Lessons of Life

By Swami Vidyatmananda

Swami Vidyatmananda was a monk at the Vedanta Society of Southern California for many years before he was transferred to the Centre Vedantique-Ramakrishna in Gretz, France where he was the Center’s manager until his death in 2000. An accomplished writer, Swami Vidyatmananda was the editor of What Religion Is and was one of the editors of the journal Vedanta in the West.

This article was first published in the September-October 1981 issue of Vedanta for East and West and was reprinted in the November-December 2007 issue of Vedanta magazine, published by the Vedanta Centre in the United Kingdom.

There was an American play that was very popular a few years ago. It ran on Broadway for months, perhaps years. It was called “You Can’t Take It With You.” The theme concerned an ageing man who had made a good deal of money and who lived only for making money. Then some shock occurs. He realizes for the first time in his life that he is mortal, that he will die, that he has devoted himself to a largely false effort, that he has wasted his time, that—and this gives the play its title—he can’t take his wealth with him. Understanding at that late date that “you can’t take it with you,” he makes an effort in the days which remain to him to seek higher values than simply making money. His efforts to humanize himself provide many comical situations that gave the play its popularity.

Thus it is that as we go towards the sunset of our life we begin to reflect on what we have done with the time allotted to us—how well we have used it; for there is something that we can take with us—not money, not worldly success—but the result of our struggle to think of God and of others, to purify our behaviour and thought. Thoughts of God, selfless motivations—these are stored in our consciousness and will have a beneficial effect on our after-death condition. I have been doing that kind of reflecting—inventory taking—recently. I have been very fortunate in having come in contact with Vedantic ideas while still in my 20’s and in having made the acquaintance of a guru shortly after—a swami who was a disciple of Swami Brahmananda, or Maharaj; and Maharaj, as you know, was the spiritual son of Sri Ramakrishna. I learned so many things from my guru that have enriched my life and shown me how to live—so that now in my older years I have a feeling that my life has been well spent; it hasn’t been a wasted life; it has been a life of some value to me, and I hope also to some with whom I have come in contact.

My guru was an Indian, a Bengali, a very charming man, a very original man; and at times completely incomprehensible to me. He seemed often “outrageous”; but since it takes strong medicine to cure a serious malady—and he was surrounded by disciples as headstrong as I was in those days—strong medicine was what was required. He was the type of doctor who, to use Sir Ramakrishna’s illustration, put his knee on our chest, forced open our mouth, and thrust the medicine down our protesting throat! Well, I have been reflecting on what I learned from my guru, and I will spend the hour at my disposal today recalling to you the lessons of my life. A couple of months ago I paid a visit to the country of my birth, the United States. It was eight years since I had been there, and in the meantime America had become more cautious in letting people in—even, it seems, her own citizens. The immigration officer asked me, “What is your occupation?”

Now, as we reach a certain point in our life we really begin to ask ourself, What is our occupation? Because what we think it has been all these years we find it really isn’t at all. So I thought, Well, what am I? Am I a farmer? It’s true that we have a farm at Gretz and we do quite a lot of farm work in an effort to be self-sustaining, but I wouldn’t say I’m a farmer. Am I a hotel keeper? That is perhaps a bit more to the point, because as you know, Gretz welcomes people who come to make retreats there and we try to make them as comfortable as we can. But I’m not really a hotel keeper. Am I a writer? Well, maybe a little bit, but not really. A speaker? Certainly not. An animateur? That is a good French word and means the kind of person in an organization or group who animates, who makes things go. You might say the sports leader on a cruise ship would be an example of an animateur. Yes, to some extent. We do try to make the ashram interesting, with festivals, programmes, and group activities; and of course there is plenty of work to inspire. Then I thought, No, I am none of these. What I am is the only thing I am, a devotee. I ended by filling in the immigration form: “Retired.”

