Food for Thought

Raja_Ravi_Varma_-_Sankaracharya (1)It isn’t often that the Gita makes me jump from my chair and run to make amends, but this week’s verses delivered such a jolt that I had to take immediate action.

It was a Tuesday afternoon and I sat in my very comfortable reading chair, legs up on the padded footstool, sipping a hot cup of tea, eating an avocado tomato sandwich, and going over the verses for this week’s class. Outside the window was the comforting hum of the lawnmower as the gardener made his rounds of the backyard.

Imagine my discomfort when the first thing I read was that eating without offering to another, whether God or a fellow being, was not only selfish, it amounted to cooking up and consuming sin. This had a terrible effect on my appetite. As I kept reading in dismay, the Gita went on to explain why this kind of ingratitude for all the good things we receive, including food, shelter, air, water, love, kindness, is one of the greatest of sins, binding us forever to a mortal existence.

To truly show how grateful we are for what was never ours to begin with, we need to share it, to offer it to others, before we consume it selfishly on our own. This made perfect sense. I immediately dropped the sandwich I was eating, unable to swallow another bite, and ran to the pantry, determined to share something with my gardener and his family. All I could find was an unopened bag of kidney beans from the Indian store, which I had intended to make into rajma one of these days when I got around to it. I took the bag outside and called the gardener’s wife over, and when she happily accepted, came back in relieved that I could now eat my sandwich without guilt.

Still, while I just happened to find a quick way to relieve my guilt and enjoy my meal, it occurred to me just how rarely we practice the attitude of being grateful and sharing our good fortune.

In class, we talked about being thankful for each new day, for each opportunity to share with others and show our gratitude. We have made it a practice to give thanks the moment we wake up, and offer our day to God. We offer thanks before each meal and offer that as well. And once again, before we sleep, we thank God for the opportunity we have been given. What we realized this week, however, was that it is not enough merely to give thanks and practice gratitude, but that we need to give of ourselves and practice sacrifice as well.

Our homework for this week is to find at least one way to help someone else each day, not only by offering them food or money, but by showing sympathy, kindness, love, attention, support, or giving the gift of our time.

I read somewhere that the greatest gift one human being can receive from another is that of spiritual wisdom. The next best thing is education and the means to survive. Unfortunately, the kind of charity we all tend to practice, that of giving a donation, is the least valuable, since it keeps the other dependent and still unable to better their circumstances.

As an educator, it makes me happy to know that I have the means to share academic knowledge and help others access opportunity. And while I am far from a spiritual teacher, I hope that this blog where I document our struggles and journey, counts as some small attempt to share garnered wisdom.

As for day to day charity, I can only remember that whatever I do solely for myself and my pleasure sets a sure path to bondage, while whatever I can spare for others, be it as simple as a like on a facebook post, a kind word when they are down, a meal or a pair of clothes, allows me to express gratitude for all the blessings I have been showered with and brings me forward on the path to liberation.

Image: Raja Ravi Varma [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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Sensory Overload

Raja_Ravi_Varma,_The_Maharashtrian_Lady“Is it wrong to want to experience new things, especially when we may never get the chance to do so again?”

A question from one of our members who just returned from a trip to Amsterdam. She shared her internal conflict and wondered if by giving in, by enjoying all the sights and smells and tastes her trip had to offer, she had gone against the precept of controlling one’s senses.

The Gita says that the senses are merely doing their job. Our five sense organs are meant specifically for the purpose of tasting, touching, seeing, smelling and listening. By themselves the senses have no power except to relay information. The culprit, according to the Gita, is the mind, which takes that information and turns it into experience, and then becomes attached to that experience, and then craves more of it. All the sensory experiences we have are distilled by the mind into pleasure and pain, and then either craved or avoided according to its category.

The mind attaches fear, excitement, longing, delight and despair to each of these experiences and drags us along accordingly either toward or away from those emotions.

