Do You Need a Guru?

In any field of practice, when we reach the limit of our expertise, warning signs appear. Do not overreach, they say, or things are going to get dicey.

This applies to the spiritual path, just as it does to any endeavor that requires a progressive measure of proficiency. The climb to communion with God is not exactly an escalator ride. We have to do the work, and there are places where it gets mighty steep. Without proper training and guidance, a devotee can just as easily fall into darkness as an unskilled mountain climber could fall to his death.

Claiming to know more than we do, or believing ourselves more capable than we are, is not an uncommon trait. But it tends to be a signal that bad news is waiting to happen. The ego has an infamous reputation for reckless judgment when seduced by a strong desire or in defense of its own self-image. It seems, too, that people of my gender are especially susceptible to this affliction. That’s because, as you probably know, “Real men don’t ask directions!”

Part of what makes that funny is the volume of empirical data that supports the joke.

On the other hand, for men and women alike, I think it is fair to say that this earthly plane of existence is a very unusual place to have landed in the first place. Just consider the setup: We are born into tiny bodies that require care and feeding by other people, and by the time we have grown to where we have a degree of self-control, we have already absorbed a huge amount of misinformation, especially on the subject of what we need to do and to have to be happy. That’s because, for most of us, the ones who have been our parents and mentors were parented and mentored themselves by an earlier generation that also suffered from the same faulty conditioning.

I was in seclusion a few years ago, when it struck me how quite bizarre our situation is. Here we are, divine spirits, stuck inside these rather peculiar, low-efficiency vehicles we’ve been given to travel around in, which slowly wear out altogether, and which seem to run in large part on impulse and confusion.

Now add to this the dictates of karma and reincarnation. We arrive here as infants, completely helpless, with the memory bank of our previous lives erased. We don’t remember a thing about who or where we have been. Immediately, we are immersed in a system of duality, which guarantees that whatever we do in pursuit of a worldly desire will carry the onus of its opposite, downside effect. But people pretend this isn’t true, and so, as we get older, we learn to think that way too, which leaves us wondering why our lives are so often empty of what we really want: peace of mind, love, and lasting joy.

Then one day we are drawn to the teachings of Krishna or Jesus or the Buddha, or someone hands us a copy of Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramhansa Yogananda, and we start to see a way out, which, more correctly, is the way in: into oneness at the center of being. But to get there we have to undertake a sacred mission, and it’s a real whopper! Our task is to break the spell of our thousands of delusions, slay all the karmic dragons that come flying at us breathing fire, and silence the voice of the ego when it tempts us with some new trinket or worldly ambition.

Do you think that having a guru might be a useful idea?

It took me over fifty years to arrive at that conclusion, and God knows how many previous incarnations of wandering in the desert of my own stubborn ways. To my credit, I was studious, but also terribly mental. I read inspiring books, attended inspiring lectures, married an inspiring woman, and yet those karmic dragons still knew where to find me. My worldly desires and attachments were greater than my ability to let them go.

When I came to Ananda, I resonated completely with the principles and teachings of Paramhansa Yogananda. I loved the idea that truth was the only gauge of ultimate value. I accepted him as my guru, and vowed to accept his guidance.

End of story? Would that it were so. Having a true guru, one who has been to the summit of Self-realization, is not only the greatest blessing of this earthly existence, it is also the greatest test of one’s willingness to obey what is required in return.

The trouble is, we, in varying degrees, are also still the disciples of our egoic tendencies.  Have I always followed Yogananda’s unfailing advice? No, I have not. Have I always learned from my first mistake not to make it again? No, I’ve not done that either. In fact. I have a few favorite mistakes that I continue to make now and then just to make sure they’re still really stupid!

It’s amazing what we get used to. I don’t mean that life on earth is just a plague of dragons. It is quite the opposite much of the time. Wonderful moments, loving people, personal victories, all kinds of toys to play with… these are available daily. But in a sense that’s the problem: They seduce us into a steady pursuit of the pleasures they provide. Every pleasure, however, has an expiration date, and it’s usually a rather short one. Trying to extend the experience beyond its period of sensation is like trying to nail Jello to a tree. It’s not going to stay there.

