We waited. And waited. It was a sweltering summer day in the Florida panhandle. The morning sun glared through the expansive windows of an airport departure gate. There, a young blond-haired woman, neatly uniformed with a blue vest over a pressed white shirt and matching blue pants, stepped up to the counter, timidly surveyed the room, then announced a one-hour delay. Passengers sighed, edgy to escape from the heat and travel north. With cellular phones pressed to their ears, they persistently glanced at their wristwatches.
Among them stood a middle-aged woman. She had nicely coiffed reddish-brown hair. Her dress and demeanor hinted that she was a lady of wealth and taste.
Suddenly, she flushed red, flung her boarding pass, and screamed, “No! You can’t do this to me.”
Her outrage jolted the assembly.
Everyone stared as she stomped to the counter, stuck her finger in the receptionist's face, and shouted, “I warn you, do not anger me. Put me on that plane at once!”
The airline hostess cowered.
“But ma’am, there’s nothing I can do. The air conditioning system of the plane has broken down.”
The woman’s lips quivered. Her eyes burned.
She screeched louder, “Don’t you fight with me, you stupid child. You don’t know who I am. Damn it, do something. Now! I can’t take it.”
She ranted on and on.
After finishing her verbal lashing, she fumed and scanned the lounge. Her eyes landed on me, sitting alone in a corner of the room in my saffron-colored swami robes. She stormed toward me while everyone looked on.
Now, standing almost on top of me, her face distorted with anger, she yelled, “Are you a monk?”
Oh God, I thought, why me.
I really didn’t need this. After an arduous week of lectures and meetings, I just wanted to be left alone.
“Answer me,” she persisted. “Are you a monk?”
“Something like that,” I whispered.
The whole room watched, no doubt delighted that I got to be the lightning rod and not them.
“Then I demand an answer,” she challenged. “Why is my flight late? Why is God doing this to me?”
“Please ma’am,” I said. “Sit down and let us talk about it.”
She sat beside me.
“My name is Radhanatha Swami,” I said. “You can call me Swami. Please tell me what is in your heart?”
I have asked this question thousands of times and never know what to expect.
She said her name was Dorothy, that she was a housewife, fifty-seven years old, and lived on the East Coast. She had been living happily with her family until . . . then she started to weep. She pulled tissue after tissue from her purse, blew her nose, and wept some more.
“It was tragic,” she said. “All at once I lost my husband of thirty years and my three children. Now I’m alone. I can’t bear the pain.”
She gripped the handle of her chair.
“Then I was cheated. The bank put my house into foreclosure and kicked me out on the street. You see this handbag? That’s all that’s left.”
Looking more closely at her face, I noted that beneath the well-coiffed exterior her complexion was pale, her eyebrows tense, and her lips slanted down in sadness. Dorothy went on to explain that if all that sadness were not enough, she had recently been diagnosed with terminal cancer. She had one month left to live. In a desperate effort to save her life, she had discovered a cancer clinic in Mexico that claimed they might possibly have a cure. But she had to be admitted today. If she missed her connecting flight in Washington, D.C., her chances of survival were finished.
One of my duties is to oversee spiritual services in a hospital in India. I have ministered to victims of terrorist bombs, earthquakes, tsunamis, rape, trauma, disease, poverty, and heartbreak of all sorts, but I cannot remember more anguish written on a human face than Dorothy’s.
“And now this flight is late,” she said, “and there goes my last chance to live. I tried to be a good wife and mother, I go to church, I give in charity, and I never willfully hurt anyone. But now there is no one in the world who cares if I live or die. Why is God doing this to me?”
Minutes before, I had been cringing at her obnoxious behavior. How easy it is to judge people by external appearances. Understanding what was below the surface flooded my heart with sympathy. When she saw tears welling in my eyes, her voice softened.
“It seems maybe you care,” she said.
What could I do? I felt too weak to do anything. Closing my eyes, I prayed to be an instrument to help her.
“Dorothy, I do feel for you. You’re a special soul.”
“Special,” she huffed. “I’ve been thrown out like a worthless piece of trash and I’m going to die. But I believe you think I’m special, and I thank you for that.”
