How to Relate to a Spiritual Teacher:
An Individual Perspective
(The community meeting where this talk was given, happened years before Anne-Marie Bertolucci came to Ananda. It gives insight into how Swami Kriyananda thinks about himself and his role at Ananda. This is from a transcription of his talk, which he edited a little to make his thoughts more clear.)
In a community satsang, Lila Devi [an Ananda member] asked Swami Kriyananda the following question: “How should we relate to you, Swami? You’re certainty a friend, but to many of us you’re so much more than that, I’d like to know how I, and all of us, can develop an open channel with you that we’d feel comfortable with. And I’d like to know how to work with that on all levels, not just on the level of personality.”
Swami Kriyananda answers:
Well, you’ve asked a difficult one! Part of my answer, surely, must take into consideration not only your comfort, but also mine.
You’ve said you’d like your answer “not just on the level of personality.” Yet you’ve started at that level. Let’s then begin there, shall we?
From what I’ve observed, I’d say it was common for teachers—and not spiritual teachers only—to identify strongly with their teaching role; to tell themselves, “This is what I am, and what I like to be.” In this respect, I guess you might say I’m beyond the pale. I’ve never really identified myself with the role I’m supposed to fill.
Yes, of course I’ve dedicated my life to teaching; it isn’t that I’m uncomfortable with the role itself. It’s only that my desire in teaching is simply to please God and Guru. Master told me that this is my path to salvation. It’s the goal I want. I’m not attached to the path. Indeed, whenever I meet others who feel like talking, I’m happy to remain silent—even if I don’t always agree with what they say!
I spoke of my own need to feel comfortable in my relationship with you. What is comfortable for me, personally, is the thought that I am your friend in God. When I teach. it is in a spirit of friendship, of sharing with you, and of serving God through you all. You don’t owe it to me to accept what I say. On the contrary, I feel blessed when anything I say proves helpful to you.
What, then, of your comfort? I know it is sometimes awkward for you, used as you are to the thought of a friend and a teacher being two very different animals. You’ve been through school and college, and perhaps you’ve been lectured to authoritatively all through your childhood by your parents. And almost always, when anyone has had anything to tell you “for your own good,” he’s told it to you in a spirit of condescension, as if addressing you from a higher level of wisdom and experience.
What makes it particularly awkward in my effort to be first of all your friend is that I do speak with a degree authority. Thirty-five years on the path could hardly have failed to give me a certain wisdom and experience that most of you, perhaps, still lack. Moreover, I am the spiritual director of this community. Naturally, you see me as an authority figure. I suppose that in some ways I must accept that I am one, though I try to step out from under that burden as much as possible by making truth, never my personal wishes, the real authority for all of us. Nor am I one of those teachers or leaders who courts the friendship of those under them by pretending to be merely “one of the boys.” In my mind, my sharing with you as teacher and leader is my offering of friendship to you.
A tough one to piece together, I grant you! But perhaps this thought will help you: What I seek always to do is let my teaching, and my requests of you, convince you by their own merit, and by the power of truth, I do not hold over you personal emblems of authority—my position, my greater experience, my years with Master. In this way I stand apart, mentally, from whatever I say to you. I let the words speak for themselves. I, meanwhile, am simply your friend.
Indeed, it often happens that the words that come through me in this manner come not at all by my will. It sometimes happens, for example, just after I have said “I don’t know” in answer to some question, that, suddenly, I do know. The answer is given to me. Or it may be that I am lecturing, and suddenly I find myself sitting back, as it were, listening with astonishment to what I am saying almost as if with the reaction, “My, I wish I’d thought of that!”
So what am I saying? If my very service to you isn’t really my own, and if that service constitutes my act of friendship for you, where do I even fit in?
The answer is, I don’t! What I aspire to be, rather, is a channel for the only true Friend any of us will ever have; God alone. I see each of you, too, as channels above all for my Infinite Friend. And though, naturally, I have particular karmic bonds with some of you (one body cannot relate equally, in an outward sense, to everyone), it is not these bonds that matter most. Indeed, to concentrate too much on them would be bondage indeed. In all cases, it is on an inner, soul level that friendship is sweetest. And on this level, we can be close even when outwardly we seem far apart.
Why, then, do I identify more with the role of friend than with that of teacher, if in fact I don’t really identify with either role? Well, to begin with, such is simply my nature, my personality. I do identify with the role of friend. But it is an identity that I offer up to higher, impersonal realities.
Secondly, and more important, I think there is more to be gained even from a teacher-student relationship if it can be rooted in deep, spiritual friendship.
