“Be still, and know that I am God”
– Psalm 46:10
These simple words from the Christian Bible remind us of an important truth: the fact that high perceptions are possible only after the heart and the mind have been stilled.
Our society, however, is moving ever-farther away from such lofty heights: not toward stillness, but rather towards unceasing, restless movement and activity. As individuals, we cannot but be affected by the rhythms of the world we live in. After all, as Paramhansa Yogananda said, “Environment is stronger than willpower.”
“How are you?” a well-intentioned person may ask of his friend. “I’m good. Very busy,” will come back as an answer. Variations of this exchange happen countless times every moment of every day. Somehow, the word “busy” has become some sort of badge of honor to its user. It tries to convey the meaning of “I’m being useful,” and, often, at the same time, “I don’t have time.” As though having time were something to be ashamed of.
And yet, I have noticed often that there are some exceptional people who are, in fact, more busy than anyone else, yet rarely use that word to refer to themselves. On the contrary, they give their time freely and calmly to others who need it; they are cheerful whenever any new duty falls on their lap; and they go through their activities with a grace and centeredness that makes them look like they ease their way through life, rather than grinding through it. These people are living the essence of Karma Yoga: they have learned to find inner stillness in their activity.
Exceptional? Perhaps, but attainable for everyone! How, then, can we hope to overcome the harmful habits and biases implicit in modern society? The answer is in the question itself: to change our environment! To take a short break from “society” and spend time in Nature.
An Unwanted Trip to the Countryside
Two weeks ago, I spent some time at the Ananda Retreat outside of Pune. Prior to that, the wheel of my activities had been spinning faster and faster, up to a point in which sometimes I felt they could go out of control; I was, in other words, “very busy!” The last thing I wanted to do at that point was to spend even one hour away from my computer – activity can also be an addiction, you see: the more restless we become in our activity, the more our own mind will tell us we cannot possibly take a break now, of all times! However, I had committed myself to spend nine days at the retreat to cover for one of the staff members. So, I had to go.
At this time of the year, the Sahyadri hills are shining in all their splendor: the monsoons are intense at the retreat, and the whole countryside becomes dressed in a glorious, vibrant green color, bursting full of life. The sound of the almost-constant rain makes the heart leap with joy, and adds to an all-pervading feeling of peace which is only possible when in Nature.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have an immediate chance to admire any of it: my work had not become any less urgent now that I was spending time in the countryside. To my relief, I discovered that I could get a good enough internet connection to do my duties as well as in the city. So, I set up a makeshift outdoors office (under a roof!) and I got started. I sat every day from 9am to 10pm, pausing only to take meals or to attend to the needs of the guests. In a sense, it was business as usual…
… yet, there was a twist: after a few hours on the first day, I noticed that I could concentrate much better than in my usual office in the city. “Curious,” I thought. “Maybe this will turn out better than I dared to hope.”
Nature’s Nourishing Power for the Body, Mind, and Soul
As the days passed, my ability to concentrate kept improving, and my level of efficiency at work got better and better. At the same time, the restlessness I had been feeling in prior days disappeared completely. I was “getting done” more than I could ever hope to in the city, but without stress or anxiety of any kind. Instead, a deep calmness and joy were steadily growing within me. Even though I spent most of my time focused on the computer, my new environment – both strongly natural and strongly spiritual – was quietly working on my consciousness.
After a week had passed, I took a day off, which I spent mostly reading and walking about the property. I was in awe as I felt the vibrant life all around me, as if the land, which had been taking care of me during my busy days, had been waiting for me to come out and say hi and commune with it. I saw a leaf falling off a tree; it brought a rushing sense of thrill and joy within myself, as if I could experience its floating sensation. The whole countryside was bubbling with joy and love, and I was a part of it.
It was then that I noticed the most significant change in my consciousness: although I had been “very busy” during the previous week, working long hours and pausing almost exclusively to eat, I no longer identified myself with my work. Somehow, in the vast expansion that my sense of self had become, programming had regained its proper place as something I did, rather than something that defined me; I was untouched by it. A great sense of peace and gratitude followed that realization.
That sense of peace followed me back to the city after my stay was over, and still remains with me.
Be the Change You Want to See in the World
Swami Kriyananda used to call cities “a disease of modern society.” I could list many reasons of why this is so, but one will do for the purposes of this writing: a city environment naturally brings people’s energies outward into the senses, into mental restlessness, into worries, selfishness and pettiness. Even worse: we start believing that this is the right way to live (“I’m very busy”). Yet, the more we live out of our center, the less we can accomplish, both spiritually and in this world. The more we live in our center, the more we can accomplish. Spending time in Nature will help everyone in learning to live more in their center.
With the modern-day prominence of cellphones and the internet, there is much less of a need today than, say, twenty years ago, for people to be physically present in the environment they work in. Swami ji used encourage anybody who could do so to work remotely and move to the countryside and be close to Nature. Peace is much easily attainable in Nature. So is inner joy. So is God-perception.
Everybody with good intentions would like to leave a mark in the world: to be of help to people, to make their lives better, to help society. In Ananda Sangha, we spend day and night trying to be of service to others in our particular way. There is so much suffering in the world: physical, mental and spiritual. Is it justified, then, to take some time “off” and leave the city behind to recharge in Nature? I would argue, yes! Remember: you may be able to help many people through your good deeds; but what will really touch them; what will really leave a mark; what will help, inspire and strengthen people, is not what you do… it is how you do it. It is what you become from doing it. It is who you are.
Swami Kriyananda taught us this with his exemplary life. As he lived, may we also live. 🙂