A statue of Swami Sri Yukteswar overlooks my little cabin at Ananda Village, blessing it and reminding me, in his lovingly stern words, to “learn to behave.” In this spirit, as I enter the fifth decade of discipleship to our great line of gurus, I find myself not only reliving experiences of my early life but, at the same time, seeing the hand of the Guru prodding me, sometimes gently, sometimes more forcefully and abruptly, toward right attitude, right behavior, and the consciousness of a devotee who puts God’s will above all else.
My father: a man of dharma
The parents my soul chose I now see as having worked (I do not know how consciously) to prepare the way for their child to turn finally toward the spiritual life. My father was a businessman, an occupation he had entered into not for profit but in loyalty to family tradition. He was, above all, a man of dharma. Utterly honest in his business dealings, honorable toward competitors, loyal to employees, always truthful with his family, he sought in every moment to align his words and actions with the will of God, as he could understand that will.
We children held him in some awe. Daily we eagerly awaited his return from that mysterious place known as “the store.” His routine never varied: he would wade through the children, kiss my mother (standing in the outside doorway to the kitchen), take off his business clothes, don a seriously worn pair of blue jeans, and disappear to work in the garden and milk the cows. He would reappear just before dark, laden with a bushel of vegetables from the garden and a pail of foaming milk from the cows.
Both parents taught us early in life to work—primarily by example, for we seldom saw either parent simply sitting and relaxing — but also by giving us tasks and later, areas of responsibility. I have the feeling, looking back, that they watched us carefully to see how best to encourage us in good directions.
A rare compliment
An early lesson introduced the profit motive. In exchange for three hours hoeing, weeding, and ladling dippersful of water onto newly planted seedlings, I received one quarter, which would purchase two pounds of little hard candies. One day, contemplating my work in the garden, which was diligent if not happy, my father paid me the first compliment I can remember. He did not hand praise out easily, and so when he did praise us we knew he was genuinely pleased. “Son,” he said, “I can see that you are learning to finish what you start.” I was immensely thrilled and touched—my father was proud of me!
Soon after, he entrusted me with specific areas of responsibility: I was to take care of the chickens—feed the hens, gather the eggs, keep the hen house and coop cleaned and whitewashed, and cart off the manure to the garden pile. I was also to milk the cows in the morning, bring the milk to my mother for pasteurizing, wash the buckets, feed the cows and horses, and clean their stalls—all before time to catch the school bus.
He also gave me special projects—tasks to complete on my own. One summer day, the family was to be away and I was to stay behind on the farm. My father gathered a wire brush, scraper, paint brushes, paint, turpentine, rags and drop cloths and ushered me onto the screen porch to explain my job for the day—to paint the trim, all the wood surfaces around the screens. My seven-year-old mind was thrilled to be entrusted with such an important job. Before my inner gaze floated visions of my father proudly congratulating me on a job well done. The visions, however, seem to have overwhelmed my actual comprehension of what exactly I was supposed to paint.
I set to work with a will, painting with even strokes. Soon, however, to my dismay, I noticed that the paint was not covering the screens themselves very well. The paint would seem to cover the screen, but would then bubble and run so that innumerable little openings would appear. Undaunted, I kept trying to cover those annoying holes, but they kept reappearing.
Becoming a little frustrated, I went back to the beginning of the wall and started over. This time, I noticed, the first coat had partially dried and now held the new coat in place. Many fewer holes appeared. It took me all day to completely cover all those holes, for the screens covered two entire walls of the porch. When the family returned and I proudly showed them my work, no one said a word. The two screened walls that had formerly looked out on flowering shrubs, lawns and a great magnolia tree now presented a uniformly shiny white surface, admitting no light from outside but blindingly reflecting the artificial light entering from the door behind us.
The fruits of my labor
A few days later, a small truck arrived and disgorged two men in overalls who proceeded to remove my shiny white screens and replace them with new ones, through which one could again see the surrounding landscape. Though I could not understand at the time, I look back now and see the Heavenly Father at work—encouraging me to do my best, smiling compassionately at the result, then whisking away all traces of my labor. As Swami Kriyananda so often told us, the way of dharma is to do one’s best, then to surrender the fruits of labor and the labor itself, into the hands of God.
As passing time inexorably dragged me into my teenage years, a new dimension of work entered the scene—work as purification. Four of us, playing at manhood after the fashion of the 1950s, infested my upstairs bedroom late one night, playing poker, drinking, and probably playing the local “top 40” pop radio station. Although every sound we made passed unimpeded through the uninsulated walls into every part of our home, my parents did not interfere.
The next morning, however, I was abruptly awakened when the cover was jerked from my sodden form. There stood my father looking like an Old Testament prophet: “Rise up, son!” His words came with irresistible authority. No word of censure passed his lips. Instead, once I was upright and clothed, he led me through the alfalfa field to the old stone spring house near the stream running through the cow pasture. He opened the door, handed me a shovel, a bucket and a scrub brush, and informed me that I was to clean out the spring.
The task took all day. At first my head pounded and my stomach roiled. Gradually energy began to flow more freely. I broke a sweat, and soon was actually enjoying the work, seeing the muck disappear, the spring water (which I was drinking thirstily!) flow clear, the old stone walls again scrubbed clean, the accumulated goop spread neatly around nearby trees and shrubs. At the end of the day, my father appeared. He looked at my work, smiled quietly, and walked away. The events of the preceding night were never mentioned—nor were they repeated.
The purifying effect of hard work
Through my father’s discipline, God allowed me to experience the purifying effect of hard work. My soiled consciousness was washed clean even as was the old spring house. Sordid thoughts and a toxic body were transformed into cheerfulness and health through the energy generated by hard labor in a positive direction. My father I saw living what he had me experience: he put his whole energy into whatever he did, disregarding dirt, sweat, and discomfort, coming out energized, shining, smiling happily.
When I first came onto the spiritual path, but before I knew of Swami Kriyananda and Ananda, or even Paramhansa Yogananda, I found myself caught in a kind of desperate limbo, unable to go back to a worldly way of living, but without any clear way forward. Although my father had no sympathy for what he called “oriental religion,” he saw his son rudderless and suffering and did for me what he had done so often in my growing years—he found something positive for me to do and put me to work.
The project was a complete remodel of a small tenant house near the family home. I would have ten dollars a week for necessities, and many months of good work.
As the work progressed, an image of Yogananda began to come insistently into my mind, so insistently that, though I did not even know a name for the radiant face I was seeing, I stopped work and scoured the local public library until I came upon Autobiography of a Yogi and was inundated with the joy of reawakened discipleship. The remodeling continued but now bathed in light: I felt the work I was doing somehow drawing me steadily closer to a life lived wholly in service and discipleship to Yogananda.
Payment for my work
When the remodeling was complete, my father offered me the house. Though I still did not know of Ananda, and had no real plan for the time ahead, my heart was set on finding a way to follow the light awakened by reading Yogananda’s Autobiography.
When my father saw my determination, he gave me a check for the work—an amount, it turned out, that would cover the cost of joining the Ananda community and of a small trailer to live in. Here, then, was the joy of labor that drew the laborer closer to God, to the source of his inspiration, to a way of life rooted in dharma, in the divine righteousness whose only purpose is to carry the devotee to union with the Infinite Lord.