I’ve often been struck by our tendency as humans to compartmentalize our lives. You see this in grade school students when they sit, watching the clock, knowing that if they can just sit through another five minutes of math, they get to go out and play. You see the same thing in adults who think: “I will do my work during the day and then in the evening I can do whatever I want.”

As devotees, our tendency is to compartmentalize our lives by seeing our meditation times as our “real life,” and the family, work, or health challenges as intrusions. But our goal as devotees is to feel exactly the same when dealing with difficult co-workers, or talking to an angry taxicab driver, as during our deepest moments in meditation.

I recall a time when it felt like I was being crushed by a certain experience, and it suddenly occurred to me, “Well, what did you expect? As a devotee, you’ve ‘signed on’ to go through this process, and others like it, to become more spiritual and of course it’s going to be challenging.”

God takes us very seriously when we come onto the spiritual path; He makes sure that our karma comes to us in ways that will help us to develop spiritually. Our challenging times help us to transcend our likes and dislikes and to realize that behind all the challenges, there’s only one reality: God.

“I am determined to be saintly”

Some years ago, I had an experience that really highlighted how different life is if we approach it with the thought that “I am determined to be saintly.”

When I was an intern in 1980, I had been a devotee for several years. I was working on a ward in a creaky old county hospital taking care of 25 or so highly addicted drug addicts with a wide variety of health problems.

We were stabilizing their health enough for them to be able to stagger out of the front door of the hospital, where the drug dealers would be waiting for them in the parking lot to try to get them re-addicted. It was a revolving door, but they all had health issues that needed attention, and working with them was never easy.

“Don’t go in there!”

I remember the day when I was walking down the hallway to admit a certain woman. This woman had spent most of her life either in jail or in the hospital, and she had been in the hospital as much as she had been in jail. As I reached the door of her room, one of the nurses rushed out just in time to miss being hit by an (empty) bedpan this woman had thrown at her. The nurse grabbed me by the arm and said, “Don’t go in there!”

In that moment, the thought came to me to approach this situation very differently from how I normally functioned as a doctor. I thought, “I know this patient is very difficult, very demanding, and tends to terrorize the staff. Nobody likes her. But I’m going to go in there and pretend I’m Saint Francis. I’m going to go in there and see God in her and try to channel God to her.”

A balm for her pain

I went in and the woman was mean and nasty and swore at me the whole time. She even tried to bite my arm as I conducted the initial exam. But I decided I wouldn’t react to anything. I would just see God in her and keep treating her as my friend, and as a person in a great deal of psychic pain.

I had no medication that would make her psychic pain go away, and there wasn’t much I could do for her physically except give her antibiotics for her infection, which was chronic. But if I loved her, that would at least be a balm for her psychic pain, and a balm for her soul.

This woman was in the hospital for about ten days. Each day I saw her, I would treat her like she had always been my best friend. I would greet her cheerfully and ask her how she was feeling, and tried to make sure that she had everything we could possibly offer as a hospital staff to make her more comfortable.

Her demeanor changed

It was very interesting to see how her demeanor changed. After four days of this, she would know what time I would make my rounds, which was usually around 5:30 in the morning, and she would be expecting me.

She was always awake. Her makeup was on, her pillows were plumped up, and she wore a little housecoat. She had been very disheveled when she arrived at the hospital, but she now looked like someone at home waiting to receive friends. As I entered the room, she would pat the bed where I could come and sit down and talk to her.

By the end of her stay the nurses began asking me, “What did you do?” “Did you give her a tranquilizer?” “Did you put her on an antidepressant?” “She’s actually being nice to everybody.” “She actually said ‘please’ to me the other day when she asked for something.” “What is going on?”

I didn’t say very much, only, “Well, she’s finally feeling better and let’s take advantage that. I think that if we don’t expect her to be bad, we’ll find that she’ll do a lot better.”

“What’s the catch?”

The very last day, when she was in the discharge room and I was preparing to leave, she said, “I want to ask you something and I wonder if you will answer truthfully?” I said, “Sure; fire away!”

She said: “I’m a terrible person and no one likes me. My family hates me; all my ex-husbands hate me; my boyfriend hates me; my drug dealer hates me; everyone hates me. I am awful to people. I am always angry; I am always mean; I am selfish; I steal. Why are you so nice to me?” She was asking: “What’s the catch?”

In that moment, I could feel God in my mind saying, “Well, I couldn’t be any other way.” For a moment she looked perplexed. Then she shrugged and said, “Okay.”

A glimpse of the saintly life

As I walked out of the room, I thought, “Well, of course, I could be another way!” I had quite a temper and could be very unkind to people when I didn’t feel like being nice.

But I realized in that instant how transforming it was, not only for that woman but also for me, to hold the thought that it was God serving God. It gave me a glimpse of what it was like to be saintly, and to always serve others as though you were serving God as your own beloved.

In fact, for all of us, the idea that our lives can be compartmentalized, or that they are separated in any way, is unreal. Whether we are meditating, feeling stressed at work, or having trouble with our finances—every one of these is an opportunity to deepen our relationship with God.

Remember: each one of us has the destiny is to become as great a saint as Yogananda, the Buddha, or Saint Francis, with all the incredible love and interior spiritual power that is our birthright.

Excerpted from a November 11, 2007 Sunday Service at Ananda Village. Peter Van Houten, a Lightbearer, lives at Ananda Village and is the founder and Medical Director of Sierra Family Medical Clinic.

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