Putting God First: A Physician’s Journey–An Interview with Peter Van Houten
In 1982, in a trailer two miles down the road from Ananda Village, Peter Van Houten, a medical doctor and Ananda Village resident, started a clinic for an area without medical services. Twelve years later he donated the clinic to a local non-profit corporation. He continues to serve as medical director and CEO.
Q. Peter, you started a medical clinic two years after moving to Ananda Village. Since then, you’ve had the responsibility of running a busy rural clinic while also providing medical services to clinic patients. In addition, you’ve often had to respond to medical emergencies in the evening after work and on week-ends.
Under these circumstances, how has it been possible for you to put God first in your life?
A. Since becoming a devotee, I’ve always tried to see my life as belonging to God. Interestingly, I started doing that much more consciously during a period when I was facing more challenges than I thought I could handle.
Q. What was happening at that time?
A. It was during the late 1980s. The clinic had been open for about five years, but we were still just barely hanging on financially. I was working all the time, doing everything from seeing patients, managing the finances, and being on call most nights.
In the midst of all this, local doctors were criticizing me for starting a clinic with so little medical experience, claiming that we didn’t provide good health care. Then county officials began pressuring us to move to an approved structure, which we simply couldn’t afford to do.
That was the last straw. I began asking myself, “Is it really my karma to be a doctor? Are all these problems a ‘sign’ I should be doing something else?” I started thinking seriously about closing the clinic and wrote Swami Kriyananda for advice.
After consulting with him, I understood more deeply that it was God’s will for me to be a doctor, and on some level I relaxed. I realized that it didn’t matter if the challenges felt crushing, or if my ego was bruised by the criticism from other doctors. What was happening was God’s will for me–His way of making me stronger.
The problems still existed, but I became more resilient in dealing with them because I no longer struggled against them. I relied more on God’s strength and guidance for solutions. It was an important turning point in surrendering to God’s will.
Q. Another important aspect of putting God first involves consciously acting as His instrument and channeling His love to people. Is this something you do in your work at the clinic?
A. Yes, but I’ve had to learn to do it. My inner relationship with God has always been very devotional, and it’s been easy for me to feel love for God. One of my main lessons in this life has been learning to give that same love outwardly to people.
At the clinic we see about 15,000 patients a year, most of whom are society’s dropouts—indigent, homeless, and often mentally ill with difficult personalities. They’re people you have to work at loving—and I’ve had to work at it.
Q. How did you “work at it?”
A. When seeing patients, I would consciously try to feel God’s love in my heart– and then project that love out to them. At the same time, I would also pray for them. Gradually, my heart opened to them, especially as I began to see how deeply healing it was for patients when I worked with them in a loving way.
Q. Specifically, how was it healing for your patients?
A. It had a calming effect on those who were agitated or disturbed emotionally. In general, their physical and mental health improved, and they had a greatly improved ability to make constructive decisions about diet, smoking, exercise, intoxicants and other things that affected their physical and mental health.
Q. In your many years of practicing medicine, there must have been times when you did your absolute best but something nevertheless went “wrong.” How does that affect you? Have you been able to develop non-attachment to the “fruits” of your efforts?
A. For someone like me who really takes what he does seriously, non-attachment has been very difficult. Many times something has gone very badly for a patient and I thought maybe I was at fault. Usually it turned out that I wasn’t.
But I’ve realized that if I let my concentration lapse for 30 seconds, I could miss a key piece of information and the patient could end up being harmed, or even dying, from my mistake.
Q. Was there a turning point when you became stronger in non-attachment?
A. Yes, about six or seven years ago. I was injecting cortisone into a patient’s back to relieve pain and accidentally punched through the muscle into the lung. The patient ended up in the hospital with a collapsed lung. It’s the kind of thing we routinely warn patients about, but it was horrifying to actually have it happen.
The patient made a perfect recovery, but it felt terrible to have hurt someone who trusted me. Still, I’m grateful for the experience.
