Mother and Father are two eternal principles in this world. They're two gods to the infant, and are so important to us both physically and emotionally that the effects of our relationship with our mother and father reverberate throughout our whole life.
There is a quote from an ancient scripture of India that goes like this: "The root of comfort and happiness is harmonious relationship and sufficient wealth. The root of harmonious relationships and sufficient wealth are wise choices. The root of wise choices is self control. The root of self control is humility and discipline. The root of humility and discipline is service to the elders. Through service to the elders, one obtains experiential knowledge and wisdom."
Father's Day is a good time to be thinking about this, about service to the elders. What does service to the elders mean? Such service is not well understood in America and so this is a real question. Service to the elders is a tradition in India, especially out in the countryside where people still carry on their traditions. The culture of India is one of the only cultures in the world that has been basically the same for thousands of years.
Service to the elders certainly wasn't in vogue in America when I was growing up: It was the time of questioning authority and rebelling against tradition. The idea never entered my mind. I was unexpectedly led to this service. Here's the story.
When I had been married for a short time, my father and mother came to visit one time and Dad and I had a terrible fight. I don't remember what the fight was about, but it was awful. He ran out of the house shouting, "You're a rotten son," and I felt terrible.
I felt so bad that I asked myself, "Who can I talk to? Who can help me with this?" and ended up phoning the person who was the wisest person I knew, my meditation teacher, Dr. Usharbudh Arya (now known as Swami Veda Bharati). He was not an easy person to reach, always traveling around the world attending to thousands of students. Yet, somehow, I got him on the phone, told him about the terrible fight, and asked for his guidance. He said something so simple: "Learn to give your father reverence. Treat him with reverence." I didn't understand what that meant. Yet I heard and took it in.
Over many years after that, I endeavored to understand "reverence" and put it into action. This was a focus of mine, a living meditation. I kept asking myself, "How do I treat my parents with reverence?"
It was hard for me to do this. Every time I'd get around them I'd feel like I was a little kid again, and I didn't want to feel that way. Then I'd feel like they were telling me what to do and I didn't want to have to do what they told me. So I had all these resistances. But slowly I learned.
I found that the more I accepted and loved myself, the more I could appreciate them as people just as they were, rather than wanting them to be a certain way. That was a big insight: They were just people and they were who they were. Once I began realizing this, I was able to accept them and revere them as my parents, just as they were. Over time the relationship improved.
After about 14 years of doing this, I felt our relationship had gotten pretty good. Certainly it was immensely better than it had been when Dad and I had that fight. Then something happened that took the whole process to another level.
I was on a long, five month stay in India, and felt very concerned for my parents. I sensed they needed something and didn't know what it was. So I'd call them every day or so just to stay in touch.
After returning to the States, I went back to my home in the woods near Santa Cruz, California, with a plan to go back to India. In the meantime, I went down to L.A. to visit my parents and also to visit and help Swami Hari, a monk I respected and loved, who happened to be visiting L.A. at that moment. Several days were spent with him there.
One day, Swami Hari and I were together the whole day at the Canadian consulate so he could get a Canadian visa. While we were there, I told him how my Mom had become mostly blind from macular degeneration and also had very bad osteoporosis, and how my Dad took care of her while running his business, even though he was well into his 80s. Suddenly, Swami Hari looked at me like a lion, with great intensity and gravity, and forcefully said "Now you should move to LA and serve your parents!"
I wanted to jump away from him. The forcefulness of his statement was piercing. "Are you out of your mind?" I said in exasperation. Yet, though I resisted outwardly, inwardly I realized that while I did things for my parents, really it was very little. My mind jumped from side to side. "Me serve my parents? Aren't they there to serve me?" I thought. Then the next moment came a thought that they had served me and had given me a chance to live and grow. They'd done so much for me.
