From a young age, I wanted to know the purpose of life. What was it all about? Why was I born? I know that many people today ask the same questions, often after seeking answers in all the wrong ways, just as I did.
A long dry period
Before I found the spiritual path my life could be described as “a long dry period.” I never understood why people were so enthusiastic about growing up, going to college, marrying, raising children, and being successful when everything ended in death and forgetfulness. It made no sense to me. Only those few individuals who had an important history-making mission seemed never to die, but lived on in history.
Since I found myself living in a world I found incomprehensible, I tried to make the best of it. I went to a junior college, got a job, and then moved to California. With a college classmate and her sister, I drove cross country from the East Coast and finally ended up in San Francisco. It was 1957. I was 23 years old.
I loved the city of San Francisco and eventually obtained a stable, well-paid position as the accountant/bookkeeper for an architectural firm. I was still looking for true, lasting happiness. For a while, since there didn’t seem to be any alternative, I thought I would find happiness through outward experiences. But I eventually saw that I wasn’t finding any answers. Life still made no sense to me, and as far as I could tell, people were going no where.
Finally I find a lifeline
One night I became so discouraged that I swallowed far too many aspirins. In the midst of sickness and numbness, I called to God to help me. This was the first time in my life I had ever called to God. I was shocked to realize that I even believed there was such a Being. But God answered my prayer. Soon after, I went with a friend to a lecture in San Francisco given by Swami Kriyananda, who introduced me to Paramhansa Yogananda’s teachings, which gave me answers that made sense. Finally, I had a lifeline.
At the time I didn’t understand that when we start on the spiritual path we don’t change overnight. We don’t suddenly become joyful, even-minded, and all-forgiving. We take all of our unresolved karma – emotions, conflicts, and blocks – with us. I now had spiritual teachings and a guru to guide me, for which I was grateful beyond words, but I had no idea how many major challenges lay ahead.
After meeting Swami Kriyananda in 1967, I visited the small Ananda community as often as possible, while continuing to live and work in San Francisco. In 1970, I quit my job and moved to the Ananda Meditation Retreat, where the Ananda community first started.
Later I became part of the monastery at Ananda Village, which grew in time to close to a 100 people. The main value of the monastery was in giving many of us the opportunity to deepen our attunement to the spiritual path before we were drawn into other aspects of life — marriage, child-raising, or very demanding jobs.
I was already in charge of Ananda’s finances when Swami Kriyananda asked that I also oversee the women’s monastery. Being in charge of the finances put me in touch with nearly every aspect of the community. I conferred regularly with Swami Kriyananda and, for a year or so, served informally as overall community manager.
Completely at loose ends
In the early 1980s my life changed completely. The monastery fell apart – nearly all the monks and nuns got married. Since I remained single, I no longer had much contact with the people I’d been close to in the monastery. Increasingly, householders or married couples began leading the community. Around this same time, two people with accounting training and experience that far exceeded mine moved to the community, and it was only natural that they would take over my job.
Without a real job, and struggling to understand what work I was supposed to do, I was completely at loose ends. My self-esteem took a nose-dive. Looking back, I can see that everything that happened was divinely orchestrated to give me the challenges I needed to grow spiritually. God had a plan for me, complete with many new, and different, experiences.
Since there was no longer any work for me at Ananda Village, I was asked to go to Italy to help with the Ananda retreat just getting underway near Lake Como in northern Italy. I was there for nine months. During the colder months there wasn’t much to do. When not working as a cook’s assistant, I knitted sweaters, scarves and gloves.
Upon returning from Italy, I was asked to become co-director of the new Ananda center in Portland, Oregon. My time in Portland was a mixed experience. My first year included teaching, working as a waitress in the Ananda restaurant, and looking for a location at which to start a church. We did find a good location and the Ananda Portland church soon got underway. After a year, however, there was a change in co-directors and, once again, I found myself having my role cut back. My role was now limited to teaching, which was never my strength; I did not do well as a teacher.
Confused about why my life had taken this new turn, and feeling somewhat depressed, I returned to Ananda Village after two years in Portland. Since no other work was available, I took a job as a medical assistant at the nearby clinic, founded by an Ananda Village resident and physician. I was also strongly encouraged to seek professional counseling. Going into counseling and working in a job I would never have chosen for myself were big tests for me. But Ananda was my whole life and I wanted to cooperate, so I decided to give both a try.
Pulling out of my slump
In counseling I realized that I had always wanted to serve — to serve people and God, and that it really didn’t matter whether my outward service was “important.” I realized that it had actually mattered to me that my service be “important.” I could now see that my deepest desire was to go beyond ego, not to get trapped in my emotions and wrong attitudes.
The other important realization was that unless I wanted to sink into bitterness and despair, I needed to love. I chose love over anger, frustration, and depression. Truly, it was the only choice possible. Since I felt no love in my heart, I prayed to my Guru, Paramhansa Yogananda, and asked him to love people through me. I hoped thereby to learn how to love. Having these goals, which were clearly God’s gifts to me, began to pull me out of my slump.
I had experienced a big breakthrough in consciousness, but it wasn’t the end of the process. Many lessons followed, some of them very painful. Changing oneself is a long-term process, but with each step I was becoming happier, the journey was getting easier, and I found it easier to meet the tests with the right attitude.
Making the commitment to serve God and Guru through the work I was doing at the clinic — work that was not overtly spiritual — helped me understand that even a leaf, as it says in the Bhagavad Gita, is pleasing to God if offered with love and devotion. In times of upliftment and joy, I realized how important it was to make the commitment to meditate and do Kriya Yoga every day. Kriya helps to burn up the karma that draws us away from God.
Looking at the world with love
Looking at the world with love, I began to see situations differently. People no longer hated me! (They never did, but I’d thought so). I could now see why people acted the way they did, and this understanding opened my heart even more. Asking Yogananda to love people through me eventually became such a joyful experience that I was able to love those who were negative, unbalanced, or using the spiritual path for selfish ends. Perhaps most difficult of all, I even began to see and love the Divine within me.
I learned not to let anything — no judgments or negativity on my part, and no one else’s negative attitudes toward me — pull me down. I now understood that people who disliked or misjudged me had their own karma to work out. Their thoughts and actions were not my concern.
As I understood relationships more deeply, I became more joyful in my interactions with people. Joy was creeping into my being, opening doors to expansive new experiences, and helping me understand the spiritual teachings more deeply. During those years I shed a lot of old karma. And I learned not to let anything interfere with my dedication to finding God in this lifetime.
Becoming a different person
I have come to see that to take up the spiritual path in earnest is to shed everything we think of as ourselves, all our desires and plans. When we give up our plans and surrender to God’s plan for us, we find true happiness. In that state of consciousness, hatreds and judgment can’t exist, human love doesn’t exist — only God’s love and what He wants of us. God’s plan for all of us is that we learn to love Him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. As we do that, we become the person He intended us to be.
Nayaswami Seva, a founding member of Ananda, serves as a Lightbearer at Ananda Village. Since 1995, she had been an integral part of the staff of Crystal Clarity Publishers at Ananda Village.