By Linda Johnsen
I kept staring at the pink slip as if my gaze could dissolve the paper, as if Pam from Human Resources would walk back in and say, "I'm so sorry, Linda, there was a mistake. Of course you're not fired! We're delighted to have you here!" The drama started several weeks earlier when my roommate suddenly moved out. I was in my early 20s, fresh out of college, and couldn't afford the rent payments alone on my present salary. I had to find a better paying job-fast. An employment agency helped me find a new position, so I regretfully quit my enjoyable but desperately low paying job at the local high school. When I showed up for the first day of work, Pam met me at the door as I was hanging up my coat. "I have bad news," she said directly. "When Andy hired you to be his new assistant, he didn't realize he was about to be transferred to the St. Louis office. He just got a promotion and he's home packing now. I'm afraid we won't be needing you after all." I was devastated. For a woman who prides herself on being an exemplary employee, being fired was deeply humiliating. But worse, in one moment I'd gone from not having enough income to pay the rent, to not having any income at all. Panic surged through my body as if Pam had just pumped ice water into my veins. I called up the employment agency the moment I got home, but they had absolutely no other prospects for me. I couldn't sleep that night. Where do homeless people sleep, I wondered anxiously, since I might soon become one of them. Even with a good blanket, it must get awfully cold out on the street at night. The next morning I sat by the phone, nervously weighing my options. A friend stopped by to commiserate and suggested, "Why don't you call the medical clinic at the yoga center? They might need help." "I'm over at the Himalayan Institute center in Glenview all the time," I assured her. "If there were a position available at their clinic, they would have posted a notice." But desperate times call for desperate measures, so with some embarrassment I phoned the Center for Holistic Medicine. Pat Klein, then manager of the clinic, seemed impatient. "Where have you been? Dr. Ballentine's been waiting for your call. Swami Rama told him a week ago you were going to start working here, and he wants to know when you're coming in!" My new position at the Himalayan Institute's clinic quickly turned into one of the most fun and fulfilling jobs of my life. Ours was the first holistic medical facility in Midwestern America, and was frequently featured on radio and television. Influential bestsellers, like Dr. Ballentine's classic book Diet and Nutrition, grew out of our work at that clinic. But for me the most astonishing thing about that experience was that Swami Rama, the spiritual director of the yoga center, knew I was going to offer my services there a week before I did myself. It was almost as if life had deliberately orchestrated my financial crisis-and my firing-in order to push me toward a job I otherwise would never have considered. In retrospect, I wish I could send a telepathic message back to myself that miserable, sleepless night. "Don't worry! Everything's going to work out better than you can even imagine! You were supposed to get fired! You are being guided to go exactly where you need to be!" Instead I had a major crisis of faith, unable to trust that events were unfolding according to plan.
Learning from Life
All of us have stories like this. There was the awful divorce that shattered our faith in love, but ultimately taught us to stand on our own two feet. There was the unwanted pregnancy that brought a child who became the light of our lives. Often the most difficult experiences we go through turn out to be the most meaningful. I have always had a paralyzing fear of public speaking. When my first book was published in 1995, I was sent on a nationwide publicity tour. If I had known I was going to have to lecture, I probably wouldn't have written the book! My comfort zone is behind the scenes, supporting more dynamic personalities who, unlike me, actually enjoy the limelight. Fortunately, my public talks usually went well. But inwardly, I continued to experience massive terror every time I had to step up to the podium. I couldn't have been more frightened if I was being led before a firing squad! Year after year I was sent out to speak, yet the phobia never abated. Then six years ago doctors discovered a malignant tumor in my jaw. I received the diagnosis two days before I was scheduled to fly out to lecture at the American Meditation Institute in Averill Park. As I spoke at AMI that weekend, I was overcome with the poignant sense that this was probably the last seminar I would ever give. Suddenly I couldn't believe how foolish I had been, dreading programs like this when I should have been thrilled to have the opportunity to travel around the country talking about topics I loved. Now, if the initial medical assessment was correct, I was unlikely to survive. If I did, it looked like I would never be able to speak normally again, as the surgeons planned to remove much of my upper jaw. Cancer was an amazing experience-though one I wouldn't wish on anyone else-that taught me what I was still attached to in life, what I was having difficulty letting go of in the face of imminent death. I accelerated my spiritual practice to work on developing more authentic equanimity and nonattachment. I did survive this brush with cancer, obviously, and the doctors managed to create a prosthesis that allows me to speak almost completely normally. Amazingly, my fear of public speaking has vanished completely. I now love lecturing! While going through cancer treatment was no picnic, I appreciate the lessons that difficult experience taught me. It was a pretty extreme way to cure a debilitating phobia, but it worked quite well! In the midst of a crisis, it's not always easy to see the gifts the experience is bringing. Hindsight, as they say, is 20/20. I hear that in the very last moment of life, many people see their entire life flash before their eyes in an instant. Suddenly the overall purpose becomes clear, the lessons are self-evident, and the richness of one's life experience can finally be fully appreciated. As we expand our awareness through yoga practice, we can develop that sense of appreciation in the present moment, without having to wait for a near-death experience to show us the whole truth, the greater good behind the difficulty.
