This interview originally appeared in the June 2002 issue of The New Times, published in Seattle, Washington. Reprinted with permission.

As if in fulfillment of an old Chinese curse, we live in “interesting times.” Turbulent times, in fact. Terrorist attacks, ethnic and religious wars, self-reproducing bureaucracies, and technology’s powerful juggernaut are threatening to reduce our humanness to mere statistics. To create a sustainable society, clearly we need a fresh approach to our ways of governance, our ways of doing business, our ways of living together.

J. Donald Walters, better known to the world as Swami Kriyananda, offers high-minded, pragmatic answers to our most persistent issues of personal and global concern. A direct disciple of Paramhansa Yogananda, the Indian saint who introduced the science and wisdom of yoga to the West, Kriyananda is a man of remarkable experience, awareness, and vision. Now 76 years old, this author of more than 80 books has completed perhaps his two most essential works: The Promise of Immortality and Hope for a Better World.

Sir, since the shocking events of September 11, many are asking what they can do to cultivate peace at home as well as abroad.

In a universe ruled by relativity, one must learn to act appropriately in many contrary circumstances. The important thing is not to be centered in those circumstances, but in our higher self. We needn’t adopt the violent attitudes of any with whom we may have to deal, just as we needn’t become greedy when dealing with greedy people. Our ways of dealing with others should be centered in our ideals.

When contending with people who would do us harm, is that really practical?

Nothing could be more practical. The higher self, divinely inspired, is where true solutions come from. Human reason, on the other hand, is often unreliable because it cannot ever be purely objective. Reason depends on the reasoner, and so it cannot entirely exclude emotion or personal desire. To control violence in others, we may need to act firmly, but we must not let our own hearts fill with anger or hatred, for thus the cycle of violence and suffering continues.

This issue of practicality lies at the very heart of your latest book, Hope for a Better World. In it, you have charted the evolution of today’s preeminent social and political ideas. By examining the theories of such influential thinkers as Plato, Machiavelli, Darwin, Marx, and Freud, you have shown how the line of reasoning that connects our past development with our currently accepted beliefs is seriously flawed. This is a huge topic, but can you give us the essence of it?

Each of these men took reason to a new perspective, though none of them rose above it to a more expansive view. Plato, for example, in considering human progress, overlooked the importance of the individual. He imagined people’s destinies decided by a “wise” government. Machiavelli degraded the general populace altogether. It was he who gave us the notion that in all matters of state, the end justifies the means. Think of the misguided policies that even to this day are based on that shameful premise!

The cruel supposition here is that people do not count as much as things. You see this reinforced at the societal level also, largely because of Darwin and the dogma that has grown out of his findings. Darwin mapped the mechanics of evolution, but the role of higher consciousness never entered the picture. One must ask not only how we survive, but also what for.

Marx applied Darwin’s model to his own structure of the ideal social machine — a catastrophe when put into actual practice — and Freud explored the human mind in terms of evolution too. Their theories appear to make perfect sense, yet all of them are profoundly incomplete because of what each of these men failed to see. People are not mechanistic. Systems are not the driving force of our progress. Consciousness is the key to evolution at every level.

What is the “what for” that Darwinism leaves out?

People strive to enjoy their lives, not merely to survive. Evolution, at the human level, is an upward movement toward manifestations of awareness. That is not to say, of course, that a high degree of awareness is the norm. History demonstrates daily that it is not. To understand why, we must look no further than the constant barrage of messages that assault us, declaring that happiness, freedom, and peace of mind can be gained through personal ambition and selfish desires. It’s the same for countries and corporations as it is for each of us. When people ask “What’s in it for me?” instead of only “What’s right?” life is indeed a treadmill with no end to the trudge.

The good news is, by simply expanding one’s sympathies and seeking cooperation, the entire scenario changes. I have founded a number of highly successful communities, all of them nonsectarian yet deeply spiritual in nature, in which service to God and to others is the first and foremost purpose of their design. As these communities reveal, when people’s energies are devoted to supporting each other for the good of all, the joy expressed in living and working together is truly inspired.

One of the points you make in Hope for a Better World is that intellect can be a troublesome tool, especially where the ego is fully invested. I’m thinking in particular of Freud and the great extent to which his research still affects us. As with others you have mentioned, you are generous in the credit you accord him, but you disagree with many of his conclusions, and chiefly with his focus on people’s repressions. What do you think the focus of psychotherapy should be?

With any kind of therapy, we must first ask, “Does it work?” In looking at the evidence, I do not see where psychotherapy has ever produced radiant human beings who are truly free. True freedom means far more than a release from subconscious repressions. It means, above all, an ascent out of self-absorption. Our sense of freedom expands in direct proportion to our lack of self-concern. My objection to psychotherapy is that it encourages self-centeredness. How are we to achieve mental freedom if our thoughts revolve only around ourselves? The main problem — and indeed it is reflected throughout society — is that people confuse process with solution. Focusing on one’s repressed desires is not solution-minded.

A moment ago you mentioned your involvement with communities. Is this where you see our best potential for creating the solution-consciousness that we need?

Yes. What communities can do is offer a positive, practical environment for resolving the concerns and difficulties that come between us. My faith in this idea is not based merely on theory, nor is it the product of a romantic utopian dream. It comes from over thirty years of everyday experience. The communities I have nurtured and guided not only exist in today’s real world; they answer the question “Does it work?” with very impressive results.

On the other hand, what are the chances that the world’s present societal structures and incentives can lead us to harmonious relations? My guru often observed, “You can’t beat the darkness out of a room with a stick. Instead, simply turn on the light!” In the past we have tried to control people by surrounding them with rules and systems, not to mention the threat of force. This is darkness-and-stick methodology.

The new model I propose — the small, spiritual community — is based on winning people’s loyalty with kindness and support. Rather than psychotherapy, it implements what I call directional therapy—the light switch, that is — guiding each person inward to the source of God-given strength, and guiding each person outward to a life of loving service and pure delight. To live and serve in such a cooperative way is to realize how uplifting this life can be.

As noted in your book, ever since the Copernican view of a non-geocentric universe was proven correct, there has been the subtle opinion that humanity’s place in the overall scheme is quite insignificant. How does your “hope for a better world” hope to reverse this rather defeatist inertia and its negative influence?

That opinion can only persist when people’s point of view is from the outside in. Paramhansa Yogananda, speaking from a far more ancient tradition, stated that divine vision is “center everywhere, circumference nowhere.” This profound insight, upheld by our latest scientific knowledge that the atom is the key to the universe, shows that an emphasis on relative size misses the point altogether.

In a universe that has no center, everything may legitimately be considered central to everything else. There is no hierarchical human order to be obeyed. The old ways of organization and governance, which have plainly failed to achieve enduring success, are in need of a workable replacement, and that possibility is alive and thriving already in cooperative, spiritual communities.

Each of us abides at the center of the universe, not in an egoistic sense, but in recognition of God’s divine plan. It is from here that our own voyage of discovery can begin — with self-discovery first, then on to discovering the reality that underlies all.