One day, in about 1978, it was early morning at the ashram and I laid out Swami Rama’s fresh clothes and shaving cream as usual. He was in a jolly mood that morning and let me stay and bother him a bit. He carefully applied his shaving cream, (exaggerating a bit since I was watching, I believe), took out his sharp razor blade, and began scraping it along his cheeks. I loved watching it because when I was a little girl I used to watch my Dad shave that way. A long razor, sharpened on a three-foot leather strap, and pulled along the cheeks and chin as he made unusual faces to pull the face skin in each direction. After that, any man that used only an electric shaver I considered not quite a man. The real shavers were so brave! So as Gurudev shaved, I asked,
“Swamiji, did I know you before in another life?
And he answered, “Of course! Many.”
So I questioned him about some of our past lives together and then asked, “Well, why did I come to this life? What am I supposed to do in this one?”
Swamiji stopped shaving, looked carefully at me through the mirror, and said, “Exactly what you are doing. You came here to work for me; to help with my work.”
I was so delighted with his answer that I forgot to ask any more questions.
Wasn’t it a blessing? I came to work with Gurudev. I thought I must have been very smart between lives. Gurudev had told me about several other lives in which I did special things: meditating in monasteries, meditating in convents, meditating in temples, but this time I came to work. So I thought, “Good! I’m advancing!”
When I was in the convent, this lifetime, I joined a religious order whose motto was Ora et Labora — Pray and Work. The saint who founded the order realized that work is as essential as prayer in order to reach sanctity. So it seems that work is a normal part of life.
I have thought much about work for yogis. I questioned Gurudev about it quite a bit over the years. He would reply to me and then use that topic for his next lecture. One of the things he said frequently was, “Take life very lightly, but take your work very seriously.”
I always thought it should be the other way around: take work lightly and life seriously, but Gurudev said, “No, no. If you do your work well in this lifetime, life is nothing. It is just pure joy for you. Life will then be no problem at all.”
When we are working, we are of service to others. Usually our work is not for ourselves. Even when you are painting your house, it is not for yourself; you want your neighbors and guests to feel happy. When you are cooking, it is almost never just for you. There is usually someone else: a child, a husband, a friend, a guest who will come to eat with you. When you eat alone, you are taking care of your body so that it can do work for others, or greet others, or play with others. Whatever we do around work is actually a very big portion of spirituality. Those of us who are not in monasteries, who are living with families or in community, have as our main piece of spirituality the work we do. In the community where lived as a nun, the time of work and prayer was just about equal. On Mount Ethos the Christian monks live their day by having more hours of work than of prayer.
The question that comes to mind next is exactly what I asked Gurudev. “Is all work spirituality?” And he answered “Yes.” The only kind of work that would not be spirituality is that which is intended to hurt others. It is a kind of “bite in the butt” spirituality, however, because eventually it will get you. Hopefully your conscience will quickly speak up and say, “Oh! What am I doing?” That is the only kind of work that you cannot call spirituality right up front.
Sometimes students think, “Ah, when I am meditating I am a good person, a spiritual person. When I am attending a lecture or hatha class I am a spiritual person, but the rest of the time I am not.” Why does such erratic thinking even emerge? Every single moment of every single day is your spirituality. Everything you do is a gift for the Divine. One way to make that easier to understand is a little practice. When you are going to work visualize what you will be doing shortly. It might be working on a computer, pulling weeds, teaching children, riding the bus, scrubbing a floor, anything at all. Visualize it clearly and offer it up to the Beloved. “Here is my gift for you today.” That automatically blesses the work and blesses every other action you will do that day leading to or following your work.
Guess what happens then? You will cut down on human faults. You won’t lose your temper as much if that is your habit, because eventually you will remember that you offered everything to the Divine today. You won’t try to do better than your co-worker for more praise or more power, because you offered up all you do. It’s not yours anymore, right? You will selflessly help others because you don’t need payback. Everything you do will have a blessing on it. Pretty soon the environment around you will change. It will become very powerful, reminding you of your Beloved. So offer everything you will do, all the work of your day, before you do it.
