One would think, in reading about Paramhansa Yogananda’s amazingly successful career in America, that he more or less slid down an easy slope to victory by simply loving everyone, and by his joyful, positive attitude of service to all. The truth, however, must be told: He faced constant, determined opposition.
The inner strength to conquer
One time his closest co-worker betrayed him, absconding with almost all of the money the Master had been sending back from his lecture tours and classes around the country. The man then tried to sue him. One might ask, “Didn’t Yogananda, being a master, recognize that danger and do something in advance to prevent it?”
Yes, he’d known about it. It came out years later that he’d predicted many years earlier to a boyhood friend that this person would someday betray him. To him, life was a movie. He accepted its ups and downs as the features of this world. All his consciousness was of joy, not of suffering and sorrow.
My Guru achieved stunning success in his life, but the way was never easy for him. A boxer, my Guru used to say, doesn’t become strong by fighting children. He must spar with strong men, who might even knock him down. The plain truth is, though the tests do become greater as one advances spiritually, one also develops the inner strength to conquer them.
The lesson I want to emphasize in my Guru’s life is not that he was spared tests and difficulties, but that he always faced them with honor, charity, truthfulness, and the highest spiritual consciousness. Moreover, however much people tried to hurt him, he always forgave them.
The most important decision we face in life
The most important decision all of us must face in life is, always, how to react in the highest way from a standpoint of our own spiritual growth. Why take people’s deliberate insults personally? If they are valid, the best reaction is to accept them gratefully. Try, at least in private, to correct yourself. But why get angry? You’ll be the greater loser if you do.
When people get upset or angry, or when they experience pain and suffering, it is only because they want something different from what life has given them. The most important point I want to make here is learn to accept what is. It is only from that preliminary recognition that you can improve anything.
Because the obstacles one faces in life can be multifarious, let me list a few of them only, and suggest certain basic attitudes that may help you to sail past them.
1. Intolerance: People have their own views on how things ought to be or how they should be done. Don’t allow yourself to be swayed by opinions, even your own. Mostly, people allow themselves to be ruled by habit.
There is a common saying in America: “They laughed at Fulton.” Robert Fulton was the inventor of the steel ship. His detractors laughed because, as they pointed out, metal sinks in water. It will float, however, if the amount of water displaced is heavier than the metal used. Fulton calmly proceeded to construct his hollow-hulled vessel. When the ship actually floated, all criticism ceased.
2. Anger: Anger, as the Indian scriptures point out, is created by thwarted desires. You will encounter anger when you don’t do as others want. They have no right, however, to want anything of you. Be your own master. If you encounter others’ anger, react calmly, and you’ll never need to fear them.
Once, when I was thirteen and weighed only 106 pounds, a classmate of mine who was fifteen and weighed 230 pounds became furious with me. Why? Perhaps because of the English accent I had then. Perhaps because I didn’t “kow-tow” to him. He attacked me one day in my room. There was no way for me to defend myself. I simply lay on the bed with my arms over my head, while he pummeled me.
A friend of mine asked me later, “Why didn’t you shout for help? We’d all have come at once.”
“Because,” I said, “I wasn’t afraid.” I never deferred afterward to this bully. There was nothing more he could do. From then on, he left me strictly alone.
Defend yourself when you can. If you cannot, accept what happens and don’t let yourself be upset by it. Be inwardly non-attached. Still, if you can defend yourself you must do so—calmly, not with anger, but always with inner firmness. Stick to your principles, therefore. If you must contest angry opposition, do so calmly and with never-failing good will.
Sri Krishna, in the Bhagavad Gita made it clear to Arjuna that it was dharmically right to fight injustice. The way of ahimsa, or harmlessness, is not by any means to submit to injustice. Even if you haven’t the power to defend yourself effectively, in your mind you should constantly resist aggression. As a boy, I found on more occasions than one that bullies left me strictly alone once they saw I would never give in to them, mentally.
3. Lies: It is not easy to bear it when people tell lies against you. I wrote many years ago to those who had been doing so, “Every time you tell a lie against me, remember, the truth has to come out eventually. Your lies will only make me stronger, whereas they will weaken you.” I was ignored, but my words proved true.
Never tell a lie against anyone. A lie is a conscious untruth. It is always possible, of course, to tell an untruth without realizing it. The best solution is never to speak unkindly of anyone. Wish everyone well.
4. Sneers, disdain, and disrespect: Because I’ve always been something of an outsider, even in my own country, I’ve had to learn to put up with attitudes like these. What do people’s opinions of you really matter? Most people are wrong most of the time!
Be strong in your own truths. To do so without becoming bigoted, keep your mind always in a state of reason. Listen to what people say. Accept their reasons if you consider them right. The solution is always to be inwardly non-attached, and even indifferent, to the constantly fluctuating waves on the ocean of life.
5. Unkindness, malice, or hatred: Ask yourself simply, “When am I happier? When hating—or when loving?” For your own peace of mind, then, be kind to everyone. Even if people are determined to harm you, respond with kindness for the simple reason that this is how to be happy.
Many years ago, there was someone at Ananda Village whom I’d allowed to get by without paying the usual monthly maintenance fees. After twelve years, someone whom I’d made the Village manager decided it was time to ask this member to shoulder this responsibility like everyone else. He gave the non-payer a simple choice: Either accept your responsibility to the community, or else leave Ananda.
The recalcitrant member not only chose to leave, but came to me before he did so to vent his spleen upon me. He spent at least an hour telling me everything I’d done and was still doing wrong in my life. Evidently I’d done nothing right, and was bound to fail at everything I tried. I heard him out without comment. It seemed useless to defend myself. I simply thanked him and wished him well. Since then, he has made himself one of my most vocal enemies.
My calmness in the face of his diatribe inspired me, afterward, to compose what I have always considered one of my best songs. Thus, my non-resistance helped to inspire something worth more to me than any defense would have done. The lesson: no matter what contretemps you suffer, you can gain from them if you keep your energy determinedly uplifted.
6. Threats to destroy you:
I was in a courtroom some years ago. Some people were doing their best to harm and, if possible, to destroy me. Their lawyer did everything he could in the courtroom to make me angry. In response, I simply didn’t respond! Inwardly I prayed, “Divine Mother, everything I’ve done can be taken away from me, but no one can rob me of my real treasure: my love for Thee.”
Well, we survived, and are thriving now more than ever. But it is something to remember: Everyone must be ready for attacks of some kind in life. And calm forgiveness has this one compensation, apart from the fact that it preserves your own peace of mind: Forgiveness without personal motive completely infuriates those who have defined themselves as your enemies—unless and until love wins them at last.
Never allow yourself to become negative
Try always to react appropriately in every circumstance. As my Guru used to say, “Don’t be a doormat.” This means you may sometimes have to be stern. No matter what opposition or even outright persecution you encounter, never let it cause you to become negative.
The ultimate reason for being kind and forgiving to all may be described, in a sense, as selfish! For you will be happier when you can direct your heart’s energy upward to the brain, and not let it sink down in the spine to the darker consciousness of anger, resentment, or vengefulness. When you can return love for hatred, calm acceptance for anger, and kindness for persecution, you yourself will find happiness.
Make no self-defined success your absolute goal. Who knows what karmic law will impose upon you, or what God will ordain for you? Saint Thérèse de Lisieux, a French nun, expressed complete willingness even to be sent to Hell after death. “I would even like it!” she exclaimed. “For then I could show that it is possible to love God no matter what the outer circumstances.”