By Suma Varughese
When we seek to heal the world of misery, it is imperative that we are free of it ourselves. We cannot fight negativity with negativity. For darkness cannot be countered with darkness; it can only be erased through light.
Ever since I first awakened into spirituality in 1991, I have been consumed with a desire to heal the world of its misery. The intense joy that gripped me when I first understood the truths of life and my own deep unhappiness prior to that, sensitized me to the terrible sorrow of the human condition. In that first flush of insight and clarity, I could see how unnecessary unhappiness was and how possible to was to be free of it.
Yet, I have so far done nothing at all to further my avowed purpose in life. Misery spreads all around me like a vast canopy. Wherever I look and whatever I do, I see its wretched features everywhere. However, I have done nothing because in the intervening period between then and now, I have been single-mindedly devoted to one and just one task: to heal myself first.
In order to change the world, I am obliged to change myself first. Jesus Christ puts it trenchantly, ‘Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.’
Clarity of vision and insight. If we are to heal the world of its misery, we have great need of these. And they can only arise when we are free of that great deceiver, the self. As long as we are in the hold of the self with its self-centered needs, reactions and thoughts, we cannot see straight. The ego distorts and corrupts. That is its nature.
When I think of my own angry, reactive state of mind, I shudder to think of the damage I would have done had I ridden, Quixote-like, into battle with evil. When we seek to heal the world of misery, it is imperative that we are free of it ourselves. We cannot fight negativity with negativity. As the wise ones so profoundly observe, darkness cannot be countered with darkness; it can only be erased through light. The healer of the world must therefore be a harbinger of light. He or she must be able to withstand the most harrowing experiences of poverty, injustice, bloodshed, savagery and so on, without judgment or reaction; on the contrary, they should emanate love and compassion for both the victim and the villain. They must be able to move into the flood-affected areas of Mumbai, the war courts of Iraq and the famine-stricken lands of Orissa and Somalia with equanimity; they should be able to resolve bitter feuds, comfort a bereaved mother, tend to an ailing child, without any thought of the self coming between them and the compassionate action called for by the moment.
My favorite archetype of the compassionate healer is that of Shiva as Neelkanth. When the gods churned the ocean for amrit, and poison spilled out and threatened to destroy the world, they called upon Shiva to save them. And he did, by imbibing the poison himself. The venom was contained in his throat, which turned a corrosive blue, earning him the name of Neelkanth, Bluethroat. The healer of the world must be adept at slurping up negativity and containing it without damage to himself. How is this possible without the extensive inner work that alone can allow us to crest the ego and focus unfalteringly on the larger good?
Without inner change, our faulty motives, perspectives and misplaced actions can actually make things worse than they were. I have in my acquaintance many activists passionate about causes that range from feminism to environmentalism and animal rights. By and large, I have found them to be angry people. The problem is always with the other, never with themselves, and the solution is never within, it is always without. Their lamentable lack of self-knowledge manifests as a self-righteousness that creates huge resistance in those they target as the enemy. And of course, since they are still in the grip of negative feelings, politics, rivalry or disputes often torpedo their activism.
There is also the phenomenon of compassion fatigue. Unless we have transcended the zone of negativity through sustained inner work, it can be overwhelming to be exposed to the horrors of life. To be perennially uplifting the sick, the suffering and the helpless can pull us down into a negative spiral unless we are insulated by our own robust positivity.
For myself, I will wait until I am free of the machinations of the self before I set out on my crusade. But this brings me to the opposite side of the question. Why must I change the world at all? Why can’t I be content to bask in my own bliss? I could. And that would be fine. Many wise sages lead obscure lives in deep forests and mountain caves. By their very natures they cause goodness to bloom wherever they are. They charge the earth and air with their pure and pristine Self, and they substantially enhance collective consciousness by their presence.
However, interconnection is our very nature. We are One and the more powerfully we realize our essential unity and oneness, the more impossible it is to look away from the trials and travails of the world. Our sensitivity, empathy and intense awareness force us to engage with the sorrows and sufferings of the world. We cannot help but reach out. It is said that the Buddha was so immersed in the bliss of union that he never wanted to return to society. But the suffering earth gave voice and entreated him to return and heal its creatures.
Through enlightenment we have access to another way of being and seeing that can eliminate sorrow. With this knowledge in their grasp, most realized souls are impelled to engage with the world. They may have many ways of doing so, most notably through teaching.
There are others who feel empowered to render more active service. Great souls like Mother Teresa, Mata Amritanandamayi, Sathya Sai Baba and others have created a powerhouse of goodness with their compassionate work such as healing the sick, providing waterways for drought-stricken areas, creating educational and medical institutions, giving food for the hungry and shelter for the homeless.
Today, there is more need than ever to use the enlightened perspective to influence the emergence of new systems of social, economic and political action. The old ways, born out of a separatist and materialistic view of life, have generated tremendous conflicts and destruction. Man is pitted against himself, society and the environment. The earth is under a very real threat and the chances of us surviving as a species will depend on how quickly we can mend our ways and transform ourselves and society.
What then of the case for doing both simultaneously – helping the world and growing spiritually? Is that a valid option? It most certainly is. As long as we are under the guidance of an evolved or enlightened spiritual master, there is not too much risk of us doing the wrong thing in serving humanity. Through service we learn to reduce the ego, to put the interests of others ahead of our own, to earn good karma. True, our motivations will still be faulty, but the guru or teacher will be able to help us purify that. The Swadhyaya organization has done tremendous work to uplift rural sections of the country by using seva as a process of self-study and growth. Through their services, thousands of alcoholics and other addicts have reformed and many villages have created self-sufficient social support systems that have freed them from the manipulations of political parties.
Another reason to actively pursue the path of service is that true happiness lies in the happiness of others. By focusing fully on the welfare of the world, one plumbs into a potent conduit of inner joy and happiness. When service is undertaken in a spirit of personal growth, its fruits are likely to be pure for ourselves and for others.
Whether we heal ourselves before healing others or whether we heal ourselves through healing others is perhaps a matter of personal preference.
The important thing is to know that in the welfare of others lies our own highest good.
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