The key then, to continue experiencing the world through the senses,  but still remain unaffected, is to control and calm the mind. If the mind no longer becomes excited by every experience, no longer attaches itself to pleasure or becomes despondent at every negative stimulus, then life is peaceful and harmonious.

To walk the streets of Amsterdam and not enjoy the picturesque canals and the masterpieces of Van Gogh would be foolish. I still remember the tea made with fresh peppermint that warmed us on a cold October afternoon and the wonderful cheese and honey waffles on my own trip last year. And while a traveler’s curiosity might lead one to explore the Red Light District or the famous cafes where every grade of marijuana is freely available, this doesn’t mean you have to engage in indiscretions or become a pothead. The world is full of temptations and sensory overload. Since we cannot shut these out, nor are we required to, we have to learn to be observers both of the world and of ourselves, silent witnesses to the constant flow of information, unaffected and implacable. This allows us to be in the world, but not overwhelmed by it.

We talked this week about how the mind changes as well, as we progress. According to Swami Chinmayananda, when we interact with each other, it is the texture of one another’s mind and intellect that we recognize and connect with. When the texture of our mind changes, through experience, through growth, through wisdom, we tend to be attracted to those who are similar and gradually move away from those who are not. This really resonated with me.

I have found myself moving away from those whose company I enjoyed thoroughly just a few years ago. I’ve wondered why, have struggled with guilt, worried about becoming anti-social since my friends haven’t changed at all. But now I realize that is precisely why. They haven’t changed, and I have.

They wonder what’s come over me, why I no longer want to hang out, why I’m no longer “fun”. But I don’t find dirty jokes amusing, I’m no longer into comparing sarees or jewelry, no longer into swooning over Bollywood stars or male models, completely uninterested in clubbing or drinking or gossiping about other people. And while I can pretend to go along, it has become more and more difficult since my heart’s not in it. Perhaps age has something to do with it, perhaps after a certain amount of experience the mind becomes satiated. Or perhaps, as I would like to believe, I am beginning to realize that temporary pleasures don’t lead to permanent happiness.

One of our group members reminded me during class that while the texture of my mind may have changed, this didn’t automatically make me superior. I am merely choosing a different path to get to the ultimate goal and the Gita reminds us repeatedly that there are many routes to the same destination. What is most important, however, whichever route we choose, whether we plunge into sensory experience and remain unaffected or withdraw gradually from outer distractions, is to keep our minds clear, calm and always focused on the goal.

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Lord Ganesha

The Story of Lord Ganesha: The Elephant God

512px-Ganesh_on_his_vahana,_a_mouse_or_ratThe story of Ganesha is one of the most colorful in Hindu religion. Ganesha, the elephant-headed God, with his pot belly and the tiny mouse for his conveyance,  is an object at once of ridicule and reverence. However comic his appearance may be, Ganesha is worshipped as lord of wisdom, and remover of all obstacles. He is worshipped first before Laxmi or Siva or Vishnu and it is only after appeasing him that the other puja may begin.

Ganesha’s story is at once tragic and comic, heart rending and ludicrous and is perhaps why it is so easily identified with by the masses. For Ganesha is the ultimate protagonist, one who is diligent and persevering, who undergoes unwarranted suffering and shame and is finally redeemed and given his rightful place. Although the story is familiar to most, how Parvati while her husband Shiva is away, makes a beautiful boy from flour and water and sets him guard at her door, how Shiva returns eager to meet his consort and is affronted by the sincere child who will not let him pass, how Lord Shiva in a rage, chops off the innocent’s head and how Parvati when emerging from her bath to see the tragic outcome, becomes distraught, leading Shiva to fetch an elephant’s head to replace the lost head of Ganesha, and bring him back to life.

varmaganesha

Eventually Ganesha is made lord of wisdom by his parents and each year on Ganesh Chathurti, people worship the elephant headed God, who is appealed to by every student before examinations, to anyone who faces obstacles or challenges and to all those who begin a new venture.

