Is it Working?

Mohini_on_a_swingOnce in a while, it’s important to stop and see if what we are doing is working. We meet once a week online, we read and discuss the verses, sometimes we argue vehemently over interpretations but at the end of each session we part feeling as though we’ve accomplished something meaningful. Like we’ve made some progress in figuring out who we are and where we’re going.

But are we? Are we truly any wiser when we sign off than when we signed on? Or do we mistake the satisfaction of having voiced our opinions and our doubts, for real understanding?

Too often I’ve been in groups and centers and meetings, where people gather with good intentions and noble goals. Too often, I’ve seen them disintegrate into sessions where members display their ego through pedantic knowledge, or become emotional over personal suffering, or simply descend into gossip and criticism, where gatherings in the name of meditation or worship or study turn into potlucks and gossip sessions and fashion shows, where spiritual progress becomes an arena for competition and one-upmanship. Even all this would be bearable, if the people involved were truly progressing as a result. But this is seldom the case.

So after 15 weeks of the Gita, I thought it best to pause and reflect on how far our little group has come. We have discussed becoming compassionately detached, we’ve vowed to master our egos and our desires, and we have decided to perform all our duties without regard to the fruit of our actions. How successful have we been in implementing these teachings and resolves? While I cannot speak for  others,  I can certainly look at my own state of mind and measure our success in terms of my progress.

Last week, my son called me with bad news. He had ruptured his plantar fascia, a tendon in his foot, which while not terribly serious, was enough to keep him from completing his surgery rotation since it involved standing for 15 hours a day. He was deeply disappointed and despite all efforts to convince the hospital that he could manage, was put on medical leave until his foot healed. This meant that his surgery rotation would be postponed and that he would have to complete another rotation during fourth year.

If this had happened just a few months ago, I would have been panic stricken. I would have added to my son’s disappointment by bemoaning his fate, by turns urging him to convince the director, and worrying myself to death over his foot and how he would manage alone on the opposite coast.

As it is, I was able to remain calm, to assure him that things would work out, and that he should balance the need to heal his foot with the need to complete his rotations. I like to think that while I may or may not have helped him by remaining calm, I at least didn’t upset him further.

How did I manage this superhuman feat? By reminding myself that we had discussed being compassionately detached. My son is not my possession but an individual atma on his own journey. Like all of us, he will face some disappointments and challenges in his life. He needs to continue doing his best without being devastated by obstacles. The only thing really in his or my power is to keep working toward our goals, while remaining calm despite the results.

I wrote last week about the ego. It is a topic that is especially dear to me since I tend to suffer from an overinflated sense of dignity. I take it very hard when people insult me or demean me or my loved ones in any way. But the Gita says we need to let things go, that it is our sense of self-importance that leads to hurt feelings and misery.

Well this week, I had a chance to put my humility and tolerance to the test. In my work for my nonprofit, I’ve had to face a few rebuffs, have had to ask for donations or favors and be either ignored or dismissed, much to my dismay. This week, I asked for a chance to publicize my fundraising event at another event and rather than simply refusing, the person decided to write me a very long letter detailing my presumptuousness, my unmitigated gall, and my complete lack of decency in making such a request. It was seriously one of the longest and most detailed emails I’ve read in some time. It laid out paragraph by paragraph why I didn’t deserve the privilege of being allowed to hand out flyers, how unworthy I was of such an honor and how selfish it was of me to try to hijack another event to publicize mine.

Now, I know myself. Just a few weeks ago, I would have burst a blood vessel at receiving such an unwarranted stream of insults. I would have fumed and fretted, made myself ill over the perceived injury and poured all the eloquence of my Ph.D. in English into writing a biting and vitriolic response that would shut my opponent up forever. I’m happy to say that I didn’t. Instead, I read it through a couple of times, acknowledged the other person’s viewpoint, was amused by the size of their ego and their territoriality, and moved on.

At the risk of feeding my own newly diminished ego,  I am quite proud of both these accomplishments. They may be small in the larger scope of things, but they prove to me that what we have been doing is actually working in our day to day lives. Real sadhana involves practicing what we study, living it on a daily basis. Other group members have shared similar stories with me over the past few weeks, their increasing ability to let go, to remain calm, to be more forgiving.

As a group of women working hard to understand how to live a happy, productive life and maintain mental peace while making spiritual progress, we seem to be making tiny strides forward week by week. And despite my best efforts to heed the Gita and remain unmoved by pain or by pleasure, I have to admit that this fact makes me extraordinarily happy.

Image: Raja Ravi Varma [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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