Swami Kriyananda on the Art and Discipline of Writing

Swami Kriyananda makes changes to The Path during  a chapter reading for the residents of Ananda Village, 1976. Click image to enlarge. Photo by Nayaswami Rambhakta.

(Part 10 in our ongoing series, Swami Kriyananda on Art & the Artist.)

Swamiji’s goal for the summer was to do the final editing on Part I of The Path—his life up to meeting Master and being initiated as a disciple. Alone in seclusion, he did nothing but work. He barely ate, and left the apartment only when necessary. He was staying in Hawaii, right on the beach, but hadn’t set foot on the sand. The intensity was wearing him out. He needed help—other minds to consider the writing; friends to take him out occasionally for a walk or a swim; help with cooking, shopping, and retyping the manuscript. At the end of July, he asked Kalyani to come to Hawaii; soon after, he invited me to join them.

Swamiji thought I had a future as a writer, and set out to train me, showing me, above all, how much concentrated energy it takes to write well. He described the process of writing as four stages.

First, get the ideas down. “When I edit, my writing gets longer. I tend to be terse at the beginning, then expand when I edit so the reader can understand the meaning. When I first started writing, it took great will power to make logical connections across subtle chasms of thought. It still takes energy, but the flow now is more intuitive.”

Second, make the ideas clear. “I’ve tried to write like Master—not the way he wrote, but the way he was: clear, simple, not making a mystery of anything. You have to take into account all the ways a person can misunderstand—although it is better to take a risk than spend pages hammering down every nuance! I prefer to write in a seminal way, giving the reader the opportunity also to meditate and go deeper into what I’ve said.”

Third, make your writing interesting and enjoyable to read. “To express these teachings takes more than being a good writer. You have to write from the heart—but without being gushy. It is more than just making every word count. A good lawyer can do that. You have to put your whole self into every word. Make every phrase alive with discovery. I want the writing to wear well. When you read something repeatedly, that is when you notice if it’s a real pleasure to read.”

Fourth, put your vibrations into your writing. “Vibration in writing is conveyed through melody and rhythm, the color of the words, the way the vowels and consonants fit together, whether you end a sentence with a strong word or a soft one. If you replace a single word, sometimes it changes the whole rhythm and you have to change other words as well.”

Another reason Swamiji invited us to come at that time was that he wanted to hear the book read aloud. “You notice things—especially rhythm and melody—that you may miss when it is only mental. It is more easily understood, too, if it reads easily, like speech.”

He would alternate between sitting in a comfortable chair or stretching out on the couch, eyes closed, listening intently while Kalyani and I took turns reading. Sometimes a whole page would go by without a pause, but more often he interrupted several times. Silently he would contemplate a word or a phrase, before suggesting an alternative, or letting it stand. Occasionally he went to the typewriter and reworked a whole section.

Sometimes we made suggestions. He listened attentively, but never allowed himself to be swayed by our opinions unless they also resonated with his intuition.

Kalyani had been an English teacher and was a talented writer. She felt a certain section could be improved. When she showed her revisions to Swamiji, he said, “There are probably a thousand ways an idea could be presented. What you have written is perfectly valid, but it has your vibration. This book needs to be my vibration, so I’ll leave it as it is.”

Every word received his complete attention. Swamiji told us, “Master said, ‘Divine Mother disciplined me in writing the Autobiography of a Yogi.’ That is how it is for me with this book. She won’t let me rest until it is the way She wants it to be.”

Once, after questioning but then leaving a particular phrase as it was, he smiled and said, “This isn’t the libretto for an opera! I don’t have to sing it!” Later, though he amended that. “It may never be sung, but it should read as if it could be.”

He often had trouble sleeping. “There is so much energy in my brain, I can’t get into subconsciousness.”

It was a small apartment; Swamiji had the only bedroom. I typed at the kitchen table, which was open to the living room. Kalyani slept on the couch, so at night Swamiji took the typewriter into his bedroom. He often spent much of the night writing. I slept on the balcony, reveling in the sound of the waves crashing against the rocks.

The beauty of the surroundings, though, paled into insignificance compared to the power and presence of Swamiji. Sometimes, after retiring to his room to meditate at night, a new idea would occur to him, and he would come back into the living room to talk with us about it. He wore white silk pajamas—a gift from someone in India. His eyes were pale blue, his skin was fair, his beard and hair streaked with white. He seemed more vibration than substance, an astral being rather than a physical person.

One evening, after a particularly intense, and very fruitful day of editing, we decided to go for a swim. But the sunset was so glorious, we just sat on the beach and watched Divine Mother’s show. We all wore glasses, but had left them upstairs, anticipating a swim. Our myopia added to the astral quality of the light, blurring the details into broad sweeps of color. We felt Divine Mother was celebrating with Swamiji the great work he was doing—and Kalyani and I were privileged to witness.

 Most nights, after dinner, we strolled around the garden, talking of the book, Ananda, life in the astral world, and the joy of living for God. In Part II, Swamiji describes being with Master at his desert Retreat when he was writing his commentary on the Bhagavad Gita. In the evenings, Swamiji would walk with Master, just as we were doing now with him.

At one point, seismic activity on the other side of the ocean meant we might be hit by a tsunami. Our apartment could be washed away. This was before computers and before inexpensive copy machines. One paper manuscript was all we had. Whenever we left the apartment, we carried it with us. Of course, if we were caught in the tsunami there would be no way to save the manuscript, but at least we could die trying.

One evening, I was retyping the last chapters of Part I. Swamiji reads Autobiography of a Yogi, goes immediately to Master, is accepted as a disciple, and receives from his Guru a declaration of unconditional love. “I don’t think Master said that to very many, even of his disciples, and especially not at their first meeting,” Swamiji said.

I worked at the Retreat, and had heard many stories of how people came onto the path. “Almost no one has such instantaneous recognition,” I said to Swamiji. “It takes time for intuition to awaken, or to work through doubts and fears. Your story is meant to help others, but in a way it is misleading. People may feel that if they don’t have the kind of experience you had, then this isn’t their path.”

Swamiji was thoughtful, then said, “I know, but that is the way it happened. It is a remarkable story of a remarkable search. The only way to make it less so is not to tell it.”

When he returned from Hawaii, Swamiji continued in seclusion, working on The Path. One evening, when only Seva and I were present, he said, “I’ve always felt Ananda would be built around this book. It will make Master known and will link our work to him. I think it could launch a spiritual revolution. It isn’t that I want it to happen that way. I’ve done what I felt Divine Mother asked of me. If nothing comes of it, I’ll be quite happy living quietly here.”

It was thrilling to think Divine Mother would bring many souls to God through Swamiji. If it happened as he said, though, everything would change. The life we had was precious beyond words.

“Perhaps I could burn the manuscript?” I suggested. Swamiji looked shocked, then amused, then serious.

“I understand,” he said gently, “but it is out of our hands. The book belongs to Divine Mother now. It is Hers to do with as She wishes.”

Most of the time he was working on The Path, Swamiji said, “I felt Master’s blessing. But after I finished the first draft, that feeling went away, and didn’t return for several months. During that time, I was eaten up with doubts. Sometimes God tests us in this way. He takes away the feeling, and throws us back on our own discrimination to know what is right. He was testing me also with SRF’s threats and Mrinalini’s disapproval.

“When you accept a test in the right way it becomes a blessing. Far from weakening my resolve, in the end I felt a profound blessing from Master.” (Swami Kriyananda: Lightbearer, 1976, pp. 100-104)