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.