What can a true guru do for you? Everything but the actual work to reach the summit of your soul’s freedom. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna drove Arjuna’s chariot and gave him divine counsel, but he would not fight his disciple’s battles. Getting in shape and doing what needs to be done is our part of the deal. The guru’s job is only to lead the way with perfect insight and wisdom.

Here is why a true guru – Jesus Christ, Krishna, Moses, the Buddha, and Yogananda being most historically prominent among them – is essential to our success: He (or she) has lived many human lives, has been where we are now, has overcome every obstacle and setback on the path to Self-realization, and has returned from a life of freedom in God to show us how it is done.

Simple, yes. Easy, no. Having the right teachings and the right techniques is not enough to achieve communion with God. We need to open our hearts to the Guru’s loving presence – it is time for the capital G – open our minds to his divine wisdom, and take his hand in surrender to his will. Everything we want – love, peace, and joy – is part of the bargain if we do. What is so hard to fathom, and I say this about myself too, is why we continue to reach for the Jello, the hammer, and the nails.

Random Thoughts to Reflect On

Goodbye is never the end. In the end, we begin again. Hello, goodbye, hello.

* * * * *

We may accidently make a foolish mistake, but we do not accidentally make it again. It becomes a choice.

* * * * *

Today’s version of you will awake tomorrow with a chance to do yourself better. Some days are easier than others to improve on who you were, but this, too, becomes a choice.

* * * * *

As you think, you receive. Your thoughts are vibrations that return to you as echoes, as circumstances in kind. That is because the universe acts in resonance with what you give it. It has no choice in the matter. Only you do.

* * * * *

Love conquers all, but so does fear. If fear is the one you feed, it will consume you. It will eat at your courage, your peace and your joy, leaving you a plate of misery alone to live on. Love is the feast before you. Fill of it and share it. Do not let fear to devour it instead.  Fear turns love to heartburn. Push it away.

* * * * *

If your heart has faith in God, your mind will follow. But it’s not the same in reverse. Faith expressed in the mind first does not filter easily into the heart. It may never get there, and so remain a mere hope or belief, subject to a shortage of power and magnetic effect.

* * * * *

Man has been given principles and standards to live by – the Ten Commandments, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, the Golden Rule – and free will to adopt them as guidelines. Choosing to adopt and adhere to them, however, is not our consistent modus operandi. Nor are we quick to learn that our sufferings are due to the errant behaviors we practice in place of self-control.

Not so commonly noticed is another set of guidelines, offered by Mother Nature. Witness, for example, that she never uses more than is needed to nourish and support her kin. Her expertise is also unmatched at fitting form to function. In nature, too, all that is required is recycled. Nothing is wasted.

Nature’s wisdom lies in its diversity, and yet it self-corrects to curb any movement toward imbalance, scarcity, or excess.

We don’t need myriad rules, regulations, permits, codes, and laws to govern how we live. We just need to pay attention to the natural ways of the earth.

The Trouble with How We Love

It seems we were born to invent. For better or worse, we incline to stretch, twist, and reshape much of what is before us, until what is there is the next advance on what had been before. Inventing is what we do.

But often what we invent we would have been better without. New versions of a truth, for instance. Or the re-construed teachings of Christ. Or the idea that love is selective.

Interpretation, a favorite form of invention, can leave a real mess.

Our inventiveness apparently dates to our expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Since then we have bent, spindled, and revised a lot of what was perfectly given to us to last forever. Love, in particular. We have turned its all-inclusive ideal into a mere expression of personal desire, a relationship based on what we want. Love, of which all is made, was never meant to be a “want.” It has always been the omnipresent “is,” the inexhaustible source of “ever existing, ever conscious, ever new Bliss,” known in Sanskrit as Satchidananda.

We have been conditioned by our planet’s dual nature to love only the agreeable half of its two-sided manifestations. Most notably, our love of other people – and our lack of it also – tends to rest on the imposition of personal provisos. And so, it comes and goes. We may think of this as “natural,” but really it is nothing but a habit, and a bad one at that, acquired of outward living. Love that depends on the meeting and maintenance of physical, mental and emotional criteria is a mark of instability, an example of egoic selfishness that serves as a magnet for the suffering we experience.

It is ego that leads us to seek outside ourselves for what we want, but the ego cannot love without parameters to please it. It weighs and labels what it sees, using its sensory scale of pros and cons. The result is distortion of love as pleasure or pain.