“There may not be anything you can do about what has happened,” I said, “but you can choose how you will respond. How you react can affect the future.”
“What do you mean?”
“You can lament how cruelly the world has cheated you and spend your days cursing life, making others uncomfortable, and dying a meaningless death. Or you can go deeper inside those experiences and grow spiritually.”
I remembered her comment about going to church.
“Doesn’t it say in the Bible, 'Seek and ye shall find?' and also 'Knock and the door will open'? Would you rather die in depression or in gratitude? You have that choice.”
Her hand trembled and she grasped my forearm.
“I'm so afraid, Swami. I'm so afraid of dying. Please tell me what death is.”
Her face had all but wilted. What could I do? I felt so incompetent. If only I had the power to heal her disease. But I didn't. Still, my years of training in bhakti had taught me that we all have the power to soothe another person's heart by accessing the love within ourselves. I felt like a surgeon in an operating theater and silently offered a prayer before speaking again.
“To understand death,” I said, “we must first understand life. Consider this question: Who are you?”
“My name is Dorothy, I'm American . . .”
“Dorothy, when you were a baby, before you had been given a name, were you not already a person? If you were to show me a baby picture today, you would say, 'That’s me.' But your body has changed. Your mind and intellect and desires have changed. When was the last time you craved your mother's milk? Everything about you has changed, but yet here you are. You can change your name, your nationality, your religion, and with today's technology you can even change your sex. So what part of you does not change? Who is the witness of all these changes? That witness is you, the real you.”
“I’m not sure I understand what you are saying,” Dorothy said. “What is the real me?”
“You are the conscious person, the life force, the soul within the body, who is having the experiences of this lifetime. You see through your eyes, you taste with your tongue, you smell through your nose, you think with your brain—but who are you, the person receiving all those impressions? That is the soul. The body is like a car and the soul is the driver. We should not neglect the needs of the soul. We eagerly nourish the needs of the body and mind, but if we neglect the needs of the soul we miss out on the real beauty of human life.”
“Go on,” Dorothy said.
“Animals and other nonhuman species react to situations according to their instincts. Lions don't decide to become vegetarian on ethical grounds, and cows don't become carnivores. Essentially, beings other than humans are driven to satisfy their needs of eating, sleeping, mating, and defending according to the instincts of their species. A human being is entrusted with a priceless gift, which can be used to create the most profound benefits or the worst disasters. That gift is free will.
“But with the blessing of free will comes a price, namely responsibility. We can choose to be a saint or a criminal or anything in between, and we are responsible for the consequences of those choices.”
“So just what am I supposed to take away from that?” Dorothy asked. “If everything that has happened to me is my fault, my karma, I don't see how I can avoid drowning myself in guilt.”
Dorothy was emotionally starved, and I felt that meeting her was a test of my own spiritual realization.
“Instead of drowning yourself in guilt, you have a precious opportunity to bathe in grace. The philosophy of karma is meant to lift us up and encourage us to make the right choices in both joy and suffering. Depression impedes our progress. In whatever situation we find ourselves we have the opportunity to transform how we see that situation. Devotional life doesn't make every crisis disappear, but it can help us see crises with new eyes, and often that deeper vision leads to a more content frame of mind. I've been practicing that for many years, and I know it has helped me to see the hand of God in all things.
“We humans create our own destiny. We are free to make choices. But once we act, we are bound to the karmic consequences of what we have done. You may choose to get on an airplane to Washington, D.C., but once the plane takes off you have no choice about where you're going to arrive.”
Suddenly, the voice of the airline hostess came through the speakers announcing a delay of another hour. Dorothy whimpered. I gave her a sympathetic smile.
“Here is that choice again, either to focus on the miseries of our fate or transform how we see our fate. Most of us have a huge mixture of karmic seeds of fate waiting to sprout. But the most important teaching of theBhagavad-gita is that we are eternal souls, transcendental to all karmic reactions. That's a very reassuring thing to know. Even in the midst of great distress, people who live with awareness of their eternal nature can be happy. The Bible tells us that the kingdom of God is within. True happiness is an experience of the heart. What is it the heart longs for?”
Dorothy's sad eyes searched mine.
“My heart aches for love,” she said.
