Sunday, June 13, 2010

Nose to the Grindstone

Lord Krishna “Engage your mind always in thinking of Me, offer obeisances and worship Me. Being completely absorbed in Me, surely you will come to Me.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 9.34)

Having a full-time job is a true blessing from God. Whether or not the compensation provided by this job is satisfactory is another issue. We all need a full-time occupation; something to keep us busy at all hours of the day. At first glance, one may have the tendency to disagree with such an assertion. After all, we are never happier than when we are finished with our work for the day. Quitting time is a happy time; something we look forward to. But if we study the effects of what happens to those who are unemployed, we’ll see that having a job is better for us in the long run.

Most of us don’t like going to work. This doesn’t mean that we don’t like our jobs. Many of us are engaged in a field that we are quite passionate about. We voluntarily chose our occupation, so we really have no right to complain about it, but work is something that never goes away. Unlike when we were growing up and in school, for adults there aren’t two-month long vacations in the summertime. The nine to five grind is there five days a week, for almost fifty two weeks a year.

Rush hour traffic If we could pinpoint the one thing we don’t like about working, it would be the pressure. Having a job means we are required to be at work at a certain time and for a minimum number of hours over the course of a week. It is the natural yearning of the human spirit to be free, so when we are forced to adhere to deadlines, it is not a comfortable feeling. In the morning, there is a rush to get to work, and any obstacles that get in our way will make us late. This puts on an added pressure. Monday is probably the least favorite day of the week because we have just come off a relaxing and fun weekend. Now we are forced to repeat the grind for another week.

Along with the pressure of having to show up to work on time, we are required to meet deadlines and attend various meetings. Some people in management positions spend their whole day just in meetings. They jump from one conference call to the next. Even when they are on vacation or out of the office, they must still attend these meetings, thus they are required to carry their cell phones and laptops with them at all times.

All of this pressure can lead to stress, which makes us crave time off from work even more. Quitting time is eagerly anticipated every day. Sometimes people are so happy to get off of work that they go out to bars and night clubs immediately after leaving their jobs. Thus the concept of “Happy Hour” was born; bars enticing tired workers to come and refresh themselves with adult beverages. Weekends become a time for relaxation; days where we don’t have to get up on time. We can turn the alarm clock off and just sleep all day if we want to. Who wouldn’t love that?

But is this really what we want? Sure it’s nice to have a few days off from the rigors of work, but what if life was like this every day? What would be the result? Anybody who has ever spent any extended period of time being unemployed will tell you that life without a job is no picnic. Let’s start with the basics. For the unemployed, the first thing that goes is discipline in regards to sleep. After being asleep for almost eight hours, it’s very difficult for the average person to wake up. If we have nothing forcing us to wake up at a certain time, we will surely oversleep. At the same time, once we are awake, we have no desire to go to sleep. If there is nothing forcing us to sleep at a certain time, i.e. a job that we have to go to in the morning, we are more likely to remain awake into the wee hours of the morning. When these two situations are put together, what results is a person who falls asleep at the time that most people wake up. This same person then sleeps for hours and hours and wakes up sometimes in the afternoon.

“What is night for all beings is the time of awakening for the self-controlled; and the time of awakening for all beings is night for the introspective sage.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 2.69)

Vrindavana Dasa Thakura The Vedas tell us that oversleeping is part of the mode of ignorance. In general, all of our activities can be classified as either being in goodness, passion, or ignorance. By default, most of us associate with the mode of passion. We have some material desire, either to achieve a perfection or to enjoy our senses, which causes us to act in a certain way. Goodness is any activity performed for the cultivation of spiritual knowledge or under the guidance of revealed knowledge. This type of activity is performed for the betterment of the soul, such as ascension to the heavenly planets in the afterlife. The mode of goodness can be thought of as any pious activity. The mode of ignorance is any activity which lacks both goodness and passion. The mode of ignorance is also known as the mode of darkness, meaning it keeps us in an animal-like state. As we all know, the animal species is not anywhere near as intelligent as the human being, thus it is not a good thing for us to imitate their activities.