What should you do when you are frequently doing work that you hate? What if you are doing work that is eating you up inside? I used to talk with Gurudev about that also. He told me that there are two types of people that do such work. Some people do work they dislike because there is no other work for them to do; they may live where there is no other option. Secondly, some hated work is done by the type of person who is afraid of doing something else, afraid of change.
What should you do if you are one of those people? Give the decision to the Divine. Offer up the work you are doing with a prayer: “Beloved, I do not think that I can serve humanity in my current job. I really don’t like it and I wish to switch to something else. Please help me find what would be best for me.” Then get busy looking. Don’t sit there and wait for God to drop a job in your lap! If you cannot change your work, then do the hated work while your mind is working on the people around you.
My mother once worked on an assembly line making men’s electric shavers while all her children were at school. She put little screws in each shaver as it passed in front of her. I asked her once how she could do that for so many hours every day. She answered, “Oh, I was thinking of all of you. Then I would travel. The job was so simple that my mind was free to go wherever I wished.”
Thus Gurudev said that if you are in a job that you don’t want, change it. If you are in a job you cannot change, change what’s around you. Change yourself. Those of you who have a job that you love, that you are good at, that uses your talents, will grow very much spiritually because you are working on yourself! You do good work and you keep trying to get it better.
Let’s say you are typing. How many errors do you make? Soon, if you concentrate and keep working well and undistracted, you will make fewer errors, or none at all. You’ll make better margins or lay the page out better. If you work on the telephone, ask yourself how many hours it takes before you lose your temper and are not kind to those on the other end. OK, next week lengthen your time of being nice on the phone. The week after that you can try to get another half hour of kindness in there. There is always something that we can work on spiritually. No matter what our hands are doing, everything is work on ourselves. That is the main part that needs changing. It is us that needs the change, usually not the manual work we do. The people around us need to feel love whatever we do. We don’t need to change them, we just need to love them! Then, of course, when they feel loved, guess what happens? They change. When they begin to feel that we really care about them, they begin to feel happier, and pretty soon they are being kind to us, and after that they do their work better. Soon you think you are in heaven and you don’t want to go home at five o’clock!
The more you grow in your work, the more you learn about yourself—your talents, your weaknesses, your character. You are sitting right out there so you can just step back and look at yourself. The attention you apply to your work can be applied to seeing that personage carrying your name. Not only do you see it, but you are able to see how everyone around you sees it. When that happens, you will be able to make any change in your personality that you feel is best. And then, you will go deeper into your meditation practice.
Don’t separate the two parts of your life by saying, “This is my spiritual part and this is my working part.” Growth does not function that way. Yoga is a transformation of your entire life. It is a balance, between your body and your mind and your soul. A perfect balance.
What do you do when you make a mistake at work? Over the years I have been observing that women have been taught that we can never make mistakes at work. Never. So we think we never do, and if by some strange chance we do make a serious mistake, we try to hide it. If we hide it well enough, we can claim that we did nothing wrong. All the other workers, of course, know what we did, so then we have to go into denial and hide behind unusual behavior, sometimes including dishonesty. So the best thing to do is practice satya—truthfulness. Just be truthful about your mistake. “Oops! I goofed. I’m sorry. I’ll correct it.” End of sentence.
The worst thing that can happen next is that you’ll get fired, which means it was not a good job for you in the first place. The next thing is someone will realize that you are a human being, which isn’t so bad. Men have been human beings for a long time and no one really gets too mad at them. (Excuse me, gentlemen, for leaving you out of this section, but this is a serious problem that women have to deal with.) The best thing that can happen when you make a mistake is that you can learn more about yourself, which is what we are trying to do in the first place. How should you deal with yourself when you make a major mistake? “Oh, I’m doing the work that I offered up and I just blew it.” Be truthful to yourself; admit what you did, apologize, and correct it. Then drop it. It is gone, finished. But you have grown so much! You have acknowledged that sometimes when we are in the body we do stupid things. Admitting failure and correcting the error always means major growth.
