Scribble: The Lumpy Truth About Writing Spiritual Things

Photo: Thanks to Ana Tavares on Unsplash.

So you’d like to write about Ananda. But you’re not quite sure how to go about it.

Perhaps my experience will help.

I’ve published four books about Ananda in the last five years. The back story is that it took me fifty years to get around to writing them. And that’s fine – in fact, it’s not as if it wasn’t meant to be that way. The process of writing books is always less immediate and linear than we imagine.

All of the books came to light after I had passed my seventieth year. And again, that’s fine, because each of them required decades of life experience.

Joyful Athlete was published in 2015. It took me twenty years to begin to understand how the spiritual truths apply to exercise, and another twenty to bring those ideas to their full, practical clarity in the book.

While researching Joyful Athlete, I jogged into Ananda Village one day at the end of a long run. My mood was skeptical – I thought, “I wonder if I’m just fooling myself trying to understand how to spiritualize exercise – maybe it’s all just crap.”

Instantly I heard Swami Kriyananda’s voice. It said, “Take it seriously.”

In the end, I realized that my best runs came when I held myself open to hear the still, small voice of soul intuition, speaking through the calm inner feelings of my heart. In time I understood that those feelings were telling me, very reliably and with great precision, how I could exercise to reap the greatest benefits of fitness and joy.

The heart, I realized, was Grand Central Station for all manner of wonderful things – not only the unmistakable silent voice of my spiritual teacher, but also wise and earthy, practical advice that was available in every moment. When I followed the intuitive help, I found a wonderful happiness.

Listening to the heart was no airy-fairy practice; it was a demanding discipline that brooked no inattention. But when I followed faithfully, the discipline of listening was amply rewarded.

While writing Joyful Athlete I learned a great deal about what it takes to write well about spiritual matters.

First, it requires that we have our feet planted firmly on the ground. It’s easy to set our sails and ride the breezes of the rational mind, blathering abstractly about spiritual things. But we won’t be able to connect truly with our readers unless we can put ourselves in their shoes, a discipline that requires telling real-life stories and writing in a plainspoken manner that they can relate to.

When Swami Kriyananda published The Essence of the Bhagavad Gita Explained by Paramhansa Yogananda, I was overwhelmed by the power of inspiration in the book. Soon after its publication Swamiji came to Palo Alto, and after a talk that he gave at the Ananda temple he sat and greeted us. When I came before him, I told him how deeply I had been touched.

In my life as a writer, I had been plagued by doubts. Swamiji had asked me a number of times over the years to write about Ananda, and I had produced a fairly constant flow of articles, but no books. In the back of my mind I was feeling a little sheepish as I praised the latest of his more than one hundred and forty literary efforts.

Swamiji looked at me penetratingly and with sympathy, and then he said, “Master told me to write that book fifty years ago! Fifty years!”

I had a vague feeling that he was encouraging me not to lose heart. Again he said, with great emphasis, “Fifty years!!”

I had come to the path of Self-realization forty-five years earlier. Now that Joyful Athlete was out of the way, perhaps it was time to start writing books that would be more centered on Ananda and the teachings.

I had always been strongly attracted to Swamiji’s educational ideals, owing to my own unhappy memories of school. Looking back, I could think of only four teachers who had truly inspired me, in the twenty years I spent sitting in school classrooms.

Swami Kriyananda at work on The Path, 1976. Photo by Rambhakta.

At Ananda Village I welcomed any excuse to visit the school, and to take pictures and interview the teachers and write articles. All of the school directors and teachers inspired me.

When I moved to the Bay Area in 1996 to help with Ananda’s defense of SRF’s lawsuit, I was quickly drawn to the Living Wisdom School in Palo Alto, which serves as a model for the Education for Life movement worldwide. When my work with the lawsuit ended, I became the school’s web manager, first as a volunteer, then as an employee.