After a few consecutive days of inactivity, the unemployed person falls into a rut. They start to overeat, gain weight, and ignore basic hygiene. Ignorance leads to laziness, which causes us to neglect the basic necessities of the body. Showering on a regular basis, eating on time, taking care of our weight…these are all things that are necessary for our physical and mental health. As the famous law of science says, “A body at rest, stays at rest”, a person who is accustomed to a sedentary lifestyle is likely to refrain from any knowledge acquiring activities. When a person has a job, they feel like the day is too short, and that there is not enough time for fun activities. When a person doesn’t have a job, the day can become incessantly long, for there is too much time and too little to do. The same short day becomes unbearably long.

Baby Krishna sleeping So we see that there is great benefit to having a full-time occupation. Though we may not like pressures and deadlines, we see that these things are vital to keeping us on the straightened path. In a similar manner, success in spiritual life requires the same type of demands. At some time or another, we all think of God. It’s usually when we are in trouble. “Oh God, I’ve hit on hard times. Can You help me out? I don’t ask You for much. If You give me this one thing, I promise to never bother You again.” Even if He comes through for us, we go right back to forgetting about Him the next day. This sort of thinking doesn’t help us in the long run though, as our material fortunes and misfortunes are solely the result of our desires and activities. The law of karma stipulates that every action we perform has a commensurate reaction. The same holds true for other people as well, thus we are left with a situation where everyone’s karma is colliding. Naturally there will be both good and bad results, but the Supreme Lord has no interest in such insignificant affairs.

Krishna and Arjuna The Vedas tell us the point of human life is threefold: to understand that God is the original proprietor of everything, that He is the supreme object of pleasure, and that He is our friend. Human beings are given such a high level of intelligence so that they can gradually acquire this knowledge. It is no small feat to acquire the body of a human being. No amount of chemicals can supply us an active human brain capable of discerning the difference between matter and spirit, and studying the nature of the soul. The human body is a result of hundreds of lifetimes of spiritual evolution. Though our material body is subject to creation and destruction, our spirit soul is not. Though the soul never changes, it can be covered up by a body composed of material elements. The exact combination of these elements can vary, thus we see so many different species. The human being is considered the topmost species due to its level of intelligence. When we speak of intelligence, we refer to the ability to take in knowledge, process the information, and take appropriate resultant action. Since even the animals engage in eating, sleeping, mating, and defending, the knowledge that human beings acquire should not be used to further these same animalistic activities. Human life is meant for acquiring the king of all knowledge, or raja-vidya.

“The Supreme Lord said: My dear Arjuna, because you are never envious of Me, I shall impart to you this most secret wisdom, knowing which you shall be relieved of the miseries of material existence.” (Bhagavad-gita, 9.1)

Human life is so wonderful because in the body of a human being we can understand who God is. As the supreme controller and creator of all things matter and spirit, God is vastly superior to us. In mathematics, there are various ways to compare and contrast values. There is actually no comparison between the potencies of a living entity and those possessed by God. This is because God is limitless, or infinity, while we living entities have limits to our powers. How do we know that we have limits? The most obvious indication is that we are mortal. No matter how powerful we may become, we are all destined to die at some point. God, on the other hand, is unborn and undying. There never was a time when He didn’t exist in His personal form, nor will there be a time in the future when He ceases to be God. We are also eternal in a spiritual sense, but we will forever remain inferior to Him.

Lord Krishna If we will always be in God’s shadow, what is the point to human life? Why are we given a body which allows us to imitate the Lord’s activities of creating, maintaining, and destroying? The answer is that not all of our activities fall under the jurisdiction of karma. Based on intent, activities can be classified as either material or spiritual. Material activities are those performed for our personal benefit, i.e. sense gratification. Spiritual activities are those performed for pleasing the master and owner of all the senses, Hrishikesha, or Lord Krishna. God is God, but He is given different names to describe His limitless features. The Vedas give us thousands of names for God, with the primary one being Krishna, meaning one who is all-attractive. Only God can capture the hearts and minds of all the billions of life forms on earth, from coast to coast, from sea to shining sea.

