Back To Godhead - Thanks For Being Such a Pain

"Later I'll be able to understand that Sam is Krsna's instrument
to test my spiritual ideals, but now Sam is really upsetting me."

As I drive the forklift to pick up more freight to load onto the truck, my coworker Sam watches me with a disdain obvious from his body language scowling, arms folded, rigid like a statue.

His demeanor confirmed my inkling of the mood he might be in today when I smelled alcohol on his breath and heard his out-of-character kidding around. From experience, my other co-workers and I looked knowingly at each other, sensing he might be even more difficult than usual to work with.

On a "good day"when everything goes the way he thinks it should he's tolerable. Unfortunately for him, and potentially for me, this day is not going well. According to him, Friday is supposed to be an easy day, but this one isn't and it's my fault. Since I'm doing my job right and getting the oldest freight first, we have a huge shipment with many small packages and odd-shaped pieces. This makes loading the truck difficult and time-consuming.

Though today he is obviously more unhappy and angry than usual, he says nothing about his feelings. This creates a tension between us that feels like a thick fog. His current behavior shows why no one wants to work with him.

Later I'll be able to understand that Sam is Krsna's instrument to test my spiritual ideals, but now Sam is really upsetting me. Anger wells up inside me. Provoked by his negativity and unspoken criticism, I make the mistake of confronting his lousy attitude. I say something about his poor work ethic, and he bristles defensively, his face flushing.

Telling me how hard he has worked in his life, for so many more years than I, he asks me, "Who do you think you are?" peppered with some unprintable curse words.

Fortunately, before I can answer he says that he doesn't want to argue and walks away in a huff. That saves the situation from getting ugly.

The Positive and Negative Effects of Anger

According to Bhagavad-gita, anger is one of the three gates leading to hell. If it's not resolved or purified, one's knowledge becomes clouded. This may cause one to act impulsively, violently, and without intelligence.

Our heated exchange leaves me shaken, and I retreat into the office. I sit quietly and breathe deeply. I pray that Krsna helps me let go of anger and come to a more mode-of-goodness, peaceful state, so I can gain insight. Why did I become so angry, and what does my reaction tell me about myself? In any conflict where I lose my composure, I have to understand that the issue is really about me and not the other person. I can't do much to change someone else, but I can change myself and how I respond.

After some time, by the Lord's mercy I feel some clarity and calmness by intensely and prayerfully chanting Hare Krsna. I think about the energy of anger. Anger isn't always bad. It has its rare application in devotional service, as when for the Lord's purpose the devotee/warriors Arjuna or Hanuman used their righteous anger against aggressors. Anger can sometimes motivate us to take necessary action we might not otherwise take.

The important things to consider when questioning the appropriateness of our anger are what provoked it and the result of its application. Arjuna became angry against unrighteous persons acting against the Lord's desire, and the result of his anger was to reestablish dharma. My anger arose from my material consciousness and caused me to further forget Krsna, and thus myself. But the outcome was positive: I became introspective and realized that I had instigated our heated exchange by my defensiveness and lack of self-control.

The Most Effective Psychology

Although I know the value of techniques of psychology and anger management to lessen negative reactions to conflict, they must be combined with self-realization (working to understand our soul beyond the body) to be most effective. Praying, reading scripture, and chanting the holy names are recommended to help purify our material tendencies and awaken our true spiritual nature. We should also find, serve, and hear from a competent guide or guru we can trust, one who exemplifies the teachings of the scriptures and can give us relevant spiritual perspectives. Hearing from the guru about our conditioned state in the modes of material nature and about the process of Krsna consciousness can help us meet the challenges in life. By assimilating such instructions, we can learn to think and act differently. Then we can gradually be more caring and empathetic, gain understanding, and thus be less reactive.

The more we identify with the demands of the body and the material ego, the more we risk friction in our dealings with others. In our eternal identity, we understand the oneness and equality of all souls in relationship to Krsna. We naturally desire everyone's welfare, seeing their suffering and happiness as our own. Being a devotee means to practice working in this spirit even in our materially conditioned state.

How can we work for the betterment of others? The ideal way is to share spiritual insight according to each person's receptivity. Giving kindness and respect is always important and can be practiced in any circumstance, if not externally then at least internally.

Although we may know we should do this, we may not want to when we feel offended, angered, or abused by someone. Even though sometimes we can't condone someone's behavior, we can pray that our heart may become favorably disposed toward that person and that we may understand his or her perspective. On our own this may seem impossible, yet we can rest assured that with Krsna's help all obstacles can be removed and anything is possible. When we make the endeavor to sincerely serve Him, the Lord carries what we lack and preserves what we have (Bhagavad-gita 9.22).

Reflecting on Sam's personality and beliefs, I know our problem working together comes not only from his unhappy, critical, and negative personality, but also from his being openly critical of religion (and of life and almost anyone at times). He says that he is mad at God for killing his brother, who was murdered. Since I'm a religious person, he directs his anger toward me, mocking my chanting and speaking ill of my taking time to pray. He doesn't do these things to my face but to others, from whom I hear about them. This fact added to my negative reaction to him.

Beyond the Blame Game

His tendency, which we all have at times, is to blame life and others for his problems and suffering. Thinking of his nature, and my apparent suffering from our interaction, I remember the many discussions in the Bhagavatam that describe the real cause of our suffering. The narrations in the scripture are meant to stimulate deep thought and convince us of our real spiritual identity beyond the body. The soul is unaffected by material conditions and suffering. Taking shelter of Krsna and His pure devotees brings us real peace and happiness and eventually restores us to our eternal blissful nature.

