“Getting old is not for sissies!” my mother often said when an aging body and debilitating illness made everyday tasks more and more difficult. “Still,” she would sometimes add, “it is better than the alternative.” The same can be said for the spiritual path: it is not for sissies, and it is better than the alternative, in this case a life lived only for self without God.
Even though, as the Bhagavad-Gita promises, “Even a little practice of this inward religion will save you from dire fears and colossal sufferings,” the spiritual path is no walk in the park. That’s why Swami Kriyananda says that the first essential attitude for the devotee is courage.
For years a friend of mine defined her spiritual life by the depth of her meditation. Then she was overwhelmed by a spiritual challenge that made meditation almost impossible. Still, day after day, she would sit in front of her altar, gazing at the photo of Paramhansa Yogananda and visualizing herself overcoming the challenge. It took several months, but eventually she did transcend and was able to resume her usual meditation practice.
When we fail in our aspirations and fall to the ground, we need to be able to muster the courage to get up and try again. Creativity is also helpful – the creativity to realize that there is more than one way to reach the goal. There is always a way to go forward.
The trap of spiritual laziness
I remember a conversation I had with Swami Kriyananda when I was facing a huge challenge. The challenge involved a serious life-long issue and I was far from the finish line when this conversation happened.
Mournfully, with tears running down my face, I explained to him that everything in my life was going well, except for this one big problem. If I just didn’t have to deal with it, I told him, I would be so happy and so free. Only later did I understand that what I had really said to him was, “If the spiritual path weren’t so hard it would be easier.”
Kriyananda knew just how to respond to me. I already felt sorry for myself and he certainly did not want to reinforce my self-pity. And in my current state of emotional upheaval, I was well beyond the reach of reason. So he said nothing — nothing at all, not even with his face. “Expressionless” perfectly describes the way he looked at me. He just let what I said hang in the air without relating to it at all.
We sat like that in silence for what seemed like a few minutes. Then the phone rang. He answered it without even a glance of apology for the interruption. The call was about an appointment with a doctor he was trying to arrange. Once that was settled and he hung up, it was clear the interview was over.
Even at the time, distraught though I was, I could see that his response was perfect: “Enough of this self-pity!” I got the message and persevered in my efforts to meet the challenge that threatened to overwhelm me. Even today I cannot say I have conquered the delusion I was then facing but, by the grace of God and Guru, I have moved a good distance in the right direction.
I shudder to think what might have happened if, in that critical moment, Kriyananda had shown even an ounce of sympathy. Of course he was much too wise to do that. He knew I would have seized upon it like a drowning person seizes a log. In my case, however, the log would have taken me to the bottom of the sea of my delusion, not safely to the divine shore I was longing to reach.
What happens to spiritual backsliders?
Intuitively I have always known that we must strive for excellence in everything we do. For a long time, though, I couldn’t work out philosophically exactly why. If everything in this world is ephemeral, why bother? Isn’t that obvious?
Paramhansa Yogananda gives us the answer when he describes a spiritual master as one who has transcended the three gunas, the fluctuating energies that make up the material world. Tamo guna is a darkening, confining, downward-pulling energy. Rajo guna is characterized by restless self-seeking. Sattwa guna, by contrast, is calm, peaceful, and uplifting. Although one guna or another tends to predominate in a person’s nature, all people represent a mixture of the three. A fully liberated master, however, has transcended all of them.
Whenever we recoil from the effort required to meet our spiritual challenges with energy and determination, we do so because we have not been able to transcend the downward- pulling influence of tamo guna. Swami Kriyananda writes that not all souls in whom tamo guna predominates are “new souls,” freshly arrived on the scene of human evolution. Many of them are spiritual backsliders — “old timers,” tired of the seemingly endless struggle, and willing to doze in ignorance again at least for a time.
How do you respond to challenges?