We finally end up realizing that all else is of little interest, or passing interest, and our occupation, as well as our avocation is to be a devotee. You realize that at a certain point. After I returned to America from taking sannyas at Belur Math many years ago, my guru told me the following: “Remember, nothing bad can ever happen to you again. It may be bad, it may seem bad, but it won’t be bad for you.” Now that’s a very curious statement because it seems to contradict itself, but if you reflect a little bit on it you will see exactly what it means. It means this, that having put yourself in the Lord’s hands, having taken your stand as a devotee, both as to occupation and to avocation, whatever happens you must believe and know that it must be good for you. Of course, when you go on with your life your realize that He is pulling all the strings. Events that seem impossibly terrible at the moment, disastrous at the moment, somehow or other twist themselves around, or you get twisted around—that’s probably the case—so that later on you think, “I wouldn’t have had it any other way.”

Another teaching my guru insisted on was this: “Feel for others. My child, you must learn to feel for others.” What does that mean? A very difficult thing to do because we are always acting and reacting in terms of our own point of view. And if the other person doesn’t seem to fall in with that point of view or seems to be in opposition, or seems to be ignorant of it, we immediately consider that person at fault. “Feel for others” means somehow or other trying to think through his brain, see through his eyes, feel through his emotions. Of course, that feeling for others doesn’t come quickly or easily. But it seems to me that as we go on suffering and making stupid mistakes and realize how often we are wrong, we begin at last to see in certain ways how other people feel about certain things. Then this feeling for them, this sympathy which is love, or love which is sympathy, somehow begins to stir in us. Then we become a blessing to others and they become a pleasure for us.

Now I am going to relate a very astonishing saying of my guru. It is extremely cryptic, and I won’t even try to interpret it. It happened on an occasion when my guru asked me to go to the high Sierra mountains in California with him as his attendant and cook, which was a very foolish thing for him to do, but of course a great privilege for me. As you know, water does not boil at the same temperature in the high mountains as it does at lower levels. My guru ate principally rice, and that rice had to be thoroughly cooked. What with my inexperience as a cook and the fact that the water would boil even while not cooking the rice, the main ingredient of my guru’s diet was to him uneatable. After a day or two of suffering in silence, my guru said to me in great irritation: “If a person doesn’t know how to cook rice, he doesn’t know how to do anything!’ Another curious thing I heard my guru say more than once: “I’ve never suffered a moment in my life.” Now of course I know that he suffered, but he did say that. He said this partly to discipline me because in the early days of my sadhana I took myself and my struggles very seriously and often spoke of my spiritual combats. My guru believed that spiritual life should be fun. He disliked the torments experienced by Christian saints. So he often said: “I’ve never suffered a moment in my life.” Now how are we to interpret that?

Well, we interpret it as true because if one has his feet planted firmly on his faith and one has taken refuge in his faith, then one does not suffer in the same sense as people who are simply torn by the slings and arrows of everyday life. But as I have reflected on that saying, I think that relief from pain can also come to us if somehow we get our life organized. We suffer because we have incompatible desires. We are torn by all sorts of alternating currents. We produce confrontations and suffer from confrontations because we are so self-centred. So I come to the concept of sacrifice. I think that until we somehow or other make up our minds that we must be a living sacrifice, we shall suffer; that when we come to the point, if we are so lucky, that we can say, “All right, I’m not holding anything back, I am not trying to preserve a particular situation or position or privilege or expect the appreciation or even the approval of others”—then our life reaches a point where there isn’t very much conflict in it, insofar as human relations are concerned, or incompatible desires. Then a certain kind of happiness, a kind of contentment, begins to take over, and the raw suffering of our earlier days becomes a thing of the past, or even forgotten as in the case of my guru.

