‘The sunflower is always turning towards the sun to receive its light, no? Then the question arises, when it is raining, where does the sunflower turn to? The sunflower doesn’t look down. They look at each other. When it’s rainy and cloudy, the sunflowers look to each other and give each other that warmth, that light.’ -Paramahamsa Vishwananda
I wish I knew how to be more like sunflowers sometimes. They’ve been my favourite flower for as long as I can remember. As a child, I’d be amazed by the large field of sunflowers that grew near my childhood home. Shorter than them, I’d get lost in their towering stalks and then later as tall or taller than them, I’d be mesmerised by their attempt to mirror the sun. Then later still, while standing in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, I let myself get lost in the maze of his chaotic brushstrokes and wonder what emotions had reigned him that day. Painted during a rare moment of optimism, I wondered if his ‘Sunflower’ series was an attempt to carry the sun, to bring the light into his darkest places.
In a recent talk, Paramahamsa Vishwananda spoke on the lesson we can learn from sunflowers. He said, 'The sunflower is always turning towards the sun to receive its light, no? Then the question arises, when it is raining, where does the sunflower turn to? The sunflower doesn’t look down. They look at each other. When it’s rainy and cloudy, the sunflowers look to each other and give each other that warmth, that light.’
Unlike sunflowers, in my darkest hours, I tend to find myself isolating, retreating to a point of unhealthy solitude, trapping myself to the mess of my mind. Having about fifteen years of doing this behind me, I also know it’s one of the most useless things I can do. But I let my mind run anyway and tell myself that it’s better this way, that at least alone, I’m not raining on another’s parade.
In the three weeks leading up to Paramamahmsa Vishwananda’s talk about sunflowers, I was making this very mistake. I had slipped into a bout of depression and began to isolate, separate and choose to live in and focus on the darkness. I didn’t leave the hole I’d created for myself unless I had to. During one of those ‘had’ to moments, I was sitting on the ground next to a dear friend. She asked me to share some of the biggest lessons I had learned since moving to the ashram.
The two answers I gave her, were both the truest at the moment, and the ones I needed to re-learn. They were:
- Anytime you’re miserable, depressed, etc. it’s typically a result of focusing way too much on yourself and not enough on service.
- Should you feel as if your sadhana is failing you, take the company of your sangha. They will reignite the fire in your chest.
I made two choices that night. Choices that had more power and strength than anything my mind could manage. The first was to find all the ways I could to serve. To focus more on the needs of others, than on myself. In simple ways and less simple ways, the point was to put my focus into loving others through service. It wasn’t easy and to be entirely honest, there were moments when I would have much preferred the little hole I had created for myself. But beneath all of that, I knew I had to put my effort in to drag myself out. Once my effort was there, God would be there to help with the rest.
The second choice was to stop isolating so much. I would promise myself that I would sit down with my spiritual family, even if I said nothing, even if I just listened. I would be with them, be present with them for at least ten minutes. If at the end of those ten minutes, I couldn’t manage, then I could leave. But that’s the beauty of sangha, when you sit with your sangha, they tell stories of the Lord, they share their experience of God, of Grace, of mercy and miracles. They inspire you. And maybe, just maybe, they wake up something inside of you that can inspire them. Before long, ten minutes would turn to twenty and twenty to thirty and we’d enjoy the company of each other and our love for God until there was more seva to do and we part for that.
So I think, a better answer to my friend would have been I am learning. I am learning the importance of seva and I am learning the power of sangha. These two things, along with the spiritual master, make the trifecta of our spiritual path. With these three things, there is no storm we cannot ride out, there is no storm too heavy or violent or dark, that we cannot manage our way through. Like this, we can be like sunflowers, turning to each other in the storms and raising our heads to God in the brights moments.