Do you remember how once, a couple of years ago, I said to a group of you, “For years I have asked Master to use me as his channel to bless all of you. But this evening I would like to ask each of you to come forward and pray to him to use you as channels to bless me.” That was a moving experience for all of us, wasn’t it? For it helped us to realize that true, divine friendship means mutual giving.
Many of you have mentioned how much more harmony you have felt over these past two years at Ananda, since I began emphasizing the importance of reciprocal sharing.
What leader worthy of the name wants to surround himself with “yes men”? The people I enjoy working with are those who think for themselves, who give me back energy—and not those who merely sit there, taking things in like sponges. Passive receptivity makes the flow of energy unidirectional, with the teacher putting out everything, but getting nothing back in return to reinforce his further giving. The student might imagine he receives more from the teacher in that way, but the truth is, he receives much less. Magnetism builds up when it moves cyclically. In the relationship of friends, reciprocity comes more naturally and easily.
Here’s an example of what I mean. Years ago, while I was writing The Path, I invited the members of our community over to my house for satsang every Thursday evening. I would read to them whatever chapter I’d last been working on. Well, to my dismay, week after silent week I found them all just sitting there, meditating and (I hoped!) listening to the words, but hardly ever expressing any outward reaction.
Now, please put yourself in my place. Wouldn’t you sort of wonder?
Yes, certainly I knew that they were meditating on what they were hearing. But they weren’t taking me into account. Was I supposed simply to go on pouring out energy to them, without, so to speak, ever pausing for a “refill”?
A one-way flow of energy is an abuse against Nature’s very law of abundance. The farmer who only takes from his land, returning nothing gratefully to it, soon exhausts the soil. God Himself showers abundance on those who appreciate it. It is by our appreciation that we attune ourselves to the flow.
As my singing teacher during my college days said, at our first meeting, “Your lessons will be five dollars. It isn’t that I. need the money; I don’t. But you need to pay it!” The members at those Thursday evening satsangs seemed to be seeing me purely in the light of a sort of spiritual jukebox, set there solely for their inspiration!
Well, one evening finally, at the end of a reading, I said to them in exasperation, “Isn’t there anyone here capable of saying something?”
My point is that you yourselves benefit most when you perceive the teaching process as an exchange of energy. This is, as I said earlier, a matter of principle—much more so than of my mere personality. The important thing is to recognize that the giving must be both-sided. Otherwise it becomes poured into a hole that can never be filled. And the easiest way to come to appreciate this reality is, first, on the human level. That, again, is why I stress the importance of friendship,
Toward God Himself there is the beginning of a right relationship when we can offer ourselves back to Him lovingly, and when we don’t seek merely to receive Him passively.
I’ve said that I like to see myself as your friend. But by friendship I mean primarily friendship in God. Indeed, what I try to be to you is, as I said earlier, a channel for His love.
For neither you nor I exist except as shining bubbles in His one ocean of light. Who, indeed, is loving whom? It is all God, loving Himself in his myriad outward disguises. The deep truths for which we, in our sadhana, are reaching are all impersonal.
The trick is to realize that, in their impersonality, they are not in any way cold or abstract; that love is the more loving for being impersonal—for being freed, that is to say, from the constriction of petty selfhood and selfishness.
Thus, a basic attitude of friendship serves the higher end of helping us to develop attitudes of loving self-giving in our relationship with God. Without such attitudes, high yogic aspirations will ever remain unfulfilled, and the austere impersonality the yogi works on developing remains joyless and dry.
In my relationship with Master I would sometimes find him very distant and impersonal. At first, seeing him thus, I thought he seemed cold. But in time I discovered that what he was offering me, and all of us, was the perfection of our human relationship with him, never a denial of it. Far from rejecting our love, he was offering it to God alone, where it truly belonged, and thus giving us the chance to discover, through our relationship with Him, a relationship a million times more beautiful than anything merely human.
Friendship, you see, is right, spiritually speaking, only when it seeks its perfection in God’s impersonal love. Were I to give you my friendship only as a human being, and to seek your friendship in return only for myself, I would be betraying the charge I have been given to serve you in Master’s name. Sometimes indeed, when perhaps I have seemed distant toward you, or even severe, I know that some of you have felt hurt with me, and have wondered if I really did still love you as a friend. I myself, in my human nature, regret it deeply when I must speak strongly to you, but it is my very friendship for you that makes me speak in whatever manner I sense will be most helpful to you. At the same time, I also see friendship as only a doorway to the higher, impersonal love of God. How could it be otherwise, when what we want, as yogis, is the end of our egos?
