Tuesday, April 29, 2008

My Worst Quality

For a California boy, New York in the dead of winter was a fun place to be. For the four or five weeks that Guru was out of town, my life was routine and quiet.

I'd get up and meditate in the morning and get to the Smile for work by 8 a.m. I'd work until closing at 4 p.m., and then usually go for a run. For dinner, I'd usually head over to the other disciple-run restaurant, Annam Brahma. As an employee of the Smile, I paid only half-price for any food that I ate there (a courtesy that the Smile also extended to the employees of Annam Brahma).

Without Guru around to set the agenda, the evenings were usually open. Invariably, however, I'd head back to the Smile at some point each night to help the night crew with their chores.

Until Guru returned in mid-January (1985), it was a Spartan existence. Aware that it was temporary, I loved it, and it made Guru's return that much sweeter. With his return, Jamaica came alive. Most week nights there were functions at Progress-Promise that were so sparsely attended that I was both shocked and thrilled. And on the weekends, disciples from Canada and Boston (and other locales) would descend upon Queens en masse.

For someone like me, who wanted to be doing nothing more than meditating and hanging in the presence of the Master, there was always something interesting happening. At one function that winter, for example, Guru apparently needed to raise money. So, he told the disciples assembled at Progress-Promise that night that for $20 he would tell each person either their best personal quality or their worst (their choice).

I paid and was given a blank square of white paper. Guru told those then waiting in line to put their names on the paper. The idea was that as you got to the front of the line, you were supposed to give Guru the paper and tell him which personal quality you wanted to receive: your best or your worst.

There was some nervous chatter in the guy's line (Progress-Promise was divided down the middle, with men sitting on one side and women on the other) about which quality to ask for. To me, though, it was a no-brainer. What good would it do me to know my best quality?

My goal was to become consciously one with the Divine. I wanted to know what was preventing me from achieving that goal.

My certainty about what quality to ask for didn't mean that I wasn't nervous. I was. I had always been hyper-critical of myself, even before I became a disciple. Standing in that line, inching closer and closer to Guru as he quickly wrote out people's requested qualities, I couldn't help but think of my own shameful, pre-disciple behavior.

True, I had come a long way from the person I had been at the Sadie Hawkins' Day dance, for example. But I couldn't shake an idea I had picked up in reading the Gospel. Sri Ramakrishna had said something like, "Once you have kept garlic in a clay pot, no matter how well you wash it, it will always stink of garlic." In that sense, I feared that my "impure" boyhood activities would taint me forever. I suspected that this was what Guru would allude to on the slip of paper I was holding on to.

As you can see above -- assuming you can read it -- he didn't. Instead, Guru wrote: "Lack of confidence-light in the aspiration-heart." Upon my first reading, it seemed pretty benign. I was both relieved and puzzled. Relieved not to be called out as being impure or unworthy of the spiritual life. Puzzled at what, exactly, Guru was getting at.

As far as disciples went, I was pretty cocky (though quietly so). I was a jock by nature, highly competitive, and had always cultivated a certain physical daring in myself. So, I didn't get it. For some reason, I blinded myself to what (as a lawyer) I'd call the note's express or explicit meaning.

It didn't say that I lacked confidence in general. It says that I lacked confidence in my own aspiration for God. I lacked confidence in the power of my own spirituality.

It would be 15 years before I would realize what that note meant (and before I would address it directly with Guru). In the meantime, I tucked the note away with puzzled relief and forgot about it.

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