Embracing Change: An Interview with Nayaswami Parvati
Q. Parvati, frequent change has characterized your 40-year association with Ananda. There have been recent predictions that the world may be moving into a time of great change, yet change is difficult for many people. How have you managed to meet the challenge of ongoing change so successfully?
A. Outward change has been a constant in my life since I was a child. I was born in Los Angeles in 1946 at the end of WWII when thousands of servicemen were moving to Los Angeles. Since rental housing was scarce, my family had to move to wherever housing was available. We moved seven times before I was ten years old, and four more times when I was in high school.
Each time we moved, to me the move seemed like an adventure – I remember enjoying it. We were a close, loving family group of two grandparents, one uncle, and my parents. I was the only child, and I always had a sense of security and support.
Q. You moved to Ananda Village in 1972, a year or so after finishing college. How soon after moving to Ananda Village did the pattern of ongoing change begin?
A. At Ananda Village, there were many immediate changes I had to adjust to, including having 90 people to relate to every day! But the biggest change was in my own consciousness. At Ananda, I was able to live my spiritual ideals completely, a lifestyle which introduced into my life a new sense of joy and inner freedom.
In Swami Kriyananda I found a wonderful leader. From the beginning he emphasized that we needed to make the community our own. “If you see something that needs doing, do it!” was something he often said. He wanted us to grow in understanding through our own successes and mistakes. I found it thrilling to approach life in this new way, even though it was often very challenging. Because of Kriyananda’s encouragement and support, I soon felt capable of doing anything I put my mind to.
Q. How long did you live at Ananda Village?
A. I lived there for nine years, until the fall of 1981, when I was asked to move to the Ananda center in San Francisco, which had been established three years earlier.
Q. Did moving to the San Francisco center mark the beginning of a new period of frequent change?
A. Yes it did. From 1981 until 2004, I moved 12 times in 23 years, often returning to Ananda Village for a period of time between moves. During those years I helped direct seven Ananda centers and colonies in the United States and Italy – in San Francisco, Atherton, Seattle, Portland, Dallas, and Assisi. It was a period not only of frequent change, but also of great blessings.
Q. What was your first reaction to being asked to move to the San Francisco center?
A. I was happy and terrified at the same time. But I had felt ready for a change for some time. I thought this move would help me to expand my consciousness and to practice more dynamically what I had been learning for the past nine years.
At the same time, the new assignment was a big challenge. I had done only a little ministerial work prior to leaving Ananda Village; at the San Francisco center I was regularly giving Sunday services and teaching classes. I was one of three Ananda ministers who had overall responsibility not only for the leased 45-room mansion that served as an ashram, but also for a separately located teaching center.
Q. How did the move to the San Francisco center help you spiritually?
A. It helped me understand something Swami Kriyananda had emphasized in his talks at Ananda Village – that before God can work through us, we must first have the courage to step forward and put out energy. As I learned to put out energy in that way, I was able to feel the divine energy and power working through me in ways I hadn’t felt before.
Q. How important was a strong meditation practice to your ability to serve effectively?
A. It was absolutely essential. I meditated twice a day, in the mornings as part of our ashram group meditation and in the evenings on my own. Without the centeredness and spiritual perspective that I gained through meditation, I doubt that I could have done my job, or done it well. Most likely I would have felt the job to be a burden rather than a joy and a blessing.
Q. You mentioned that between 1981 until 2004, you moved a total of 12 times in 23 years. Were any of those moves especially challenging?
A. Yes, there were two: moving to Ananda’s center in Atherton, California near Palo Alto; and starting Ananda’s first center in Texas.
Q. What made your Atherton center experience so challenging?
A. When I took over as director of the Atherton center in November 1983, the center was in dire need of funds. Because I knew the center would survive only by Yogananda’s grace, I prayed that we receive the donations we needed. Shortly after that, we received a large enough donation to get us through that initial crisis.
The other challenge involved a small group of ashram residents who had no real interest in Ananda. This situation made it uncomfortable for me at times, but my role (and that of the two other ministers who had joined me) was to help deepen the spiritual attunement of those who wanted to be part of Ananda. Gradually, as the ashram’s spiritual focus became clearer and stronger, the uncommitted people moved on. Ananda Palo Alto, today one of our largest colonies, evolved out of the humble beginnings of this first center.
Q. What challenges did you encounter in starting an Ananda center in Texas?
A. In the early 1990s, there were Ananda meditation groups in three Texas cities — Austin, Houston, and Dallas. My husband, Pranaba, and I met with the members of these three groups in 1992 to discuss starting a center in one of the cities. Initially we settled on Austin, the home of the University of Texas. For personal reasons I had pushed for Austin, which was smaller than the other two cities, had lots of greenery, and to me was a much more inviting place to live. My attachment to that choice had clouded my judgment; starting a center in Austin turned out to be a mistake.
After six months in Austin we moved to Dallas, a much larger city with greater diversity of population. In Dallas not only was there much more interest in Ananda, but there was also a larger, supportive Ananda core group.
Q. Did the most challenging adjustments during this 23-year period of change usually pertain to where you were serving?
A. Moving from one center to another center wasn’t usually as big an adjustment as returning to Ananda Village for a period after serving as a center or colony leader. Each time I returned to the Village I had to learn to shift into a new mindset so that I could serve dynamically in my new assignment, whatever it might be.
The difficulty of this adjustment had to do with the ego, of course. Dissolving the ego is the most difficult challenge we face spiritually. I have had the great opportunity, in all my comings and goings from Ananda Village, to work on that issue over a long period of time.
