On the spiritual path, we don’t tread water. We’re either moving forward or backward. There’s a scene in the Bhagavad Gita where Arjuna looks at the opposing army, which represents aspects of our own selves, and tells Krishna, “This is too much. These are my own relatives. They are part of myself. I will not fight.”
Very few on the spiritual path say outright, “I will not fight.” We don’t say, “I give up.” What we say in effect is, “I let up,” meaning, “I’m not going to try as hard.” What causes people to “let up”?
One: Fear of failure
One of the main reasons people let up is fear of failure. “What if I try really hard and I don’t get there?” To answer this question we need to remember the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita which tell us there is no failure. However far we get in this lifetime, that’s where we will take up the spiritual path again in our next life.
My (Devi’s) first winter at Ananda was a time of emotional and spiritual challenge. I was facing a decision we all have to make at some point: “Do I really want to commit my life to the spiritual search?” I was challenged on every level. I was living in an unheated tipi. I didn’t have a clear source of income. I didn’t know many of the people living here, and I was quite lonely. I thought, “Go back to family, friends, and security.” Yet, there was the power of the Guru (and enough personal good karma) that said, “You will have to come to this point again. Why not see it through as far as you can in this lifetime?”
God and Guru bring us these choices over and over. Often, they take us to the point of failure so we can ask ourselves, “What do I really want?” “What if I fail?” We simply have to say, “Because of my karma, I may not achieve freedom even if I do my best, but I’m moving in that direction and I’ll go as far as I can in this lifetime.”
Two: Fear of the effort involved
Another reason we let up is the fear of the effort involved. We think, “What a massive job this is. How can I ever put out the amount of energy it will take to find God?”
But it’s a mistake to think, “It’s only going to get harder and harder.” The truth is, as Swami Kriyananda often said, the spiritual path is “at first difficult and then effortlessly liberating.” We need to understand that the more energy we put out on the spiritual path, the more the universe supports and sustains us. Most of us know the basic teaching: “The greater the will, the greater the flow of energy.” The greater the flow of energy, the greater the magnetism to attract the support you need. At a certain point, the energy you’ve put out will carry you through even the most difficult times.
Once, when I (Devi) was going through a challenging period, I decided, “I’m going to do 108 kriyas morning and night for one year.” That was my vow. Nine months passed and everything was going smoothly with the vow. Then I had to travel away from Ananda Village and I didn’t get home until 3 am. I was so exhausted that I flopped down into bed and closed my eyes. I was on the verge of sleep when a light seemed to go on in my brain. Immediately I sat up and thought, “I was so close yet I almost didn’t make it.” And I did my kriyas.
I didn’t make that happen. I was in deep subconsciousness, but the energy I’d put out for nine months sustained me. If you do the best you can, God will do the rest.
Three: Fear of loss of self
Another reason we let up is the fear of loss of self. The ego is afraid. “I know who I am right now, but I’m not sure who I’m going to become.”
In one of the most beautiful passages in the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna says, “The soul is that which cannot die.” Krishna explains that even those limiting parts of ourselves never die; they simply get transmuted into higher expressions of ourselves. So when we begin to think, “I’m pretty good the way I am,” we should try to break through the limiting thoughts and say, “I want to experience that higher expression of myself, my soul nature.”
Four: Uncertainty about the goal
Another reason we let up is our uncertainty about the goal: samadhi. We’ve read about it and we’ve heard people talk about it, but we don’t know what it is. It’s as though we’re not sure where we’re going and wondering how we can get the thrust to get there.
For the sincere devotee, samadhi is an extension of where we are right now, and every step of the way is a step closer to the goal. When you sit and meditate, do you feel peace? Do you feel joy? Do you feel freedom? We all feel something. Use those feelings as markers along the way. We’re moving in that direction already and one day we will reach the goal.
Think of the hours it takes for athletes to prepare for the Olympics. They don’t know if they will get the gold medal, but they try for the gold, and that’s what we need to do. The spiritual path is not competitive. We can all get the gold; we can all get there. Even though we’re not entirely certain what “there” is, our hearts know. We wouldn’t be on the spiritual path if we hadn’t had glimpses of that freedom.
Five: Forgetfulness of the goal
Another thing that causes us to let up is forgetfulness. Yogananda says, “Material entanglements, sweet and mysterious, make us forget who and what we really are.” We look at our lives and we start thinking, “Oh, my life is my job, my friends, and my family,” and we get lost in that world. And we forget what motivated us to pursue the spiritual path, to seek God.
