By James Merryman
Many years ago I asked my guru if I should pray that the way be cleared for me to enter the monastery. After a moment’s pause, he replied, “No. Don’t pray for that.” The import was not to pray for another position in life. I had recently emerged from a somewhat painful divorce. The message to me meant: remain single, live alone, and associate with sadhus and devotees.
Such is our life that a long chain of individual events composed of many links eventually leads us to the present moment. We are helpless to be anything different than what we are. To think that we have shaped and guided our life in any way is a false notion. Sri Ramakrishna said to a devotee’s brother, “Everything happens through God’s power. It is He who has given you your high position; that is how you became a judge.”
Over the past fifty years I have come to the conclusion that being a success in spiritual life is not what name or title you bear or in what station you find that the Lord has placed you. Monastic, householder, or “forest dweller,” your success lies in making the best of your present position, which is the sum total of what you are at this very moment.
During the war I carried a dog-eared copy of How to Win Friends and Influence People, not necessarily to influence others, but simply because being a friendly person made life easier. At that time I had no idea that watching my conduct around people was a kind of spiritual sadhana—called mindfulness. Now I see that it was just another link in the chain that led me to this present moment.
Suppose that you end up a householder. Does that mean that sainthood moves away? Self-culture is necessary for embarking on any spiritual path—and this points a finger at every one of us. Ochre robes are only a reminder that the wearer bears the responsibility of keeping in mind the need to remember that he or she has surrendered him/herself, body, mind and soul, to the Lord. This idea of total surrender—be it mental, or mental and physical—is open to all who aspire to sainthood, whether householder or monk.
The life of a householder can be just as demanding as living in a monastery or convent, sometimes more. It takes little imagination to consider the hardship of a budding devotee whose mate has little if any sympathy for his or her efforts. But after the passing away of the Master, the young Naren was telling M. that his present state of mind was the result of the pain and suffering that he had gone through and that M. had not suffered any such tribulation. How little Naren knew of M’s household life—the bitter quarrels in his family, the loss of a child, his disconsolate wife, or that he was nearly driven to suicide! Sri Ramakrishna said, “Blessed indeed is the householder who performs his duties in the world and at the same time cherishes love for the lotus feet of God.” Yes, blessed is he who can carry on praying for love and devotion to God even in the boiler factory of a household. The message for a householder is: Be a hero!
Most devotees want freedom in this life, liberation from having to return to this earth. Whether monastic or householder, the quest for Self-realization is why we are here. Sri Ramakrishna put it even more strongly when he said, “It is our duty to realize God!” To achieve perfection means to become perfectly selfless—and this is an attainable virtue open to all.
JAMES MERRYMAN has been a devotee of the Vedanta Society of Southern California for more the 55 years.