In this context I remember when I first met Swami Sivananda, in Rishikesh, India. My impression of him was that I liked him, that he was a nice man. But I couldn’t say that I felt very much more. Owing perhaps to the fact that he wasn’t my guru, there wasn’t that immediate rapport that I would have liked to have with such a well-known saint.
Later on, however, I saw Swami Chidananda, his chief disciple, gazing at him with an attitude of deep, selfless love, devotion, and respect. Implicit in his look was the gratitude offered to one from whom he had received everything. Chidananda himself became ennobled in my eyes by his self-giving attitude. And, seeing him thus, I felt that anyone to whom a man of such noble character could give such devotion must truly be worthy of it. Through Chidananda, I came truly to revere Swami Sivananda.
How different, Swami Chidananda’s perfect appreciation is from the passivity of the “yes man” kind of disciple A “yes man” is somebody who doesn’t think for himself, who simply allows himself to live in the shadow of someone else. This is the trap many women fall into in relation to their men. It is the attitude of those disciples who merely turn over to their gurus the entire responsibility for their spiritual development. Don’t all the Scriptures emphasize the need also for personal effort on the devotee’s part? Why else, indeed, would the Scriptures even have been written?
Perhaps the disciple also helps the guru by giving him energy for the fulfillment of his mission. At any rate, the disciple certainly gains from what he gives to the guru. Even now, long after Master’s earthly life, I find that my highest attunement comes from thinking not in terms of my work, but rather of, “How can I do your work?” But whenever I’ve allowed thoughts like these to come in: “What do I want?” or, “How am I going to grow?” or, “What am I going to get out of it, because, after all, you’re there already, whereas I’m the one who needs to advance spiritually”—I’ve always sunk to a lower level, and there has been no blissful inner flow. In self-giving, especially to Master, I have always gained the most, inwardly.
We must try, you see, but our self-effort must be directed primarily toward deepening our attunement with guru—not as a person, but as a channel for the Infinite Lord.
But I’m certainly an active link to him—for those of you who live and work here at Ananda, and who try to follow the things I teach you in his name. This is simply the way it is, the way it has always been.
I have seen that those people who thought to attune themselves to Master on their own, without accepting the channel of grace as it flows through those who already have such attunement with him, never receive as much.
Master himself, while living, urged the newer disciples to look to his closer disciples. and not only to him, for guidance arid inspiration. “Do not imagine,” he would say, “that you can please the guru while ignoring his disciples.” I recall also how Master told Vance Milligan, a young disciple, “You should mix more with Walter. You don’t know what you have in him.”
Jesus too said to his disciples, “He that receiveth you receiveth me” (Matthew 10:40)
Consider, by contrast, those who have left Ananda, or who have never joined any SRF group, offering as their rationale that they want to create their own inner attunement directly with Master. They seem to have missed something vital. You can see it in their eyes and in their lives—particularly when you compare them with those devotees who live here, or in close contact with one of the SRF centers.
The truth is, those who think to go straight to God and Guru, without help from others, have not yet learned the humility necessary to advance much on the path. The wise devotee, rather, knowing how difficult it is at all times to get out of delusion, is eager for any guidance he can get on his journey.
Master said to me one evening, “Don’t doubt God.”
“Oh, Sir, I don’t doubt God!” I replied—feeling the nicety of this distinction.
He looked at me piercingly under lowered brows. “Where,” I wondered, “have I gone wrong?” And then, “Have I gone wrong?” I was suffering in my perplexity, but, you see, I needed to understand.
The following day I saw Master again. Once more I got the same look. But by this time I was beginning to understand. My error had lain in attempting to divide those two realities: the divine, and the humanly divine. For they were one—particularly so in the case of our fully enlightened Guru.
Wise is the disciple who looks behind the veil of his guru’s personality to the indwelling reality of God. As a Sanskrit saying has it, “Though my guru visit the grog shop, still he is the living embodiment of the Infinite Lord.”
Wise, indeed, is the disciple who looks behind the veil even of ordinary people, to see only the God within them. But the way to start this practice is by looking for Him in those who are the most in tune with Him, and of course especially in the guru. As Jesus said, “He that receiveth a prophet in the name of a prophet shall receive a prophet’s reward.”
The light in the stained glass window of a church is different, in a sense, from the sunlight behind it. Its function might be said to be to proclaim the sunlight to us, whose limited minds need to perceive light more narrowly as separate colors.