To re-motivate yourself, try to remember what it was like when you first saw Yogananda’s picture, or when you first read Autobiography of a Yogi, or when you first began realizing, “I don’t think this world is going to make me happy.” Let’s prompt our memory. “Why did I come onto the spiritual path in first place? Let me not forget that.”
We have a grown son who went to high school in the nearby town, Nevada City. I (Devi) would sometimes pick him up at the end of the school day and I’d see all the kids coming out. It was a very good spiritual experience for me because I prayed, “Lord, don’t ever let me forget why I chose the spiritual path. I don’t want to go to high school again.” Don’t let it get foggy in your mind. Keep that keen edge of remembering that this world is one of alternating pain and pleasure.
Six: A sense of unworthiness
Another thing that holds us back from totally committing our energy to the spiritual search is a sense of unworthiness: “I’m not good enough. Maybe those people who’ve been at Ananda Village from the beginning are going to find God, but the chances for me are not so good.”
Swami Sri Yukteswar said, “the past lives of all men are dark with many shames, but all things in the future will improve if you’re making the right spiritual effort now.” We need to say, “Whatever I’ve been in this life or another life does not define who I am.” I’m now trying to move forward and not accrue any more bad karma.
What are some of the other attitudes that help us to be motivated in this search?
“I need to take this seriously”
Many of us have been on this spiritual path for forty-five years, yet it seems like only a few years. Life goes by quickly and we need to say, “I need to take this seriously.” Think of the brevity of life and say, “In the time that’s left to me, I’m going to make a dash for the Infinite.”
A few years ago Swami Kriyananda asked us to come to India and stay for a longer period of time than usual. When we told him we were arranging our lives so that we were less needed in certain jobs, and that others were taking on those responsibilities, he said, “Good. We should all live our lives in such a way that if we left tomorrow, nothing would be left undone.”
That’s an excellent way to live. Every day, when you sit to meditate, try to think, “This may be my last opportunity to seek God in this lifetime.”
Make freedom your goal
Swami Kriyananda has said that it takes total self-honesty and dynamic self-discipline to grow spiritually. That’s why it’s sad when people say, “Well, I know I’ve got this problem but it’s OK. I don’t have to deal with it.” Why don’t you need to deal with it if it’s a problem?
We all need to be scrupulously self-honest. If there are things about us that need to change, let’s work on them. To become a jivan mukta means you are freed while living. You’ve burned up all your past karma. Why not set that as a goal?
Burn up all wrong actions and attitudes
Paramhansa Yogananda said, “Reincarnation is motivated by a satanic force that fills us with desires and keeps us coming back again and again.” We can think of maya (delusion) as a great circus with many tents and side shows, with a barker hawking, “Come to the circus and become attracted by all the bizarre and trivial activities in life.” We need to understand it’s a conscious force that keeps the circus going and tries to persuade us to come in.
If the circus barker said, “You’ll probably have more fun meditating,” then the circus would fold and so also would the play of maya. That’s why Swami Kriyananda has said repeatedly, “Every night, before you go to sleep, create a mental bonfire in your mind and throw in all your desires, reactions, and wrong attitudes. Throw them all into that bonfire and go to sleep free. Then, when you wake up in the morning say, “I awake into this world to do my God-given duty, but none of it is mine.'” That practice will move you toward freedom.
Draw on the power God and Guru
The final strongly motivating point is to attune ourselves to God and Guru. Ultimately it’s their power which changes us. A few years ago we were in India with Swami Kriyananda, and someone asked him at a satsang, “What is your sadhana?” He didn’t pause for a second. He said, “My sadhana is guru bhakti, devotion to the guru; guru seva, service to the guru; and meditation. And by doing those things, I am free.”
To motivate ourselves, we need to draw on the power of these great ones. When the circus barker is saying, “Come and look at all the distractions,” the Guru is saying, “Come home to the kingdom of God – I will show you the way.” To renew our motivation to seek God, draw on the power of the Guru and say, “Today I will try even harder to become one with God.”
From a March 3, 2014 talk at Ananda Village.
Nayaswami Jyotish and Nayaswami Devi are Spiritual Directors of Ananda Sangha Worldwide. In his Last Will, Testament, and Legacy, Swami Kriyananda named Nayaswami Jyotish as his “spiritual successor.”