An Interview with James Prakash Van Cleave
Q: When you arrived at Ananda Village in 1974 your background included teaching college and five years of graduate school. How did you get involved in forestry work?
Prakash: I grew up on a farm, and my training and inclination have always been to take care of the land. When the community burned down in 1976, I prayed to be able to work to heal the devastated forest.
But I’m a tall, skinny person and I don’t look like a worker. So in my first years at Ananda I was encouraged to do non-physical work—a lot of teaching, and later I became a minister.
Q: Did you take care of the land at all in those years?
Prakash: Very little. I spent a year trying to clear the brush in one of our housing clusters, and I put in a garden and fruit trees in another. The main transition came in 1990 when I pretty much collapsed after four years in front of a computer. After resting a bit, the community manager suggested that I go to The Expanding Light, our guest retreat, and help put in the landscaping. There was a beautification effort going on.
There I was very happy. But then along came financial pressures and my job disappeared.
And I thought, “Well, I’ll just work and earn money. Then I can keep the beautification project going.” The inspiration for this was a fellow who worked in the Ananda garden. Every once in a while he would go work in the family steel business to earn money for the garden. I thought, “Oh. That’s how you do that.”
It was a gradual process of understanding how Ananda works—that if you feel inspired to do something, you just find a way to do it. You talk to the people in charge and see if it feels okay. Then you find a way to earn the money to make it happen.
So that’s what I did. I started doing landscaping jobs. Private jobs. I used the money I earned to buy landscaping materials for the guest retreat and installed them after work. Later, my sister loaned me enough money to purchase my first tractor. Dividing my time between private jobs and doing landscaping and forestry work for Ananda, I gradually added equipment—bulldozers, a backhoe, and mastication machinery.
Q: What exactly is your work today?
Prakash: I do brush clearing and forest clean-up projects for both The Expanding Light and the Village. Sometimes there’s money available to pay me, sometimes not. I do as much outside work as necessary to keep the equipment in good repair—an overhead that has gone as high as $40,000 in one year.
Q: Devotees are encouraged to “practice the presence,” that is, to keep an awareness of God when engaged outwardly. Did that become easier or harder for you doing forestry work?
Prakash: It’s been much easier to be aware of God on the tractor than in the office. Forestry work lends itself to that because you’re alone. It’s also just my natural attunement to the work. Working alone, out in the open, physical discomfort—these have never been a problem for me.
I’m an excessively mental person to start with – nervous, insomniac, all that sort of thing—prone to headaches and anxiety. I burned out in my office job. Working in the earth pulls me down to a feeling of centeredness.
Q: Is mental restlessness a problem with your job?
Prakash: No, because if you become restless, you break something. The physical plane is a wonderful teacher. If you make a mistake, it’s right there in your face. When you’re out there in the dirt trying to work, and you act in a restless or impatient manner, you’ll break something or get hurt.
One friend of mine lost focus and toppled off the edge of a dam we were building. We got the tractor off him but he lost part of a foot. I almost lost my hand trying to help the bulldozer cool down by removing debris from the fan. Just not being careful. Being impatient.
Q: It seems that your work is centering and supportive of someone who meditates?
Prakash: Very much so. Unlike most kinds of work I’ve done, it’s actually a normal part of what I do to try to find that center in myself as I work.
I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s not true of many heavy equipment operators, although they wouldn’t talk about it in the same way. You can’t put yourself on automatic and do this work. You have to be completely focused and calm in yourself so that you can respond appropriately to whatever is happening.
There are endless opportunities all day to try to find that point at which the work flows smoothly, and flows through you.
Q: As devotees, we try to experience God as energy flowing through us when we work. Is that what you mean?
Prakash: Yes. There are moments that just come, when there’s a flow that’s happening through me, and a feeling that something is unfolding. That’s a rare and special thing that happens sometimes, and when it does, I have a wonderful feeling of gratitude to God and Guru. Usually that comes in the midst of the constant daily effort to remain centered, to be in the flow of what I’m doing, and to be quiet in myself while doing it.
So those are good days, and anything that I could call an experience of God working through me comes like that in a quiet way. There’s a feeling of flow, of centeredness, of calmness, a feeling of gratitude, and sometimes a conversation with God.
Q: What do you mean by a “a conversation with God”?
Prakash: It’s something in the background. Not a lot of words, more a feeling of sharing what’s happening. And sometimes it comes out as an inner chant, especially, “Sri Ram, Jai Ram,” or “Jai Guru.” These bring a feeling of centeredness.
But I’m on a slightly new tack with this. For years I’ve been hearing about chanting and the bliss of music, but never quite connecting with it. Recently I just happened to pick up a tape by Swami Kriyananda called “Some of My Favorites.” To my great amazement, all of sudden it just connected. Now it’s always playing in my truck. I’ve pretty much memorized all the songs, and I find myself singing along with him.
Those songs will be constantly going in the back of my mind while I’m working. And because they come from such a place of deep spiritual truth, to the level that I’m capable of, that becomes my experience.
So if I’m lurching around trying without success to rip out a tree stump, it’s very natural for one of these songs to come to the foreground. Then things go better.
Q: How do you stay centered when your work becomes unusually challenging?
Prakash: Recently when I was working on a steep slope, the bulldozer was overheating a lot, and there was so much dust that I couldn’t see where I was going. I had to stop every 10-20 minutes to let the engine cool, or the dust clear a bit. These cool-down minutes became wonderful opportunities to watch the breath and re-center.
Q: Yogananda says that “right attitude” is very important in that it puts you on the divine wavelength. How do you maintain the right spiritual attitude in your work?
Prakash: What I’ve always looked for is a sense of community. Some people here feel that the land shouldn’t be cleared and made more open and park-like. Because I want to do what’s right, I attract a lot of advice.
My challenge becomes how to stay with the intuition I have, which is the only one I’ve got, and do the work in harmony with the larger community. So my ongoing prayer is “What’s true?” “Help me be in tune, help me find my way, help me to serve you when I’m working.”
Q: When did you first start to make certain areas of Ananda Village more open and park-like?
Prakash: In the late 1990s, the community was going through a difficult challenge, and one day I drove into Ananda and noticed a slope that was choked with half dead brush, star thistle, and fallen branches. And the thought came to me, that if I cleaned it up really well, everybody would feel better. That became my approach. Just clean it up.
Q: You’ve created a more spiritually uplifting environment, which helps everyone.
Prakash: The heart of what I’m trying to do in the forest is to clean out things that block the flow of energy or lower the vibration. In one sense, it’s the same energy that’s in our consciousness that’s preventing us from going to God.
So, if I can open up the forest so that the energy there can flow more freely, then maybe the energy in our consciousness will flow more freely also.