by Menaka Ait-Ouyahia
I grew up in France, in a Paris suburb, in a non-practising Muslim family. My parents were nonetheless God-believers. My father taught us the important surats of the Quran. He showed us the beauty of Islam, and respect for all religions.
As a young teenager, I was introduced to India and Hinduism by a friend. I recall being attracted by India. This land of spirituality was foreign but at the same time so familiar. I was told that with the power of meditation man could do extraordinary things, and I believed it. I knew already that the only thing that would really matter in life was spiritual growth.
In my early twenties, I moved to Montreal to pursue my studies because I was not satisfied in France. I fell in love with Canada and decided to stay. Even though I had everything to be happy, I could still not find satisfaction. I had the feeling that I was wasting my time, not achieving any spiritual progress but on the contrary diving more and more deeply into purposelessness. Even though I was aware of it, I could not find the strength to control myself.
Then my mother’s cancer reappeared. I will always remember that phone call in December 1999. My mother was confident that everything would be fine and that in six months she would be in good health again. As I hung up, I had the strong feeling that she would not survive this time. My mother had always felt that she would die young. When she first got breast cancer, I was 15 and my younger brother only 4. I remember praying to God to give her another few years so that at least my younger brother could be independent enough. God had been kind enough to give her another 9 years. This time, even if it broke my heart, I could only say, "May Thy Will be done."
I struggled in the two years that followed. For some time I would try to get closer to God with prayer and meditation (prayer mostly, as I had real trouble sitting still for more than a few minutes), and then I would fall deeper into material life so that I could avoid facing reality and my mother’s suffering. One day as I was in deep desperation at my incapacity to discipline myself and my total helplessness, I prayed to God to help me find a Master, someone who could guide me in my spiritual life and help me make progress. At that time I thought of a Sufi Master, because I was Muslim and I liked the universality of Sufism. However, I never made a step in that direction. Sufi groups were not lacking in Montreal, but something was holding me back.
In August 2001, my mother passed away. This was a wakeup call. I could not go on like that with my life. I decided to start a PhD with the goal of getting a job at the United Nations. I quit my job and moved to Ottawa. I needed a concrete change in my life and moving to a new city would help me to start fresh (and force me to learn English). So in January 2002, I started a new life in Ottawa. I was still desperately looking for something.
At the beginning of September 2002, as I was walking to university, my eyes were attracted by a pink meditation poster with a black and white picture of a lotus flower (a very basic poster, but somehow I was attracted by it). Not long after, I saw the same poster inside the university; this time what attracted me the most was the word 'free'. I thought that if it was free it was probably a sincere offering, so I decided to write down the number. I waited a couple of weeks and finally called; a class was starting the following week.
At that point I was thinking of going back to Montreal, as the PhD programme in Montreal was of a higher standard and one of my previous teachers was trying to convince me to come back. But I had to act fast, as the session had already started. I remember making a list of pros and cons of staying in Ottawa. In the pros list was the meditation class.
Finally I decided to stay; I did not care that much about the PhD anyway. During the last meditation class, one of the teachers said that if we cared for the spiritual life and wanted to be serious about it, we could apply to become a student of Sri Chinmoy. This resonated with me. Yes! That was what I had always wanted: to give first and foremost importance to my spiritual life. So I decided to try this path. Slowly I discovered my Master and realised that God had not only answered my prayer to grant me a spiritual guide, but had given me much more than I asked for or could even dream of. I have never finished my PhD and I am not working for the United Nations, but I have something much more precious than that. My life has become meaningful and I have never been happier than since I became a disciple of Sri Chinmoy.