Our Own Worst Enemy
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Stuck in an airport with a delayed flight I struck up a conversation with a business person:
“You want to know a secret?’
“I’ll take that as a yes. You are often your own worst enemy.”
Getting his attention, he turned toward me and said: “I think many people know this.”
“True, but there is another part to this secret: Most people don’t do anything about this, and aren’t motivated to change, or believe they can.”
Reaching into my computer case I take out some writing I did.
“What papers do you have there?”
“I wrote a blog on the topic of being our worst enemy, and what to do about it…want to read it?”
“Sure, looks like we have a few hours to kill, and besides, [the clincher, I guess] the Wi-Fi is down.”
“Let me know what you think.”
Our Own Worst Enemy
As I was thinking of the topic for this blog I found a graphic illustration to demonstrate what I wanted to say. Every week I go shopping to pick up organic veggies at a garden supply shop about 20 minutes from here. Sometimes there is a beautiful, young, though full grown, German Sheppard dog. Though he used to lazily lie around the shop, and then come closer wagging his tail to get petted, now he has taken up the startling, and for some, frightening, habit of barking loudly at shoppers—which hasn’t been real good for business. As a result he is now kept in a cage in the corner. Though this helped, he would still bark, so his owner had to cover one side of his cage so he can’t see people coming into the store. Now he just seems bored and primarily sleeps. I was imagining him thinking, “Why do I have to be cooped up in this cage? I didn’t do anything to deserve such treatment other than just be myself? My owner has a real problem.” Though we might laugh at this perspective, I find people do the same thing, though in subtler ways, in their own lives.
I have mentioned before that everyone suffers due to their body and mind—the very thing we all endeavor so hard to enjoy and satisfy. This is material existence in a nutshell. If you are involved in spiritual practice you might agree with this basic perspective, and wonder why I am bringing up such an obvious concept. Though the theory may sound rudimentary, the application isn’t. Even though we, as Gaudiya Vaishnavas, or devotees of Shri Krishna Chaitanya, are trying to end this cycle of birth and death centered on material exploitation, we still suffer from attachments to our bodies and to our psychological, habitual perspectives. Even when we know in theory that we are suffering from our conditioned nature, we still tend to strongly defend our perspectives and blame others for our suffering—at least at times. I am frequently reminded of this human frailty, so much so, that I felt the necessity to write on this topic, especially as my wife and I prepare for a couple’s retreat in a few weeks that we are helping to facilitate.
As attributed to Socrates, “An unexamined life isn’t worth living.” Examining our life is also part of the stage of bhakti called, “anartha nivritti,” or retiring unwanted habits or values. Shrila Prabhupada compared one effect of chanting Hare Krishna to making ghee. When we make ghee, butter is boiled and the “impurities,” or milk solids of butter, rise to the top and are skimmed off the surface to create a pure and useful cooking medium. Thinking of this analogy where our “anarthas” are like the impurities that must be removed to make ghee, in my experience many devotees, or “sadhakas,” don’t know what to do with this new awareness of their impurities, or are just too close to them to really see them as separate from themselves. Self-examination and introspection can be difficult work and even scary if we are embarrassed by what we find, still thinking on some level that we are our bodies and past activities.
We see this in counseling situations where a habitual problematic action is brought to a client’s attention and is met with their statement that, “That’s just the way I am.” To which I sometimes reply, “Yes, but is it working for you in your relationships?” We are creatures of habit, and we need to not only create good habits of spiritual practice, but good mental habits so we don’t just react according to unhealthy conditioning from our past.
Due to the difficulty I have observed in moving past the anartha-nivritti stage, even with long standing devotees, I see the essential need for getting meaningful, expert feedback from a guru or wise teacher, who has experience in removing their own anarthas, or in helping others with theirs. If we don’t receive such tailor-made feedback, we are likely to just cover over, or dress up our anarthas in spiritual clothes, so to speak, where they can be even more difficult to detect. In other words, our anarthas can become buried and invisible, or mixed up with our devotional identity, and thus keep us stuck in dysfunctional ways of dealing with ourselves and others. This can lead to offenses to devotees, and/or people in general.
Therefore, another important aspect of devotional life is interacting with other devotees and even ordinary people of the world. There is a saying we used to use that we mistakenly thought was from Prabhupada—but is still useful—that sharp stones rubbing together in a river become polished and smooth. Of course, that is only a potential, and not guaranteed. In order to take advantage of interactions with others, we are required to see everyone as a teacher for us. They model good and bad behavior, and can act as mirrors for us, as we tend to notice our own faults and project our positive ideals in them. Unfortunately, most people don’t understand this fact, and tend to either ignore the possible lessons in personal interactions, or become angry when the person hits a negative emotional nerve, or wound, in them. In the best sense we need people and relationships to help us grow and mature as persons, to realize our full spiritual and material potential, and practice giving love and service.
[The photography of Alex Baker: http://studiojoslizen.wordpress.com/]
Knowledge that spiritual life is about changing for the better, and that we can change, is half the battle. If we see the necessity to change and make a strong endeavor with good guidance, intensely praying for help, we will gradually be successful. Part of the process of change and personal transformation is to examine our prejudices and accept that our perceptions are very subjective. Subjective reality means that in every conflict with others there are at least two, and usually many, ways of looking at what happened.
Therefore, as a general rule we have to take at least 50% responsibility for any problem with another person and be willing to both hear and consider another perspective. Since we can only change ourselves, that means we have to eventually accept 100 % responsibility for our life, even as we depend on Krishna and his agents to help us. If our knee-jerk reaction is to solely and sorely blame others for our problems or disagreements, we won’t take any responsibility for them, and will never improve our life or be able to change for the better. We will keep attracting the same types of problems and conflicts. The alternative to change is to simply plod along in our comfort zone hoping our life will improve. As quoted by many people but also by Henry Ford, “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.”
To avoid remaining stuck or feeling like a victim and blaming others we will be benefited to reframe a conflict or problem as feedback for change and an opportunity for personal growth and service—there are no accidents but only clues to ask meaningful questions to find empowering answers. We can practice observing our habits in dealing with others and in difficult life situations and if need be, endeavor to change what needs to be changed within ourselves. Then we can create better habits for increasing our resourcefulness and life success, which means to realize more of our full potential in life, work, and bhakti! Yes, it is hard work, and takes time, but it is well worth our focused effort. Experienced elders or counselors can give us tips on how to do this. As many wise people have said, it isn’t what happens to us, or what someone says to us that cause our suffering, but the meaning we give to events or words. “One must deliver himself with the help of his mind, and not degrade himself. The mind is the friend of the conditioned soul, and his enemy as well.” [Bhagavad-gita 6.5]