I used to hear some married devotees assert how they didn’t want to be mediocre in their life and service. At the time (about twenty-two years ago) I couldn’t relate, and wondered what they were talking about. However, at present, I know exactly what they meant—well, perhaps not exactly, since I didn’t discuss it with them—but I can say that I relate to that statement very much at this time of my life. Why is this? Looking at definitions of mediocre in the dictionary should make this more clear: “of moderate or low quality, value, ability, or performance: ordinary, so-so; neither good nor bad; barely adequate; rather poor or inferior.” Add these ideas to the word devotee, husband/father, wife/mother, provider, professional—pick any word from your life pursuits—and it is easy to not want to be mediocre. You might want to think about this concept in your life. This point is brought out in the Christian Bible in a helpful way, as readers are told that one should be either hot or cold, but not lukewarm!
Combined small efforts are what great achievements are made of. Everyone likes the results of hard labor, but many are hesitant to put in the necessary, often tedious, strenuous work. We want a lot of money, to be president, to win first place in something, to write a bestselling book, or to be a spiritual person, but find it difficult to imagine how we could get there from where we are now. Many of us have heard the famous Chinese proverb, “To begin the journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.” Simple idea, isn’t it? Yet this simple advice is often missed, turning out to be rather profound. Taking the first step provides a key to achieving any success—we must begin, and remain fixed on the goal till victory is obtained. Remaining on the fence of indecision takes us nowhere. If we want something strongly enough we will find a way to accomplish it, though initially our steps will look insignificant. In addition to determination, we require Krishna’s blessings in order to accomplish anything worthwhile.
I find it useful to think of labels as soft or hard, liquid or frozen, flexible or ridged—and some categories as in-betweens as well. So I am labeling labels (!), yet this is a helpful process, so we don’t become used, or limited by them. This is a means of stepping back from life to evaluate the position we take on things, or types and groups of people. Being on autopilot may be easier, but can also be dangerous. Devotees of Krishna are meant to be thoughtful, not reactive persons, who endeavor to see with a spiritual eye gained from the scriptures, association of advanced, broadminded sages, and their own inner experience.
Hearing about other people’s experiences, and especially what they gained from them, can open up new possibilities that hadn’t occurred for us before. My hope is that we can all derive benefit from thinking about my forest dwelling days, and that you will also ponder your own past, searching for wisdom gems. As the Greek philosopher Socrates wisely admonished us, “An unexamined life is not worth living.” Applying this principle, my lifestyle at the time practically demonstrates an important point I have mentioned before: by simplifying our life, being in a peaceful environment, and studying ancient spiritual wisdom, we often gain insight into the meaning of life, and our purpose in the world. Exactly how those three things affect one depends on the spirituality carried with us from past lives. Thus I became aware of many perspectives for the first time. Seeing the limitations of labels was one.
As I have often shared in blogs, in the beginning of my spiritual search I lived alone on a mountainside, above an old growth redwood forest park (Muir Woods), across the bay from San Francisco. I pray I haven’t exhausted you with this narrative, which for me was so spiritually formative, and powerful. I present lessons I haven't shared before from those days, which I continue to build on. I gravitated toward actions considered favorable for spiritual practice and yoga. Rising at the day’s first light, with the stars as my roof, I felt the push of urgency to find meaning, because ordinary materialistic life seemed pointless, and increasingly, I didn’t fit in. There arose in me a sense that by living in, and observing Nature, while studying ancient spiritual books, I could understand my place, and what I should be doing with my life.
Forces of Material Nature
a two edged sword
dishing out physical miseries
simultaneously beautiful, sublime
as Krishna’s purposeful energy.
Darkening sky, distant thunder approaches
winds majestically allow the trees to dance
while the squirrel eats mulberries
the birds chew wild cherries
we sit, waiting, for the main show.
The science, or art, of Krishna consciousness is not a negative theology, even though some scholars, or casual readers, are quick to label it as such. If parts of the yogic assessment of material life don’t seem very encouraging or positive, it is because this is only half of a larger picture. Life in itself is not condemned, but material life with no spiritual dimension, is. Criticism of the material world is always in this context, and is meant to put our conventional life, and sense of self, in perspective so we may be encouraged to understand our soul, and relationship to God. There are two primary impetuses for spiritual cultivation. One is the misery of a purely selfish, spiritually disconnected life, and the other is the higher taste of spiritual cultivation and activities. I have written about this is in another blog, Negative and Positive Impetus for Bhakti (http://www.krishna.com/blog/2007/10/1/positive-and-negative-impetus-bhakti). I am giving this introduction because my last blog about decorating a dead body, might seem like a curious contrast to today’s piece on flowers.
Although Truth is beautiful, it may also seem stark, and be disconcerting by challenging our misconceptions and illusions. The analogy of decorating a dead body at a funeral, frequently used by our spiritual master, Shrila Prabhupada, may seem insensitive or gross. However, I hope you will see that this view is only a matter of perspective which comes from seeing a person as their body. The fact that we are all eternal spiritual beings temporarily associated with our current body is considered the ABC’s of spiritual life. At the same time, it isn’t easy to apply this truth from realization, even for transcendentalists who accept the theory of transmigration of the soul. This is the case because real comprehension only gradually occurs through spiritual practice, combined with the grace of God. Spiritual knowledge and truth go against our material education and conditioning, or the status quo of conventional civilization, so we need a powerful process of spiritual awakening like Krishna consciousness, or bhakti yoga, to awaken us from the dream of bodily identification.
The process of bhakti yoga, or Krishna consciousness, is entirely based on the power of prayer and remembrance of Krishna. As students of consciousness and the Vedic literature, such as the Bhagavad Gita, we learn that (put very simply) our mental absorption determines our destiny. Some people understand this, though for the most part, don’t realize the connection of God to these laws (He is their source, and they exist to bring us to him). They think mind is supreme. I am not saying that, but I am pointing out the basic principle that sustains material existence. As the American philosopher, Emerson said (who was inspired by the Vedas), “A person becomes what they think about all day long”. This could have been taken from the Gita’s Eighth chapter, where we learn, “Whatever state of being one remembers when he quits his body, O son of Kunti, that state he will attain without fail.”, and the specific application for bhakti practitioners: “And whoever, at the end of his life, quits his body remembering Me alone at once attains My nature. Of this there is no doubt”.
In my youth it was sort of a fad to climb a near-by mountain and watch the sun set. A beautiful sight awaited those of us who ventured to the top of this small mountain, and it seemed special, and certainly peaceful. This is an everyday event that is seldom noticed as we hurry along to our next destination, which however, may evoke some deeper reflections about our existence—which it did for me. One problem with normal life informed only by modern media, is that we become conditioned to see the extraordinary and profound, as common place (or only for economic gain), and we can lose the message that these events or things are meant to teach us. If we are to change our life for the best, we have to change our angle of vision. The Shrimad Bhagavatam and other such Vedic scriptures are meant to help us develop our appreciation for the lessons in life and Nature. One verse in the Bhagavatam inspired this blog: “Both by rising and by setting, the sun decreases the duration of life of everyone, except one who utilizes the time by discussing topics of the all-good Personality of Godhead.”