by Bill Davis
[From a talk presented at the 27th annual Bengali Studies Conference at The State University of New York/College at Old Westbury, NY in 1994.]
Everything I know and believe about spiritual life l owe to two Bengalis: Swami Vivekananda, who brought Vedanta to the West in 1893, and his teacher, Sri Ramakrishna, whose blazing realizations, just a little over a 100 years ago, have inspired so many people. This talk is an attempt to put into words some of what I have understood from these two great men.
A child can feel incredible yearning for a thing, feeling that it will give him unimaginable bliss. I remember the magic of the bicycle parade. Everyone decorated his or her bike with crepe paper and rode in formation. In the eyes of a first or second grader it was pure, unadulterated magic and joy. You had to be in third grade to participate. Well, there we were. I was finally in third grade and we were assembled to receive instructions about the parade. I was beside myself with excitement and joyful anticipation. I was finally going to take part in this magic. The teacher asked us to be quiet. Then she threatened us that whoever didn’t stop talking could not be in the parade. Somehow it didn’t occur to me that her words could apply to me. I and I alone was sent from that assembly, banished from the parade. This was the most keenly felt disappointment in my life. To be robbed of that bliss was to me a tragedy of the first magnitude. My mother begged the teacher to relent, but an example had to be set. I participated in fourth grade but by then the magic had drained away.
I remember also the breathless anticipation I felt at five at the prospect of opening my Christmas presents. You see, I’m Jewish by birth and had spent the first four years of my life in a Jewish section of Brooklyn. We had just moved to a Christian community in St. Louis and here my parents decided to celebrate Christmas. I was so excited I could not sleep. But no real presents could live up to the outlandish hopes I had for them. They were nice but not in the joyous league I had imagined.
As we get older we gradually learn, as a hedge against disappointment, to be realistic and tone down our hopes to a level that is pallid in comparison to that of a child. Even our nighttime dreams become more prosaic. However, Swami Vivekananda and Sri Ramakrishna have proclaimed that no hope is too outlandish when it comes to God. We need outlandish hopes. But as adults we’ve virtually lost the capacity to have them, since we’ve been disappointed by every single thing that we’ve ever attained. I used to think that there was something wrong with me because I was always being disappointed by things reputed to be great. For instance, winning. I remember how badly I wanted to win the race when I ran track as a youth. What bitter disappointment I felt when I lost. However, when I did win there was momentary elation, but that was all. In a little while I felt disappointment that winning did so little for me. It didn’t solve anything—the elation hardly lasted at all.
The fact that we start life with unrealistically high hopes is, in my mind, a kind of proof for the existence of God—for the existence of a god whose nature is bliss that we intuitively understand can be attained. We dismiss the hopes of childhood as childish, but from where does this hope of incredible joy come? We experience thirst, and to satisfy it there is water. We experience hunger, and there is food to satisfy it. We experience lust, and there is sexual gratification. Is the hunger for limitless joy alone without its suitable object?
The central idea of Vedanta is that there is only one existence, and that is Brahman. That Brahman—no one knows how or why—has become all this, has become the world and each one of us. Since we are literally divine, since our inner nature is literally bliss, how could we not feel discontent in being estranged from the bliss that we intuitively understand is our essential nature? Thus we crave that bliss and seek it in every way possible. Every yearning we feel for this or for that is actually that very yearning for divine bliss. Since our senses have been turned outward we tend to try to get that bliss by looking outside. However, our imaginations can go either inward or outward, something we often forget as adults.
Children are actually very creative in finding ways to enjoy themselves and are not limited to the sense world. When I was a child my favorite pastime was to spend time in a world of fantasy that I found very sweet. I can no longer remember anything about that sweet world except my feelings about it. My parents and my teachers did their utmost to pull me out of that world into the everyday world of facts and more or less succeeded. It was a great sacrifice they were asking me to make, to give up that sweet world in exchange for the world of lessons and grades and chores. I remember that I was very halfhearted in my renunciation of that inner world. However, if I ever hoped to get an education and to make a living I had to learn to focus my attention outward. Well, in the end I succeeded in focusing outward and now would like to be able to focus inward with the same relish that I had as a child.
I think what cemented my relationship to the outside world were the changes associated with puberty. I began to feel lust for woman, and woman was very definitely a fact of the outside world. To get woman you had to be mindful of appearance and of success in various realms such as grades, athletics, and, most important, the art of conversation. O Mahamaya, what a clever trick you played on me.
