Letters from Ananda members, Part 13

My Life Has Become Worthwhile
Because of Swami Kriyananda
Durga Smallen

This letter is written in order to share with you some of the experiences and lessons that have truly transformed my life. No true spiritual path is easy but then, few sincere seekers desire such a life. It is because of my great regard for Swami Kriyananda that I’ve written down some of my experiences with him. I hope they will help each reader understand more fully who this extraordinary man is and why so many of us have chosen to be his students.

My husband, Vidura, and I first met Swami Kriyananda in 1974 when we were 28 and 32 years old, and seriously looking for a place where we could raise our two pre-teens within a rural yogic community. Did such a place exist? We pursued every lead over the course of two years until we finally met Swamiji and saw pictures of the community that he founded and in which he now lived: Ananda Village in Nevada City, Ca.

It all began at a spiritual smorgasbord in San Francisco called “A Meeting of the Ways.” Many spiritual paths were represented there: Buddhism, Hinduism, Sufism, Judaism, Catholicism, “New Age” Protestant sects; and the teachings newest to us, those of Paramhansa Yogananda who brought to the West the teachings of “Self-realization.”

Sitting with five or six other speakers, Swami Kriyananda represented his guru with humble, quiet dignity. The crowd was made up mostly of hippies like us who were dissatisfied with their lack of inner awareness and hoping to find alternatives to a world whose values were no longer their own—making money for its own sake, hurting others to gain success for oneself, etc.

When someone posed the question, “But do we really have to give up DRUGS to find the answers we are seeking?” of all the speakers, only Swamiji dared answer it. The other speakers obviously knew that to be truly honest in this environment would mean upsetting most of those present. Swamiji, however, very simply said “yes,” that in order to find God, one must give up ALL desires and attachments.

Vidura and I were impressed by Kriyananda’s straightforwardness, honesty and detachment—and also something else: an inner calmness that both acknowledged and yet transcended people’s opinion of him. After hearing what he had to say on that and other subjects, we sensed that we had very possibly found the answer to our prayers—and maybe much more.

Here was someone who had created a community of high-minded people, seeking Truth. Perhaps he could help us in our search. We watched how he interacted with the people from Ananda who were with him. We saw a respect and ease in their friendship that made us want to know more about all of them. What was the bond that held them all together? Could we, too, belong in this family? Before long, magnetized by Swamiji’s inner joy and by others from Ananda, we decided to visit Nevada City, home of the first Ananda World Brotherhood Colony.

It was when we drove onto the land that is now called the Meditation Retreat and felt the vibrations that all remaining doubts disappeared. We knew in our hearts that we were “home.” For us it was simply the fact of the matter. We had been looking for a long time and now we knew such a place existed. What did we feel? Extraordinary peace, inner joy, excitement, hope and some trepidation, certainly. Yet if our feelings were true ones, and we believed they were, then everything would just have to work out.

There were about 80 people living at Ananda at that time, half of whom have now gone on. Most of us were in our 20’s, idealistic and carefree, and not even remotely aware of the magnitude of what we were seeking—the transforming power of Paramhansa Yogananda in our own lives. However, slowly it became clear that it would take tremendous dedication and perseverance to live up to these teachings. We knew we couldn’t do it on our own. But, from what he had heard, Swami Kriyananda lived what he taught and we believed we could learn much from his example. Also, we could see that having the support of our fellow disciples through trials and hardships as well as gains and successes was also a great blessing. The longer we stayed at Ananda, the more we realized that this was the perfect, God-given answer to our prayers.

Sometimes people come to Ananda thinking that their lives will be, as our guru, Paramhansa Yogananda, once stated, like “walking along a rose strewn path, not realizing that God sometimes prefers thorns to roses.” After being part of Ananda for nearly 30 years I can say that the tests never stop; you only get stronger and more able to meet them by doing your best, and then, releasing them into God’s infinite wisdom.

Swamiji was not at all as I had envisioned a Swami to look like, or behave. He was totally himself. He wasn’t indifferent to what others thought; he simply did what he felt his guru wanted of him, and was content to let others figure out what that meant for them. He was funny, wise, extremely caring and always impersonal in his love. In that impersonality he was able to give us more because his only desire was to help us find the God within.

