Our search for liberation is a process of elimination: by ridding ourselves of all attachments, we are able to expand our awareness of the ever-present, unchanging Spirit within. Simple in theory, yet even the most sincere and dedicated devotees may find themselves navigating unexplored terrain when faced with unexpected loss. Last spring, when my husband, daughter, and I travelled to Paris, I had an experience of unexpected loss that challenged my commitment to renunciation.
In Paris without my suitcase
It was a last-minute vacation inspired by a small window of free time at the end of our daughter’s school year. I was able to find a reasonable airfare on a no-frills airline, and in order to save money on the high luggage fees, I packed my daughter’s clothing and mine in a single suitcase. When we arrived in Paris early Saturday morning, my husband’s suitcase was one of the first to come tumbling out of the luggage carousel but, after waiting until all the bags had been claimed, we realized that mine had been lost in transit. Nonetheless, I was certain that the suitcase would show up later in the day on another flight. After filling out the necessary paperwork, we went on our way and settled into the apartment we had rented for our stay.
Late that afternoon, after a beautiful day of strolling through the City of Lights, I called the baggage office and was told by the agent that unfortunately, our luggage had not been found. By that time, jet lag had set in, and without too much thought about the missing suitcase, we went to sleep. The next morning, when I called the baggage agency as directed, the news was the same: no luggage. “Please call back tomorrow.”
Before leaving for our trip, I had purchased a few new items of clothing for myself, and my daughter. I had carefully selected what I would pack, conscious of the limited space in the shared bag, and had even tried on possible “outfits” to make sure everything I packed would look good together. At one point during this process, as I viewed myself in the mirror, I felt a gentle reminder from Divine Mother that I was putting too much energy into what I would wear and how I looked.
Personal identity and clothing
The truth is, I have always had an attachment to clothing. I worked for ten years in the fashion business as a clothing designer. As part of that work, I travelled to Paris and other European cities twice a year for inspiration and to attend trend shows. Since then, I have been aware of the strong connection between personal identity and clothing. Our clothing and personal style signifies to others, in overt or subtle ways, who we are, what we like and, in some cases, what our beliefs are.
During the time I was in the apparel design business, there was an unspoken understanding that as a designer one needed to look a certain way, especially when travelling abroad and representing a famous name brand. I had been immersed in these values for an entire decade of my life. Now, many years later, as I was packing for our family vacation, I realized that my earlier attachment to dressing a certain way was still part of my consciousness: When visiting Paris, I had to look good!
Monday came and went, but still no luggage. I purchased a few necessities for my daughter and myself and then washed our clothes at the laundromat next door. Tuesday morning, day four, brought ominous news: The airline didn’t have any idea what had happened to my bag. Up until that point I had been fairly relaxed about the situation, enjoying the beauty of Paris and marveling that my nine-year-old daughter was positively giddy with the realization that she didn’t have to change her clothes to go to bed.
An unexpected visceral reaction
When I heard this seemingly final declaration of loss from the airline, I had an unexpected visceral reaction: I felt sick to my stomach. This feeling of physical discomfort surprised me, but I realized at once that the causes were multilayered, reflecting deep issues relating to self-identity and attachment. I would have to make do with the casual travel clothing I had worn on the plane for the duration of our visit to the city of high fashion. Who was I, if I wasn’t “in style”? Obviously my ego was involved.
The other issue related to material loss. Although I had been trying to apply the concept of inner renunciation to many areas of my life, I had to face the hard truth: I missed my stuff. I also knew I could fill the lost suitcase three times over with clothes in my closet at home, which made me self-critical and embarrassed over my feelings of loss.
I remembered what Swami Kriyananda had said: The spiritual path is directional. Renunciation in its various forms is a goal to which we aspire, and begins to happen quite naturally as we mature spiritually. But it is not something that can be forced upon someone who is not ready.
Saying goodbye: my mental bonfire
I went to the chair that I had been using for meditation, closed my eyes, and mentally went through the lost suitcase. I followed Swami Kriyananda’s advice on dissolving attachments: to make a mental bonfire, check the feelings in my heart, and then toss all of my attachments into the fire, watching them burn to ashes one by one.
First, I mentally burned the idea that I should look a certain way while visiting Paris and made peace with the reality of my situation. Then I tossed into the mental bonfire each article of clothing in the lost suitcase: the well-loved sweater given to me years ago by a dear friend; my best dress and favorite jeans; the brand-new running shoes and other items I had purchased for the trip; a beautiful leather belt with a treasured vintage buckle; hair dryer; purse . . . all of my daughter’s clothing. One by one I said goodbye.
After completing the purification ritual and then meditating, the stomachache was gone. I put the issue of the lost suitcase behind me and began to feel a sense of inner freedom.
A powerful subliminal thought pattern
Over the next few days, I began to realize how little I truly needed. I realized also how losing my suitcase had highlighted a powerful subliminal thought pattern tied to self-identity, which had obstructed my efforts to expand into a higher level of consciousness. I now saw the entire experience as a blessing from Divine Mother, a necessary step in my spiritual journey that enabled me to release mental debris left over from a long-forgotten time in my life.
We had been in Paris eight days when we received a call from the airline: the luggage had been found and would be delivered within the next 24 hours. The next evening, around 11:00 pm, the night before we were to leave to return to the United States, the buzzer rang. Behind the door, looking like an old friend turning up on the wrong day for a party, stood my luggage. As I dragged my heavy, overstuffed bag up the stairs and down the hall to the apartment, the metaphor of “my baggage” wasn’t lost on me. I opened the suitcase and looked at all the items I hadn’t needed. I thanked Divine Mother for returning them and for teaching me an important lesson.
“You can’t take it with you.”
I woke up very early the next morning in preparation for our flight, and while quickly checking emails was overcome with a sense of shock and loss. In disbelief, I read the news that one of our beloved gurubhais from Ananda New England had been killed in a car accident while driving home with her husband from a day of satsang with fellow devotees in Maine. As is often the case with sudden, unexpected loss, I felt as though I must have been dreaming: a beautiful, young friend, whom I had seen a few weeks before at our annual Kriya retreat—gone?
The taxi to the airport arrived within minutes of my learning this distressing news. With deep sadness and a heavy heart, I heaved the overstuffed bag into the trunk of the car. The expression “You can’t take it with you when you go” was pounding in my head. The luggage now became emblematic of the process of individual incarnation. It occurred to me that before birth, our soul knows which desires and attachments we need “to wear” in our new incarnation for eventual purification and release, and it meticulously packs them into “the suitcase” of our life.
He travels fastest who travels lightly—so writes Swami Kriyananda in Sadhu Beware. My friend’s sudden death was also a reminder that the spiritual journey is a solitary pact between each individual and God. When the lessons of this lifetime are learned, we shed the body and leave behind the people and things we’ve loved. The trip is over and we make our way back home, aware that everything we’ve ever truly needed we have carried within us all along.
* * * * * *A devotee of Paramhansa Yogananda since 1997, Kyle McDonald is part of the leadership team at the Ananda Retreat Center in Hopkinton, Rhode Island, where she leads Sunday service and teaches yoga and meditation. She also teaches yoga and meditation at hospitals in Rhode Island. Kyle is certified through Yoga Alliance and is currently enrolled in the Yoga Therapy Program at Ananda Village, CA.