To see anyone as a stranger, or anything as separate, is to limit our sympathies to “I” and “mine.” The only cure is to live from within, to embrace the whole of life’s demands and diversities, no longer wounded of wanting.

Love is not an invention we can improve on. We have to let it be as it was intended. In its original state, it was – and is – the answer to every need.

It’s Not About Innovation

Every age is an age of wonder, but some are more wondrous than others, and the one that spans my current incarnation is beyond what I could have imagined in my youth. For over seventy years, I have witnessed astonishing scientific, technological and social innovations, which accelerate now at an exponential rate.

And yet, we are the same, still seeking answers to fundamental questions, which the latest innovations cannot provide. We want to know God, but our human limitations, and especially our worldly desires, put us at odds with even the possibility. God is formless. How can we see and relate to such a Being? To borrow a line from Gertrude Stein, “There is no there there!”

We can begin to “see” God, thank goodness, by feeling for His presence in all that is alive, in all that appears inanimate, and even in the challenges we face. But the key is to go even deeper, where we touch that same formless, mystical essence that also abides in us. Endowed with an immortal soul, we possess the innate power to connect with God’s consciousness, not as a tangible experience, but as an intuitive knowing.

Getting to that inner state of divine communion, in which knowing God is an ongoing reality, is surely the purpose of human life itself. It’s as simple as freeing the soul of its constricted body-mind association, and as terribly difficult as any earthly assignment will ever be! No wonder, after countless lifetimes, we remain on the uphill slope in search of that summit.

There’s a lot working against us, and it’s not just social pressure. The question of who and what we are is a hard one to puzzle through. We have thoughts, perceptions, freedom of choice, and constant sensory input, which we lump into an overarching category called “our experience.” The mind then segments this experience into a linear timeline, which we perceive as “one thing after another.” As long as we confine ourselves to this worldly perspective, there is no escape from its time-driven process that we regard as real.

To make matters worse, we tend to agree that reality’s trillions of features look, feel, taste, sound and smell much alike to us all. So, we give them names and definitions to identify one from the next: hand, harmonium, happy, sad, etc. But every label we apply adds to our delusional sense of apparent separation. You and I and all the people and things we see as distinct, prevent us from seeing the oneness of all that is, and thereby make it impossible to know God from such a point of view.

Now, that is not to say that we should neglect our senses. Without them we could not function in this world. But if the purpose of this life is for us to transcend it, what’s that all about?

Frankly, that question raises more issues than can be addressed in a single essay. But I think we have to understand, first and foremost, that the goal of this life is not in this life. The goal is for us to remember that we are infinitely more than what we perceive ourselves to be, and to act in accordance with that higher potential as we seek to attain it.

As I ponder this truth, I’m reminded of a quote by Gloria Steinem. “The truth shall set you free,” she said, repeating an old axiom, “but first it will piss you off!” Therein lies the rub. We want our truths to be easy-come for fast assimilation. But we are learned in the ways of outward living, and these tend to trigger resistance to accepting and doing what will set us free.

Jesus declared that to see God, we must be pure in heart. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” He didn’t mean 80% pure, nor even 99%. Purity is 100%. That means there’s no room for distracting desires, earthly attachments, poor habits or bad moods.

Undoubtedly, this is the kind of message that Steinem had in mind.

But the good news is, purity is also a direction. If you’re only at 80%, strive for 81, and 81 will get you to 82. Look for God everywhere, especially with your heart. As you do this, the journey through the ages of your life becomes increasingly joyful, and God becomes increasingly visible to your native soul.

What comes of itself, let it come. If it challenges you, so much the better, for it’s meant to be a stepping stone to your freedom. Know that in meeting it wisely and well, it will lead you nearer to your destiny: to seeing, knowing, and being with God; to where wonders never cease.

How Do You Know?

Can the trillions of cells in your body know what it’s like to be the whole that is you? Each of them is endowed with a certain capacity and function that does not include the capacity of knowing more than what it’s to do. Nor can a drop of the sea know what it’s like to be the inconceivable volume of drops that is the sea.

How then can you, one of billions and maybe trillions of souls, know what it’s like to be God? The sea of Spirit cannot be contained in a cup. What you can know, however, is the love expressed in every cell and soul that God has created.

