As I entered the chemistry lab on the basement floor of the hospital, no one was there to greet me, only racks of dirty test tubes. My part-time job during my last semester in college was to clean the vials after the chemists had left for the day.
It wasn’t very interesting work. I usually found myself alone in a lifeless room lit by flickering fluorescent lights.
And unfortunately, the lab environment was pretty toxic: All the racks of test tubes had to be lowered into a large acid vat before they were washed. The fumes from the acid were mostly drawn off by a ventilating hood, but I didn’t feel I was adding years to my life by working around it.
To make matters worse, when I went into the hallway to find a restroom, I saw a hospital orderly pushing a large cart. In the dim light, at first I couldn’t tell what was on it, but then as he drew nearer, I realized that the cart held a corpse covered with a sheet. Taken aback, I stepped aside to watch him enter the morgue right across the hall from the lab.
The whole experience was about as devoid of life as you could get, but there was one consolation. At this time a wonderful audio cassette had been released: West Meets East, improvisation sessions between the great Indian sitarist, Ravi Shankar, and the violin virtuoso, Yehudi Menuhin. I’d bring a cassette player with me to the lab, play that tape for hours, and revel in the rich, soulful music.
The contrast between the sterile, lifeless lab and the transcendent, joy-filled music awakened within me a great longing to feel such inspiration all the time. I began to realize that life, even at its best, was like a morgue compared to the inner world of the soul.
A month later a friend handed me a copy of Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramhansa Yogananda and told me about Ananda, which was based on his teachings. Thus, almost fifty years ago, I began my spiritual journey.
For each of us the way is different, yet it’s basically the same. Here are some stages of the journey that may help guide you.
To begin a journey, you must want to move forward from where you presently are. As long as you’re content with your circumstances, you’ll never be motivated to get started. What motivates us? It differs from person to person: perhaps it’s unhappiness; or longing for truth; or seeking to know who we really are. In any case, the longing for something more is the impetus that spurs us onward. Remember what has motivated you, and keep seeking it until you reach your goal.
To move away from the familiar, you need a map or guide. It’s very difficult to find our way forward without someone who knows the terrain. For this we need a guru and his teachings to guide us. Maybe you’ll ask: But what if I don’t have a guru? When the seeker is ready, the guru will come. So it’s important to know our own limitations in directing our steps, and sincerely to ask for personal, divine guidance to show us the way. Once you’ve found your guide, continue to follow his directions.
As you continue your journey, try to lighten your load. You can’t move forward with lots of unneeded baggage, such as old habits, ways of thinking, and self-definitions. Leave behind anything you don’t need, and simplify your life to what you really want to bring with you into the future.
Remember, this journey is one of self-discovery. You’re not actually moving through time and space, but traveling within to reconnect with your true Self. As far as the journey may seem to take you, you’ll always return to the point from which you started—your inner home in God. So this journey isn’t really about traveling at all, but simply remembering what we’ve always known: who and what we really are.
Once we make this discovery, our real life begins: one of such inner richness, beauty, freedom, and joy that nothing, not even death, can ever destroy it. We thrill, then, to the music of our soul, which was playing all the time.