Fatal Attraction Part 2: Illuminating the Shadow of our Past

Karnamrita Das

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(Fast forward sixteen years from the marriage spoken about in part 1.) This seemed like any typical San Francisco summer morning, foggy and cool, but it was anything but normal to Chris, who was going to do something he didn’t want to do, while his Dad, Johnny, was happy. They were driving to the courthouse for a divorce settlement. Parking, they walked up the stairs and into the building. John found the appropriate courtroom and they took their seats to wait their turn. Chris felt sick to his stomach and wished he could just run away, but knew he couldn’t, so instead, he retreated deeper into himself. It was like he wasn’t even there. Disassociation was how he survived childhood and it had served him well. While a good temporary protection strategy, it was a poor way to live at all times. Later in life, Chris would find his biggest challenge was learning to be present, and to feel, whether sadness or love, but depression became a way to be numb, though it gradually became his clue that something was wrong, very wrong.

For all practical purposes, the memory of this courtroom experience was gone, buried under the debris of pain and disappointment. He only knew it happened on the rare occasions his dad recounted how proud he was hearing that Chris, when asked by the judge, wanted to live with his father—which was totally untrue. Even though Chris couldn’t remember the last time his dad beat him, he still was afraid of him and on guard in case his father would become angry and hit him, so he didn’t speak his mind at court, or for that matter, much at all.

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For some time after the divorce Chris lamented to himself, “Why couldn’t I live with my mother like I wanted?” But after awhile he forgot what had happened and buried his rage. He was known as the “quiet type,” doing his best to blend in, ever on guard to avoid upsetting anyone, trying to dull the gnawing something inside himself that just wasn’t right. Being conditioned to think upsetting someone would bring pain he learned to read others to avoid displeasing them. Following the lead of others and being very cautious became the flow of his life.

The basic premise of this series is to posit that our greatest challenges, problems, reverses, difficulties, hurts, or pain, have the power to crush us (if we let them), or offer the greatest opportunity for personal and spiritual growth. Specifically here, I am speaking of our childhood, and how huge a shadow it casts on our life—which could be good or bad, or likely, a mixture. Our parents are instruments of our karma and are meant teach us valuable lessons for living our lives. Many people don’t really worry about this and simply live without a lot of deep introspection about how their past has shaped them, which isn’t a bad fact if one is happy and fulfilled.

However, when our life isn’t working we’re forced to look within ourselves and take personal responsibility—which is what I eventually did after unsuccessfully using the following non-strategies—like blaming others, or covering our pain with any number of numbing techniques such as addictions, distractions, or types of denial and avoidance. Most importantly, in the midst of some personal crisis or depression, we may seek the ultimate solution to all material problems by taking to a process of self-realization, as I attempted to do.
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In a perfect world my taking to bhakti would have enabled me to transcend the limits of my body, emotions, and mind, etc.—end of the story (and I wouldn’t be writing on this topic)—which is exactly what most devotees of my era thought would happen in a few short years. As it turned out, I didn’t have sufficient spiritual merit (bhakti sukriti) and blessings to practice bhakti purely, and so while I was greatly blessed in my 12 years living in various Krishna temples worldwide, I ultimately was impelled to deal with my past by combining spiritual practice with what could be called the conventional means of our times—namely counseling, self-help, and many types of energy healing.

From my years of introspection I found quite a few lose ends from my upbringing centered around unhealthy patterns and ways of dealing with myself and others. Growing up in pain, I could never have imagined that my parents and my life were meant to help me grow as a human being and take up spiritual practice. Things are not always what they seem on the surface and this is certainly true with our karma in the shape of life experiences. Spiritual practice can help us become conscious of major life lessons, though I have seen many devotes avoid this in the name of transcending the world. I know, as that is what I first did in my twenties.

