Embracing Life’s Challenges
Recently, while on an airplane flight to visit relatives, I was reflecting on the previous week at the clinic where I serve as medical director. It had been an intensely busy and stressful week, and I was recalling the particular afternoon when a number of people with emergency situations arrived at the clinic, all around the same time.
In each instance, the people were quite ill and could have died if we made the wrong decision. Their situations were critical, very complicated, and the right type of treatment wasn’t immediately obvious. To top it off, the staff needed my advice on many other things. Whenever I emerged from a treatment room, I was immediately met with a barrage of questions.
“Well, die then!”
I was reflecting on how it had been such an unusually stressful afternoon that I could have easily keeled over with a heart attack. In that instant the thought came to me, “Well, die then!” That was a “wake-up call.” Suddenly I realized I had been feeling sorry for myself, and thinking that my life would be much easier if I practiced medicine in a less demanding setting.
Yet I knew my current job was exactly what God wanted of me, and that it didn’t matter if that day had been especially stressful. I had hung in there and seen to it that each patient received the proper treatment. As much as possible, I had acted with the sense that God was the Doer. That was a victory.
What is “right action?”
So often in our culture we are told that whatever we do, and especially our work, should be something we want to do, something that makes us happy. For devotees, this is a false premise.
The guideline of right action for devotees is not loving what you are doing, but doing it out of love for God. We should perform whatever work we are given as a loving self-offering to God, and with the attitude that He is the Doer, and we are simply His instruments. Then it doesn’t really matter what we do because when we act in that way, we are inwardly fulfilled and very happy.
“Okay Peter, it’s time to go back”
All the challenges we experience in life, even the most horrendous trials, come from God. Before we incarnate, we basically know what our life is going to look like and the difficult times we’re going to have.
I sometimes imagine myself sitting with my Guru, Paramhansa Yogananda, before incarnating. He is saying, “Okay Peter, it’s time to go back. “You will have a certain number of years and here are the experiences you’ll have to go through. There’s one particular situation that is going to be especially challenging, and here’s another one that will be even worse!”
Would I say, “Please give me something easier?” No! I imagine myself saying, “OK, perfect. These experiences are for my spiritual growth. Just keep supporting me so that I can get through them with the right attitude, and without being crushed.”
Whenever I have that thought, in my heart I always feel Yogananda saying, “Don’t worry, I will be with you the entire time. Your job is to remember that I am always with you, helping you, and that God is on your side.”
Expanding beyond likes and dislikes
Knowing what God wants of us in a given situation is usually simpler than we think. Often we’ll be given a choice between a quick and easy approach and something much more difficult.
It’s very tempting to choose the easy approach because we know we can do it and, on the surface at least, it seems to solve the problem. The alternative is to put up with challenging situations that don’t resolve quickly and perhaps may never resolve in this lifetime. Our spiritual growth, however, often lies in choosing the more difficult route, and the need to make that choice is often a test given to us by God.
A friend of mine once had to make a very hard decision about a relationship and was unable to decide what to do. She finally spoke to Swami Kriyananda about it and, in tears, said, “It is so hard to know what to do.” His answer was, “No it’s not.”
In relating this story she said, “At first that sounded kind of harsh to me, but when I thought about it, I realized it wasn’t. The only reason I found it hard to decide was because I was attached to one of the outcomes.”
When faced with conflicting options, I’ve found it very helpful to ask myself, “What would I decide if I didn’t have any likes or dislikes, if I didn’t have an ego? What would my answer be?” This process is very helpful in stripping away the feeling that favors one outcome over another. Once you strip that away, suddenly you’re left with a much more straight-forward problem. The question then becomes, “Can I live with this answer? Can I expand enough spiritually to overcome my ego attachments and do the right thing?”
This doesn’t mean that we bludgeon ourselves into submission when faced with strong inner resistance. Swami Kriyananda suggests that we think of the ego as a donkey—sometimes you just need to pull it along. But if it’s really digging in its heels, you may need to wait before you start pulling it again.
I’ve found this advice very helpful for working with myself compassionately as I try to overcome my ego attachments—while never losing sight of the necessity to overcome them.
God’s transforming power
Many people in our culture worry about losing their jobs or their incomes going down. They say, “I don’t want my life to change; I want things to stay just as they are.”
But as devotees focused on spiritual growth, we understand that it’s mainly by going through challenging experiences that we grow spiritually. I guarantee that if you are a serious devotee of any path, you will go through challenging experiences because that’s how we get rid of the encrustations of ego: our likes and dislikes, our hurts, and all the things that upset us and make us feel bad about ourselves.
Fortunately, God lets us do it in small increments. It’s a bit like getting into very cold water. It’s easier to do it slowly than jumping in all at once. In the end, however, we will be in up to our necks if we want to grow spiritually.
The good news is that if we keep moving forward, calling on God and Guru, and relying on their power to transform us, at the end of our life we will be grateful for everything. We will have grown spiritually and become a very different person. We will have become more Christ-like, more like Yogananda, which is the divine destiny of each and every one of us.
Excerpted from a May 11, 2008 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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