When there was a growing interest in India among young men in joining the Ananda Monastery, Swami Kriyananda wrote Sadhu, Beware! as a guideline for them.
Over the years he had met swamis in India who had outwardly renounced worldly associations, yet were seemingly arrogant, and not at all free of anger and personal ambition. The heart of this book is the first seven chapters, which are all about the core of Ananda monasticism: ego-renunciation through ego-transcendence.
The following techniques are guidelines for Ananda monastics, but are also an excellent practice for anyone who is sincerely seeking divine freedom. Swamiji wrote about ego-transcendence:
“The first duty of every soul is to release the hold that ego-consciousness has upon it. All other spiritual practices are subservient to this one supreme obligation. I address ego-transcendence, therefore, as the first, and indeed the only, challenge on the spiritual path, whether one be a renunciate, a householder, or living for God in some other way.
“I include here a few techniques that will help you in your supremely important efforts to transcend ego-consciousness.”
Techniques of Ego-Transcendence
from Sadhu, Beware!
1. When you see something you’d like for yourself, buy it if possible; accept the satisfaction of possessing it. Then, however, give it away with a free heart to someone else.
I did this in Switzerland in 1955, when I was visiting the SRF centers in Europe. I saw a beautiful wood carving of the Madonna for sale. My first thought was how lovely it would be to possess it. The cost, however, was $12, which at the time was much more than twelve dollars are today. To purchase it meant spending four fifths of my monthly monastic allowance. I decided, instead, to buy it as a gift for Daya Mata, SRF’s president.
I think I made a good choice. Purchasing that statue gave me the brief joy of possessing it. Next, it gave me the joy of giving it to a friend. And finally, it gave me the joy of seeing it again whenever I got to visit her quarters.
2. When people fail to credit you for something you did and did well, say nothing. In your heart, however, give all the credit to God.
3. When people praise you for any reason, don’t accept their praise in your heart. Don’t say ungraciously, for example, “It was nothing.” That would mean deprecating their good taste and common sense! In fact, it would mean answering a compliment with an insult! Thank them sincerely, instead, but then give the credit to God. Do so in words if you like, but much more importantly, give Him the credit in your heart. Tell yourself, “God is the Doer.”
People may remind you, if you say that to them, “Yes, but it takes an instrument of God’s will to do what you’ve done so skillfully.” True enough, but what does that really mean? Do you want to pride yourself on being a good screwdriver, or hammer?! Move on to some other subject, and be particularly careful, in your heart, not to accept the compliment.
4. When someone else gets the credit for something you’ve done, don’t look for a way of letting people know where the credit really belongs. It would be natural enough for you to do that; you needn’t even consider it a fault. Still, don’t make too much of it. You will find much greater freedom in your heart if you mentally give all the credit to God.
5. When someone has a good idea that you’ve had already, it will help you in the practice of humility to tell yourself, “It’s the idea that counts, not the person who had it.” Reply simply, therefore, “That’s a good idea. Let’s give it a try.”
6. If someone scolds you for something you didn’t do, you may see some good reason for letting him know that you’re not guilty. If it doesn’t really matter who did it, however, you will gain more, spiritually, if you say nothing.
7. If you see others eager to air their views, be generous to them: let them speak. Add thoughts of your own only if you see that those others might be interested in what you have to say.
Many people are so convinced of the merit of their own thoughts – a certainty that isn’t always backed by real merit! – that even to respond with your own ideas might lower the discussion to a level of competition. Better, in such a case, to let them have their say. Listen for any benefit you might find in their words and ideas. If you see none (as, let’s face it, may often be the case!), show the other person respect, but share the humor of the situation, inwardly, with God.
You might even make a game of it, mentally, by seeing just how boring your interlocutor can be! Some people achieve almost a level of genius in the way they manage to challenge others’ patience!
8. If others try to boss you around, and if it doesn’t really matter to you one way or another, why not simply go along with the “game”? To do so will increase your sense of inner freedom.
9. Don’t try constantly to explain or define for others’ gratification who and what you are. Let your actions, and your inner reality, speak for you.
If others misunderstand you, wear their misunderstanding as a mental feather in your cap. Reflect that God alone really understands us, anyway!
10. Never place yourself mentally in competition with others.
11. Never belittle anyone. View all with respect. Release from your heart any desire you may feel to outshine others, or even to shine at all in whatever you do. Do the best you can, always, but give the fruits of your efforts to God.
12. Never try, without some good and definite reason, to justify your actions, ideas, or accomplishments. Whatever you’ve done, give it mentally to God.
