The Bhagwan played his sitar beautifully. I got lost in the experience of the music, the chanting of the students, and the warm, caressing sunshine.
Then the music stopped. After a time, voices stopped chanting as well, and all eyes fell upon the Bhagwan.
“I know that many of you are here because you are in pain,” he said. “You tell me about your grief – things that have happened to you or things that you have done. You complain that you cannot escape these bad memories. You carry them with you in a crippling backpack.
You must understand that your memories are not a backpack, they are not physical, they are in your head.
So, who do you hold responsible for your memories: your parents, schoolyard bullies, ignorant teachers, your sergeant in the military, rude bosses, unfaithful spouses? They can do nothing about them. Only you can do that. So, who is really responsible for your memories, other people or yourself?
Let’s say your car is not operating properly. You have a choice: you can deal with it, or you can cease to drive and forever complain about the car’s reliability. One way you continue to be mobile; the other way your life comes to a halt. So it is with memories; until you deal with them, you will remain immobile.
Last summer, a distressed student came to me. She and her husband were driving across a bridge. They were very angry with one another and their argument escalated into vicious character assaults. Another driver drifted into their lane. The husband engaged in some skillful driving to try to keep from hitting him, but there wasn’t enough room to maneuver. He was killed instantly. The wife was badly injured but survived.
In the hospital, she felt remorseful about the last words she’d spoken to her husband. She was as wounded with guilt as with her broken bones. She even wished to die herself on some days.
For months afterwards, she was incapacitated with grief and engaged in self-destructive behavior. Her friends told her that if she didn’t get a handle on this, she would soon destroy herself, so she sought me out.
We talked for a long time. I listened intently as she related with tears and lamenting her story of contrition and self-reprobation. She said she’d really loved her husband, but got so irritated when he seemed unreasonable.
When it became too difficult for her to talk about it any longer, she redirected her guilt. She threatened to sue the city, the builders of the bridge, the car’s manufacturer, the insurance companies – anyone and everyone.
When she was finished, I got us both a cup of coffee. I told her that I understood why she felt so wounded. Nowhere do people live better than in America, yet so many walk around wounded. Like her, they engage in self-destructive behavior and blame others for their pain. They demand compensation from those who have no culpability for their misery. Many are quite skillful at manipulating compassion to their advantage.
You can take this route too, I told her. You will be in harmony with many others, but out of harmony with yourself. This will surely keep you miserable.
You must understand that the substance of life is experience – good and bad. You must learn to enjoy the good and accept the bad. Most reject the bad, and so it holds power over them. But here’s the thing to remember: the bad can wound you, or make you wise. It’s your choice. Thus far, it has only wounded you, but you can choose instead to become wise.
She wondered how she should do so.
I asked her what she had learned from her last experience with her husband.
She said she’d learned never to assault the character of others.
I told her, that is a good lesson; you never know when you talk to someone whether or not it will be the last time. So always make it a positive experience. Do this in honor of your husband: Make it your mission in life to make everyone you meet feel a little better for having done so, even if only for a moment. Rather than add to their burden, be a light. Perhaps their burdens are much worse than yours.
She admitted that was possible.
Now here’s the best part: if you choose to be a light unto others, that light will reflect right back to you. By caring about others, you are looking after yourself! This is the true meaning of karma.
She imagined a world where everyone sought to make those around them happier.
Imagining doesn’t make it so; you have to act, I advised her. If you act, you will inspire others, who will in turn inspire more. This is how your life’s experience makes you wise instead of wounded. Whether you fly free, or remain trapped in the cage of your memories, remember that the choice is of your own making. You can blame others, but they cannot set you free. By accepting responsibility for your memories, you come into harmony with the universe. That’s Nirvana.”
With that, the Bhagwan held his hands in prayer and bowed his head, as if to thank some unseen force.
Several students sitting in that dusty parking lot raised their hands to ask a question.
“How can we be a light unto others?” one asked.
“A student went to a grocery store,” the Bhagwan responded. “She waited for someone to pull out so she could take their parking spot, but before she could pull in, a man in a van pulled in from the opposite lane and took the spot. She felt anger well up inside, but rather than give in to it, she simply decided she wasn’t in a hurry and took a spot farther away.
She passed a grocery boy pushing a large train of carts back to the store. ‘That looks heavy,’ she said, ‘you must be in good shape.’ The boy smiled.
There was a line-up at the deli and the man who had taken her parking spot was ahead of her. ‘You must be in a hurry,’ she asked. He looked back at her and apologized. ‘I forgot that I’d promised to provide chicken for our church picnic,’ he responded, ‘and now there are 20 kids impatiently waiting for me. I figured that annoying you was better than annoying 20.’ ‘I’m not annoyed,’ she smiled; ‘I’m in no hurry.’ He thanked her and smiled.
When she got to the counter, she said to the clerk, ‘We are keeping you very busy today.’ ‘It’s been like this all day,’ he said. ‘Today we are short-staffed and today everyone wants chicken.’
‘Well, I appreciate you working so hard to keep us fed.’ He thanked her and smiled.
As she was leaving the store, a homeless man asked her for money.
‘I will not give you money,’ the student responded, ‘but if you are hungry, I will give you food.’ She pulled a couple of chicken pieces from the box and handed them over. She grabbed some napkins out of the bag and handed them over as well.
‘I hope this helps,’ she said. The homeless man nodded his head and smiled.
In every case, the student affirmed the humanity of the people she dealt with. In every case, she inspired a smile.
You can gauge the degree to which you bring light unto others by the number of smiles you provoke. That is how a single individual can make the world a better place.”
Another student asked, “What if the person to whom you are being kind doesn’t smile and rejects your gesture of kindness?”
“That is not a reflection upon you,” the Bhagwan responded. “You need only open the door. Do not make your actions subject to anticipated reactions. Just do the right thing, whether they respond appropriately or not. A negative response will accrue to their karma, not yours.”
I sat there in pensive silence. I’d read the Biblical stories which taught the same lessons, but it had never been brought home to me like this. I was full of admiration for the teacher.
When he tired of answering questions, he turned around to look behind him. “Behold the sunset,” he said; “enjoy it while you can.”
Everyone became quiet to admire the amorphous red and yellow spectacle on the blue screen. We were transfixed.
Previous installments in this series appeared in Issues 143, 144, 145, 146, 147, 148, 149.150, 151, 152, 153 and 154 – Ed.>
Header image courtesy of Pixabay.com/rauschenberger.