Q. What did you learn?
A. I realized more deeply the message of The Bhagavad Gita—that in this world we have no choice but to act. Things like this are going to happen even though we try our best. We have to understand that the results of our actions are completely in God’s hands, and always give what we do to Him.
If your work involves a lot of exposure and a high level of responsibility, as mine does, you’re going to make “big” mistakes, not little mistakes. I have to be willing to accept that and surrender it to God. He’s the Doer. The results of my actions belong to Him.
Q. When did you first understand that God was the Doer and that He was working through you in all health care situations, even when the outcome wasn’t what you want?
A. This is perhaps the most important lesson on the spiritual path, and it’s been a gradual process. It started when I was an intern and had no choice but to depend on God because often I didn’t know what to do. After praying, I would know what to do. Even today, when with a patient, if I don’t know the solution, I always pray.
But there’s a deeper level of seeing God as the Doer, when you begin to feel God flowing through you, silently guiding your thoughts and actions. Only for the last five or six years have I begun to feel that more continuously.
Back in the first days of the clinic, I tried to think that way, but it was mostly affirmation. More recently it’s been the reality.
Q. Have there been any dramatic instances of this?
A. Yes. Sometimes I’ll be talking with a patient, trying to figure out what’s wrong, and suddenly find myself talking about something I know absolutely nothing about. I’ll look it up afterwards and find that what I’ve told the patient is correct.
It’s very humbling and always reminds me who’s in charge. But I don’t think I’m unique. If we see what we’re doing as a service and an offering to God, the superconscious will sometimes infiltrate our thoughts and behavior.
Q. Paramhansa Yogananda said that willingness is one of the most important spiritual attitudes. Has willingness been a challenge for you?
A. Willingness has been my hardest challenge because I like things to be organized and predictable. It’s sometimes difficult to stay willing when it’s 6:00 p.m., I’ve already seen 25 patients and would really like to go home—and suddenly there’s one more patient who really needs to be seen. My battle is to not do the easy thing by sending the patient to the hospital emergency room or telling him or her to come back the next day.
As devotees, the pitfall is to decide that we have only so much energy—and no more. Just when I think I’ve done everything I can do, Divine Mother often says, “But there’s so much more you can do,” and then shows me that’s true.
Q. If being willing leaves you with less time for meditation, wouldn’t that adversely affect your spiritual progress?
A. Not necessarily. Recently the clinic went through a very challenging 3-year period when it looked like we might close. We’d been doing very well for a long time. Then gradually we lost most of our top medical staff and couldn’t replace them because finances had become very tight.
For a while I was the only one seeing patients and working 16 hours a day just to keep the clinic afloat. I couldn’t meditate much. Yet it was a period of real growth for me spiritually.
It helped me understand that God will work with us in the ways we need for our spiritual development, and we shouldn’t think that the only way we grow spiritually is by meditating eight hours a day. We just have to be willing to do what God asks of us.
Q. How did the experience change you?
A. I had to confront a number of my fears very directly. The clinic was something I’d worked on for almost 30 years and it looked like it was going to fail. I could have ended up financially ruined. There were so many ways this could have happened.
More than once I felt like I was going a little crazy with the whole thing. I got stretched far beyond what I thought my limits were, and yet, looking back, I can see that God and Guru protected me the whole time.
Q. I imagine you gained a much deeper level of trust and faith in God?
A. The experience definitely took concepts like “faith” and “trust” and made them much more real because I’d lived it. Repeatedly I had to say, “God, you’re going to have to protect me because I’m going far beyond what I think I can do.”
And God came through and produced a miracle. From any standpoint, the clinic should not be standing today.
Q. Didn’t you need a certain level of faith and centeredness to successfully go through a test like that?
A. For sure. Being a devotee for many years gives you the momentum to get through things that would have been insurmountable earlier on the path. You’ve already gotten through many challenges, and you’re more confident that God will carry you through this one too. You learn that God will always protect you, provided you do your best and keep moving forward, no matter how hard it gets.
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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