But what is the symbolism behind this story and what is it that is being taught?  For we often forget that behind the colorful, passionate or even violent fables and characters in Hindu mythology, there is always an underlying message, a deep and profound lesson to be learned which reflects the highest philosophical truth.

What often happens in the telling and retelling of myth is that the original meaning gets lost beneath the sensational and shocking events themselves. Children are frightened by the paternal rage which leads to Ganesha’s head being chopped off, and they laugh at the episode where Ganesha bursts open and all the various sweets come tumbling out. It is hard for them to respect this God who apparently has no control over events or over his own body. Often in an attempt to inculcate a blind respect for God, we override the subtleties of meaning which myth contains. Ganesha, Kumaraswamy, Shiva, Parvati, all are various aspects of one’s self. No one aspect needs to  be worshipped or revered blindly, but must be given its appropriate place in one’s development. It is only when we understand this that we can gain the most insight from these beautiful stories.

According to Swami Prajnanananda, the story of Ganesha is nothing more than the story of the soul’s struggle to attain salvation.  Parvati in this story represents the spiritual seeker in all of us, that part of us which wishes and struggles to reach realization.

In an attempt to reconcile with God, as represented by Shiva, Parvati works sincerely or meditates and the fruit of that meditation is Ganesha.  Once having achieved some success, however, the seeker becomes egotistical. Parvati is proud of her accomplishment and dotes upon her “son” giving him supreme power to guard her consciousness, the doorway through which God must enter, not allowing for the inexperience, the ignorance and the blindness of this child, the ego.  Setting her ego at the door, she becomes immersed in other activities. And so it is no surprise, that when the time to merge with God finally arrives, and He arrives at her doorstep, her brash and overly confident ego confronts Him, refusing him entry, unable to recognize God.

Since it is only through destruction or elimination of the ego that God can be realized, Shiva, in his infinite love for the seeker, chops off the head which denies Him entry and hurls it away. At last, Shiva and Parvati can reunite. But the seeker is left distraught by the destruction of her spiritual gain and so Shiva replaces the ego with the spirit of learning and breath control which is represented by the elephant’s head.

The long trunk of the elephant symbolizes the importance of breath control, while its huge, flappy ears represent the receptive attitude necessary for the intake of valuable knowledge. It is through yoga, which involves breath control, and the guidance and learning imparted by the guru to a willing initiate, that one gains wisdom and liberation. According to Swami Prajnanananda, “What is received or imbibed is only learning, it is when that learning is perceived as actual truth that wisdom is born.”

The myth of Ganesha does not end with his coming back to life. Shiva and Parvati eventually have another son, Kumaraswamy.

muruganThis young god is the antithesis of his elder brother. While Ganesha is studious, absorbed in learning and meditation, Kumaraswamy is active, physically fit, handsome and alert. When the time comes to select who is fit for the position of lord of wisdom, Kumaraswamy challenges the obese and sedentary Ganesha’s right.  Being the more active, heroic, and personable of the two he feels he should be selected.

Shiva then sets a test for the two brothers. He asks that they make a pilgrimage of all the holy places and whoever comes back first would be the winner. Kumaraswamy sets off in high style on his peacock sure of success, but is amazed when he sees his brother preceding him wherever he goes. Defeated, he comes back to find that Ganesha has never stirred from Kailasha except to circle Shiva and Parvati themselves, knowing as a result of study and meditation, that within them is contained the entire universe. Having proven his superiority, Ganesha is crowned lord of wisdom.
This part of the story shows how intellect and deep meditation are vastly superior and more effective than physical strength and furious activity. But the beauty of Indian mythology is the various gradations of meaning and truth contained within its fables. The story continues…there is more to be gleaned from its content.

After being crowned lord of wisdom, and after his brother is crowned commander in chief, Ganesha indulges in feasting. So greedily does he devour the sweets and fried food that while making obeisance to his parents, he is unable to keep his balance.

