By Urmila Devi Dasi
After many years of service in a spiritual environment, a job in a public school challenges one devotee’s attempts to always remember Krsna.
The lone mystic sitting in a mountain cave by a clear, flowing river, with access to ample fruit and nut trees, may be your idea of what is needed for a truly spiritual life. Or maybe your idea is to join a sanga, a group of serious spiritual aspirants who live in a holy place, spending their days in study, singing, sweet discussion of the divine, and meditation on the mystic mantra of divine love: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. Or maybe you’re convinced that life anywhere, doing most anything, can be fully connected with the divine, but are not sure how to go about doing so in a fully integrated and authentic way without losing either ordinary competence or inner spiritual focus.
How to combine spiritual awareness and working in the world? In the Bhagavad-gita Lord Krishna tells His friend Arjuna that one can and should connect all of life, every moment and every breath, to the divine. After teaching Arjuna that the nature of his thoughts and consciousness are the prime determinant of his future, and thus his highest priority, Krishna tells him not to abandon the battle and take up meditation but rather to “think of Me and fight.”
Prince Arjuna is on a battlefield, about to fight formidable foes, just the appearance of whom would cause the most courageous to tremble. Arjuna will require much physical skill and mental concentration to win, or even to stay alive. In that situation, how can he fully fix his mind, without any deviation, on Krishna?
Since I made a firm commitment to spiritual life in 1973, I have worked almost entirely with likeminded persons on projects of service to Krishna. But in 2005–2006 I worked as an assistant school principal in a government primary school in the U.S. as part of my doctoral degree. American government schools disallow any open religious practice—teachers have been fired for reading their own Bible during break time if the reading was done in view of the students. In some states it is against the law to wear anything signifying religion, including a small cross on a necklace. In addition to legal constraints, the place where I lived and studied at the time was in what is called the Bible Belt. While the local school authorities might overlook a teacher or administrator who displayed some Christian affiliation, they were not likely to tolerate any open practice of Krishna consciousness. It would be a challenge for me, then, to maintain a high level of transcendent consciousness in daily circumstances not very conducive to such a state of mind.
During the internship, I wrote reflections on my attempts not only to maintain my external spiritual practices but also to keep or increase my inner consciousness. I hope that the following journal, while at times intensely personal, provides some solace and guidance for others in similar situations.
MY REFLECTIONS WHILE WORKING AS AN ADMINISTRATOR IN A GOVERNMENT PRIMARY SCHOOL
I was not happy with the few short experiences I had working in worldly environments before starting this job. My goal is constant deep mediation on Krishna in all circumstances. One challenge to accomplishing this is to change my view of myself as a person who works only with other devotees of Krishna on clearly Krishna-related projects. Another associated challenge is to redefine work’s value. The work I am doing as an intern is not direct service to Krishna in the way I have lived that understanding for decades. Yet I have little interest in doing only mundane work. I therefore need to understand the spiritual value in the work I am doing.
My Diminishing Morning Hours
My need to be at school between 7:00 and 7:30 A.M. presents a strong obstacle to my spiritual life. Most of my regulated spiritual practices take place in the early morning. The only way I could complete my regular practice of scripture study, worship, chanting, and prayer in the morning would be to wake up every day at 2:00 A.M. I was used to getting up at 4:00 and decided to start getting up at 3:00. With my exhausting work schedule, even that is difficult. I have adjusted by sometimes doing some or all of my spiritual practice in the evening after work. Doing that is not so satisfactory, however, because I am tired and focusing is more difficult.
Another impediment is the reduction in time I can spend with spiritually likeminded people. My time in the morning is limited, and in the evenings I have little energy. I work with other devotees of Krishna over the Internet on various projects, but my time with people supportive of my spiritual goals has greatly reduced.
I have tried various ways to accomplish my goals of inner meditation, with each having limited success. I have tried chanting and praying in my mind, but the many distractions make this difficult to do constantly, though that is my goal. Sometimes things that happen at work remind me of scriptural stories or teachings, but that also is not constant. I had hoped that with a heartfelt and concentrated morning program of spiritual practice the mood would carry throughout the day. But the lack of time in the morning makes it difficult to have such a program regularly.
In retrospect, I see that I had some confusion about the basic method of doing what I wanted. I thought I could achieve the state of consciousness I wanted only in a deep meditative state of chanting or prayer. I just couldn’t understand how to do that while being competent at work. Yet the scriptures encourage us to have a developed spiritual state of existence even while doing difficult and absorbing work in the world. Numerous examples in scripture show people living in that way.
