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Choosing our Focus in The World of Duality—Is it Terrible or Wonderful, Horrible or Beautiful?

Karnamrita Das

(this blog is recorded on the full page: quick time player is needed; works best with Firefox or Explorer; if you are using Google Chrome it will automatically play, so if you don't want to listen, mute your speakers.)
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As my wife and I were preparing for a couple’s retreat we helped facilitate in Gita-nagari, Pennsylvania, last weekend, events conspired on our street to graphically demonstrate to me the importance of what we were teaching. I find that the power of focus often attracts lessons to demonstrate what we are thinking about, especially if we are teaching it. One important point in this blog is that what we focus on increases in power—like attracts like—whether we’re looking for the good or bad in the world, or in other people. Although I don’t share here exactly what we taught in our workshop, I speak in general about the importance of personal growth work—or the importance of self-examination and seeing our life issues clearly in order to spiritually advance and be the best person we can.

There are problems in the outer world and problems in our inner world. Both are important to deal with, though of the two, improving and purifying our inner landscape is most important, as it will help us in whatever work or service we do externally. The world reflects the consciousness of the people in it. We change the world one person at a time, and it always begins with ourselves. Thus if we improve the world, or our neighborhood, but don’t improve ourselves, our work is incomplete. Many persons and groups understand and teach this. The personal growth people who appear focused on material prosperity have taught me that it isn’t what one accomplishes, or how much money one accumulates, that is most important, but who we become in the process. Another way to say this is that in the pursuit of our life work or favorite cause, are we becoming more loving, kind, compassionate, and wise? What we keep in our heart, is what defines us, who we are, and who we become. Or, as the Bible teaches, “What profiteth a man if he gains the whole world yet suffers the loss of his eternal soul?”
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Concerning material conflicts and problems if we merely look at the news headlines—what to speak of reading articles or listening to various commentaries—about the world or one’s local situation one can become depressed or appalled. What is news today? The worst imaginable, or unimaginable, situations—meant to “shock and awe” us to get our attention away for the almost endless distractions modern society provides. Bad new sells or wakes us up to the extent we feel fear and/or dread. Since the media is in the business of gaining viewers for their advertisers, and not necessarily in presenting a true picture of life, they will emphasis what gains attention to their station or news outlet. Add to this the fact that many of us are so busy that we only can handle tiny sound bites—and sound bites greatly limit what is reported as news—mainly sensational, visual stories are emphasized. Though it is good to be “informed,” is it really being informed to mainly contemplate the worst in human beings interactions with one another? Is this really what is going on in your city or community or the world? If so pass a beer, or let’s escape to T.V, movies, computer games, sports, or any number of distractions from living our own life in joy!

As a contrast to focusing on bad news, one can simply take time to watch the clouds slowly moving across the sky. Every time, which is often, I look up at the clouds, I am amazed and awed at the grace and power of God. The sky is different every day, and from moment to moment. If I am out of sorts, or feel down, I merely have to spend a few minutes looking at the clouds to experience a positive change of state. Or I can take a little walk in the woods out my back door to the stream at the bottom of our land and be present to really notice my environment. The wonder of life and Nature! Plants grow, flowers bloom, butterflies drink flower nectar, the turkey vultures soar overhead, the crows stop by to take prasadam (spiritual food) set aside for the animals. Ah, the artistry of Krishna’s material energy, called his “inferior,” or “separated” energy to emphasize that the spiritual or “superior” energy is unimaginably more beautiful, infinite, wonderful, and every magnificently descriptive word. Part of our spiritual work is to see the divine in the world of matter.
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Some human beings, or should I say, the people in certain corporations and governments, want to improve on Nature or control it for their purposes, supposedly for our common good (doesn’t seem like they are doing a very good job of that)! We all use technology and benefit from it to some extent, but it’s also the main source of our ability to destroy the planet, one ecosystem, or species, at a time, at least in the hands of those big money interests, which unfortunately today, is in almost every field: government, corporations, education, health, medicine, law, and even religion. For a lot of people this is not news, yet that doesn’t make it less important! At the same time if we become depressed or apathetic in response to the world situation, then we have lost an opportunity for spiritual growth and connection—life’s ultimate benefit.

Therefore, for aware people, there are many noble causes to take up as our way of trying to improve the situation in our backyard, community, nation, or in the whole world. However, it is not less noble, and for me, is more essential, to be working to change our conditioned self for the better, and realize our soul, and its relationship to its Source, or God. For we Gaudiya Vaishnavas, spiritual practice, of which chanting the pure holy name and sadhu sanga are most powerful, is the ultimate method for change and healing. While controversial to some it is my personal experience and that of many others I know that additional methods are helpful to deal with our often troubled “Kali-yuga” [present age of quarrel and hypocracy] conditioning by becoming aware our “anarthas” or false values and unwanted habits. Such work means studying and using processes to lessen the inner conflicts which cause our mental discord and prevent our psychological balance and all-around wholeness. If we remain stuck in our anarthas, we will fail to realize our full potential on the human and spiritual level. We might consider such endeavors to improve, guided or assisted introspection, and while not bhakti per say, can be favorable for it.
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An important perspective for those of us who want to improve the world, is to understand that through our psychological lens we tend to project and thus notice in the world and other people what we have in our own hearts, like our personal deficiencies, darkness, and negative emotions. This is the meaning of the saying that we don’t see the world as it is, but as we are. Being so limitedly focused we may miss the most important problems to be tackled. In fact, the outer demons are much easier to notice and accept than those within ourselves. Though the two causes of turmoil, within and without, can both be worked on, our outer work should reflect our inner growth. Another way to say this is that if we don’t do our inner work of self-improvement, our outer work will be far less effective.

Those who don’t understand the importance of, or are reluctant to do, the inner work of introspection, fail to uncover and lessen their shortcomings. By ignoring and thus maintaining an unhealthy psychology they are the cause of much turmoil among their family, friends, “sanga,” or even in the world. I am aspiring to take up the work of helping devotees move through their anartha stage as part of my mission, and my writing is one way I try to do this. I find that so many get waylaid here, and are thus prone to offend others, be out of touch with their true gifts, and remain their own worst enemy (as I mentioned in my last blog). Unfortunately, instead of taking responsibility for their own lives, they may blame others for their problems and conflicts.

I’m not speaking of changing our natural personality, but of improving it, taking it to its highest and best potential. For devotees of Krishna, this includes changing the habits and thinking that are not favorable for bhakti. Changing for the better is the meaning of our spiritual practice and whatever will facilitate this must be accepted. We may evaluate the benefit of any process we employ by what my guru, Shrila Prabhupada taught: “phalena pariciyate” or "judge by the results."
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