The moon, perched on Shiva’s head, cannot help but laugh at his sad predicament, and in the same instant, poor Ganesha’s belly explodes resulting once again in his demise. The moon is cursed by Parvati for his insolence and Ganesha is brought back to life, but what is important here is the need for balance that is being stressed.

Shiva and Parvati have two sons. Ganesha, however superior in intellect, is unduly sedentary and completely ignores his physical well being. Gluttony and lack of physical exercise take their toll and he becomes an object of ridicule as well as endangering his own life. Kumaraswamy, the epitome of total control over the senses and body,  on the other hand, is obsessed with physical prowess. This leads to vanity, arrogance and a lack of mental growth. What is needed then, is a balance between the two. Neither alone can be completely successful. Meditation and physical exercise, learning and activity, and a tolerance and respect for difference, all combine to make one a truly wise and enlightened being.

Image: Raja Ravi Varma [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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Is it Working?

Mohini_on_a_swingOnce in a while, it’s important to stop and see if what we are doing is working. We meet once a week online, we read and discuss the verses, sometimes we argue vehemently over interpretations but at the end of each session we part feeling as though we’ve accomplished something meaningful. Like we’ve made some progress in figuring out who we are and where we’re going.

But are we? Are we truly any wiser when we sign off than when we signed on? Or do we mistake the satisfaction of having voiced our opinions and our doubts, for real understanding?

Too often I’ve been in groups and centers and meetings, where people gather with good intentions and noble goals. Too often, I’ve seen them disintegrate into sessions where members display their ego through pedantic knowledge, or become emotional over personal suffering, or simply descend into gossip and criticism, where gatherings in the name of meditation or worship or study turn into potlucks and gossip sessions and fashion shows, where spiritual progress becomes an arena for competition and one-upmanship. Even all this would be bearable, if the people involved were truly progressing as a result. But this is seldom the case.

So after 15 weeks of the Gita, I thought it best to pause and reflect on how far our little group has come. We have discussed becoming compassionately detached, we’ve vowed to master our egos and our desires, and we have decided to perform all our duties without regard to the fruit of our actions. How successful have we been in implementing these teachings and resolves? While I cannot speak for  others,  I can certainly look at my own state of mind and measure our success in terms of my progress.

Last week, my son called me with bad news. He had ruptured his plantar fascia, a tendon in his foot, which while not terribly serious, was enough to keep him from completing his surgery rotation since it involved standing for 15 hours a day. He was deeply disappointed and despite all efforts to convince the hospital that he could manage, was put on medical leave until his foot healed. This meant that his surgery rotation would be postponed and that he would have to complete another rotation during fourth year.

If this had happened just a few months ago, I would have been panic stricken. I would have added to my son’s disappointment by bemoaning his fate, by turns urging him to convince the director, and worrying myself to death over his foot and how he would manage alone on the opposite coast.

As it is, I was able to remain calm, to assure him that things would work out, and that he should balance the need to heal his foot with the need to complete his rotations. I like to think that while I may or may not have helped him by remaining calm, I at least didn’t upset him further.

How did I manage this superhuman feat? By reminding myself that we had discussed being compassionately detached. My son is not my possession but an individual atma on his own journey. Like all of us, he will face some disappointments and challenges in his life. He needs to continue doing his best without being devastated by obstacles. The only thing really in his or my power is to keep working toward our goals, while remaining calm despite the results.

I wrote last week about the ego. It is a topic that is especially dear to me since I tend to suffer from an overinflated sense of dignity. I take it very hard when people insult me or demean me or my loved ones in any way. But the Gita says we need to let things go, that it is our sense of self-importance that leads to hurt feelings and misery.

Well this week, I had a chance to put my humility and tolerance to the test. In my work for my nonprofit, I’ve had to face a few rebuffs, have had to ask for donations or favors and be either ignored or dismissed, much to my dismay. This week, I asked for a chance to publicize my fundraising event at another event and rather than simply refusing, the person decided to write me a very long letter detailing my presumptuousness, my unmitigated gall, and my complete lack of decency in making such a request. It was seriously one of the longest and most detailed emails I’ve read in some time. It laid out paragraph by paragraph why I didn’t deserve the privilege of being allowed to hand out flyers, how unworthy I was of such an honor and how selfish it was of me to try to hijack another event to publicize mine.

