How to Answer Letters

[Listen to Asha read this story]

For several years in the 1970s I worked as Swamiji’s secretary. He was often in seclusion, writing The Path. He had no phone, and e-mail didn’t exist then. He lived two miles back on a dirt road, and his only mailing address was the community's. I would bring him his letters late every afternoon. Community members respected his privacy, and visitors didn’t know how to find him. If you wanted to see Swamiji, usually you had to go through me.

It wasn’t an easy position for me. I was very protective of his privacy, which was more important to me than fulfilling other people's needs. Swamiji expressed disapproval of this attitude.

“You have to relate to people in the way I myself would relate to them,” he insisted. “Sometimes, of course, you must tell them, ‘No, what you want isn't possible.’ But you must never make people feel that my convenience is more important to me than their welfare. It is not. I am here to serve. If circumstances dictate the need to disappoint them, make it clear that you, too, are disappointed in not being able to give them what they want.”

Swamiji read every letter that came to him. When he had a letter in his hand, he wouldn’t relate to anything else until he'd finished reading it. Usually he concentrated so deeply he wasn’t even aware of anything going on around him.

Sometimes he dictated an answer, or gave me key points on what to say. He explained to me how to tune in to his consciousness and write letters the way he would. The longer I worked for him, the more he was able to rely on me to know what to say. Still, he carefully read each letter before signing it. If it wasn’t right, he asked me to do it again, sometimes more than once. Here are the guidelines he gave me.

"First ask yourself, 'What kind of person wrote this letter?' Use your intuition to tune into the 'feelings of the heart' that prompted the writing.

"As much as possible, write back in the same mood—business-like, devotional, joyful, in need of sympathy—whatever it might be. Answer their questions if you can, but (more importantly) respond to the underlying energy of their letters. That is what makes people happy to hear from you.

“Always tell the truth. Be simple and real with people. Keep in mind, however, the difference between truth and mere ‘facts.’ If you know something is going to work out, you may not want to list all the obstacles that have to be overcome before it does. Emphasize the positive. Think about how the person will feel who receives the letter.

“Don’t praise excessively, if that isn’t what's warranted. Be supportive, be kind, but say exactly what you mean. Truth has power and is more comforting than platitudes.”

A man sent Swamiji a collection of poems he had written. On Swamiji’s behalf I wrote, “Thank you for sending your beautiful poetry.”

When Swamiji read that, he said, “It wasn’t bad poetry, it was nice. But it wasn’t beautiful. What will you say when someone sends beautiful poetry, now that you have used up that word on poetry that is merely nice?”

“Think creatively and lovingly of the person you are writing to. Then ask God to help you answer in exactly the way that is needed.”

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