The Purpose in the Pain
From a human perspective, some outcomes truly are cataclysmic. I vividly remember the day one of our doctors lost his little boy. He and his wife found their son lying dead in his crib that terrible morning. The one-year-old was fine when they put him to bed the night before. At that time awareness of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) was negligible; physicians had no idea why some seemingly healthy babies simply stopped breathing. The heartbroken parents turned to one of my spiritual mentors, Pandit Usharbudh Arya, to help them understand. "Why did this happen to us? Why?" Some people believe this world is an illusion, but one thing I know for a fact is real: pain. Dr. Arya knew better than to use that moment to tell bereaved parents good would come out of the death of their child. I was struck by the wisdom, and the deep compassion, of his reply: "Before the enormity of your grief, I have no answer." When people are in the throes of profound sorrow, they may hear your words of reassurance as vain platitudes. Sometimes they just have to sit with their pain, digesting the emotion, till they're finally ready to look at the bigger picture. All you can do, as Dr. Arya did, is sit with them in their loss and bewilderment. This brave couple would go on to take an active role in the burgeoning SIDS movement. Thanks to the efforts of people like them, new parents today are far better educated in preventing potentially fatal respiratory disorders. In the face of overwhelming pain some traditions, such as early Buddhism, advise us to run. Buddha recognized that as long as we're on this Earth, suffering is inevitable. At first, he taught that the only solution is to flee from life as if we were running from a burning house. Yoga texts like the Bhagavad Gita, take a different tack. They advise us to see the play of personal, collective, and cosmic karma in the events of our lives. Then mastering our thoughts and emotions with the help of spiritual practice, we should take action in the world to fulfill our duties responsibly, and help alleviate the suffering around us to the best of our ability. In the Gita, Krishna advises us to surrender to God, to love and trust him, and to sincerely try to live in a way that pleases him. Developing that level of confidence in God's care is fairly easy when things are going our way, but far more challenging when terrible disasters occur. Often we feel that if God really loved us, he would exempt us from suffering. In India however, deities are usually portrayed with multiple arms. Some of their hands are raised in blessing. Others hold weapons like nooses and goads. This is because when we veer off the track, they come after us like shepherds, and drive us back to the spiritual path. (Krishna, you'll remember, is often called Gopala, "cowherd.") One of my dear friends is a paraplegic. Jay broke his back at age 18 and has spent his entire adult life in a wheelchair. It's hard to imagine anyone with a more legitimate reason to be bitter. Yet his horrible injury has allowed him to collect veteran's benefits all these years. Unburdened by the need to support himself, he has instead devoted himself entirely to spiritual practice. Today he is one of the most wise and spiritually luminous human beings I've ever met. When I asked Jay how he stays so tranquil in the midst of so much suffering, he told me, "Whatever happens, I just say, 'Thank you, God!'" When we see God's loving care both in the good events in our lives and the bad, we are finally seeing through our life experiences to the greater good just behind them. We all get fired. I mean to say, at some point in our lives we all walk through the fire. There's no other way to enter the light.