When a famous Hollywood actor, Herb Jeffries, met Paramhansa Yogananda for the first time, he asked a question that resonates with many, though few have the courage to voice it:

“Religion seems to tell me you shan’t do this, and you must not do that. I’m not interested in what I can’t do. What I want to know is what I can do.”

Master’s reply was simple, profound, and fun. “Do you smoke?” he asked. “Yes,” came the reply. Master’s response surprised him: “You may continue.”

Next up was, “Do you drink alcohol?” “Yes,” was the reply. Again Master said, “You may continue.”

Finally, “Do you enjoy the company of women?” “YES!” “You may continue.”

Master ended by saying, “You may continue with all of these activities. But I must warn you, that if you take up this path, the desire to do them will fall away.”

Yoganandaji taught that it is what we do that makes us holy, not what we don’t do. His guru, Sri Yukteswar, said, “The vanished lives of all men are dark with many shames. . . . Everything in future will improve if you are making a spiritual effort now.”

Only three things are absolutely essential: First is the desire to improve; second, the self-discipline to practice consistently; and finally, being open to help from a guide. Other qualities are important, but if these three are in place, the rest will follow naturally in its own time, just as the flowers of spring develop naturally into the fruits of fall.

what is essential

We are currently staying in an apartment in Delhi that we share with our dear friend Nayaswami Dhyana. She has recently taken up playing the esraj, a bowed Indian instrument. A person of great enthusiasm and energy, she personifies these three qualities. She has a strong desire to learn to play the esraj, partly for the sheer joy of playing music, but also so she can play the chants and songs of Paramhansa Yogananda and Swami Kriyananda as an aid to her attunement. Next, she practices two hours a day without fail. And, finally, she takes regular lessons from a teacher, Kashif, a master musician who himself started playing Indian classical music at age five and has practiced for hours each day for over forty years.

Interestingly, unbeknownst to Dhyana till now, we learned that Kashif’s father was a world-renowned musician who played for Yogananda when he was just fourteen years old. How strange are the graces of the guru and the threads of karma that weave together the tapestry of our life.

Not everyone has either the time or inclination to make such a dedicated effort. Consistency is more important than quantity, especially when we are just beginning a new endeavor. Swami Kriyananda would sometimes tell people, “Just try to meditate five minutes each day. You spend that much time on your dental hygiene. You can certainly do the same for your mental and spiritual hygiene.”

While a teacher or guru is vital, he or she cannot and will not do the work for us. Our spiritual search will evolve so long as we make the effort. Day by day, year by year, a steady desire to improve plus consistent practice will produce magical results. Ultimately, all is accomplished by God’s grace, but it is our soul’s yearning accompanied by self-effort that draws that grace.

Yogananda wrote, “Suppose you want riches. Will you sit in a room and wait for God to give them to you simply because you believe in Him? Hardly! You’ll work very hard to earn them. Why, then, expect salvation to come to you effortlessly, just because you believe?”

As we embark on the spiritual adventure to discover the endless potential within us, there is no magic wand that can substitute for our own effort. As Swami Kriyananda said, “Sometimes we just have to roll up our sleeves and get to work.”

In divine friendship,

Nayaswami Jyotish