Swamiji appreciates the uniqueness of each soul

People say that Swamiji’s personality is so forceful that no one can truly be “who they are” around him. Well, “who they are” in the first place isn’t who they think they are. “Who they are” is a child of the Infinite. And there’s no one I know who holds out to us our uniqueness as a child of the Infinite more than Kriyananda. In our uniqueness we can express the Divine as it comes to us. I can’t think of anyone at Ananda who is like anyone else. Some are very outgoing; some are introverts and stay alone much of the time. Some find joy in expressing the arts; others in business. Some are very serious minded; some are like water spirits whose lives seem to jump from one idea and one project to another; some laugh heartily, some hardly smile; some are accountants; some teach children; some can meditate deeply and regularly; some find it very difficult to sit still for longer than 15 minutes.

Swamiji delights in our differences, sometimes talks about them with great glee, sometimes with feigned disbelief and sometimes with awe, but always with the knowledge that in God there is no one way of being, only expansion and uniqueness.

There is no one right way; only the way God intended you to be. And Swamiji is always there to help us grow beyond our personalities and into an awareness of a higher reality.

Swamiji and money
Over the years when people say that Swamiji is “money hungry,” I often wonder what they mean. That he lives in a small yet nice home? Travels worldwide? Has a working vehicle? Seems to have everything he needs? Yes, it’s all true. So did our guru, Paramhansa Yogananda, and countless other spiritual leaders. Is that wrong? No. Money, in and of itself, is just energy that some people attract (through hard work perhaps, good karma, or well-to-do parents) and that others, don’t. St. Francis lived by begging. The pope wears gold clothing. Yogananda struggled for much of his life in America to get his work established, but it wasn’t until after his greatest disciple, Rajarsi Janakananda, a millionaire, came onto the path that the financial picture began to improve. It was Rajarsi’s money that enabled Yogananda’s first organization in this country, Self-Realization Fellowship, to purchase, build and, along with others now, to maintain nearly everything that exists today.

Money isn’t the means by which we know of a man’s worth. It’s his attachment (or lack of) that determines whether he is or is not caught in the web of delusions about money. In all the years that I’ve had the good fortune to know Swami Kriyananda I have never heard him complain that he is lacking in anything, even when he was living in less than “acceptable” lodging and driving a 20 year-old battered car. Whatever Divine Mother gave him, he accepted gratefully. And even to this day, if there’s a “lull” in his finances, he doesn’t mention it. The only time he talks about any lack is in reference to the lawsuits which seem to be pulling money away from creating jobs, building temples, spreading the message of Kriya Yoga, and building more of the communities that Yogananda described as the lifestyle of the future.

Yet, even then, there is the understanding that if our guru is giving us lawsuits, then we will do all we can to fight the fight and, when it’s all over, continue to love. Throughout the litigation with SRF, and despite the denigration of him from the SRF leadership, Kriyananda has repeatedly said that, “When this is all over, I want you to promise me that you will work for harmony. It matters not what they say about me, but we need to establish harmony between us. The time will come when this will be possible.”

Many years ago, when Swami planned to take a little vacation, he put aside $1000, just enough for his expenses. A few days before he was to leave, his car broke down and he realized that if he used the money for this vacation, he would have no car when he returned. So he used the money to buy another car, offering the trip up to Divine Mother. “If you want me to go on this trip, you will show me how I can manage it.” He told no one about it. Two days later, from someone he barely knew, he received a check for $1000 with a note saying, “Use this as Divine Mother wishes.”

There have been times when Vidura and I did not have enough money to go on a trip with Swamiji and our friends. Later, we’d find out that Swamiji had somehow made it possible for us to go. I remember once he invited us to Lake Tahoe for two days with another couple. It was just at the time when we’d saved some money and were happy that at long last, we could offer this trip to Swamiji as a gift. Yet, once there, he announced that he would like to pay for all of us as our birthday gifts that year! Incredible. How could he afford to do that? It was his philosophy of life: if Divine Mother guided him to do anything, She would provide the means for it to happen.

Swami’s friendship, always in God
It’s hard to understand what the life of a true yogi looks like when there are so few in this country to emulate. The ways in which they operate are subtle yet, there is a quality about their life that stands out—inner peace, contentment and a deep desire to help others in their own search for Truth. Swamiji is nothing if not a spiritual friend. When you begin to tune into his consciousness, you see that there is always spiritual help and guidance in his every word—a suggestion to be more compassionate, strong, kind, easier on yourself, more detached. By always, always, holding up to us the highest that is within us, he teaches us to see it in ourselves and others.

