offered in the spiritual life. In fact, it is the very definition of our path – that we have been given the tools to change our vibration, through Kriya Yoga, through attunement with AUM, and by devotion, chanting, and singing Swami Kriyananda’s music, and by serving, doing Paramhansa Yogananda’s energization exercises, communing with nature, and anything and everything that will move our vibration in the right direction.
And that is the point, because in the spiritual life we are only ever really doing one thing – we are saying, “I want to have a higher vibration – I want to have a higher and more spiritual vibration.” And this is the beginning, middle, and end of the path.
Maya is trying very hard to confuse us. And this is why we must – constantly, constantly, constantly – renew our practices.
I was talking with a friend who’s been struggling with these issues as I have, and I said to him that failure is never actually failure. The real success or failure is in how you pick yourself up and keep moving forward. Progress in the spiritual life is never in a straight line. Progress is – oops – there I go again, and what can I do to pull myself up? Oops, I’ve fallen, and what can I do to pick myself up and dust myself off and keep going? Success means constantly coming back to the understanding that if I can just absorb my consciousness in the right vibrations, everything else will follow.
This is what makes our lives so much fun on the spiritual path. Because wherever you are, and whatever you’re experiencing, there is always a way to turn it all toward God.
God bless you.
(From Asha’s talk during Sunday service at Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto, California on May 26, 2019.)