In the midst of all of these mixed feelings, and a strong compulsion to get away from Swami Hari, who'd just turned my inner-world upside down, a plan developed in my mind: The next three days would be spent with my parents doing everything for them, fulfilling every need, being their servant. This would be an experiment to experience serving them, and it would also get me away from Swami Hari. So I said goodbye to the swami and went to my parents' home and for the next three days I was their butler, their cook, their driver; I did everything I could for them. At the end of that time they were glowing and I felt strong, deeply happy, and filled with energy.
I felt so good that I went back to Swami Hari and thanked him. Well, actually, I said, "Swami-ji, I don't know whether to kick you or to thank you. But a thank you is in order." He looked puzzled at first, and then seemed to understand.
Based on the results of my experiment, I decided to move my home to L.A. to care for my parents, and made the move in the next month or so.
After settling in L.A., another unexpected event occurred. Up to that point in my adult life, I'd felt that something was missing from my father. Actually, I felt he didn't see me, as if I was invisible to him, and was always upset with him because of this. I didn't know how to get him to notice me and so wanted his attention.
At the time I was a lawyer. I'd say something about law and he would ignore it. At least I felt he did. But the strangest thing happened: Once I became his helper, by being there for him instead expecting him to be there for me, everything changed. He would banter with me. Then I realized that he liked to throw mild insults and have them thrown at him. Previously, when he'd say things like that to me, I thought he was just being cruel. Now I realized that doing so was how he was with friends. Bantering was his way of being with a friend.
Over a short time, our relationship completely changed and I got everything I'd always wanted from him, by serving him. There was this wonderful connection with him, this wonderful feeling of understanding who he was, and I knew he saw me. It was better than being his son. Now we were friends.
He liked being playful, and I came to appreciate him as a human being, with foibles, rather than expecting him to be perfect. That was a tremendous relief for me. It meant that I didn't have to be perfect either.
It was in 2005 when I moved back to L.A., and as the years passed, the lessons kept coming. In 2006 Dad had a stroke. At the hospital, he appointed me as his health care agent, and I really felt trusted. Afterward, when he was back home, rather than the strong man he had been before the stroke, he was like a child, having to learn how to speak all over again. He couldn't run his business, and, rather than hiring someone, I took over control of it, and took on the role of caring for Mom and Dad. This was a huge transition for me. Although I was an adult and had been married, raised a child and practiced law for many years, still I'd always known that Dad was there and felt I could fall back on his strength if necessary. Now that was gone. At first the responsibility seemed overwhelming, and I felt the weight of it every day. Over time it became something I greatly valued.
Once things started leveling out after Dad's stroke, suddenly, in 2007, my Mom died, and that pushed things to yet a higher level.
I'm still overseeing my 89 year old father's care, and spend most days at his home in the office where I manage the business he founded. That same office was my first bedroom in that house more than 50 years ago. Now our roles are reversed.
Many times, in the deep recesses of my mind and heart, I've felt vast gratitude for Swami Veda, Swami Hari, and the timeless yoga tradition for guiding me onto the path of reverence and service to my elders. Doing so has given me great treasures that I could not have found elsewhere: The chance to care for my parents when they needed help, and the growth that has come from doing so.
Based on my experience, I recommend service to elders as a practice. It's true that the requirements of earning a living and the place we live (if distant from where our parents live) can be a hinderance. Yet the opportunity is fleeting, and so the more we can do, the better. Even spending a week now and then doing such service can make a difference for all concerned.
Of course, doing such service often brings up unresolved emotional challenges, as it did for me. Although this feels uncomfortable, it's a good thing: The way we get through challenges is to face them. Yoga practice, i.e., meditation, relaxation, contemplation, are invaluable in this process, for they enable one to find a new path through what feels like old emotional terrain. In addition, an intention to heal the old emotional wounds that are unearthed in the process, rather than creating new ones, enables the process to be positive. It also helps to have support, from friends, a counselor/coach, or perhaps a spiritual teacher.
The most important thing is to begin. There is no time to waste in getting started.