If your life isn’t working and/or your relationships are in turmoil, you should use whatever means are available to find out why. You could just call it karma, or being punished, or as evidence to how bad you are, but these ideas aren’t very helpful in dealing progressively with your personal problems. And saying, as some people do, “That’s just the way I am,” isn’t a solution either. It may be the way you're conditioned to act, but this doesn’t mean you have to remain as you are now. Change is mandatory for material or spiritual growth, becoming the person you were born to be, and reaching higher than you thought you could. As I have often shared, change is hard work, and is painfully slow, but is also the key to happiness. Stagnation is a slow death, and there isn’t much different between a rut and a grave. How long can one tread water?
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I do believe we all need to live in the present and have goals to focus on, which is what I endeavor to do. Thus, I speak of my past and its lessons to encourage you to study your past, your parents, and family, as an aid to your living in your present as fully as possible, and to help you fully embrace your spiritual practices (sadhana) with full heart and attention. In my experience, unresolved life issues can take energy away from sadhana, impede healthy relationships, and keep us stuck in the lower stages of bhakti. Spiritual practice and obtainment are the ultimate solution to all our problems, and yet I have found there are many activities we can do that support our divine endeavors. I only share my experience and that of others I know, and you can try what we have done on for size. Whatever is favorable for bhakti should be accepted.

In any case, looking for the pearl in the irritation (how pearls are formed in oysters) is the lens through which I try to see my childhood, my parents, and all of life—or as Napoleon Hill, the great motivational teacher of the past has taught: "Every adversity, every failure, or every heartache carries with it the seed on an equal or greater benefit." I would go so far as to say that cultivating this attitude (looking for the good, or the blessing) is one of the most important keys to a successful, fulfilling, and happy life. Or to use another ol’ personal growth saying, “Our attitude determines our altitude,” whether we stay stuck in the mud of despair, or grow wings to reach our highest spiritual ideals. Certainly my guru Shrila Prabhupada taught this by his life’s example, and I find confirmation in the lives of great people and devotees. Krishna helps those who help themselves by humble, determined endeavor to be better, and who saturate their life with prayers to glorify the Lord and his devotees, and in also praying for inspiration, purity of purpose, and strength to persevere in a life of honesty, wisdom, and loving service! Continued in part 3: here is the link: http://www.krishna.com/blog/2014/02/3/fatal-attraction-part-3%E2%80%94ch...
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Common strategy

From my study and also speaking with my wife who is a therapist, the strategy I instinctively used to survive my childhood was rather a common one. In fact, I have heard from a number of readers that the way I described my "checking out," or not being emotionally present, could have been their childhood script. They have asked me for pointers on how I became more present in my adult life, which I fully intend to do. I don't know if I have any unique ways I accomplished this, but I will share what I did. One things I can say now is that the desire to change or in this case to be emotionally available and really present is a big key, since you can only deal with a problem by knowing you have one. Curiously, many people don't admit they have a problem, or find it too much work, or too painful a process.

I realized by some great fortune that if I was to have joy and be better able to give my attention and heart to chanting the holy name and the whole process of bhakti, I would have to do my emotional work in addition to continuing my (sadhana) spiritual practices--since doing our sadhana is meant to bring our unwanted habits to the surface of consciousness--if we let it, that is! Additionally, by awareness of my issues, I could pray to become better, or more present, and to overcome whatever was preventing me from making spiritual progress. This is also a key, pray for spiritual progress--how much do you really want it, and how much are you merely going through the motions, while you are still very materially comfortable or just stuck? Not to be too harsh with ourselves, but we need to be honest about where we are at, and do more to rise above our tendency for mediocrity, or being a religious or casual devotee.

I certainly make no claims to be perfect in being present or in being Krishna conscious, but I am way better than I was 25 years ago, and certainly much improved from childhood. My main reason for making the endeavor to write this series is to shed light on the inner mental/emotional work that many of us have to do, regardless of how long we have been chanting Hare Krishna. Certainly pure chanting will bring us everything we require both materially and spiritually, and we have examples of devotees who have done that, and yet we also see devotees struggling in their lives for want of doing this hard work in unraveling their past through guided introspection and other processes. At least this is my personal experience in my own life and it has been confirmed by hearing from my wife about the general issues of many of her clients.

common strategy

I am really encouraged after reading this.