Over the next fifteen years I interviewed the teachers and directors and wrote articles, posting them on the school’s website. These efforts helped the school stay well-placed in the Google search rankings. But the sheer volume of content eventually became a problem as well as a blessing – there was too much of it to be able to keep it all online without overwhelming the visitors.

After months of pondering how to organize the content, I threw up my hands and offered the problem to Swamiji and Master. “It’s your school and your website,” I prayed. “You’ll have to let me know how you want it organized.”

It was then that the idea came to put it all in a book. The result was Head & Heart – How a Balanced Education Nurtures Happy Children Who Excel in School and Life, published in 2016.

The book has become a powerful aid for parents who want to understand the school and its methods. Education for Life is a radically different philosophy than most parents are familiar with. It had always been difficult for the school’s directors to help prospective parents understand the school in sufficient depth that they would feel comfortable entrusting their children to it.

I’m happy to say that the school has been filled to capacity for the last two years, and that when the physical school closed at the start of the COVID epidemic, there was a waiting list of twelve students for the middle school grades.

The next year I wrote another book, Happiness & Success at School, to address another important concern.

All parents want their children to be happy at school, yet in recent years a prevailing dogma, which amounts to a hysteria, has been that every reasonably intelligent child must aspire to be accepted by a top-flight university such as Harvard or Stanford.

Happiness & Success shows, with many real-world examples, why this is madness. It reveals why the most successful students at Stanford and Harvard are not those who bury themselves in the library stacks, determined to grind out good grades, but those who are well-rounded, socially skilled, and – yes, happy. It presents overwhelming evidence that in major companies such as Google, the most successful employees are those who have not only mastered the tools of their trade, but who possess strong social skills and expansive attitudes.

Notice that the first three titles were based on decades of actual experience. They were not theoretical or speculative, but offered real-life case studies that proved the value of spiritual principles for achieving happiness and success in life, at school, and in exercise.

Two of the books, Joyful Athlete and Conversations With Ananda, had long and winding gestation periods.

I’ve told how it took forty years to gather the experience to be able to write authoritatively about exercise. What I haven’t mentioned is that I wrote Joyful Athlete twice.

The first version of the book was focused on my own experiences. I told stories of how I had found the “inner coach” of intuitive perception in my training as a runner. Ironically, even as I published the arduously researched results, my intuition told me that the book was all wrong.

After another talk by Swami Kriyananda in Palo Alto, I knelt before him for his blessing. He said, “Thank you for the book.” – meaning Joyful Athlete. (At the time, it was called Fitness Intuition.) As he said the words I heard a certain dissatisfaction in his voice, as if he were confirming what I knew, that something more, or something different, was needed.

Soon I realized the flaw in the book. I wasn’t a world-class athlete or coach, and nobody would take my personal stories seriously unless I had high-level sports credentials to back them up. The sheer logic of my arguments, combined with the thousands of miles of running in which I had proved them, were not enough.

And then I realized that over the last ten years I had compiled a large and wonderfully inspiring body of articles that would fulfill that need. They told how great athletes and coaches in a variety of sports had used spiritual principles to find success.

I set aside the old book and compiled a new one, calling it The Joyful Athlete – The Wisdom of the Heart in Exercise & Sports Training. Finally the book felt right, and the feeling was confirmed when several well-known athletes and coaches justified it with their praise.

I knew that the book wouldn’t sell well in this generation – the sports world is still too committed to methods reminiscent of rigid materialistic thinking. I can only hope that it will touch the lives of people in future who will be turning away from dogmatic materialism. An exception is that women readers were immediately enthusiastic, quickly recognizing the worth of intuitive guidance from the heart.

Conversations With Ananda, too, spent long years in gestation before emerging into the light. The story begins with my learning a priceless spiritual lesson.

