Once we as devotees have learned to look for the hints that God and Guru give us about how we need to change, some of our most important spiritual lessons come through what happens in our outer life.
These lessons often involve an opportunity to make a beneficial change in our life: Will we put out the extra energy required, or will we indulge the natural instinct to resist change? I recall an unusual instance of this tendency some years ago when I was teaching a meditation class for beginners. Afterwards, a young woman who was quite agitated asked me, “Do I have to do this every day?” I said, “It’s your choice, but you’ll definitely get more out of meditating if you do it on a regular basis. You’ll find that the more you meditate, the more you’ll want to meditate.”
She replied, “No, no, no. You don’t understand. In the church I’m in right now, all you have to do is go to church — maybe three times a month, and organize two potlucks a year. I also do one fundraiser, and I’m the most important person in the church. And you want me to meditate every day?”
I said, “That’s up to you.”
Opportunities begin to pursue you.
Once you become serious about the spiritual life, your karma will often present you with challenges that test your spiritual commitment. Some of these challenges can draw you off the path.
For example, relatives may begin to harangue you about the spiritual choices you’ve made. Opportunities you’ve always wanted may now present themselves.
I had been living at Ananda Village for about two years when this happened to me. Out of the blue, I got a letter from an old friend, the head of the chemistry department at the college I’d attended.
And what this letter said was basically, “Please help us out. We’ve received a large grant for a two-year research project in chemistry with a very generous budget that would enable the researcher to go anywhere in the world to do the project: France, Britain — anywhere.”
He ended the letter by saying, “The man scheduled to do the project has had a personal emergency. We have no one to take his place, and I immediately thought of you. Can you drop everything and come and do this?”
I just stared at the letter. If I’d received it two years earlier my feet wouldn’t have touched the ground for a week. But I had finally found my spiritual home. Being able to live at Ananda Village was very much a dream come true. I’d had to rearrange a lot of things in my life to make it happen. Nonetheless, here was my old karma, sort of reaching up through the soil and grabbing me by the ankle.
Fortunately, this experience strengthened my commitment to the spiritual life, but I’ve seen others pulled away by similar tests.
“People are so skillful in their ignorance.”
The main obstacles to changing ourselves come from within. As Paramhansa Yogananda said, “People are so skillful in their ignorance.” They can come up with rationalizations to excuse all sorts of unhelpful behaviors.
I see this phenomenon all the time in my job as a family physician. For example, I might tell a person who smokes, “It would be very good for you to stop smoking.” I might also say, “It’s very likely to make you very ill, and may even cause cancer.” And the answer invariably will be, “Oh, I’ll be fine. My Uncle Henry smoked until he was 98, and nothing ever happened to him.”
But what happens if I see that same patient when he’s in the midst of a terrible bout with pneumonia — very short of breath, taking antibiotics, and temporarily in need of supplemental oxygen? If at that point I say, “You know, it would be a really good idea if you stopped smoking.” Without any hesitation he will say, “I’ll stop smoking. I’ll stop smoking.” He’s learned the lesson.
The guru does something very similar to this with his devotees, with those who have invited him to take charge of their lives. He arranges our lives so that we have the experiences we need to change the attitudes and habits that impede us spiritually.
Unwilling to give one hundred percent
My main area of testing comes in my job as a physician. What often happens is that on days when I’m feeling stressed, very tired, or emotionally drained, I’ll start looking at my watch around four o’clock and think, “Ah, only an hour left and I’ll be finished.” When I’m feeling that way — unwilling to give one hundred percent — that’s when I’m usually tested. Someone who is very ill, or who has a complicated medical condition, will arrive around five o’clock.
There is a part of me that wants to say to this patient, “Well, let me get you set up for some lab testing. You can come back on Thursday, and we’ll get everything taken care of at that time.”
My ego can give me all sorts of rationalizations for doing this: “You’re so tired. You should quit early today.” Or, “Your back is bothering you. You really shouldn’t work so hard today.” Or, “Gosh, you’ve worked so many days in a row. You need to go home and exercise.”
The mind has a wonderful way of tricking us into doing what is not in our best interest spiritually — a last gasp of the ego trying to keep control. But when these experiences occur repeatedly, I can feel Yogananda’s signature on my thoughts, telling me that this is my test.
The lesson is always the same.
If I can rise to the occasion and say, “All right, God, this is my karma. You have arranged this perfectly for me to learn an important lesson,” this experience becomes a victory for me. But if I inwardly complain and give in to the clamoring of my ego, thinking it’s all up to me to make something happen for this patient and I’ve simply run out of gas, I lose spiritually.
For me, the lesson is always the same: to surrender the situation to God and let Him flow through me. Rather than sending the patient off untreated, I pray that God infuse me with the strength I need to transcend the petty demands of my ego.
When I do that, I have an experience of God as the Doer. My faith in God is strengthened and my meditations are deeper. As these experiences repeatedly occur, I begin to see more deeply into the “seed karma” that connects them.
“Later, later, why not now?”
Everything that comes to those of us who are disciples of Paramhansa Yogananda has the Guru’s blessing on it — even simple things. You get in your car and it doesn’t start. Rather than saying, “Oh dang, that battery,” say instead, “Yogananda set this up for me. Maybe I need to be more patient.”
If we can ignore the murmurings of our ego and respond superconsciously, we become more Christlike. It is our birthright to become Yogi-Christs. It will come to all of us someday, but, as Yogananda often said, “Later, later, why not now?”
From an October 10, 2004 talk at Ananda Village. Peter Van Houten, a Lightbearer and Ananda Village resident, is the founder and Medical Director of Sierra Family Medical Clinic near Ananda Village.
An earlier version of this article appeared in the Summer 2005 issue of Clarity Magazine.