Now, I know myself. Just a few weeks ago, I would have burst a blood vessel at receiving such an unwarranted stream of insults. I would have fumed and fretted, made myself ill over the perceived injury and poured all the eloquence of my Ph.D. in English into writing a biting and vitriolic response that would shut my opponent up forever. I’m happy to say that I didn’t. Instead, I read it through a couple of times, acknowledged the other person’s viewpoint, was amused by the size of their ego and their territoriality, and moved on.

At the risk of feeding my own newly diminished ego,  I am quite proud of both these accomplishments. They may be small in the larger scope of things, but they prove to me that what we have been doing is actually working in our day to day lives. Real sadhana involves practicing what we study, living it on a daily basis. Other group members have shared similar stories with me over the past few weeks, their increasing ability to let go, to remain calm, to be more forgiving.

As a group of women working hard to understand how to live a happy, productive life and maintain mental peace while making spiritual progress, we seem to be making tiny strides forward week by week. And despite my best efforts to heed the Gita and remain unmoved by pain or by pleasure, I have to admit that this fact makes me extraordinarily happy.

Image: Raja Ravi Varma [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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Ego Maniac

Raja_Ravi_Varma,_Reclining_WomanThis week, we completed Samkhya Yoga, the second chapter of the Gita. As we summed up what we had learned, we recounted the necessary qualities to attain peace. One of them is to relinquish the possessiveness that comes from one’s ego. It had never really occurred to me before this that the ego is the root cause of all our troubles.

I have always thought of the ego as a sense of pride, of doership, of claiming superiority or accomplishment. I know that the ego can be hurt or deflated and that too much ego leads to a superiority complex and thinking poorly of others. It was clear to me that the ego is a dangerous thing, to be closely watched so it doesn’t run rampant and ride roughshod over the feelings of others. Humility, it seemed to me, was the antidote, knowing our limitations and seeing the potential in others.

This week’s reading showed me a much more insidious and dangerous aspect of the ego, one I had never really considered. The ego causes us to claim not only what we accomplish as ours, but it also causes us to claim the people in our lives, husband, children, friends, as ours. This feeling of me and mine in turn leads to a sense of ownership that can become a stranglehold on those we supposedly love and cause them and ourselves great misery.

My ego for example preens over the fact that I have a Ph.D. and that I have a tenured position at a university. “You did it, it tells me. You overcame all those odds and survived. Not only that, you achieved your childhood dream of becoming a professor despite all the curve balls life threw at you. You are one special woman!”

How is this harmful? Isn’t it all true? Isn’t this kind of self-esteem beneficial to keep one going and to succeed? To a certain extent, we need to believe in ourselves, true. But when that ego begins to tell me that because I have made it against all odds, then everyone should be able to, and that those who don’t are simply weak and failures, we have a problem.

My ego tells me that I am a good mother, that I raised a young boy alone and that he turned out well. Does this give me license to condemn single mothers who due to circumstances beyond their control, such as poverty or lack of education or lack of support, watch helplessly as their children join gangs or become criminals despite all their hard work?

When my son does well in pursuing a difficult profession, my ego expands, stroked by the compliments of friends and neighbors who express their admiration. “You did this,” it whispers proudly. “You got him through those tough teenage years, you supported his dreams, you sacrificed for his sake.” Does this give me the right to condemn him if he fails along the way or chooses a less recognized occupation? Does it give me the right to cut him out of my life or treat him with contempt because he didn’t live up to my expectations?

When my husband is on stage, and the crowd gives him a standing ovation, my ego prances peacock-like on its own inner stage, claiming the credit for being a supportive wife, for inspiring him to keep performing, for pushing him to never give up. Does this give me the right to treat him like dirt when things don’t go so well, when the gigs dry up, when he doesn’ t meet with the success I feel he deserves?