The existentialist says, “I am responsible for everything in this universe.” We say, “I am not responsible for anything in this universe. I am simply here to serve.” I often tell our probationers in Gretz who don’t want to do this or that or refuse to do this or hesitate about doing that: “As long as you are holding yourself back you won’t be happy. If you say, ‘It’s his job, not mine,’ you won’t be happy. Just make yourself a sacrifice: sooner or later you will have to. Then you can say, as my guru was fond of saying, ‘I have never suffered a moment in my life.’” I like to quote a saying by Mahatma Gandhi. I was reading recently about his visit in 1931 to Romain Rolland in Switzerland. He and Romain Rolland had some wonderful conversations, all of which are recorded in Romain Rolland’s published ‘Journal’. Gandhi said: “Truth brings joy.” He said, “First of all I felt that God was truth and then I came to see that truth is God. And truth brings joy; if it doesn’t, it isn’t truth.”

Another lesson I learned from my guru, which he was fond of insisting upon, was: “Meditate, meditate, meditate.” And I would add, that certainly includes doing japam. I am a great believer in japam. It was forced upon me—I did a year’s purascharana once—and I must say that it was effective. You can easily test what meditation does for you. Now I am not talking about it bringing you to a state of ecstasy or nirvana. I am talking about the daily practice of regularly going and sitting, and the slow, steady effect that has on the rebuilding of your personality. Suppose you go on vacation. Your whole routine is upset. So in the morning, instead of going to the room where you meditate, or to the chapel, you decide to take a swim. And in the evening, instead of thinking at six o’clock that it is the time to be quiet for an hour, you decide instead that this is a good moment to go to the cocktail lounge or take a horseback ride or go out in a boat. You find after a few days—this has happened to me, so I know—that a certain fineness, a certain edge of your recollectedness becomes blunted. After a while you don’t like it. You miss your meditation and you decide: “I think I shall be glad to get back to my regular practices again.” Because distractions don’t distract. That is a conclusion that one comes to: distractions don’t distract.

Then I remembered my guru saying very often to me, perhaps oftener than to some: “Always be positive”. This is a very simple statement, and yet how easy it is not to be positive. How easy it is to be negative. And I think particularly when we criticize others mentally or verbally, we are going against this suggestion to always be positive. Silence is best, if one can possibly keep silent. I receive a good deal of inspiration on this particular subject from the leader I am with now at Gretz. He is very positive. I will give you an example. There is in France a well known artist, extremely well accepted by the public and immensely popular. He has had many successes. As in the case of some artists, the success has been too much. He went through a nervous breakdown, drugs, divorce—the whole thing. He has never had any interest in religion, but somehow or other he heard that there was a holy man, a fatherly person, in Gretz. So he began to come and see our leader, while simultaneously being treated by a psychiatrist. Well, the Gretz swami has received this artist every time, anytime, night or day—anytime he takes it into his head to come—often when it is not convenient to do so. It is always the same story, a desperate story of depression, lack of confidence, failure in the midst of success. It sounds curious. I often ask: “Well, Swami, haven’t you had enough of it now? There doesn’t seem to be any improvement.” “No, but he may change.” Always it ends the same: “He may change; he hasn’t yet, but he may change.” That’s an example of always being positive.

We often receive phone calls from unknown people asking for help, sometimes in the middle of the night. They somehow feel that calling up and talking may help them, and they often ask for our prayers. I often have to answer such calls at Gretz as I did in America before coming to France. You may be amused by a story about one such request. I once asked my guru: “If someone asks you to pray for them, what do you do?” He answered, “Tell them that you will pray for them and mentally put them at the feet of the Lord.” This has always been my practice and still is. Not long ago at Gretz there was a call from a woman who said, “My teenage son is very terrible towards me. He even hits me, and will you please do something.” So I thought, “Well, I’ll do what I have been taught to do.” So I said: “Please tell me your name; not your family name, but your first name, and the name of your son, and I will pray for him.” So she told me her name and she told me his name, Henri. “Yes, madame, I shall do it,” I said. “Well, sir, would you also pray for Francois.” Now it’s twice as many! “Yes, if you wish,” I replied. “And also Jean Pierre?” she asked. It seemed there was quite a big family there! “And Eliane and the twins Christian and Christiane?” So I did as I was requested—put them all, this entire group, at the feet of the Lord. Then this woman called back some days later and said, “I want to tell you that things are really very much better.” You see, it gives confidence to the people themselves. That’s perhaps the psychology of it. With confidence they work to solve the problems themselves. Then she said: “It’s Bruno that’s causing the trouble now.” “Bruno,” I exclaimed, “but you didn’t mention Bruno.” And she said, “I know, and that is why he is acting so badly.”

