Three Key Attitudes for Difficult Times
Paramhansa Yogananda often said, “Creation is a dream of God and the goal of life is to awaken from the dream.”
The dream has now turned dark for many people. Economically, we’re in a very difficult period. Millions have lost jobs. Whether the downturn will become a protracted depression or whether there will be catastrophic events, as some have predicted, we don’t know. But we do know that many people are fearful for the future.
The question for us is: how can we stay open and expansive in this time of uncertainty and turmoil? How do we remember that God is always supporting and guiding us? Three key attitudes will be our allies: Gratitude, Non-attachment, and Generosity.
Several attitudes help generate happiness, but first and foremost is gratitude to God for everything in life. Gratitude invites a flow of grace while grumbling blocks those sustaining rays and leaves us exhausted and bitter.
If we don’t appreciate God’s gifts, how can we hope to feel His presence or keep our hearts open? Without an attitude of gratitude, we reject the lessons He is trying to teach us.
It isn’t enough just to think about gratitude. We must actively feel grateful and express it consciously. When we open our hearts in this way we find that murky feelings of anxiety and isolation fade away. The antidote to negativity is to make it a habit, several times a day, to thank God for whatever you are experiencing at that moment.
Thank God for the hardships
Don’t thank Him only for pleasant things. Thank Him also for difficulties. Life is a mixture of ups and downs—of what we embrace as “positive” and reject as “negative.” But, since we so often misjudge what is good or bad karmically, it is best to thank God for everything: good, bad, and indifferent. Too often we’re like a patient spitting out the very medicine that can make him well.
Paramhansa Yogananda said he would correct only those who gave him permission to do so. How do we give him permission? Not with words but by opening our hearts to him. So, be grateful to God for everything. Sing Him love songs in the silence of your soul. Then see what that does for your heart.
Second in importance is gratitude’s cousin, non-attachment. Our likes and dislikes splinter the world into little pieces, which is a classical definition of maya or delusion. Attachment is the main obstacle to knowing ourselves as children of Divine Mother.
With an attitude of non-attachment — simply accepting what is happening — we can respond to life according to what is right rather than what pleases us. Non-attachment doesn’t make us into some kind of machine. We still feel and, in fact, can feel more deeply than when we are in a reactive state.
The next time you eat a meal try to deeply experience the various tastes without judging them as either good or bad. You’ll see that non-attachment actually allows you to deepen your experience.
Like gratitude, non-attachment should be practiced on a daily basis. When an experience comes that you don’t like, try to accept it calmly and appreciate its hidden lesson. Similarly, when something comes that you like, say “Thank you, God. I give any sense of attachment back to You.” By non-attachment we become supremely free inside.
An inner fire ceremony
Swami Kriyananda has suggested a technique to help with non-attachment. Visualize a fire at the point between the eyebrows and offer into the flames everything in your life. Especially at night, before sleep, it is good to give God all your possessions, your emotions, your likes and dislikes, and, in fact your very life. Offer back everything and then go to sleep in a state of inner freedom.
It is very important to cast into that fire all those things you are reluctant to give up; money, relationships, job, children. These are the attachments that have the biggest grip on you. When you are experiencing a state of worry or anxiety it is helpful also to practice this visualization as you wake up in the morning. That way you can start the day with a clean slate.
Another helpful technique is to visualize the heart as a golden ball with threads coming out of it. Each thread represents an attachment, some of them tiny and some the size of thick nautical ropes. But, however big, cut them away until that golden ball is completely free. Then polish it until it is bright and shiny. Doing that two or three times a day cleans your aura, develops non-attachment, and allows the heart’s natural love to shine forth.
Gratitude and non-attachment take you a long way toward being even-minded and cheerful at all times, a state of mind that Paramhansa Yogananda suggested we try to hold in all circumstances.
Generosity: Selfless giving to others
Selfless giving to others, even when in difficult circumstances, brings lots of joy. Paramhansa Yogananda and all great masters have chosen, from a life of complete freedom and joy in God, to reincarnate in bodies doomed to suffer hardships and death. Having no karma, they do this solely for our sakes. To be in tune with them, we, too, must learn to give selflessly.
“How can I serve you?”
It is very helpful to keep in mind that we don’t really have anything of our own to give; we are simply channels of Divine Mother. She is the source from which all things flow. To think otherwise is to diminish our potential. If we can but rid the mind of egoic self-definitions, there is absolutely no limit to what She can do through us.
It is very uplifting to pray to Divine Mother every morning, “How can I serve you? How can I see only You in others today?” Every person has something to offer, because God resides equally in everyone. In these difficult times, people desperately need our love and kindness.
A very natural way of giving to others is through simple kindness. When Swami Kriyananda goes into a store, he doesn’t treat the clerk like an automaton; he creates a connection. Often it’s just a little question or comment: “Oh, what a beautiful blue in that broach you’re wearing” —just enough to begin to create a bond that allows the person to open up. It’s habitual with him to shed a little bit of kindness and joy everywhere he goes. We should try, as Paramhansa Yogananda said, to be “smile millionaires.”
Non-attached and inwardly free
When you give to others, it’s important not to carry a merchant consciousness. Don’t think, “If I give them this, what will I get back?” Try to live more in the faith that the law of karma guarantees that you will get exactly what is coming to you. God and Guru will always show you what is for your own highest, spiritual good if you let them.
Your real reward, when you give to others in a selfless spirit, is freedom from want. The more you give away, the more non-attached and inwardly free you become. Then life becomes beautiful.
A poem by Yogananda says it beautifully: “I have nothing to offer Thee, for all things are Thine; I grieve not that I can not give, for nothing is mine, nothing is mine. Here I lay at Thy feet my limbs, my life, my thoughts and my speech, for they are Thine, for they are Thine.”
“Pay it forward”
It is best not to expect rewards for what you give to others. There’s a movie, Pay it Forward, in which a person helps someone who is in trouble. When the recipient says, “I’ll pay you back,” the giver replies, “I don’t want you to pay me back. I want you to pay me forward. Pay off your debt to me by helping three other people.”
And thus, waves of kindness spread in ever widening circles. In this spirit try to help others feel that they too are channels for the light and love, which the world desperately needs in these worrisome times.
These three together—gratitude, non-attachment, and selfless giving — are very powerful ways of attuning to God during times of difficulty. As Paramhansa Yogananda often said, “The channel is blessed by what flows through it.”
When we truly feel that we are acting as a channel for the Infinite, then not only will we be a source of strength to others, but we too will experience great freedom and joy.
Based on talks at Ananda Village, January 31, 2009 and February 11, 2009