In this day and age, when the ego feeds on how many likes we get for our facebook posts, it’s very hard to keep focused on the idea that who we are is not how we look, what we own, or how much money, fame or prestige we earn. Instead, the Gita reminds us, we need to relinquish the ego altogether, neither prancing and preening when life puffs us up with success, nor suffering and wallowing when deflated by disappointment.

Image: Raja Ravi Varma [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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Worship Woes

Ravi_Varma-LakshmiHow important is worship? Do we need to perform the elaborate rites and rituals we were taught when we were young? It was the day before Varalakshmi Puja and our members were concerned.

Varalakshmi Puja is the worship of Laxmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity. It is performed by married women and is meant to benefit our husbands and bring them good fortune.

Like most pujas, it demands preparation. The house needs to be spotlessly clean, floors mopped, counters scrubbed. There are materials to gather, flowers, coconuts, fruits, nuts, ingredients for the prasad or food offering that must be cooked on the day of the puja after bathing. Hair must be washed, silver must be polished, there’s decorating to do and all this takes time and effort. This is the way we were taught growing up, how our families celebrated festivals when we were young, with lots of preparation, lots of hustle and bustle, lots of sweets to eat and guests to entertain.

And now, even though we are thousands of miles from our childhood homes, we seek to recreate that festive tradition for ourselves and our children, and feel tremendously guilty when our efforts don’t quite match up. We remind ourselves that our parents and their parents had a vast network, a support system of family, relatives, servants, who made things happen. We bemoan the fact that we are on our own, often holding a full time job outside the home, and that multiple responsibilities are constantly demanding our attention. And so, as happened last night in our group, the act of worship becomes almost burdensome, a duty that needs to be fulfilled for fear of a guilty conscience.

It seems to me that far from being a dreaded obligation, worship and its attending rituals should be a divine pleasure, to be indulged in not to please either God or the world, but to provide us with a period of deep and intimate connection with our inner source. When I perform the Varalakshmi Vratam, which I do each year, I imagine it as a special date with my inner Goddess.

The morning begins with sweeping and mopping the floors, which I visualize as sweeping aside all the foolish thoughts and desires that usually run rampant in my head. Then I bathe and wash my hair, a further outer cleansing to prepare the mind to be clear and still.

I take the carved silver bowl set aside for that purpose and go into the garden to pick flowers. There is something immensely tranquil about the act of picking flowers for worship. Red hibiscus, bright yellow marigolds, purple clematis, white roses vying for my attention from the waving branches, asking to be picked for this special honor.

Then I clean the puja room, wiping each framed portrait, each silver figure until they sparkle. I put fresh sandalwood and kumkum on each.

I light the incense to purify the air. I light the oil lamp to awaken my dormant spirit.

I lovingly wash the coconut I have picked out ahead of time, shaking it to be sure it is filled with water, and making sure it is perfectly proportioned, with an oval shape.

I mix turmeric with water and cover my coconut in the yellow paste. Then I draw on the eyebrows, the eyes, I shape the nose from wet turmeric paste, I draw on the rosebud lips.

I place the coconut on top of the silver pot or kalasha. Then I decorate the beautiful face with my jewelry, earrings, a necklace, a large round bottu.

Finally I drape a sari around the pot and the coconut, creating a lovely goddess all my own. I invoke the Universal Spirit to enter this form and accept my tribute.

I chant the mantras and perform the puja, ringing the bell and offering the flame during arati. With each flower and rice grain I toss, I offer up my ego and ask for liberation. When I am done, I lay out freshly prepared tamarind rice and curd rice as my final offering.

Yes, it’s a lot of work. It takes up my entire morning. But it gives me tremendous pleasure. For the entire time, I am immersed in my love of the goddess, my inner atma finding refuge in the infinite Atman. Each act is an offering, a cleansing and a tribute. There is no room for any other thought and so my mind becomes one pointed, focused, at peace.

