I recently had to give counseling to someone who I knew would never understand any advice I might give. His ego had built too many protections around itself; I knew he would find a way to rationalize an excuse for anything I said. So I didn’t offer any advice. I just told him something to do.
Sometimes that’s also all you can do with yourself. You’re not able to understand something mentally, but if you do the right things by living in a godly way, gradually the energy flow will be right and mental clarity will follow.
Learning by doing
My Guru, Paramhansa Yogananda, sometimes wouldn’t even allow us to talk about things. Instead, he would give us certain things to do because only in the process of doing them would the understanding come. He’d put us in situations where we would have to learn our lessons, and once we’d learned them through that experience, we had something worthwhile.
For example, there was a young man at the SRF Lake Shrine in Pacific Palisades who each day was given the job of clambering up and down the steep and rather muddy hillside watering the plants with the hose. The work was wet, muddy, and cold, and he just hated it.
Yogananda never sat him down and said, “Look it’s good for you to learn to accept whatever you have to do. It’s good for you to overcome your likes and dislikes.” He never gave him any kind of explanation at all. He just let him fight it out within himself.
Every morning this young man woke up thinking, “God, I hope I’m not given that job again,” and every morning he was given that job. Finally he woke up one morning saying, “Well, if I’m going to be given this job, I might as well learn to enjoy it. So today I’m going to enjoy it.” He went to breakfast actually looking forward to the work. And that was the day he was taken off that job.
Again and again I have seen that we learn our lessons by going through certain experiences, not by mentally learning them. It probably took this young man quite a while to be able to look back and say, “Oh, that’s what I learned by that experience.” That’s certainly been my experience with lessons I’ve learned. Often I would know that I had changed, but sometimes it took quite awhile, even years, for me to understand exactly what the change was.
Avoid an overly mental approach
Our culture is far too overbalanced on the side of intellect. It’s very important not to rely too much on mental understanding. We think we’re going to understand something when our brain has grasped it, but often the brain is a barrier to understanding.
People in this country have fewer spiritual experiences than in many other countries because we’re so intellectual, so rational. Sometimes a person may get into a deep state of meditation and suddenly start seeing lights, or feeling an expansion of consciousness. Then the mind says, “Wait a minute, I’ve got to understand this.” And the experience is gone.
You don’t have to pick a thing apart and understand it with your brain. In fact, an overly mental approach can actually hinder you from ever really understanding something. People who think too much go in circles and are often in a continual mental cloud.
I remember a woman at SRF headquarters in Los Angeles who wrote letters. She would spend days on one letter, thinking that if she could just say it exactly right, she would be able to manipulate and guide the development of SRF’s work in Europe. And the longer she wrote, the worse it became.
She finally began to lose her own common sense and become slightly crazy because she thought that everything had to come from the brain. She had the idea that she was keeping these centers in Europe from exploding. And it just became too much for her. She exploded.
True understanding is intuitive
Understanding never comes on a purely rational level. It comes on an intuitive level, and the more we seek that plane of understanding, the more we’ll understand.
Sometimes when trying to discipline or train someone, Yogananda would say something totally irrational. Faced with a statement that made no sense at all, the person would just stop for a moment in amazement. Yogananda’s only purpose was to get that person to stop for a moment in amazement, so his brain would quiet down. And when his brain was calm, Yogananda was able to speak in a way that would reach those deeper intuitive levels where understanding really occurs.
You understand a thing when you are that. You develop humility not by analyzing it but by doing those things that will help to instill humility—acting for God, acting without desire for the fruits of action, seeing God as the Doer. Even if you can’t explain it clearly, you will have become that.
So the important thing is to get into the practice of doing what you need to do. You don’t have to understand; you simply need to do it.
A process of attunement
The other thing to keep in mind is that it’s not what you do that imparts the spiritual lesson. It’s using what you do to attune yourself to the consciousness that can flow through your service.
Ramakrishna used to tell a lovely story of a play about Krishna in which the audience could see two rooms with a divider between them. Krishna was in one room and the gopis were in the other room singing, “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna, Krishna, Hare, Hare,” and getting more and more excited. Krishna paid them no attention. He just went on doing certain things.
After the gopis left, Radha came into the room and sat down. She softly said, “Oh, Krishna.” Krishna dropped everything and ran to be with Radha. Why? Because she had called with her soul. In whatever work we do, we need to do it with our souls — in attunement with God. Some people can give a beautiful sermon simply by walking silently down the street. You feel their peace.
The more we use our service to attune ourselves with the Divine, the more we begin to express Him and the more things go right. And we don’t even know how it happens. It just does.