Publicly, everyone makes fun of pathetic people who flock to self-help sections of book stores or download inspirational audiobooks for listening in their cars. I think they themselves realize how silly it all looks and would rather not admit it to anyone but their closest friends.
The reason is simple – it displays weakness. Same reason “tough” guys reject shrinks, they imagine they can sort our their mental problems on their own. They don’t need motivational speeches either, they see themselves as well-adjusted and confident in their abilities already.
Well, not everyone is tough, and, as I discussed yesterday, life in the modern society puts enormous stress on people to behave in a certain way and they don’t have the luxury not to comply. If they don’t feel like enthusiastically jumping out of bed to slave away yet another day they need someone to whip them up in shape.
Self help and self improvement workshops are a big business and one of our favorites, too – there are plenty of devotees and near-ISKCON people who make living by holding such seminars. There are devotees who bring these ideas back to ISKCON and try them on devotees, too. I am not a fan.
Mostly it’s because people go to motivational seminars with materialistic expectations in pursuit of materialistic goals, not in search of Kṛṣṇa consciousness and renunciation, and the speakers have to oblige. It’s not the worst way to make money but when they bring these seminars back they also bring attitudes and flavors. You can smell this borrowed content miles away no matter how well it is diluted by Kṛṣṇa conscious sounding words. The innate, fundamental desire to be in control and to be successful can’t be washed off.
That is not to say that devotees do not need motivational speeches, in fact that’s all we live for – hearing stories about Kṛṣṇa and His devotees that would increase our faith and inspire us to improve our service. So what’s the difference?
So far I go only by attitudes. If it smells like taking control of our lives and making ourselves better performers then it’s just not right. Wrong on so many levels I don’t know where to begin.
First of all, we are never in control of our lives. Kṛṣṇa is, material nature is, our karma is, we are just there along for the ride. I don’t want to start another debate on free will but, essentially, free will can only be exercised by liberated souls. We aren’t liberated, we don’t see our true spiritual nature, don’t know our spiritual identity, so we can’t seriously talk about making free decisions, we are conditioned by too many things.
The meaning of our mahā mantra is to ask Kṛṣṇa to engage us in His service, not to take control of it ourselves. We can’t seriously consider influencing Kṛṣṇa either, who are we to lecture Him on how to control our conditioned lives?
The illusion of becoming better performers is also only an illusion. It doesn’t not deliver bhakti, does not evoke devotion. We can’t claim spiritual rewards and recognition for doing things better than others. We can certainly fool our fellow devotees and our management but we can’t fool Kṛṣṇa. He knows that we “perform” only to impress others and look good ourselves. He will probably help us, too, if that’s what we want, but why should we waste our time on such empty pursuits?
That is not to say that forcing ourselves to do our sādhana better and better is useless. It isn’t, but it has to be done with a proper attitude – not to impress Kṛṣṇa, not to impress other devotees, not to impress our guru, but to carry his orders to the best of our abilities (we can’t directly please Kṛṣṇa yet).
There’s a point, however, beyond which we shouldn’t push ourselves too hard. We should not appear holier than we really are. It’s a tricky balance and that’s why I don’t want our “self-help” devotees to stop with their seminars – even a little genuine progress towards bhakti would justify all wasteful efforts, can’t throw the baby out with the water.
Our desire to be unduly motivated manifests in other ways, too. We need affirmations of our chosen paths, we aren’t pure enough to have internal strength against external criticism yet. We make quite a lot of commitments in our devotional life and we want to be sure we made the right choices.
Those who moved to Vṛndāvana, for example, need to be sure that they are in the right place. Of course they are in the right place, one would think, but our mission is to preach, our orders are to go out in the streets and introduce people to Kṛṣṇa. You can’t do that in Vṛndāvana. It might be our spiritual home but our current orders are different.
I’m sure devotees who chose to reside there are very adept at explaining it away, and in that they rely on help from each other. If you happen to drop in on their conversations you would notice that they are talking to convince and justify themselves, not necessarily about Kṛṣṇa’s interests. You might hear it even in Bhāgavatam classes.
In some communities devotees use Bhāgavatam classes to promote their sides of controversial stories. It could be about female dīkṣā gurus, it could be about bhakti-fests, it could be about Kṛṣna West, it could be about dynamic preaching vs conservatism, it could be pro- or against varṇāśrama and so on. I hope most of the time Bhāgavatam speakers are careful not to take sides but sometimes, if the audience is one sided, too, they let it rip.
What has it got to do with Kṛṣṇa? Does it please Him in any way? Bhāgavatam classes are saṅkīrtana, meaning glorification of the Lord, we should not use this time to try and prevail over fellow vaiṣṇavas.
There are less controversial issues, too. Take maṅgala-ārati, for example. Everyone in our temples must attend morning programs so it’s okay to encourage people not to miss them. The downside, however, is that it’s again about us, not about Kṛṣṇa. Some people need to hear it, some people don’t, but Kṛṣṇa probably stops listening.
There are other ways we want to affirm our way of life as members of ISKCON community, too. It helps us, it’s legitimate, but it’s still about us. What about devotees who live their lives slightly differently? Those who worship their own Deities would be interested to hear how others manage it but those who don’t would quickly lose interest, for example. Book distributors can be fairly annoying, too. They are doing a great service but they can’t expect everyone else to share their problems and concerns. We should take interest in book distribution anyway but if it goes against our own conditioning we’d rather hear about something else.
All in all, I think we should be careful not to use time allotted for glorification of Kṛṣṇa to make us feel better about ourselves, to improve our lives, to improve our service. We need to do it elsewhere in a more appropriate company.
OTOH, anything that makes us serve better in whatever way we choose is welcome, too. Balance is tricky, but no one would ever complain about Bhāgavatam classes that concentrate solely on Kṛṣṇa, His devotees, and their pastimes. You can’t go wrong with those, much safer than promoting your own agenda, no matter how devotional it might appear.