13. Try always to impersonalize your impressions.
I remember once, many years ago, during a gathering of SRF renunciates, someone challenged a particular musical sequence (I don’t remember the details) in a chant. A musically gifted nun, present on that occasion, announced firmly, “[This] is how it should go.” Another nun answered her, “What makes you so certain?” I still remember the ego in the first woman’s voice as she replied: “My ear tells me!”
This musical nun left her monastic calling soon afterward. After she’d done so, I reflected on that little statement she’d made, and on the way she’d made it. Already, in those four words, were revealed a resurgence in her of ego-consciousness.
Try never, therefore, to make yourself the justification for any utterance you make. I don’t mean you shouldn’t call on your experience. You have a right to that; indeed, it is the only real wisdom you can claim. Never say, however, “I know, owing to my own special talent or insight.”
The nun I’ve mentioned was probably quite right in her assessment. It would have been wiser on her part, however, to answer, “Just listen sensitively. Can’t you hear the difference?”
14. Always be guided by principles, not by desires. And, especially if you find yourself in a leadership position, never impose your desires or your likes and dislikes on others.
On the other hand, be careful how you let them impose their feelings and wishes on you. As Yogananda said to us, “Don’t be a doormat!” Be firm inwardly, while letting principles be as much as possible your guide when making every decision.
15. Stand up for what you feel is right, but try to make it clear always that you are not trying to impose on anyone values that are merely personal. Base your values on abstract principles.
16. Laugh with others, but never at them.
17. Try to view with sympathy points of view that differ from your own.
18. Try not to tell stories of which the main point is to make you look good.
19. Live always in a spirit of joyful freedom from ego-consciousness.
20. As you practice right principles, people may often express appreciation for the goodness you manifest. Indeed, you will have become good. When others show such appreciation, however, remind yourself – and them also, if you like – of an answer Ananda Moyi Ma once gave me. I’d just exclaimed to her, “You are so good!” She replied with a beautiful smile, “It takes goodness to see goodness.”
21. It is not humility to tell yourself, “I can’t. . . .” Remember, God can do anything. If you give Him the chance, moreover, He can do anything through you. Ask Him for the inspiration, the guidance, and the strength to do whatever you must do. As Yogananda put it, “Pray in this way: I will reason; I will will; I will act – but guide Thou my reason, will, and activity in everything I do.”
22. I remember an amusing interchange, years ago: We monks at Mt. Washington liked to play volleyball together. It was good exercise, and also good fun. I must admit, however, that I wasn’t much of a player. Cheerfully I kept saying, “Sorry: My fault.” One day another of the monks commented with humorous exasperation, “Your humility is inspiring – but when will you reform?”
It is perfectly all right, I think, to exchange this sort of badinage. The obvious solution to playing badly, of course, would be – at least if it is important to you – to learn to play well; one should do as well as he can whatever he sets his mind to doing at all.
On the other hand, it would be a waste of time and energy to try to excel at everything. There is no harm in speaking lightly of your ineptitude at certain things. If, on the other hand, you do try to excel, try not to do so in a competitive spirit. It is all right to compete with yourself – that is to say, with your own past performances.
A child at an Ananda school many years ago put it perfectly. He had just finished competing in a race involving several schools. Someone asked him, “Did you win?”
“No,” he replied, “but I won against myself.”
23. Make it a point not to feel badly when you make a mistake. Obviously, it would compound the mistake if you insisted you didn’t make it. When you do err, however, acknowledge the error calmly and cheerfully – if not openly before others, then at least inwardly to yourself. (The Master used to say, “Don’t tell your faults to others, unless they have spiritual wisdom, lest they hoard up that memory and use it against you sometime out of displeasure with you.”)
If possible, don’t even say to yourself, “I made this mistake.” Say, rather, “The mistake got made.” God is the Doer. Give to Him the blame as well as the credit for everything. Then try ever more earnestly to attune your every thought and action to His will.
24. Avoid calling attention to your own cleverness or skill – for instance, by making the kind of bright remark that is almost always followed by a smirk and a glance around the room for others’ approval.
25. In fact, try not to call attention to yourself. If you want to call attention to some thought, try to be sure in your own mind that your desire isn’t based on a desire merely to be heard.
26. When you move to a new position in your work or living situation, carry no mental “baggage” with you. Have no expectations. Visualize receiving no recognition for anything you’ve done, and perhaps being shoved to the bottom of whatever ladder you must now climb. Then visualize yourself accepting that status cheerfully and willingly.
It isn’t that you are likely ever to receive such treatment. It is very freeing, however, to be able to feel that you need nothing from anyone. Make God your only support and joy.
27. Overcome the natural need for self-importance by enjoying your own unimportance!
Years ago, I was invited to speak at a conference on communities. Several famous persons had been invited to speak. The convener had set up the conference to announce his plans for starting a community himself. I was, as it happened, the only person there who’d had actual experience in founding communities.