To realize the love that is God is not within the mind’s competence to accomplish. Such love is not a product of reason alone, nor even of reason primarily. You must strive in your heart to experience the oneness that unites the whole of you to the whole of everything else. As your inner sense of this oneness improves, so does your knowing of what you need to know, which is what will eventually free you of needing anything more.

In every expression of consciousness, including that of evil too, God is only love. The challenges you face, no matter how harsh, are lovingly gifted to you for your spiritual growth. Each bears your name and address. Not one is delivered by mistake. Learning to love, embrace, and resolve all that comes your way is what this human life is about. It is how you find your way to your destiny’s door, to knowing God as fully as God can be known. The door is on your side. It opens as you press forward, heart first.

What’s Holding You Back?

Maybe it’s how you were taught to get ahead.

I was raised to compete. “It’s every man for himself out there,” my dad used to say, “To get ahead, you have to outdo the next guy.” That’s how I was groomed to get what I wanted. Top of the list: to live the American Dream.

Competing to get ahead is a restless occupation. It gives rise to a restless mind, and mine was no exception. I had the weight of our culture behind me too. It urged me in my development to study hard, work hard, make a lot of money, and have a lot to show for it. To me, this had the ring of a patriotic duty. Few were the voices that questioned the intelligence of living such a competitive-consumptive life.

Like everyone else, I just wanted to be happy. I figured that financial security was a major part of the package, and I was willing to persevere to achieve it. I played by the rules, but before I knew what a mantra was, I already had one: “What’s in it for me?”

By most common measures, I became successful. I worked for Disney and later moved to Hawaii, where “the good life” got even better. As a freelance writer, I was my own boss, free to set my own schedule and travel as I pleased. But something inside me was missing. No matter how many gains I made, my contentment would come and go like sand through a sieve. I was always in pursuit of the next fleeting pleasure.

When our joy slips away, most of us just try harder to get it back. We do what we have been doing all along, only at a faster and more strenuous pace. I was no different. According to my social conditioning, I was making all the right moves, a model of upward mobility. What was the problem?

The problem was society’s formula for finding happiness. It might look good in theory, but it does not jibe with reality. The messenger and message are upside down. Society does a masterful job of promoting and appealing to our worldly desires, persuading us that it knows what is worth our time and effort, but nothing it sells has the power or durability to keep us in smiles. Though its “good life” is portrayed as the Holy Grail, the more we buy into it, the more we are likely to wonder why the payoff doesn’t pay off.

Years ago, I discovered an age-old path to the peace and contentment I was seeking. It wasn’t fancy or fashionable, but the sheer simplicity of it was deeply effective. I walked into a class that taught me how to turn my energy inward instead of letting it dissipate in my outward chase of transient dreams and delusions.

What I’ve learned since then is mostly what I’ve needed to unlearn. I was looking in all the wrong places for what I wanted, and I was going about it incorrectly also. Instead of directing my competitive spirit entirely toward self-improvement, I was using it divisively, trying to be better than others.

“What’s in it for me?” was working against me too. I wasn’t nearly so happy when focused on getting more for me than when giving more to others. And oddly enough, the more big-hearted I became, the more abundance I attracted as well. Giving begets getting—what a concept!

Have I mastered the art of meditation? Or the science of selfless giving? Well, let’s just say that I’m moving in the right direction. Every day of showing up at the altar of silence within me makes the rest of my activities flow more pleasantly and smoothly. And every gesture of kindness and generosity adds to my happiness, too, even as challenges arise.

Technique plays an important part in the practice of meditation, but attitude is the one most important of all. I am seeing now as if through an open window that had long been boarded up. An expansive horizon has come into view, and it’s right inside of who I am.

Are rough spots still likely to lie ahead? Oh, yes. Kriya Yoga, the meditative method that I have practiced for over 20 years, has been described by Paramhansa Yogananda as “the airplane route to God.” But many choppy miles are yet to be flown. A lot of unlearning remains to be done; many habits and desires remain unresolved; and occasional attitude adjustments remain to be made. But redirecting my consciousness and energy from an outward, competitive aim to an inward, cooperative focus continues to change me. What’s in it for me now is letting go of the urge to run after gains that come and go. The real American Dream is lived by going within.