“We all do,” I said. “Our need to love and be loved originates in our innate love for God.”
I quoted words Mother Theresa had spoken to me years before.
“The greatest problem in this world is not the hunger of the stomach but the hunger of the heart. All over the world both rich and poor suffer. They are lonely, starving for love. Only God's love can satisfy the hunger of the heart.”
“Bhakti, the means to access God's love, doesn't necessarily make our material situation go away,” I said, “but at the very least it gives us something more than our bitterness to focus on. And more important, when we open up to the possibility of some explanation other than cruel fate, we just may find there is a loving Supreme Being looking out for us. In your present condition, Dorothy, you can turn to God as practically no one else can.”
Our discussion went on and on. Dorothy asked many intelligent and relevant questions, and I answered them based on what I had learnt from my beloved guru Srila Prabhupada and from my over three decades of experience as a spiritual guide.
Eventually she closed her eyes and asked, “In your tradition, do you have a meditation to help us turn to God?”
“There are many forms of meditation,” I told her. “I have been given one that has, since ancient times, been practiced for awakening the dormant love of the soul. May I teach you?”
“This is a mantra. In the Sanskrit language, man means the mind and trameans to liberate. The mind is compared to a mirror. For more births than we can count, we have allowed dust to cover the mirror of the mind—dust in the form endless misconceptions, desires, and fears. In that state all we see is the dust, and so that is what we identify with. The chanting of this mantra is a process for cleaning the mirror of the mind and bringing it back to its natural clarity where we can see who we really are: a pure soul, a part of God, eternal, full of knowledge and bliss. As the mind becomes cleaner the divine qualities of the self emerge while ignorance and all of its cohorts fade away. As we approach that state, we can experience the inherent love of God within us. As love of God awakens, unconditional love for every living being manifests spontaneously. We realize that everyone is our sister or brother and a part of our beloved Lord.”
The speaker system crackled, and everyone in the room perked up, staring at the airline hostess almost as prisoners would look at a parole board, yearning to be released.
“I'm sorry,” she announced, “but they haven't yet fixed the air conditioner, and there will be another hour delay.”
Dorothy slapped her forehead.
“Swami, teach me the mantra.”
“Please repeat each word after me,” I requested. “Hare . . . Krishna . . . Hare . . . Krishna . . . Krishna . . . Krishna . . . Hare . . . Hare . . . Hare . . . Rama . . . Hare . . . Rama . . . Rama . . . Rama . . . Hare . . . Hare . . .”
Dorothy shook her head and shooed me with her hand, “I'll never remember that.”
“Would you like me to write it down for you?”
She reached into her purse and pulled out a slip of paper and a pen. After I jotted down the mantra for her, she started meditating on it.
Eventually, when we finally got on and off the much-delayed flight, an amazing sight awaited us. There was Dorothy sitting in a wheelchair she had requested, smiling and waving as everyone rushed by. The passengers were stunned to see one among them who could be so happy. I stopped to say farewell.
“Swami,” she said, “I chanted the mantra nonstop throughout the flight. I can't remember being that happy in a long time.”
She handed me the slip of paper with the mantra.
“Will you write a message for me to remember you?”
Taking her pen, I wrote of my appreciation for her and a little prayer. She pressed the note to her heart and smiled while tears streamed down her cheeks. Then she said something I will never forget.
“Now, living or dying,” she said, “is only a detail. I know that God is with me. Thank you.”
I hurried into the terminal and looked up at a monitor. My airline had one last flight to Hartford. It left in ten minutes from another terminal. There was still a chance. Have you ever seen a swami galloping across the corridors of an airport?
One man yelled at me, “Why don't you use your magic carpet?”
As I was running, it struck me that I had forgotten to take Dorothy's cell phone number. How would I ever find out what happened to her? To this day I regret my foolishness.
I made it to the gate just as it was closing. Five seconds more and I would have been too late.
At the cultural center in Hartford, my hosts had adjusted the schedule to accommodate a late start time. I asked if there was a particular topic I should speak on.
“Anything you like” was the reply.
“Tonight's lecture,” I announced, “is called 'Why I Am So Late for the Lecture.'“[ compassion ] [ counseling ]