In meditation and in everyday life I learned to meet the challenges of my changing roles by working on expanding my consciousness — on seeing myself as not defined by this one little body and personality. If I felt excluded from things I had been involved in as a leader, I would try to feel that I was part of those who were presently involved. If they were invited to something, so was I, by extension. Overall, I worked on developing the right attitudes, and I always tried to catch myself when I slipped into a more constrictive consciousness.
Q. How have the frequent changes in your areas of service affected your spiritual life?
A. They have helped me to become more expansive and non-attached. I now feel much less bound to any one place, position, or group of people. And I feel that I have friends in many places.
Q. Swami Kriyananda writes that many people fear change and that this fear is allied to the fear of death. Have you ever feared change?
A. Yes, a few times. But I try to move quickly from the fear itself to asking myself, “What can I do about it? How can I change myself to accommodate this new circumstance?”
Q. Have you ever feared death?
A. I haven’t feared death since I came onto the spiritual path – before that I don’t remember thinking much about death. Paramhansa Yogananda’s teachings on death have helped me understand the right way to approach this major event in my life, and how to help others put into perspective the normal emotions that accompany the loss of a loved one. *
Quite a few years ago I had an experience of thinking I might die. It came on very quickly and passed quickly as well. I was alone, and I mentally asked Yogananda, “Is this what you want?” I didn’t pray to live, but tried to relax into the moment. In case this was my time to die, I wanted to be prepared and thinking of my Guru.
I think that by becoming familiar with Yogananda’s teachings on death, and accepting that death can come at any time, one is less likely to be afraid when it does come.
Q. Have you ever counseled people who feared death or were grieving over the death of loved ones? If so, how were you able to help them?
A. Yes, I have. The passing of a loved one is a very emotional time for many people and I’ve always tried to share with people whatever aspect of Yogananda’s teachings I felt would bring them the most comfort.
During my time in Atherton, I was asked by the mother and sister of a young man who had died suddenly to give the funeral service. The mother and sister were then taking my meditation class, but I barely knew them. I arrived at the mortuary expecting a close family affair. Instead, there were over a hundred grieving people, friends and family members, who didn’t know how to relate to the young man’s sudden death. Many of them felt terrible that they hadn’t had a chance to say goodbye to him, or that their last encounters with him had not been harmonious.
I hadn’t done a funeral service quite like this one, and I prayed to Yogananda that I be able to respond to the family’s needs in that moment. The people attending the service seemed to find some comfort in what I said and, unexpectedly, the mother and sister asked me to do a graveside ceremony immediately following the service. There were flowers at the graveside, and after a very brief talk, I asked each person to take a flower and to offer it on the coffin as a symbol of their love for this friend, brother, and son. From what I heard afterwards, both services were greatly appreciated. I attribute the vibration and comfort that came through those two services to Yogananda.
Q. Since 2004 you have been Executive Director of the Janaka Foundation at Ananda Village, which requires that you be sensitive to peoples’ feelings about death. Is that correct?
A. Yes. My work with the Janaka Foundation is focused on “planned giving,” which involves encouraging people to make gifts to Ananda, gifts that will take effect when they die. These gifts require that people think about, and plan for, events that will occur beyond their own lifetimes.
Q. Have you found that it’s difficult for people to make arrangements that relate to their dying?
A. Not usually. The people I talk with are usually devotees who meditate and have a balanced understanding of death. For some people, planning for what will happen when they die makes them think more deeply about their current lives and loved ones.
Q. Was the transition from serving as an Ananda colony leader to serving as Executive Director of the Janaka Foundation challenging for you?
A. The transition had its challenging aspects but the challenges were similar to those I faced when I served at the Ananda center in Italy. In Italy I had to put out a great deal of energy to learn a new language and culture, and of course that took time. When I became head of the Janaka Foundation, I had to put out a great deal of energy to learn the language and culture of planned giving, and this also took time.
Since I knew very little about planned giving or how to approach it for Ananda, I attended a number of informative seminars on this topic. Later I found a wonderful planned giving consultant (who is also a Lutheran minister) with whom I regularly consult.
Q. Have there been any ongoing challenges in your job as head of the Janaka Foundation?
A. Yes. The main challenge has been to raise the general awareness that Ananda is interested in receiving planned gifts, and is fully qualified to do so. People who give such gifts are concerned that their gifts go to an organization that has endured the test of time – as Ananda has done for the last 44 years.
Q. Your longest period of service as the leader of an Ananda center or colony was in Portland, Oregon, where you served for six years, until 2004. You’ve been director of the Janaka Foundation for almost nine years now. Are you contemplating any future changes?
A. Not really. I would like to continue serving wherever I am most needed.
Q. Looking back over your life – helping to start new Ananda centers and now serving as director of the Janaka Foundation – do you see yourself as a trailblazer?
A. All I can say is that I have been blessed to be able to serve Ananda in many ways, and even more blessed to be able to say “yes” when asked to do so.
Nayaswami Parvati, an Ananda Lightbearer, serves as Executive Director of the Janaka Foundation. She and her husband, Pranaba, presently live at Ananda Village.
*To make Paramhansa Yogananda’s teachings on death more easily accessible, I have included a link on the Janaka Foundation website called “4th Ashram Living, Inspiration and Resources,” which has links to articles, websites and blogs that deal with death and other related topics. To learn more go to Janaka Foundation
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