I am ever fearful lest I fall from that high purpose. For I am still human; I still can make mistakes. I can still fall from the spiritual path. To this fact, however, I should add that if our friendship is truly rooted in God, then if ever I should fall, your duty would be to help me, as mine is even now to help you. It would be wrong to say to me then, “Get away! I no longer need you.”
Do you need me? That is up to you. But don’t imagine that I want anything from you, except your own development in God. I am your friend and I am also your servant in God; but one who offers his service, and his relationship with you, daily on the altar where his guru’s image rests. My love for you forms a part of my love for Master and God.
I tell you these things also for my own sake. For I fear delusion. I fear falling into the trap of ego. It is so easy to become proud when others follow you. Yet I have to say that so far, with God’s grace, I have never felt tempted to want your support, or your love, for anything but God’s sake. I take comfort, too, in something Master once said to me.
He had been talking to a small group of us about some of his minister disciples who had fallen into the temptation of pride owing to their position as teachers.
“Sir,” I cried, “that’s why I don’t want to be a minister!”
For a moment he looked down at the ground seriously. Then he spoke quietly, but with great firmness; “You will never fall because of ego!”
Why then do I fear? I fear because it is always wise to hold in awe a power which has held us all in thrall for so many thousands, perhaps millions, of incarnations! But our fear should goad us to love more deeply, and not to live on forever in its shadow. Thus, I fear my humanity, but I trust in God’s love, and Master’s, and in their omnipotence to save even this frail, struggling devotee, if I continue firm in my love for them, and in my service to all of you.
You are, you see, in a divine way important to me. It is in the human sense only that I need and want nothing from you.
Indeed, always in my heart there is a feeling, one I can’t really explain, that I don’t really exist as a person. This world has never, for that matter, seemed very real to me. But it seems less so now than ever. Increasingly, I simply don’t feel personally involved with anything.
And with this thought comes another consciousness that seems to be aware of things not at all known to me on an ego level.
Do you remember that story of Master’s, in the Autobiography, about his pet deer at the Ranchi school? The deer was dying, and Master was praying for its life. Then one night the soul of the deer came to Master and begged him, “You are holding me back. Please let me go, let me go!” The soul even of animals, you see, is omniscient. Each one of us knows everything, on his own deepest level.
Spiritual advancement isn’t a question of attaining anything, really. It is only a matter of opening wide the door to a state of conscious being that is ours already, hidden from us only so long as our attention is focused elsewhere. As, by regular meditation, the door gradually opens, ego and soul are able to work in closer cooperation together.
It is fascinating, and I can’t explain it well, but it is as though there were two “me’s” carrying on; and more and more frequently they seem to get through to each other.
The same must be true for everyone on the path.
I read recently about a saint who appeared to his disciples in time of need, sometimes saving them in serious crises, as happened one time in the case of a woman who was on the point of drowning, and to whom the saint appeared, and led her across the river by the hand. When next she saw him, she thanked him. But what was her surprise when he replied frankly that he hadn’t been conscious of the episode.
A fully realized master must surely know these things on an ego level, too. But perhaps, before one reaches enlightenment, there is a time when the opening between soul and ego is sufficiently wide for the soul to enter into the ego’s functions— involved in ways of which the ego itself is unconscious.
Does all this sound a bit wild? Perhaps it is. Still, I’ve found increasingly that when I’ve thought of something I wanted to say to someone, that person has had a dream or a vision in which I told him that very thing. I wasn’t conscious of coming to him, but sometimes … I wonder.
The difficulty of this aspect of our consciousness is that people look for it in the personality, and it doesn’t come that way at all. All I can definitely say is that the more I attune myself to that level of being, the better I can help you. And then this friend, whom you know, is not really helping you at all!
So you see, my highest duty, and my constant desire, as your soul friend is to take you beyond mere human friendship to a deeper awareness of the Eternal Friend who resides in our own souls.
You will benefit from our relationship according to the level that you can. I am your friend, but if you define our friendship in terms already familiar to you, you will remain always at that level of familiarity, and will gain little more from it. See our friendship, therefore, as progressing ever upward, toward the impersonal love of God, which alone is reality.
Remember that whatever I can give to you comes to you through me by Master’s grace. Only to the extent to which I can attune myself with him do I receive the grace to help you truly on the path. The more your own faith and attunement goes to our true source, in him, and beyond him in God, the more greatly you will be able to receive.
And remember above all that Master’s, and God’s, whole aim is to make you perfect “even as our Father which is in heaven is perfect.”