The point of Hindu worship it seems to me is to attain that one pointed focus. Whether we perform rituals or sit in deep silent meditation, whether we indulge in charitable acts or we imbibe knowledge, we are seeking peace and harmony.

In the Gita this week, we read that a peaceful mind is the precursor to happiness. So while it may seem sometimes in the frenzy of daily activity that the rituals we grew up with are a burden, they are in fact the opposite. There are no repurcussions for not performing them if we are pressed for time. They are by no means required or obligatory, for surely God can do just fine without our paltry offerings.

Instead, like many practices in Hindu tradition, they are there for the specific purpose of purifying the mind. By keeping us focused and absorbed in God consciousness, worship, if we can make the time for it, becomes a shortcut to the peace we all long so desperately to attain.

Image: Raja Ravi Varma [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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Travel Companions

Ravi_Varma-Shakuntala_columbiaAs parents we have already agreed that it’s our duty to guide our children. But when it comes to adults, whether parents, in laws, spouses, siblings, friends, is it our duty to guide and correct? This week we wondered how much responsibility we have toward our travel companions, the other adults in our lives.

We talked about the two paths each person can take. There is the disciplined path of sreyas, or righteousness. The other is the deceptively easier but pitfall-laden path of pleasure and enjoyment, or preyas.

What if we are struggling to aim for sreyas, said one of our group members, while someone we care about is choosing preyas? Isn’t it our job to let them know and to try and bring them onto the right path?

I would have to disagree. It is not our job to be our brother/father/husband’s keeper. They, like us, are traveling toward the same ultimate destination. But their pace and the path they choose to get there is their own. We can neither force it, nor hasten it, nor change it.

Despite what we are taught our whole lives about looking out for each other and working as a team, when it comes to the soul’s journey, we are born and we die entirely alone. Our journey is a solo one, not predicated on constant companionship or kinship. This doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy company along the way, but neither can we complain that we are often far ahead or far behind our fellow travelers, or that they are taking a different route.

In our own lives, we see that we have been joined by those who teach us lessons, and in turn, learn their own. Some stay with us steadily for many years, others burst onto the scene and then disappear quickly, some appear and reappear, but we continue on.

When I was a young girl, my parents, grandparents, siblings and cousins were my entire world. They surrounded me with so much love and comfort and support that I never imagined I could be alone. Once I was married, I left them behind, setting off on an entirely new exciting path of matrimony and motherhood. For twelve years, I walked with my husband, and our son joined us, and I clung to him with maternal devotion, while I learned new and bitter truths about pain and suffering and heartbreak.

After my divorce, my path split off again and I walked on alone with my son, emerging from the stormy woods I had entered into soft sunlight as my parents came back as my support system, my brother re-entered as loving protective uncle, and I made new friends.

Several years later, my new husband joined me and we left my parents and old friends behind, the three of us moving forward on a tree lined path filled with the burgeoning buds of renewed hope and love. When my son graduated and went off to college to forge his own independence, we were left to walk on alone, on an autumnal path scattered with the foliage of contentment and familiarity, along with a few steadfast friends.

Just looking back at all the different traveling companions I’ve had over the years, and how quickly those we think are everything to us, can choose a different path, or be left behind when we do, I realize that it is foolishness to think we can compel anyone to join us in the spiritual journey as well. Whether they choose a life of temptations and pleasure, or one of duty and service, is entirely up to them.

While it is tempting to point out the dangers ahead, we have to realize that the only power we have is to choose and follow our own path. We can welcome and appreciate and yes, even support our fellow travelers at each step of the journey. But we can neither entreat them to stay on our path, nor can we willfully step away from our own. The attachment that compels us to do so will only end in sorrow for both.

We had a wise guest this week during our meeting, who suggested that the best way to help our travel companions is not to show them the path, but to set an example through following it ourselves. The peace that follows from doing what is right radiates outward, he said, and that is the most priceless gift you can give to those you love.

Image: Raja Ravi Varma [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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