In light of today's events, "The Song of the Avanti Brahmana," spoken by Sri Krsna to Uddhava, seems particularly poignant. Krsna spoke this section of the Bhagavatam in response to Uddhava's question as to how it is possible to be unaffected by provocation from others' criticism, harsh speech, or activities that harm one's body or means of livelihood.

Long ago, a brahmana became wealthy from agriculture and commerce but hoarded his money for no one's benefit. His miserly actions and mentality offended both his family and the demigods, the agents of the Lord. As a result he gradually lost everything and was rejected by his family.

The Blessings of Life's Reverses

Feeling great pain and lamentation at his misfortune, the brahmana reflected on his life. By his previous piety he could see the turn of events in his life in a spiritual way, and a powerful feeling of renunciation awoke within him. In this state he could understand that no external agent causes one suffering, but only one's materially conditioned mind.

The brahmana's realizations transferred into his practical life, and he gave up all material pursuits and dedicated his life to the service of God. He prayed with determination, "I shall cross over the insurmountable ocean of nescience by being firmly fixed in the service of the lotus feet of Krsna." He no longer blamed anyone for what he had experienced in life.

Although our material difficulties and good fortune are the result of our impious and pious acts, ultimately God is in control. So this devotee brahmana now saw God in every situation, and in all his dealings with others.

Such a vision helped him remember and depend on Krsna and thus advance spiritually. When we are on the path of surrender to God, Krsna takes an active part in our life.

Being Krsna conscious, the brahmana could tolerate others' insults and harsh behavior, seeing these as external to his soul. The fortunate brahmana realized that the purpose of life was self-realization and that the material world only seems to have problems because of our attachments to selfish enjoyments and material outcomes.

Practical Application of The Scriptures

For scriptural stories to have their intended effect, we must do more than just read them a few times. We must also think deeply about their meaning, discuss then with other devotees, and apply them in our lives. To receive the most benefit, our hearts must be purified by dedicating our life to the service of Krsna and remembering Him in all circumstances. Without purification of the heart, spiritual understanding will escape us, and we will feel victimized by life.

Trying to apply such instructions, I reflect on my own nature. Though in general I'm calm, tolerant, and even-tempered, today's events showed me that I'm far from being totally free from material vision. On the positive side, years of spiritual practice have made a huge difference in enabling me to better relate to even difficult people. I try to act on the knowledge that regardless of who a person appears to be on the outside, everyone is a pure soul within, part of Krsna, and therefore worthy of respect and kindness.

The old adage "practice makes perfect" is so true. But because practice means to often fall short, patience is required. To be successful in any undertaking, we must keep trying with determination in the face of setbacks and depend on Krsna to help us.

With the right attitude, every person can be our teacher, showing us how or how not to act, and every situation or relationship is an opportunity to practice spiritual ideals. Spiritual life is meant to be practiced "24/7"not only in our place of worship.

We can observe our tendencies when we deal with others. Do we criticize or condemn, or do we appreciate and look for the good? Are we able to respond by choice, or do we automatically react harshly to behavior or words that upset us?

If we're always alone or have no dealings with others, we'll be unable to answer these questions. We could very well be deluded about our level of spiritual advancement if we live only in our mental understanding of ideal character. But in the association of others, our character is revealed.

The Importance of Bad Association

Though the scriptures extol the virtue and importance of sadhu sanga, or saintly association, it is in the company of people who exhibit less than ideal behavior who "push our emotional buttons"that we are tested to apply the instructions of saints and the scriptures. Such people can be some of our best teachers.

For me, Sam is in that category. He unknowingly gave me valuable feedback on how I needed to change. I was unable to give him spiritual instructions or resolve our differences, yet our dealings improved because my attitude toward him softened with more compassion and love through understanding. I have been able to be less reactive in the possible areas of friction between us.

A common tendency is to assign the blame for a conflict to the other side. When someone upsets us or disagrees with us, it's easy to call that person names. But such a superficial ego-based vision will not solve the problem, reduce our suffering, help our spiritual advancement, or benefit the object of our unkind label. Although experiencing difficulty with a person may be labeled as only as a testimony of the miseries of material existence, the greater lesson is to understand how our angle of vision has created our perception of misery. If we fail to see this, we have missed a real opportunity for spiritual growth.

How we view people is really a choice, and it doesn't have to be dictated by whether we like them or not. This realization comes by applying a spiritual outlook in our dealings with others and seeing how this lessens our suffering in adversity. For a practitioner of bhakti-yoga the universe is friendly, because behind every situation or person is the loving hand of God (Krsna), working to help us spiritually advance. By accepting and developing this perspective, our whole life will change.

From the spiritual view we are in each other's lives to help each other. There are no accidents or chance meetings. God's universe is purposeful, and nothing is wasted. Every encounter with another person presents an opportunity to apply spiritual principles and reveals, to those willing to learn, the aspects of our character that need to be reformed.

When we are illuminated from our spiritual practice, we can separate ourselves from our conditioned reaction or only external vision. Then we can find value in people who especially irk us, whether they are friends, family, or strangers, and can sincerely say, "Thanks for being such a pain."

Karnamrta Dasa, a disciple of Srila Prabhupada since 1970, lives with his wife, Arcana-siddhi Devi Dasi (a frequent contributor to BTG), in Baltimore, Maryland. He works for a logistics company and, along with his wife, conducts therapy and workshops for couples.