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Blissful Agony

“If one’s hairs do not stand on end, how can the heart melt? And if the heart does not melt, how can tears of love flow from the eyes? If one does not cry in spiritual happiness, how can one render loving service to the Lord? And without such service, how can the consciousness be purified?”

— Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam 11.14.23

Diary entry dated 11th September 2020:

Exactly three years ago, I moved to Bhaktivedanta Manor, and a new chapter of my life began. Now, that chapter has come to an end. I find it difficult to believe how quickly time has flown – years have passed by like falling autumn leaves, never to return.

The original plan was to leave in mid-March, but then the Manor went into lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. I still could’ve left at that time, but I felt the urge to remain a little longer to help out with services during the lockdown. Somehow or other, “a little longer” became five months!

If I’m honest, those five months were some of the best months of my life. I relished the opportunity to get involved in simple services such as cleaning the temple building, helping to prepare meals for the pleasure of Śrī Śrī Rādhā Gokulānanda and Their devotees, serving those meals to the devotees, and washing pots in the kitchen (the latter was my favourite service).

Eventually, though, it became clear to me that I couldn’t delay any longer. On 15th August, three days after the most blissful Janmāṣṭamī festival that I’ve experienced in this lifetime, I left the shelter of the Manor and returned to my family home.

When I saw the picture of Rādhā Gokulānanda that we have on the wall in our living room, it was almost too much for my heart to bear, but in that moment of heartbreak I felt closer to Their Lordships than I’d ever felt when I’d been living in Their house. During the first day or two, my eyes were like rainclouds, but at some point the storm of tears subsided.

While I was there, the Manor was my whole reality; it was almost as if the world beyond the Manor gates didn’t exist. Now, however, it feels like my time there was simply a dream – a very beautiful dream, but a dream nonetheless. To make things even more confusing, life outside also feels like a dream, and I sometimes wonder if I will wake up and find myself at the Manor once again.

In this time of emotional confusion, it has been difficult for me to determine what is reality, but I’ve found some solace by reminding myself that in all situations, the only reality is Kṛṣṇa, so we should take shelter of Him. When we are in touch with Kṛṣṇa through His holy name, which is identical to Him, or through scriptures that describe His glories, then we are in real life, regardless of external circumstances. And when we are not connected to Kṛṣṇa, we are not in real life.

Since I’ve been back, the quality of my japa has fluctuated a lot, and I must admit that there were a few days where I failed to chant the prescribed sixteen rounds. However, there have also been times when I’ve managed to tap into my newfound feelings of separation from Rādhā Gokulānanda and chant more intensely and with more emotion than I ever chanted at the Manor.

Most of the time, my chanting is very inattentive and I am completely absent from my relationship with Their Lordships. Sometimes, however, one glance at Their picture is enough to melt my stone-like heart, and I am left unable to continue chanting until the tears have stopped. Such experiences of separation are agonising, because it feels like a part of yourself is missing, yet that agony brings with it a feeling of bliss unlike anything else. You don’t want the experience to end, for in that moment it is impossible to think of anything but Kṛṣṇa.

Unless one is engaged in the service of the Lord, this concept of blissful agony cannot be understood. As the Lord Himself explains to His dear devotee, Uddhava, “Those who fix their consciousness on Me, giving up all material desires, share with Me a happiness that cannot possibly be experienced by those engaged in sense gratification” (Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam 11.14.12). My consciousness is rarely fixed on Kṛṣṇa, but the Lord is so kind that He sometimes gives me small glimpses of that happiness.

I often wonder why Kṛṣṇa showers me with so much mercy. It can’t be because I’m an advanced devotee – I just need to count the number of material desires I possess to know that I’m not advanced. Śrīla Prabhupāda often gives the example of a parent who gives more attention to their young child, who is fully dependent on them, than to the older child, who is somewhat independent. Similarly, I believe that Kṛṣṇa is giving me special attention because He knows that my resolve is weak, and without regular experiences of spiritual ecstasy to strengthen my faith, I would easily be led astray.

Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu told Sanātana Gosvāmī that the natural position of every living entity is to be an eternal servant of Kṛṣṇa (Śrī Caitanya-caritāmtaMadhya-līlā 20.108), and Śrīla Prabhupāda repeats this statement many, many times. Whenever I experience feelings of separation from the Lord, it increases my faith in that statement, for how could I miss Kṛṣṇa so much if I didn’t already have a relationship with Him?

While looking at the picture of Their Lordships this evening, I read the text at the bottom: “Śrī Śrī Rādhā Gokulānanda, Altar Deities at Bhaktivedanta Manor.” Gazing into Kṛṣṇa’s eyes, I instinctively told Him, “You are not just an altar Deity. You are everything. I didn’t know. My dear Lord, only after leaving do I understand.”

As I continued to stare into Kṛṣṇa’s eyes, He appeared to reciprocate by staring back into mine, and tears began to flow once more. In that moment, I knew beyond any doubt that Their Lordships, although appearing before me in the form of a photo, were the very same Deities that I’d been fortunate enough to see every day for almost three years. There was no difference. In fact, in this form They were even more merciful, because I could get much closer to Them, and even touch Kṛṣṇa’s beautiful lotus feet.

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