Now I will tell you another teaching of my guru. He often said, “Oh, what patience it takes! My child, what patience it takes. And nothing is accomplished without patience.” I’ve heard that from him, and since I have been in a position of, to a slight extent, trying to look after the young men, the novices, in our own centre, this saying has repeated itself in my mind many times: “What patience it takes!” You see, evolution is a slow thing. As older people, we see things from our standpoint. We look at the young people beginning their sadhana, and we wonder why in the world they don’t see things as we see them, immediately. Why doesn’t he or she quickly grasp the situation? But it just doesn’t happen that way. It takes patience. But without patience you won’t accomplish anything in dealing with such situations. Patience, love—that’s the only way I know, and trying to give a good example. That’s the only way I know of helping anybody. The only way to reform somebody is to love him.

I am reminded of a story which I believe originated with the American humorist, James Thurber. It depicts, a bit maliciously, what happened to a woman as a result of impatience. Early in the morning Mr. Dupont went out to walk in his garden, leaving his wife still asleep in bed. After a few minutes he came in and woke his wife. “There is a unicorn in the garden,” he announced. “Don’t be idiotic,” cried Mrs. Dupont angrily. “Unicorns don’t exist. The unicorn is a mythological beast.” She turned over and went back to sleep. Mr. Dupont went out into the garden again. A few minutes later he returned and again woke his wife. “The unicorn is eating the tulips,” he said. Again he went out to the garden. Mrs. Dupont was getting really angry. She got out of bed and dressed and telephoned the psychiatric branch of the police department and asked them to send someone with a straightjacket, urgently. An ambulance arrived and two male nurses carrying a straightjacket came into the house. In a very disturbed tone Mrs. Dupont told the men: “My husband says there is a unicorn in the garden.” The attendants looked at her suspiciously. “What did you say, Madame?” “I said my husband says there is a unicorn in our garden. He says that the unicorn is eating our tulips.” “Come, come, come,” the attendants said soothingly. They slid the straightjacket over Mrs. Dupont despite her protests, put her in the ambulance, and drove her away to the psychiatric hospital.

Now I mention another lesson I learned from my guru: “Never give up the struggle.” And this was often coupled with another saying, “There is no failure in spiritual life.” There is no failure in spiritual life. You will find that promise clearly set forth in the Bhagavad-Gita. Even if you seem to fail or stop, what has been gained will not be lost. It is stored up, put in a kind of deposit, from which you can draw the next time round. Someone was saying to me today. “Isn’t it remarkable that when I first came to this life, even when very young, I knew what I wanted to do and become?” Those tendencies with which we arrive are tendencies we have learned and which come to fruition in a succeeding birth. But of course that is a rather lazy way, a laissez-faire way, of looking at things. I prefer the other saying, “Don’t give up the struggle; never give up the struggle.” This was very clearly brought to my attention once in the United States by a dream one of our members had, who was in a very discouraged frame of mind. She was about to decide to abandon her effort to perfect herself. Somehow or other the cry of the heart was answered by a dream. In the dream this disciple was on a train and the train stopped at some small wayside station. And so the disciple was going to get down. The train would go on, of course, but the disciple would not be on it. Then a voice was heard saying, “Don’t get off the train” And this solved the problem. She was convinced that, discouraged or not, she would continue her spiritual efforts. We all know this, and must all remember it. As long as you stay on the train you will keep moving, even if slowly or even with stops, as on days of strikes. But if you get down, then it is a different matter. “Never give up the struggle.”