I had come to Ananda Village in search of a life of solitary reflection and meditation, where I would work just enough to keep body and soul together and help the community survive. But my vision of a reclusive yogi’s life was not to be. The details are too long to share here; suffice it to say that after many years I realized that I should start following the suggestions that Swami Kriyananda had given me: to serve the work through writing and editing, and to sing his music.

It was only when I opened my heart to those pleasant and, to me, very interesting dharmas that I began planting the seeds for the book.

Swamiji wanted me to write about Ananda. All right, what did that mean? What kind of writing would help people understand this wonderful way of life and savor its attractions? I reasoned that, here in practical, hands-on America, people won’t give much credence to our spiritual ideas unless we’ve proved them in the cold light of day.

So I began interviewing Ananda’s business managers, educators, doctors and nurses, electricians, carpenters, accountants, craftspeople, educators, blacksmiths, musical instrument makers, publishers, and engineers. And they shared wonderful stories of how God had guided them in response to their prayers.

It was a wonderful experience. At the time, I was chanting an hour and a half a day, and I would prepare for each conversation by chanting, then pray to be able to set myself aside and be there wholly for the subject and to do God’s will, getting out of the way so that He could bless them. A number of my subjects told me that the experience of the interview had been spiritually helpful.

After I had gathered about fifty conversations, I put them in a book, but when I presented it to the director of Crystal Clarity, Ananda’s publishing company, he rejected it.

It was the early 1990s, when books had to be published the “old” way, laid out manually and printed in large runs at great expense. Digital “print on demand” publishing was still a long way in the future. And Crystal Clarity was already hard-pressed to keep up with Swamiji’s prodigious output.

Click for larger view.

So I set the book aside, though I continued to talk to people whose stories I felt should not be left untold. Finally, in 2019, I realized I had the makings of big, fat book that would give people a clear and entertaining view of life at Ananda, and how the scientific spiritual teachings of Paramhansa Yogananda and Swami Kriyananda could help them find happiness and success in the laboratory of their lives.

In the intervening years, Amazon had established a wonderful print-on-demand service that enabled authors like me to publish their books for free and earn a larger per-copy royalty than with traditional publishing. When someone ordered a book on Amazon, a single copy would be printed and promptly shipped. It was a wonderful system.

When the first orders  for Conversations came in, I was surprised to find that the overwhelming majority were from India. On reflection, I remembered Swami Kriyananda’s prediction that Yogananda’s work in India would be much larger than in America.

Swamiji had sympathized with young Indians who were wanting to help bring India into the modern age by starting successful businesses, and who wanted to make sure that their efforts would be in tune with spiritual principles. I was delighted to think that Conversations With Ananda would give them examples of how they could accomplish their spiritual and career goals.

What lessons did I learn as a disciple and author from writing the books? First was the constant need to offer our service to God. And then, the need to practice the extremely important art of putting the reader first. And finally, that we need to learn to write clearly.

To develop the latter skill – producing writing that is clear and alive – prayer and meditation, of course, are essential.

But there’s also a practice that experienced writers have always recommended, and that is reading good writing. It doesn’t matter if we find it in the classics or well-written detective novels, in nonfiction books or the humorous works of P. G. Wodehouse – they can all teach us a great deal about what clear writing looks and sounds and feels like.

An important footnote. Never be satisfied with a piece of writing until it is finished. If this means that you must live with it for months or years, don’t send it out into the world until it is ready.

This is how Swami Kriyananda worked – he was absolutely relentless in giving his best. For proof, we need look no farther than Swami Kriyananda: Lightbearer by Nayaswami Asha, where she tells countless stories of Swamiji’s dedication to doing a job well. And while we don’t want to strangle ourselves with too muchy timid perfectionism, we must be willing to do our best if we want God to take a hand in our efforts.

The four books mentioned here are available as trade paperbacks and Kindle e-books. (A fifth book, Kriyananda Stories, will be published in January 2021.)

The Joyful Athlete

Head & Heart

Happiness & Success at School

Conversations With Ananda