So how do we tell the difference between material and spiritual activities? A lot of times they will appear identical. As mentioned before, the determining factor is intent. Why are we performing a certain activity? What is our goal? The human form of life is meant for acquiring the highest form of knowledge; that information which will lead us to the spiritual world where God resides. This knowledge can only be acquired through the execution of devotional service, or bhakti-yoga. Bhakti means love or devotion, and yoga means achieving union of the soul with God. It is the soul residing within which is immutable and undying. When this soul is connected with God through yoga, perfection in life has been achieved. Currently this soul is attached to a material body which forces it to associate with matter. The aim in life should be to associate with God.

Mirabai performing devotional service Knowing that the point of human life is to love God is one thing, but realizing it is another. Having theoretical knowledge is a good starting point, but we must act on that knowledge if we are to make any strides. This is precisely what devotional service aims to help us with. We should tailor our activities in such a way that we are always thinking of God, serving Him to the best of our abilities. Adhering to this discipline is not easy. Just as we see with people who are unemployed, if we don’t have something pressuring us, something to keep us disciplined, we will likely become prone to laziness and inactivity. Just as the mode of ignorance is harmful to our material fortunes, it is even worse for our spiritual fate.

Having a job keeps us more focused on material activities. At the very least, it keeps us in the mode of passion, ensuring that we’ll have a steady bank balance and a nice place to come home to. To be successful in spiritual life, we need a similar kind of pressure, something forcing us to abide by religious principles. This is where the spiritual master, or guru, comes in. The guru is sent by Krishna to help us achieve perfection in life. We can study all the books that we want to, but if we don’t know how to act on the information we learn, we will come up short in our efforts. A good spiritual master is one who tells us how to occupy every second of the day in religious activities. Since yoga involves union of the soul with God, it is important to always remain connected with the Lord. If we spend a little time away from Him, that connection can break.

Again it seems that we are in a pickle. We must have a job if we are to support ourselves, but if we’re at work all day and tired when we come home, when will we have time for spiritual life? This is where the spiritual master can help us. In this age, all the prominent spiritual masters recommend that we simply chant the holy names of God as much as possible, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”. Chanting is just as good as attending a church or temple, and it’s not something we have to do just once a week. Chanting should be done all the time. One who develops an attraction for reciting the holy name of God will very quickly rekindle their loving feelings for the Supreme Lord. Spontaneous and loving chanting, by itself, is enough to reward perfection, but as we see with other things in our life, we need discipline, pressure, and deadlines. In this regard, the Vaishnava gurus of this age prescribe that we chant the sacred maha-mantra a minimum number of times each day.

Japa mala Similar to a rosary, the japa mala is used by followers of the Vedic tradition to aid them in their chanting. A mala consists of 108 beads connected in a circle. If we chant a mantra out loud one time for each bead in a mala, we will recite the mantra 108 times in what is considered one round. It is recommended that every person perform at least sixteen rounds of chanting the famous maha-mantra every day. This may seem like a lofty goal, but it is a necessity. Above all other religious practices, adhering to this chanting routine is the most important.

Along with the minimum number of japa rounds each day, the bona fide spiritual masters tell us to refrain from the four pillars of sinful life: meat eating, gambling, illicit sex, and intoxication. Once again, this isn’t to punish us, but to keep us from falling back into sinful life. Just as laziness and inactivity are bad for our mindset, taking part in these sinful activities is especially harmful for our spiritual advancement.

A good spiritual master is one who is never pleased. The Vaishnava guru will never tell us that we have achieved perfection. If they are pleased with us, they will most certainly acknowledge our service, but they will always tell us to do more. This is another blessing from the Supreme Lord. If we ever become complacent in our service, we will be more prone to falling back into material life. Devotional service is an eternal occupation, meaning that we should always keep adding new dimensions to our routine. Surely chanting and following the regulative principles are enough on their own, but what results from steady practice of devotional service is that we will develop an eagerness to serve Krishna. This eagerness will open so many new doors to devotional life that pretty soon we won’t be able to go one minute in the day without thinking about Krishna’s smiling face.

Shrila Prabhupada In this day and age, it may not be possible to meet a bona fide spiritual master in person. Not to fear though, as His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada left behind a lifetime’s worth of teachings in his recorded lectures and books. We should all take advantage of these resources and follow this wonderful guru’s instructions. If we always remain employed in Krishna’s service, we will soon find the way out of the darkness of nescience.