Once we’ve thrown our lot in with the outside world, the ways of trying to get that bliss we so crave fall into predictable categories. I became infatuated with love and thought that marriage might bring the kind of bliss I craved. But marriage is a very serious institution with heavy responsibilities. Even the sense pleasure fell far short of high hopes for infinite bliss.
We search in so many different ways. All these will give some satisfaction, but the degree of satisfaction is small compared to our hopes; it is temporary, and there is also a lot of suffering and disappointment involved in each of them.
Disappointed with the world, some people find a way back to a glimmer of that inner world of bliss through intoxicants. They add the glow normally lacking from experience. For the sake of this joy people will eventually sacrifice everything—their families, jobs and self respect—and not even care as long as the intoxication lasts. Even the desire for sex is eclipsed by the desire for intoxication. There is a pleasure center in the brain which intoxicants stimulate. This gives intense pleasure and whets the appetite for more. Animals able to stimulate this pleasure center (by means of electrodes placed in the brain) will even forget about food and water. So, as in spiritual life, the joy from intoxicants comes from within, as it were. The only problem is that the bliss it gives is ephemeral and leads to acts which are degrading. It makes us self-centered and selfish. Also, it’s like chasing a will-o’-the-wisp. The joy it gives becomes ever more elusive. It’s interesting that AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) prescribes a spiritual awakening as the antidote to addiction. Some people who are recovering from addiction say that they are grateful to have suffered the degradation of addiction since through it they were forced to have a spiritual awakening as the only way to get out. And now they treasure this awakening far more than they mourn what they have lost as a result of their addiction.
That we should search for bliss in the world is the essential mystery of Maya. Why should God trick us this way? No one knows the answer for sure, but holy ones have shown us how, by spiritual practice, we can get out. However, as one explanation for this mystery it is said that it is Her play, Her game of hide and seek. The Mother has hidden Herself and wants us to find Her. She who is infinitely blissful nevertheless enjoys this game so much that She goes to the trouble of creating this great universe. But she doesn’t want to make it too easy because, as Sri Ramakrishna says, obstacles add zest to a thing.
We feel that infinite yearning in our souls and, since our senses are turned thoroughly outward by the time we are adults, we try to realize that infinite bliss in the things we know. Instead of having faith in God we seem to be born with an inherent faith in what we see and what we experience. Our yearning for God gets filtered through our beliefs in what is real and unreal as through a prism. A prism turns white light into many colors. Likewise my inherent yearning encounters the belief that I am this body and mind and passions and ego all blended together. This encounter transforms the yearning for God into worldly desire. We accept on faith that if only we could perfect each area in the world in which we experience discontent, then we would win the bliss we crave. For example, I’m starving. If only I could get enough food then I’d be happy. Or I feel frustrated that I have not been able to enjoy the amount of sense pleasure that I crave. I imagine that I would be truly happy if I could enjoy to my heart’s content. Or I may feel slighted. My ego is wounded. I imagine that if only I could destroy my enemies then I would be happy. Or we yearn to love and be loved. If only so and so would love me then I’d be happy. By achieving these things and being disappointed with the results, we gradually become disillusioned with the prospect of worldly happiness. This is holy disillusionment. But it’s a slow process.
Despite countless disappointments, we still cling to the hope that the problem was that the success was not high enough or the love not perfect enough, not that the world is not capable of giving us the joy we want. It is very hard to let go of the delusion of worldly happiness. It’s like being asked to step out of a boat into another boat which is invisible but which we have some faith is there. The skeptic in us says (as did Omar Khayyam in his Rubaiyat), “Ah, take the cash and let the credit go.” Or the modern saying “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” But what about a billion birds in the bush? If we can bring ourselves to believe the testimony of saints and sages who say that the spiritual reality makes the world seem pale by comparison, then we can get ourselves to embark on the spiritual journey by whatever path appeals to us.
Such testimony is available in abundance, and not simply from olden times. We’re suspicious about very old testimony. It might have been exaggerated with the passage of time through many repetitions. But in this modern age we’re fortunate to have Sri Ramakrishna (1836—1886) whose life and spiritual bliss were witnessed by university-educated skeptics, the foremost of whom was Swami Vivekananda. He came to realize these things for himself and then carried his realizations to America for our benefit.