Many years ago when our son was struggling with the pain of becoming an independent young man, I mentioned to Swamiji that I was having difficulties knowing how to deal with his teenage pressures and realities. Swamiji looked at me very sweetly and said, “You don’t ever have to worry about D–. Just look into his eyes and you will see the person he truly is.” Then, he added, “Oh, and when talking to him, it’s probably better not to use the word, ‘should’.” That was all. That was enough. Not that we didn’t struggle at times, but I never worried about him again, for I would remember his eyes, which were extremely sensitive and caring, and realized that no matter what befell him, he would be fine. And, indeed, he is a very successful, spiritually aware, and loving human being.

A time came when Vidura and I felt that we didn’t have the spiritual depth to carry through with a job Swamiji had asked of us. We shared this with Swamiji. Instead of telling us all the reasons why we “should” do it, he simply wrote to us, “I’m not asking you to do this because of all the ways it will help others, but because it will help you to become who you want to be.” It was exactly what we needed to hear to understand why he made this particular request of us.

About two years ago, Swamiji was in Taormina, Sicily with some friends. As they were walking along the streets, they entered a shop that sold, among other things, hats, scarves, and luggage. The shopkeeper, a lady, was not at all friendly, quite unlike the others they had met on the island. But they spoke to her and exchanged whatever pleasantries they could. The next year Swamiji went to see her a second time and, talking to her again, inquired a bit more about how she ran her business. When she replied that she wasn’t concerned about her customers, Swamiji commented that she might find her life more fulfilling if she could make friends with those who came into her shop.

In November of last year, Vidura and I along with four others, made the same trip to Sicily with Swamiji. The first day there, he took us to meet this same lady whom we called “the hat lady,” not knowing her name. She at once recognized Swamiji and they talked for awhile, although she was still not what you would call “warm”.

Later, when Swamiji found out that the hotel had given Vidura and me a bottle of nice wine as a gift, (not knowing that we don’t drink liquor), he asked me if we would mind if he gave it to the “hat lady”. Upon arriving at the shop, Swamiji opened the glass door and handed her the box saying something to the effect of, “This is for you.” She became very still. I don’t think anyone had ever thought to do such a thing for her. She certainly wasn’t the kind of person who would win your heart upon first meeting her, or perhaps ever. Yet here was a man whom she hardly knew who truly cared about her. She began to cry and looked into Swamiji’s eyes with so much gratitude and love—almost as if she were searching his face to find out who he could be.

If this was an isolated instance, it would mean something certainly, but this happens virtually every time Swamiji enters a store—people respond to the love he pours out. Experiences such as these have helped me to understand that in loving and caring—in little as well as big ways—we can all help to change the consciousness of the world. Not from “peace rallies” but from people who understands the meaning of “divine love.”

Once, many years ago Swamiji visited us when we were living at Ocean Song, an Ananda community on the West Coast. Ananda’s work there had just begun and we were all sitting around the dining room table discussing ways to increase our magnetism and the public’s awareness of what we were doing there. During the brainstorming, I casually mentioned, almost as an aside, that I wished I were creative like the others. Swamiji would not let it pass by. “But you ARE creative!” he said very strongly. I had never thought of myself as “creative.” But to Swamiji, who was by no means just trying to make me feel better, it was the simple truth of my Being. And in order for me to express that truth outwardly, I first had to accept it myself.

Another time, when Swamiji and I were driving back to Ananda, we began to discuss the joys of knowing Vidura, my husband. I started to tell Swamiji about a time that Vidura had dropped something, and with what I thought was said with all due respect, I related, laughing, that he was not the most graceful person I knew! Surprised, Swamiji immediately said to me, “Really? I always see Vidura filled with grace.” Once again, Swamiji was holding up for me the highest way to see any situation or person. Why do we tend to degrade others when there is so much good to reflect on instead? It was a lesson I shall never forget. Yet, once again, Swamiji didn’t scold or “teach”; he only reminded me of what I knew all along.

Leadership style

What I’ve found over the years is that most spiritual leaders are so busy being “spiritual” and “leaders” that they forget to be a friend in God to others. Swamiji does not hold himself out as better than anyone. He never suggests or implies that he is “the guru.” He is simply our friend and for those who wish it, our teacher. Yet his “teaching” is subtle and he teaches much more by example than by instruction.

