Swami Kriyananda has defined the ego as “a bundle of self-definitions.” Most of us surround ourselves with self-definitions that create a kind of mental prison: “I can’t do that,” “I don’t like that person,” “I’m better (or worse) than everyone else.” Hemmed in by our self-created prisons, we limit ourselves by our own thoughts.
Some years ago, I read a story in the book My Grandfather’s Blessings, by Rachel Remen, and was deeply inspired by its message of how we can break out of our imprisoning self-definitions. What follows is a summary of that story.
A paralyzing self-definition
At age seventeen, David was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes. The diagnosis shocked him and filled him with anger and despair. Suddenly, his life required great care about when and what he ate, when he took insulin, and what activities he engaged in. David responded like a caged animal throwing itself against the bars of its cage — not following his diet, forgetting his insulin. The self-definition that paralyzed David was: “I’m a diabetic and that makes finding any happiness in my life impossible.”
Seeing that David was endangering his life, his parents brought him to Rachel for therapy. For six months the therapy seemed to do little good. Then, one day he came into Rachel’s office after having had an extraordinary dream the night before.
David had never had any interest in religion, but in the dream he found himself sitting in a large room with no ceiling, facing a small stone statue of the Buddha. The face of the young Buddha attracted him greatly, as also did the feeling of peace and stillness the Buddha emanated. In the Buddha’s presence, David became aware of feeling more at peace within himself. He sat for quite awhile enjoying the connection he felt with this statue.
“Why is life like this?”
Suddenly, from somewhere behind him, a dagger was thrown that pierced the heart of the Buddha. David responded with shock, anguish, and a sense of betrayal. A question rose up from the depths of his being: “Why is life like this?”
The face of the Buddha, however, remained unchanged in its serenity and contentment. As David watched, the Buddha statue very slowly began to grow and grow, never changing its expression. David understood that this growth was a response to the dagger. Gradually the statue became huge. As David looked up at the enormous statue, the dagger, which had remained its original size, now appeared to be a tiny dot.
Something in David’s heart released at this sight. He understood that his diagnosis of diabetes, which had filled him with such despair and anguish, could become, just as the dagger had, not the entirety of his life, but a smaller and smaller part of it.
A cage with only two bars
Reading this story, I was deeply inspired by the message it gives to spiritual seekers, and not only to those with physical problems. As devotees we are trying to break free of our limitations and experience the limitless peace and joy of our soul nature. Yet we often hinder ourselves by focusing on our faults and limitations, just as David did when he defined himself initially by his diabetes.
I once saw a cartoon of a canary with the tips of its wings holding on to the bars of his cage like a prisoner in a jail. What made the cartoon humorous was that there were only two bars on the cage, the ones the canary was holding onto. The rest of the cage was completely open!
Our egos cannot limit us if we continually try to attune to something much larger: the presence of God within us. The yogic path and Paramhansa Yogananda’s teachings offer tools to help us experience the expanded part of our being.
A verbal ping-pong match
I had a dramatic experience of the effectiveness of these tools a number of years ago. I was teaching a five-day course on Superconscious Living with about eight guests at The Expanding Light Guest Retreat at Ananda Village.
Two of the women in the course had come to The Expanding Light together. They were obviously on a spiritual journey, and one woman, whom I’ll call May, seemed to be the spiritual teacher for her friend, whom I’ll call June. I don’t know if they followed a specific path, but they were familiar with spiritual principles and terminology.
Near the end of the first class on Monday, I presented some aspect of Yogananda’s teachings and May said, “I don’t agree.” I enjoy lively class discussion, so I responded by asking her what she thought and then tried to build a bridge between her views and what I’d said.
No matter how I responded, she continued to come back with disagreement. The last twenty minutes of class became a sort of verbal ping-pong match. May would say something rather argumentative. I’d try to accept what she’d said so we could move on. And she’d disagree again — with everyone else in the class watching first one of us, and then the other.
I didn’t disagree with what May said — it seemed to me that we were using different words to say basically the same thing. Perhaps I was missing something! But it was obvious that if the week continued this way, it would be a tedious experience for everyone.
When I tried to reach out to May with a friendly comment at lunch afterwards, she responded quite rudely. Hmm….maybe the problem wasn’t with our teachings, but with me as a teacher. I definitely had a problem to deal with — without delay!—if the coming days of class were to be useful to the participants.
“I know there’s a solution”
After a quick lunch, I went to my desk in an office I shared with several staff members. While people around me worked on their computers or talked on the phone, I put in my earplugs and began to pray.
First, I said to God and Guru: “I have a problem and I really need help with this.” Then it occurred to me that God and Guru already had the solution to the problem, and that the essential thing was for me to get on their wavelength — to change my “problem-focused” thinking. So, I began to focus strongly at the spiritual eye with the thought, “solution — I know there’s a solution.” My goal was to leave behind all restlessness and to attune to the superconscious mind, the Higher Self, which sees life as a whole and has solutions for all of our needs.
As I focused in this way, my subconscious mind would occasionally chime in, “This is a disaster! What are you going to do? This is impossible!” Essentially I would say, “Be quiet. I’m not interested in your way of thinking!” My conscious mind also tried to derail me by pulling me down to the lower level of thoughts: “Don’t you think you’d better use this time to plan your class for tomorrow?” But I was not interested. The most important thing was to lift, not lower, my consciousness.
The longer I concentrated at the spiritual eye with the focus of “solution,” the calmer and clearer I became. By the end of twenty minutes, I felt very uplifted and I knew there was a solution. I also knew that remaining in “solution consciousness” was much more important than knowing the details of how that solution would come to pass. God had a solution for me, as long as I remained in this uplifted state of consciousness.
A shift of energy
I had to stop this “meditation” because I’d offered the class the option of private conferences, and June had signed up for one that afternoon. I went to the dining room to meet her. June and May came in together, and June apologized for being late. As we sat together in the conference room, June said, “I don’t know why I signed up for this — I don’t really have any questions.” Then May said, “I have a question.”
May then asked what happens to a person when he dies. Yogananda’s teachings on death are very clear and inspiring. I shared these with May, and she then asked further questions, continuing the theme of the soul and death. Her questions were deep and heartfelt. It seemed that she was dealing with some challenging issues in her life. Whatever had been going on in class earlier, May seemed now to appreciate every answer I gave her. By the end of the session, the energy between us had entirely shifted.
The rest of the classes that week flowed very smoothly. Interestingly, the person in the group I came to feel the most rapport with was May.
We can never perfect the little self
What I have learned from that and other experiences is the power of stepping out of littleness, and aligning my energy with God and Guru. In our little bodies and minds, we are limited. But God and Guru are unlimited. Our job is not only to ask for Their help, but to do our best to align our energy with Theirs: to release the grip of limitations and fears, and to attune to the solutions that always exist in our higher Self.
Early in my spiritual journey I read a quotation by Sister Gyanamata, Yogananda’s most spiritually advanced woman disciple. Through the years, I have repeated it to myself countless times: “Let your weakness be dissolved in the worshipful thought of His strength.”
We can never really perfect our little self, but if we continually attune ourselves to the greatness of God, we discover a part of ourselves that is, and has always been, perfect — not the little ego, but the divine soul.