The culture of backbiting and gossip is clearly an unhealthy one, and while it is (relatively) easy to stop talking about people, it often does not mean that we are not thinking about other people in a negative light. I have seen, in the last couple of months, how poisonous these thoughts has been to previously beautiful friendships.
I recently read something that struck a chord. In the context of a letter in which the strengths of current day youth exerting every effort to build strong, spiritual communities were being extolled, this sentence popped out as if written in neon lights: “youth whose integrity and uprightness are not undermined by dwelling on the faults of others and who are not immobilized by any shortcoming of their own.” The main reason why this struck a chord is the way these two concepts are so intimately related, and how they in turn are related to a the culture of backbiting and gossip which has harmed people I love.
We know that the purpose of life is to know and worship God, and to contribute to an ever-advancing civilization through the dual moral processes of personal and community development. Oftentimes, we get caught, with the best of intentions, in the trap of dwelling. Recently, a friend of mine decided to stop spending time with a certain person because this person displayed a negative character trait this friend was also struggling with. The conversation was uncomfortably centered on the person’s fault, and it soon became clear that my friend had spent more time dwelling on this person’s fault than reflecting on the way she displays this same character trait.
Thinking about this conversation in the context of the abovementioned sentence made me realize that oftentimes, because we feel immobilized by our own shortcomings, we instead dwell on those of others. That is to say, it is easier for my friend to dwell on this person’s negative character trait because if she reflects on her own, it will paralyze her into inaction.
What seems to play a major role in this situation is the ego, which immobilizes us for various reasons, such as fear of making mistakes. Of course we are meant to make mistakes; it is in our very nature, as imperfect human beings, to make them. And mistakes teach us what not to do, which bring us closer to finding out what we should do; ergo we should be happy when we make a mistake.
So learning to stop dwelling on the faults of others could perhaps not only help decrease backbiting, which, as we know, quenches the light of the heart and extinguishes the life of the soul, but also gives us the space to work on our personal development. It might seem like an impossible task but really, as always, the spiritual solution is both simple and yet difficult to implement: stop dwelling! And one tool that I use, which I have written about before on this blog, is the use of mantras. Any tendency to dwell on someone’s faults can be countered with a simple: “I will not dwell” and by immersing oneself into whatever one is doing instead. And when one feels overwhelmed by one’s own shortcomings, one can remind oneself that “having shortcomings is not the problem; not striving is.”
Do you use mantras? I would love to hear from you!
January 19, 2013
Quite unfortunately, community-building doesn’t just happen when a group of good-willed individuals come together. Not that good-will doesn’t help! But it’s not enough. All the good-will in the world cannot be properly channeled unless there is unity. If we think of the community-building process as rowing, it becomes clear that we can have a lot of very eager rowers, but unless they are rowing in the same direction and with the same tempo, the boat is not going to get very far, and might even tip over.
Seems pretty simple and obvious, no? And yet I am sure that you, too, in your day to day efforts to contribute positively to the building of your community, are faced with various obstacles to acquiring a depth of understanding of the concept of unity.
One such obstacle if the use of the concept of unity as a buzzword. Instead of delving into the meaning of the concept through constant action, consultation, reflection and study, we claim that a certain act does or does not contribute to unity. And while perhaps 50 years ago, this was all we had the capacity to do, I feel like we have evolved since then and can embark on a process of understanding the deeper meanings and implications of the concept of unity.
The main danger of buzzwords is that they lull us into a false sense of understanding, and thus keep us from putting in the effort to truly understand what the concept is about. Many people around me seem to think that unity is people getting along; that it implies not having difficult discussions to iron out misunderstanding; and, most dangerously in my opinion, that unity is limited to what the ego wants and needs.
How can we counter this seemingly natural urge to reduce deep concepts into buzzwords? It seems that part of the solution is to cling to the very purpose of our lives, that is, to know and to worship God. I somehow do not think that the unity within a family dedicated to criminal activities is quite the type of unity we are looking for…
If we go back to the analogy of rowing, if all the rowers cling to their purpose, that is, to get to the finish line, then reaching true unity will be easier than, say, if each rower clings to their understanding of how rowing should be done. So not only do we have to work to create unity, but we also have to be united in our understanding of unity!
In light of a previous blog post in which the idea of the family as a laboratory of sorts in which we can develop tools and skills useful to community-building was presented, this begs the question: what does unity in a family mean? If this understanding of unity is ego driven, fighting ensues, because each member of the family wants their version of unity to prevail. But if a family is united in serving God and humanity, it becomes a lot easier; each decision is focused on enabling service, enabling the family members to let go of their ego.
Perhaps this implies that the reason for which we bring up certain topics should not be to prove ourselves right and the other wrong. Rather, it means that we choose to consult about obstacles to the family’s service to God and humanity, and let go of personal preferences. This is, or course, a lot harder than it sounds, and involves a lot of time, energy and effort poured in consultation.