I remember how once, in the early years of Ananda, we were looking forward to the arrival of a well-known spiritual teacher, having heard wonderful stories about him and his community. Yet, with him came disciples who had obviously been taught to revere him in such a way as to always sit lower than he sat, even to the point of lying down when sitting was no longer manageable! At first I was impressed with this behavior, and even wondered if were respecting our own Swamiji enough. Then I realized how utterly “forced” and unnatural it was. Instead of forgetting oneself in the bliss of the contemplation of God, one had to constantly think of how high one stood or sat! It wasn’t long before this teacher’s organization dissolved. Once again, I was reminded of Swamiji’s humility and centeredness within. If we wanted to show him outward respect, then fine, but only if we gave that respect in the right spirit, that is, not because we needed it or because we hoped to gain something for ourselves, but because we sincerely felt it in our hearts.

Vidura and I have had the privilege of leading eight pilgrimages to India, taking over 300 people to experience the land and feel the power of the places where our guru lived and taught. One of the towns we visit is Rishikesh in the northwestern foothills of the Himalayas. Rishikesh means “city of rishis” or seekers of God. One sees orange-clad Swamis walking the streets by the hundreds. A few have spiritual strength and inner powers; most, however, are like us: seekers of the Truth.

We’ve become friends over the years with a wonderful woman who is married to a moderately wealthy, highly respected merchant. Both she and her husband are devoted lovers of God. They have lived in Rishikesh for over 20 years and seen thousands of pilgrims, swamis and sadhus, many of them powerfully devout souls. When this woman met Swami Kriyananda, she bowed before him. She later said that this was the first time she had felt to honor anyone in this way in all those 20 years. What did she see in Swamiji? Someone without pretense, humbly seeking God, who gave his joy and friendship effortlessly, asking nothing of anyone. She said he was the first “truly holy man” she had ever met.

In the midst of his own pain…
The year was 1994. I had been taking chemotherapy treatment for ovarian cancer for some months and was feeling extremely nauseous and weak. Vidura and I were living in a small apartment near Swamiji where he, too, had been ill and weak for some time due to heart problems that would soon result in major heart surgery. One day during this period Swami asked if I would massage his feet. (For a number of months I had helped to relieve some of Swamiji’s discomfort by rubbing his feet with oils and, I found as I did so, that by helping him in this way it also helped me to forget about myself and concentrate on God—which is what I did while I was with him.)

On this particular day, however, I was feeling worse than usual. I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to help him in the condition I was in, and yet I didn’t want to let him down. So I accepted. When I arrived at his home, Swamiji was silent. I picked up the oils and towel and prayed that Master would help me to help him. After 10 minutes I became aware that, due to lack of energy, it wouldn’t be long before my fingers wouldn’t be able to keep moving, and fear crept into my mind, erasing all thoughts of Master or Swamiji or what I was doing.

But then, all of a sudden, I realized that I didn’t care how sick I was. I was with the person who mattered most to me, so if I died right here, what would it matter? Then, as if the universe was responding to my thoughts and prayers, I felt a surge of energy up my spine such as I had never felt before. In that moment, the life force I needed to finish what I was doing with love and awareness returned. During the entire time I was with him Swamiji never said a word. Yet, I knew that he had been offering to me a solution to the problem of my illness. In that moment I knew that I already had all the energy I needed to recover fully and with joy, and that I could ALWAYS have it if I would only call on God and our gurus.

Another time I was in Florence, Italy with Swamiji and a group of friends. On our way to see one of the churches there, the sidewalks were so crowded that, every so often, we had to step off the curb and walk in the streets. Swamiji’s hip at the time was severely degenerated from arthritis and it was quite painful for him to walk, much less go up and down curbs or steps. So I took it upon myself to walk in front of him so that people would bump into me instead of him. I also tried to be considerate enough to open the gap between us so he could walk by easily.

After one particular harsh bump I was particularly happy that I had “saved” Swamiji from a possible disaster. Yet, as I looked behind me, there he was walking in the street! He had managed to step off the curb and was walking with some difficulty but no danger. He looked at me and I at him. In that moment I knew that he hadn’t wanted me to do anything that would infringe on another’s free will, even if it meant helping him. In his mind, stepping off that curb was the better solution. I had done nothing “wrong,” yet it showed me once again his enormous, even staggering willingness to experience pain to avoid inconveniencing someone else.

I will always hold in my heart the deepest love and appreciation for Swamiji, who has given his life so that all of us who have chosen to be his friends in God can live in the highest way possible.

Durga and her husband Vidura live at Ananda Village where they manage the community. They also teach at Anandas colonies around the U.S. The Smallens have been at Ananda since the early days of the first rural community, and are highly regarded for their skill in the art of supportive leadership. They are beautiful examples of the fruits of lifelong selfless service.