I consulted with people who gave me various advice and direction, but none of them had been in a situation like mine. Their work was connected to Krishna. Therefore, while they faced some of the same issues, their situation did not generally present the same degree and kind of problems I had.
I was looking for a scriptural quote when I realized I had gotten the theoretical answer I wanted. The verse I read (see sidebar) tells about using the mind as a hook to focus on Krishna, but eventually going beyond the mind. In the commentary, Prabhupada explains that samadhi, or total and fixed concentration of the mind on the Lord, is not the ultimate state. Beyond that lies the life of the soul, independent of the mind.
When I discussed this concept with a friend, we concluded that the reason for my lack of success is not my work but my spiritual immaturity. At this point in my progress, I can generally enter into deep meditation only when the external situation is helpful. The rest of the time I am aware of Krishna in a general way. My friend compared it to being aware of a passenger sitting next to you while you are driving.
I now understand that the revelations I have experienced beyond the mind are not at all under my control. They are grace. I can attract that grace by entering into focused, contemplative prayer at least during the time I have set aside for chanting and singing each day. Doing this remains a challenge for me because of my lack of time early in the morning. I am working to improve the quality of my chanting, even if I have to chant in the evening.
I also turn my attention to Krishna during the day as much as possible. Undoubtedly, doing this is difficult, and both the frequency and the depth of my meditations have varying degrees of success. I am trying to attract the attention of the Lord, who can then—when He wants and by His grace—pull me to a higher platform. But when I enter a mood of concentrated meditation during work hours or even achieve a general consciousness of Krishna at work, that frame of mind sometimes expresses itself in language and behavior welcome in a society of Krishna devotees but incongruous in a public school.
One practice I’ve found helpful is to listen to spiritual music at work. Because much of my music would sound strange to my co-workers, however, I need to use earphones, making it a little difficult to hear what others are saying. In my work, people come to my office or stop me in the halls to bring things to my attention. I can play some music through my computer speakers, but songs that will not sound strange and invite unwanted attention are limited.
Another helpful practice is to go outside for my noon gayatri-mantra meditation. Sometimes the weather doesn’t allow that, and people tend to interrupt me when it does. On days when I do not get a peaceful five minutes midday for gayatri, I start to feel somewhat panicked. Altogether, I have learned some valuable lessons—mostly about how difficult it is to do what I set out to do.
I hope that the end of this internship will be the end of my working in an environment where I cannot openly incorporate my spiritual life into my work. While I still would like to achieve the full success I had hoped for before the end of the internship, I am increasingly doubtful that such is likely.
Strategies for Broader Goals
My strategies for success are aimed at my broader goals. My first strategy is to have a job where my boss and co-workers accept and even value an open and honest spiritual life. I realize that restricting my job choices in this way is not practical for everyone. But I have come to accept that it is a matter of my very spiritual survival and that if I hope to achieve love of Krishna in this life, other options are less satisfactory.
My second strategy for success is to always keep in communication with people on an advanced spiritual level. I can associate with them through email, Internet chats, and phone. I may not be sitting next to them, but some sort of personal communication makes a huge difference. Though I can also meditate on being with great souls no longer living on earth, to maintain my spiritual life in my present state I need more than that. To go above a maintenance level and make further progress, I seem to need the company and help of those now living.
A third strategy is to live near a community of Krishna devotees and be part of their program of regular worship. A management change made visiting my local temple daily less attractive, complicating my attempt to blend work and spiritual life. On the positive side I have learned to cut my dependence on a temple for daily spiritual strength; on the negative side the journey has been much more difficult than it probably would have been otherwise. I am now starting to resume my decades-long practice of daily temple attendance, at this very end of my internship, and hope to figure out a way to attend as much of the morning worship service as possible and still get to work on time.
My fourth strategy for success is to spend part of each day, even if only a short time, specifically nourishing my inner spiritual longings. I can do this through reading the prayers and poetry of saints, through deliberating on certain passages from scripture, through song, and through focused meditation. This strategy has been of great help to me during the internship. Perhaps it is one of the most important things I have done.
Spiritual and material competences seem to be at odds with each other. In some ways they are. Yet since everything is Krishna’s creation, there are certainly ways to live on both levels in harmony. One who does so would not even see a distinction between his or her work and spiritual consciousness.