Here is another lesson my guru taught me—you may find it a cryptic, even bizarre, statement, but there is much wisdom in it: “Never sit on the threshold of a door.” At our temple in Hollywood we had an inner shrine and an outer shrine. And there was a wooden threshold between the two. Because then as now I like a little support under me when meditating, I took to sitting on that slightly elevated wooden threshold. This from my background was not an extraordinary thing to do, but after two or three occasions, one of the disciples was sent to me to inform me: “We do not sit on thresholds.” It was explained that the gods of the door, the protectors of the portal, are there and they don’t like it. Which to my western way of thinking made less than perfect sense! But the truth of the matter is far deeper and subtler than that. It consists of making a commitment—be in or be out—don’t be half-way between. It shows a lack of decision, a psychological tendency to have a foot in two camps. Whether there are gods protecting the entrance or not, I do not know. But I can understand perfectly that if you are going to be in the inner shrine, be in the inner shrine; if you are going to be in the outer shrine, be in the outer shrine. But don’t try to be in the two at the same time. The important lesson to apply in our life: make clear, strong decisions, and stick by them, no shilly-shallying, no wishy-washy commitments.

My guru once told me,”If you take up a project, see it through to the end even if you tire of it, even if you conclude that it’s not worth while. If not, your mind will become frivolous.” The next teaching that I wish to bring to your attention is this: “Never lower the ideal.” This is something that is very important for religious organizations to keep in mind, and individuals, because the sharp enthusiasm with which we begin spiritual life naturally becomes somewhat blunted with the passage of time. We may begin to make compromises. But we must keep in mind that even though we don’t achieve our ideal at once, we must remember that the ideal is an ideal and should not be tampered with. One may admit clearly and openly, “No, I have not been able to achieve the ideal.” But one should never attempt to justify one’s performance or make compromises in terms of lowering the ideal for reasons of success or reasons of comfort or any other sort of reason. We have seen so many religious movements, so-called religious movements, in the West which seem to make everything easy, and which have achieved, it seems, success. But that is not our way. Even if Vedanta remains small—and it still does remain small, at least in the West—I think we must be faithful to our Master and Mother who asked of us the highest spiritual achievement, the highest virtue, the deepest devotion, as our ideal, and not bring these ideals down to make things seem to go a bit easier. So far I think we are keeping up the standard.

I would remind you that my guru frequently said, “Our objective is the transformation of personality.” Sometimes he said, “Our objective is samadhi and nothing less.” That certainly is keeping the standard high. He said often: “My sole hope for my children is that they should become men and women of God.” Well, that is what we are really struggling for, to become men and women of God. Even though it may seem childish, I like the American enthusiasm for the transformation of personality. In the United States they are constantly publishing what are called self-help books—books that explain how to remake yourself in a newer and better way: “How to Realize your Greatest Potential,” “How to be your own best Friend,” “How to be Considered Absolutely Marvellous”—titles like that. Transformation of personality in terms of its being transformed into a spiritual personality, not simply a personality that is interesting or which attracts other people and produces success—but a spiritual personality.

I should like before finishing to say something about another lesson that I have learned, this time from the head of the Gretz centre. This is something that I find a very practical teaching and which complements all these others that I have already brought to your attention. The Swami uses silence as a response. It is a most effective response. You see, when someone comes and makes a pointed remark, immediately we fly to our defence, or self-justification, explaining, explaining, maybe hurting another person in order to explain. I am scolded and blamed more often than you might expect. Accepting blame for things that don’t go right, for others’ failures, is a part of my work. For years I used to react, offering self-justifications, explanations, sometimes not very pleasantly. But over the years I have learned simply to say nothing. Simply keep silence. This quickly reduces the anger of the person scolding you, and soon harmony can be re-established. To have responded would have been to pour oil on the fire. So silence, silence, as a response. I would really like to recommend that as a basis for everyday life.

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Lessons of Life