Being Challenged to Grow Spiritually—Being Fixed yet Flexible

Karnamrita Das

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After reading, and remembering, very heated discussions—often intense arguing or worse—between those with seemingly great differences of opinion, I was reminded that often the issues are not that important in the larger scheme of devotional, or spiritual, advancement. Such conflicts are often more about both person’s ego of being right, than in trying to understand the real truth—which, after all, one already has. It is sad that for the most part no attempts are made to understand the other person, find a middle ground, respectfully agree to disagree, or sympathetically search to discover if there could be value in the other position. The study of psychology has revealed that we tend to find what we have defined as our aim, or what we’re focused on. If we are not careful, we will only notice what supports our premise, perhaps missing an important opportunity.

I am reminded of a story Shrila Prabhupada tells to outline how stubbornly opinions can be held: “One man declared that a piece of paper had been cut with a knife. A second said no, it was done with scissors. An argument ensued, and the first man, being stronger, took the other to a river. There he told him, ‘Now, if you don't agree that it was a knife I shall throw you into this water!’

“The other man boldly continued to insist, ‘It was scissors!’

“So the ‘scissors advocate’ was tossed into the river and began to drown. Still he would not concede. As he disappeared for the last time, his hand emerged from beneath the surface with two fingers moving together like a pair of scissors, while he kept thinking. ‘No, it was by scissors! It was scissors!’ " And so he died for no good reason except to be right.
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Beginning religionists are especially prone to fanaticism, or holding to one-sided black and white views, but we see the tendency of shallow thinking in many fields, including science, to accept entrenched, sometimes popular, perspectives. Such positions may be mostly emotional and coming from the bodily conception (I, me, mine, versus you, they, and them) of vested interests, prestige, financial dependence, or tradition. The tendency is to demonize our opponents, forgetting to see them as complex persons, as more than our label.

The power of spiritually advanced association is essential for challenging us to move forward in our conceptual orientation in bhakti, beyond stereotyped thinking. For this to work, it must be coupled with maturity, experience, and openness. As most of us have experienced, the longer, and more forcefully, one holds a certain view, the more difficult it is to let it go, or reconsider. In the past, I have felt very comfortable and secure with certain understandings, blinding me to other views, however supportable by scriptural reasoning. This is often reinforced by leaders and peers with similar assessments who believe a certain position is absolutely true, or a requirement for membership in a particular group—and thus one may remain stuck. This can be tragic, since a spiritual idea or truth, if regularly meditated on and understood deeply, has the power to change our perception about our personal reality (or the larger spiritual reality). Our mind’s thoughts determine whether we suffer or smile.
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The Bhagavad Gita teaches us that our mind can be our best friend or worst enemy. Thus, it is important to study how our mind works with us personally so we can make it our good friend. For example, whether some thing, event, circumstance, or person’s behavior, appears good or bad, making us joyful, elated, angry, or resentful, depends on our thoughts about it, which means our discernment, judgment, or evaluation. While we may agree on the external details about what happened in a given circumstance, of far more importance is our subjective interpretation, since that determines the meaning we give it. As even Shakespeare teaches us, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” (relatively speaking of course) The problem is when we combine the objective facts and our subjective perspective, equating them as one.

While I am speaking of realization here, even spiritual theory can inspire us to continue our sadhana (spiritual practices), remaining on the path of Devotion, being open to see differently and in more depth. When we are new to bhakti, we may feel encouraged that everything is clearly spelled out. However, as the years go by and we make spiritual progress, what we thought was Krishna consciousness will be challenged and colored differently. This is similar to math, where we begin with learning numbers 1-9, and 0, but gradually discover these basic numbers can be combined in unlimited ways. In bhakti, what we thought was solid and fixed, later appears movable by the power of love in devotion. Basic principles remain, whereas perspectives we thought we had a grasp on, change into ones that are actually quite complex and nuanced, and we are then able to harmonize what appeared to be contradictions and accept paradox. Progressive spiritual life is about positive change, so we must be ready, and welcome this, although at first we may find it disconcerting.
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When we read or hear a Vedic text, or scriptural explanation, we should consider it a seed that will only produce more fruit, or understanding, in time. Even if we have some realization, we must remember that our comprehension is limited, as there are also deeper levels of insight as we make progress in bhakti. This has become abundantly clear to me by reading the different acharya’s (great teachers) commentaries on the bhakti Vedic scriptures, or by hearing from advanced devotees of Krishna. As we become fixed in our commitment to the ideals, and practices, of bhakti, we also learn to be flexible, open to learn from anyone in all circumstances.

Spiritual practice, which for Gaudiya Vaishnavas, primarily involve hearing, chanting, serving, and remembering Radha and Krishna in the company of saints, purifies our consciousness to uncover our soul and spiritual intelligence, which equips us, if empowered by the illumination of grace, to appreciate, realize, and apply spiritual truths in varied circumstances. As I have often shared, we must find the ways to stay the course on the road to prema, or love of Krishna. This means to remember that any endeavor worthy of achievement requires patience, flexibility, the determination to persevere. We must keep the goal in mind in the face of inevitable obstacles or setbacks, and regularly recommit to our path. Let us encourage one another to keep on keeping on, offer a helping hand when someone stumbles, and be able to accept assistance when we require it.
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