One evening during the week I invited several of the speakers out to dinner at a restaurant. For some reason, though we sat around the same table, they basically ignored me and spent the evening talking self-importantly to one another. The situation was especially unusual in that I was the host!
“This is beautiful!” I told myself. No one seemed interested in my opinions on anything. Therefore, while trying to be gracious, I said very little.
At first I was surprised to find how far I was in their minds from “center stage”; I played the part of an otherwise non-existent audience. I soon realized, however, that this was a golden opportunity to practice enjoying my own unimportance. I found the evening delightful, and relished the inner freedom I felt in that thought.
28. Every evening, as you review in your mind the events of the day, avoid the thought of how you “stood up” in others’ eyes: what kind of impression you made; the words you said; how you reacted; how others reacted to you. Instead, share with God any thoughts of this nature that come to you.
Be like Arjuna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. His charioteer was Krishna, who took no active part in the struggle, yet by his very presence gave all the assurance Arjuna needed of ultimate victory.
Your thoughts, if you share with the Lord every recollection of the day, will soar above ego-consciousness.
29. An American swami from another ashram in India once visited me. After some discussion, he asked my advice on something that had been bothering him. “How,” he wanted to know, “should I handle people’s respect and reverence? In this country, swamis are treated as though all of them were saints. I know I shouldn’t let it affect me, but what is the best way to overcome that temptation?”
After reflecting a little, I said to him, “Don’t concentrate on what you are receiving from others: Concentrate on what you are giving out to them. Give them respect, even reverence, as children of God. Never forget that all human beings are equal, in Him.”
30. How should you respond in the opposite situation, when others heap you with insults? In this case also, give back respect. Give back even reverence if you can universalize your feelings to that extent. After all, what is it that really matters? Truth! Is the insult justified? Then be inwardly grateful that someone did you the kindness of uttering it. Is it unjustified? Then wish to see the person or persons who insulted you released from that negative thought, which can only pull his or their consciousness downward.
Many years ago I encountered a man at a public function who had once been my friend, but who, since then, had turned against me. Smiling sincerely, I invited him to visit me some afternoon for tea. He responded, as he had often done, by excoriating me and Ananda. This person had accepted wholeheartedly the accusations my sister disciples made against me. I replied to his expressions of contempt by saying, “J – – , I might be the Devil himself, but even so that wouldn’t be your problem. Why let negativity rankle you? You are the one who is hurt by negative attitudes.”
He shook himself as if to rid himself of mental cobwebs. “I know,” he said. “I can’t help it.”
I felt sorry for him.
31. Some people find it helpful to tell funny or deprecating tales at their own expense – in a spirit of fun, not of heavy-hearted confession. This practice can be helpful, as long as it is engaged in with a measure of calm dignity. It may be helpful also to let people laugh at you, and helpful also to return their laughter in a spirit of fun.
Delusion is extremely subtle, however. Don’t indulge in such banter too long: One or two light exchanges should suffice. After that, turn the energy away again from yourself. For if, even in a spirit of fun, you draw energy and attention too much toward yourself, it will affirm your ego. The fruits of ego are green, because unripe, and are therefore sour. It is no accident that most comedians, in private life, are unhappy people.
32. Don’t let your mind play with the thought of where and how you yourself fit into any picture. Don’t toy with flattery by entertaining it even lightly in your mind. Reject sternly any thought of self-importance, self-praise, self-justification, and blame.
This subject is as important for you as your own salvation, for your spiritual liberation depends upon release from ego-consciousness.
If release from the prison of delusion is important to you, then everything I have written above is of supreme importance. It is a question of the direction you give your energy and consciousness. If you allow yourself to be affected, even minutely, by flattery, to that extent you will be affixing one more iron bar in the prison of your ego. And to the extent that you allow yourself to accept in your ego even the slightest energy, to that exact extent you will create more bondage for yourself.
Instead, therefore, seek in every way possible to expand your energy and consciousness away from yourself. In other words, don’t expand your self-awareness like a balloon: Release it from all self-definition. Be quite stern with yourself in this practice, no matter how carefree you may seem in others’ eyes.
33. These should be enough suggestions for now. The important thing is that any thought of yourself should be offered up instantly to God. Spiritual liberation comes not in one grand, overarching leap, but by little increments of which the points I’ve suggested above will take you soaring.
Paramhansa Yogananda suggested that we memorize his poem, “Samadhi,” and repeat it daily. In essence, he meant also that we should always dwell on the thought that our true reality is infinite. Make the state of omnipresence your constant affirmation.