Thursday, December 1, 2011

Ask Asha: No Shortcut

[Note: “Letters from Asha” will be going on holiday for the rest of the month, to resume in the new year. But please continue to send in your questions!]


You talk about getting a perspective on the fleeting nature of human life. From that point of view, everything could be called trivial. When should I say, “This is trivial” or “This is important”? Seems the definitions are subjective. I may be dismissing things too often as “trivial” or at least people are telling me that I am. If I am traveling on a train, should I not look out the window, because the only thing that matters is the destination?

Swamiji has often used the example of how we create pain for ourselves -- lets say, by tying a string tightly around our finger till the finger turns blue -- then we release the self-created conditions that caused the pain -- i.e., untie the string -- and say how relieved and happy we feel. I feel that I have been “tying strings” around my soul for many lives. I don’t want a mere hug from God. I want to LOVE the Infinite. You have said it is not enough to say we love something or aspire to it we also have to work to achieve that goal. I see myself doing foolish things, I know they are foolish, I have done them before, but I am not able to act on what I know. Help.

From K, in India


Dear K:

I think you are asking for two things here, neither of which the Ananda way to Self-realization can provide.

First: Rules and definitions you can substitute for intuition

Second: To reach the goal without walking the path

As my mother aged her body began to fail. Everyday tasks became more and more of a challenge. “Getting old is not for sissies!” she often said to me.

Same could be said about the spiritual path. It is not for sissies. You have to risk. You have to fail. You have to fall to the ground. You have to get up again. It takes courage. In Swamiji’s course on discipleship that he wrote 60 years ago for the monks in SRF, he said the first essential attitude for the devotee is courage.

Wherever you are now there is always a way to go forward. Doesn’t matter if you have been over the same ground a thousand times. If it is where you find yourself (again), the only thing you can do is move from there.

What is forward for one person, however, is not always forward for someone else. Depends on where you are standing. So no simple rules, no dogmas, no formulas. Not for yourself or for others.

If Mahatma Gandhi, in the middle of the movement to free India, decided to abandon that effort and use his fame instead to open a private law practice, everyone would think that he had fallen. If your lazy uncle finally gets off his cot, and uses his law degree to make a lot of money for the family, everyone would say, “Well done.”

Imagine the rim of a bicycle wheel with spokes leading into the center. We are all spread out at different points around that rim. God is the center. All starting points are the same, and all spokes lead to the center. What direction leads to the center depends on how the rim is oriented from your point of view.

Devotees north of center have to go south; those south of center have to go north. People make a dogma of the direction in which they are moving. Those heading south declare, “South is the way!” Those going north are equally vehement. Both, of course, are wrong.

Progress is directional in relation to the center from wherever you.

Now, instead of thinking of many different people, think of all the different aspects of your own nature as individual points of consciousness around the rim.

For a while you may work on moving one aspect of your self toward the center -- developing a particular talent, for example. Then you may focus on something entirely different, perhaps raising a family.

Intuitively I have always known that we must strive for excellence in everything we do. For a long time, though, I couldn’t exactly work out philosophically why. If everything in this world is ephemeral, why bother? Isn’t that obvious?

In Swamiji’s book, The Essence of the Bhagavad Gita, I found an explanation. (Look up gunas in the index.)

He speaks of the Guru as “triguna rahitam.” This means one who has transcended the three gunas, the fluctuating energies that make up the material world. Tamo guna is darkening, confining, downward pulling. Rajo guna is activating, restless. Sattwa guna is calm, uplifting, peaceful.

To determine what is forward for you, ask yourself, “What guna, or combination of gunas, am I manifesting?” Too often a clever answer, like “Why bother? Nothing is real,” is just tamo guna allowing fear and laziness to rule you.

Look how much energy Master put out to establish his work in this world. Look at Swamiji’s efforts to build Ananda. Great masters and highly evolved souls have always put out tremendous effort to achieve whatever task God has given them to do.

Swamiji will go over a manuscript dozens of times before he considers it ready for publication. When members of our community were first learning to sing the music he had written, sometimes he would stop them in the middle of a public performance 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.) Swamiji’s response was, “They need to put out the energy to do it right.” Singing the notes wrong 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. We need to become like the masters, triguna rahitam.

To rail against yourself, Why do I keep making the same mistakes?” is, in itself, an expression of tamo guna. It makes you self-concerned rather self-expansive. Doesn’t matter what the obstacles are. You have to make the effort.

When Jesus was asked, “How to tell a false prophet from a true one?” he answered, “By their fruits ye shall know them.” Ask the same question of your question, “Why bother?” The answer is, you can tell by the fruits.

Just sitting in the gym won’t make you strong, even if you go every day. You have to run on the treadmill and lift the weights. This world is a spiritual gymnasium. The “equipment” is the circumstances your karma has brought you. If you don’t engage, you arrive as a weakling, are helpful to no one, and leave worse off than you came, because you have squandered a God-given opportunity to expand your consciousness.

No one can or will force you to behave differently. Sooner or later, however, your own unhappiness will compel you to try.

As for finding a shortcut, there isn’t one.

To my everlasting embarrassment I remember a conversation I had with Swamiji. Well, not exactly a conversation because it was short, and he didn’t say anything.

I was facing a big challenge. To be fair to myself, it was a serious, life-long issue and I was far from the finish line when this happened.

I was explaining to Swamiji 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. All of this I said mournfully, with tears running down my face.

Only later did I understand that what I said to Swamiji was, “If the spiritual path weren’t so hard it would be easier.”

In his wonderful way, Swamiji knew just how to respond to me. I already felt so sorry for myself I didn’t need more of that from him. Clearly, also, I was way beyond 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 sit in the room 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. It 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.

Don’t think for a minute that Swamiji was being rude to me. Even at the time, I could see his response was brilliant. “Enough already!” I got the message.

So I persevered. I cannot say I have conquered the delusion I was facing then, but, by the grace of God and Gurus, I have moved a good distance in the right direction.

I shudder to think what might have happened if, in that critical moment, Swamiji 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. Except in this case, it would have taken me to the bottom of the sea, not safely to the shore where I was longing to go.

Nayaswami Asha

[Questions and answers from other Ananda ministers worldwide can be found on the Ask the Experts page of]

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