What could this look like in a community? Many spaces for reflection might have to be created so that the members of the community can consult on how they can build a community centered on God. But also, spaces might need to be created in which the members of the community strengthen their relationship with God, which helps them detach from their egos. This gives a whole new layer of meaning to reflection meetings and devotional meetings, doesn’t it?
February 4, 2012
I have come a long way when it comes to mantras. At first puzzled by what they were and how they were used, I became curious and starting researching them. As I read and heard about some interesting experiences both strangers and friends had had using mantras as part of their personal spiritual development, the inevitable happened: I started trying them out, albeit a little skeptically at first. Then, as their usefulness in my own spiritual development was demonstrated again and again, I slowly came to respect this tool.
While there is still a lot more for me to understand regarding the use of mantras, I regularly have insights into yet another way they can help my spiritual development. For example, if life is a constant struggle to become better, we cannot embark on a life-long, eighty-something year long semi violent struggle with our insistent self, whacking it down like a mole. To have the strength to carry on for long periods of time with a joyful attitude, as, for example, the Greatest Holy Leaf did, one needs to develop an attitude that combines both striving and contentment. Somehow, we have to learn to both accept who we are and strive to change ourselves for the better. It is not accepting that who we are today is who we will remain forever, but being ok with being that person – for now.
I realized that in many ways it is a relatively simple process difficult mostly in its meticulousness, as it is based on the constant repetition of simple things. This is why mantras can be so useful. For example, if you always scream when you are upset, a mantra can help you, at first, delay the point at which you start screaming by a couple of seconds to a couple of minutes to a couple of hours, etc – until the day, perhaps years later, when you realize that you do not have anymore the desire to scream, this is how mantra can become that lifeline on which you can pull, one centimeter at a time, even in the middle of a terrible storm.
February 2, 2012
What if, then, instead of denying these compliments, we use them to further hone our ability to play the music of God’s Word? If we are good at, say, writing, then who are we to keep ourselves from getting closer to God by using this talent? Then the compliment does not become a boost to the ego, but rather, a confirmation that we are using our talent to further our very purpose in life, that is, to know and to worship God.
January 14, 2012
I have been participating as a tutor in a Ruhi Book 5 study circle for over a month now. The book, Releasing the Power of Junior Youth, is a study in who we would want to be as youth/what kind of youth we would want the junior youth we are serving as animators to become, who the junior youth are and some ways of accompanying them to release their spiritual powers, powers that are inherent to all of humanity. One vital aspect of spiritual empowerment is to learn to control one’s insistent self.
During the study circle, one participant and I thoroughly enjoyed the imagery of the insistent self as a mole that keeps popping up and that we must continually whack down. But however much that image still makes me smile, and however much I relate to it (seeing the years I have been trying to whack my ego in place!), I have come to realize that perhaps one of the reasons for my inability to better control my ego is exactly because of this idea: that only violently the ego can be put in its place.
But perhaps a better image can be found in the Harry Potter series. What if the ego is like the three headed dog, rearing its heads and blocking us from our very own Chamber? If we learn to play the music of God’s Word, translating It into action, the dogs will be put to sleep and we will be successful in attaining that innermost Chamber, in which we will find God shining within us.
December 27, 2011
I have been a part of the Bahá’í community for a long time, and a curious phenomena has had me intrigued all these years: while the strength of the community is completely dependent on each one of us doing our best, we are, each one of us replaceable. It’s like each one of us is somewhere between Harry Potter, required to do great deeds beyond what we could even imagine, and ants working together, completely interdependent. It makes it all the more important to control one’s ego, so that we neither feel omnipotent nor impotent. Rather, our ego should be controlled in such a way that each act we make as part of the community-building process becomes potent.
February 12, 2011
I really like Lady Gaga’s new song for two reasons.
The first is that it’s so catchy. I have listened to it so many times I have lost count. I have the feeling it’s one of those songs that, years from now, will stay be playing on the radio and people will not be tired of hearing it. And like many of Madonna’s earlier songs, some of which this one seems to be a reflection of, it’s not going to feel too out of place.
The second is that it’s such a needed song nowadays. It’s a song that celebrates individuality without the implication that the ego has a place in it. We were all “born this way”, sings Lady Gaga, interspaced with “There’s nothin’ wrong with lovin’ who you are/She said, Cause He made you perfect, babe” and yet adds that “I’m on the right track, baby”, implying that movement and change are still implied, and that we can and should change.
Then again, it’s also a matter of perception. The ego has no place in a spiritual person’s journey, and the insistent self has to be silenced. Life is after all about worshipping God and not oneself. I agree that, as creatures of God, we should be proud that we were born a certain way and love that fact. But we shouldn’t remain content with who we are, but rather strive every day to become better, albeit a better version of ourselves, and not something or someone society tells us to be.
Perhaps Lady Gaga would consider writing a follow-up song called “Born this way (but put your ego aside)”?
Lady Gaga’s new song, “Born This Way”, was released on 11 February 2011, i.e. 11-02-2011 (love it!). She is set to perform it tomorrow night at the Grammys, and the video should be out soon. Stay tuned Sahar’s Blog for a link to a full review of the single, with more thoughts on individuality and the ego.