To determine what direction is forward for us when life gives us more than we can handle, it’s very helpful to look at our response to the challenge and to ask, “What guna, or combination of gunas, am I manifesting?” Any thought of giving up, or of blaming others, instead of seeing the experience as the return of karma we set in motion, is an expression of tamo guna. Even to rail against oneself, “Why do I keep making the same mistakes?” is an expression of tamo guna in that we become ego-focused and self-concerned rather than self-expansive.
It doesn’t matter what the obstacles are or how difficult they seem. Our responsibility is to make the effort to transcend them. Great masters and highly evolved souls have always put out tremendous effort to achieve whatever task God has given them to do.
When members of the Ananda Village community were first learning to sing the music Swami Kriyananda had written, he would sometimes stop them in the middle of a Sunday service to correct some aspect of what they were doing. Some people protested that he was embarrassing them before others. (Interestingly, the singers themselves always welcomed his guidance and never complained.) Kriyananda’s response was, “They need to put out the energy to do it right.” Singing the notes incorrectly was a symptom. Tamo guna was the problem they needed to overcome.
Whenever we fail to achieve excellence it is because we have not been able to transcend the confusing influence of the gunas. For the same reason, we don’t see God, even though His presence is all around us.
There is no spiritual shortcut
The spiritual path has been called a razor’s edge, in the sense that the way to enlightenment is straight, and very narrow. To deviate from it is to find, repeatedly, that there is simply no alternative to the one which saints in all religions have indicated: courage, strong will power, and unceasing effort to transcend our ego-based limitations. No one can or will force us to make the effort. Sooner or later, however, our own unhappiness will compel us to try. As for finding a shortcut, there isn’t one.
I’ve always admired the attitude expressed by one of my friends when she developed cancer. She said, “I don’t have the luxury of having a single negative thought.” Already she was one of the sweetest women I had ever met. Within herself, however, she saw room for improvement. Though she eventually succumbed to the disease, she embraced her challenge with such will power and determination that she left this world in a state of upliftment and soul freedom.
The law of karma is always fair. This is a very difficult truth to accept. No spiritual progress is possible, however, until we take that truth into ourselves all the way down to our bone marrow. Whatever is happening now is the exact result of our wrong actions and wrong attitudes in the past, perhaps not in this life but in incarnations we no longer remember. The greatest obstacle to overcoming karma is that instead of being eager to face it, we simply want it to go away.
The “divine matching fund”
I’ve noticed that almost always the wrong attitudes that pull us to pieces in the major challenges of our lives are also expressed by us, in some form, in the lesser challenges as well. Usually we don’t even notice that we are responding with anger, for example, or resentment, or hatred, because the intensity is low or nothing is at stake. Raging at a bad driver for example, or at a roommate who leaves dishes in the sink, or at the weather when it doesn’t cooperate with our plans may not seem relevant to whatever our current problem is – but it is.
Every time we respond to anything in an inappropriate way we are cutting a groove of habit in our consciousness that will pull us right into it when the stakes get higher. We are making vrittis (whirlpools of energy) in our chakras that will influence our consciousness in every future situation. And, by contrast, every time we respond with calm, loving, uplifted energy, we are making a habit that will give us the strength we need when we need it.
Another important factor comes into play here: the grace of God. It may seem like the path of least resistance to go with the established vrittis. In fact, when we choose self instead of God we are swimming upstream.
The soul seeks God the way the river seeks the sea. Even if we are only treading water, but facing the right direction, the current of God’s grace carries us where we really want to go.
It is like that fundraising ploy you sometimes hear on the radio: “For every dollar you donate right now our sponsor will donate two dollars!” I think there is a cosmic law called the “Divine Matching Fund.” For every penny’s worth of effort we put out toward God, He puts out a dollar’s worth of energy to draw us to Him. Blissfully, then, we find our way home to Him.
Nayaswami Asha is a Spiritual Co-Director of Ananda Palo Alto. Learn more about Ananda Palo Alto.