For those of us who have taken up spiritual life but still strongly feel the allure of the world, Sri Ramakrishna offers some guidance. He says that as long as the yearning for these things remains, that yearning should not be eliminated but turned Godward. After all, since these urges are already divine we can use their energy rather than exhaust ourselves trying to suppress them. Thus whenever we’re feeling tremendous desire for something we should discriminate and remind ourselves that the real object of our desire is God and not the thing we seem to desire.
Moreover, that yearning we feel for the object can serve as a reminder to us of the tremendous yearning for God that we harbor in our bosom. According to Tantra as explained by Swami Saradananda, a direct disciple of Sri Ramakrishna, in his biography of him called Sri Ramakrishna, The Great Master, we should try to remember that the worldly object we are enjoying or wishing to enjoy is actually a manifestation of the divine. Thus we may continue to enjoy but remember that the object of our enjoyment is God wearing a disguise. These thoughts will help sober us so that we are not totally intoxicated by worldly desires and enjoyments. Then gradually these very worldly desires and enjoyments will become reminders of God as much as a holy image. The very thought of wine would remind Sri Ramakrishna of divine intoxication. A prostitute reminded him of Sita. Eventually, then, desires will become purified into their real nature. Desire for sex with a woman will become transformed into desire for totally intimate union with God. The desire to possess will become greediness to possess Him, the greatest treasure. Be proud to be His child; want Him as a dear friend; want to have fun with Him; be angry with Him for not revealing Himself; and so with whatever other desire we may have.
It’s very hard to imagine infinite bliss. And how can we yearn for that which we can’t even imagine. But just think of your most aching desire and know that it cannot only be satisfied in God but that in Him our cup will run over—and over and over. Remember, Sri Ramakrishna said, “There is a billion times more joy in loving God.” I imagine that the great yearning we felt as children will finally be satisfied and then some. It is said that we will be satisfied beyond our heart’s fondest imagination. If we’re fortunate enough to get even a small taste of God’s bliss, how can we any longer run after the paltry satisfactions of the world? We’ll be like the thief who knows there is gold in the next room and will do anything to get it. Or look at the Gold Rush. What privations people endured in the hope of finding gold. They have faith in the existence of that gold. Before his first vision of the Devine Mother, Sri Ramakrishna says he knew the Mother, full of infinite bliss, was right there beside him. He had to seek her, he became mad for Her.
But until we’ve had that taste we’ll have to rely on the little bit of working faith that we have. I have been taught that by doing spiritual practices our faith that there is such an infinite bliss available to us will gradually grow and become truth to us. Examples of spiritual practice are seeking out holy company, practicing truthfulness and unselfishness, performing service as an offering, repetition of a holy formula, meditation, worship, reading words of holy ones and discriminating between the real and the ephemeral even as we enjoy.
BILL DAVIS came to the Vedanta Society of New York in 1972. After a career as a psychologist, he retired in 2007 and now lives at Vivekananda Retreat, Ridgely, where he serves as a handyman. He also still helps out monthly at the Vedanta Society of NY. Email: email@example.com
Excellent article. I read it earlier in draft form, but the published version is even better. Re Sri Ramakrishna’s remark that obstacles lend zest to a thing, I would utter a bleat in protest: “I don’t need the zest, just remove the obstacles!” I can imagine him laughing and replying, “I am enjoying the zest; you try to do the same.”
Very well written Bill. I found your reflections from your own childhood experience particularly compelling in holding my focus and attention on your central premise of “yearning for god”. That little boy who was brimming over with enthusiasm to ride his bike, finally, in a magical-like parade who was unexpectedly denied this honest yearning in a moment, by a “Teacher” of all people, was poignant and powerful . That teacher, in my opinion, though seemingly mean and inconsiderate in her delivery due to lack of skillfulness, may have had the misfortune of “initiating” you at a very crucial juncture in your young spiritual life. Certainly she must have known you and even understood , as a responsible adult, the devastating impact this could have on you Though she was likely oblivious to anything remotely godly in the moment she admonished you for “your own openness and experience of pure ecstatic joy—god”, here is that boy today with the wisdom and skillfulness
to look back, albeit 60+ years later, and use a lifetime of many other “bitter disappontments” and “joys” , to connect with the divine.
In a nutshell, I have come to believe that this lifetime we all share is not designed to be easy. The Buddhist concept of Samsara, or suffering, is inescapable. The best we can do, whatever or whoever we devote ourselves to, is to continue to look and pray—-just as you are doing.
Nice article. It is always good to be reminded that God alone is Real, and also that we are very fortunate in our disappointments when they point us towards God.