When you work with people, you have a special grace, because you are given the opportunity to see the Beloved in different faces every day. The divine is in everyone, and when we do work we are serving the divine, as we have seen. It does not matter if it is a male or female, an ugly face or a beauty, a kind person or an angry one; it is all divine. Sometimes the divine hides very well. Often it is hard to see the divine person in a given situation, but it is there! Sometimes the body it inhabits does not know it is there, but you know the divine is there. What an honor it is to be able to work with people and serve! We could all be walking around earth never looking at people, never speaking to people, never serving anyone. Then we would probably have to keep reincarnating a million times! The fact that we bump each other and play with each other and serve each other means that we are dealing with the divine all the time. The more you see the divine in others, eventually you will realize that you have divinity within yourself also.
When you are a yogini or yogi, everything you do is Guru’s work. You can be saying “me, me, me” your whole life, taking care of yourself and putting yourself first in everything, but you will not be as happy as you would be giving it all up for your children, your husband, or the one you love. In our world, it seems that the culture is selfish. Watch advertising, or movies, or even comedy on television. The people there are so selfish, so self-centered! That is not normal; if it was you would be so unhappy. Your spiritual growth totally depends upon giving yourself away.
Gurudev used to be a marriage broker, planning and scheming with his students. “Ah, we’ve got to marry this one off,” he’d say. Then he would pull people together, looking at all the karma they needed to work on and say, “You two should marry!” And they would. I asked once, “Swamiji, why are you doing this? Some of these people you tell to marry want to be monks, or remain single, or take vows of renunciation. Isn’t that better than being married?” He looked at me like I had just lost my mind and said, “No! That is not better. People grow spiritually when they are with someone else! As long as you are by yourself, taking care of yourself, loving only yourself, and making everything go your way, you will not grow.”
Every relationship is holy. Sometimes it is absolutely loving, and sometimes it is World War III, but that is all right. You are still growing because underneath it all, you love each other. This same thing happens at work. Sometimes it is war and sometimes it is Christmas Day. That is because all of us have “bad” days: we wake up feeling tired, we get a cold, we have negative news, we want to see a relative but have extra hours we must first put in at the office. Sometimes the weather turns us off, sometimes we stay up too late the night before watching something wonderful or talking on the phone so the lack of sleep puts us in a bad mood. That happens to every human being. What we have to watch out for is ourselves.
If someone snaps at us, the first thing we usually do is think that the other person is against us. “What did I do? Why does he think of me that way?” goes through our mind over and over. Often the angry word has nothing to do with you! Maybe he snapped because he did not get his six hours of sleep and is tense. Or he has indigestion. Or his wife is angry with him. You can carry this worry around with you all day, making your work hours miserable, snapping at someone else, and going home in sadness. Perhaps the next day you get up enough courage to ask, “Why did you snap at me yesterday?” And that person, surprised, will say, “Did I do that? Wow! I’m sorry. I didn’t know I did that. I was really distracted after some bad news.” Our minds trick us often. We typically “make stuff up” in our minds and then apply it to others. How did we learn to do that? We all do it so well.
Let’s drop it all. Give it away. If someone does something harmful to you, look at the person and offer a little prayer in your heart for him or her. Then go on as if it never happened. You will be happy. Don’t accept the negative energy you believe people are passing on to you. It is probably not even there.
We meditate so we can get rid of all the trash in our minds and then go to the divine. Remember? When you truly do that, there will be times during your workday when you will actually feel as if you were in meditation. Whatever you do, try to do it to your best perfection, do it with love, and offer it to the Beloved. Talking on the phone, meeting people, hugging people, scolding people, adding columns, changing diapers, shopping for food, typing, designing a website, washing a floor, pulling weeds, it’s all the same. What is your mind doing? That is the question. Watch your mind while you work. You will then be in active meditation, called karma yoga.
That is what Gurudev came to do in this lifetime. He worked with thousands of people, built institutes, schools, a hospital. He taught huge groups and individuals. He tied together science and spirituality, offering himself up as a subject of study. Sometimes he would be so tired. He’d let us press his feet, drink the hot cup of tea we offered, and then jump up and go back to work. One of the great saints from the Himalayas came down from the mountain to go to work! And at night, he meditated. The more we can copy that life, the more we will live well. What are you doing at work? Where is your mind at work? Offer it up. You will then be nearer to reaching enlightenment.