Learning from Mistakes

Everybody makes mistakes, but only the spiritually inclined can turn them into knowledge and progress. Here's how.

Unedited Transcript:

Today's talk is another in the series for Mauritius. As I mentioned, a series of 12 talks used in Mauritius in two ways. One is at the first Sunday of the month Homa. Part of this is to give talk. so it can be used there and secondly, Dr. Pillai of Vanakkam a monthly newspaper wanted to give us a full page. The magazine has a huge circulation and this can be used there as well. This one is talk we have given a number of times.

'Learning from our Mistakes'

Since September 11, there have been increased statements by Western condemning some men as being evil and extolling others as being good. This, of course, is not the Hindu perspective. But since we hear these statements so often, it is good to take time to reflect on the Hindu point of view regarding good and evil to make sure our and our children's thinking on the matter remains uninfluenced by Western philosophical thought regarding the nature of man.

The Hindu viewpoint is that all of mankind is good, none is evil. We are all divine beings, souls created by God. In fact, we are all one family. Vasudhaiva kutumbakam, "The whole world is one family." Each soul is emanated from God, as a spark from a fire and begins a spiritual journey which eventually leads back to God. All human beings are on this journey, whether they realize it or not, and of course, the journey spans many lives. If all are on the same journey, why then, is there such a disparity between men?

Clearly, some act like saints and others act like sinners. Some take delight in helping their fellow men while others delight in harming them. The Hindu explanation is that each of us started the journey at a different time. Thus some are at the beginning of the spiritual path and are young souls, while others are near the end and are old souls. Our Paramaguru, Gnanaguru Sivayogaswami, in speaking to his devotees would describe life as a school, with some in the M.A Class and others in the kindergarden and he gave to each according to his advancement.

Man's nature, as we know, can be described as three-fold: spiritual, intellectual and instinctive. It is the instinctive nature, the animal-like nature, which contains the tendencies to harm others. Men who are expressing these tendencies are young souls who need to learn to harness this force. Thus, the Hindu approach to such a man is not to label him evil, but rather to focus on helping him learn to control his instincts and improve his behavior. Gurudeva describes this in an insightful way: "People act in evil ways who are not yet in touch with their soul nature and live totally in the outer, instinctive nature. What the ignorant see as evil, the enlightened see as the actions of low-minded and immature individuals."

Important insights into the soul's maturing process can be gained by looking at the three shaktis of God Siva -- iccha, the power of desire; kriya, the power of action; and jnana, the power of wisdom -- which are also the three powers of the soul. We first have a desire. When the desire becomes strong enough, we act. In young souls the action may be ill-conceived and adharmic. For example, we want a computer, so we simply steal one. Money is needed, so we rob a bank.

The soul is repeating a cycle of similar experiences, moving back and forth from desire to action, desire to action. In the case of the adharmic action of stealing, eventually the soul will learn the lesson that this is not the best course of action to take way to acquire possessions. This learning is the jnana shakti, wisdom coming in and causing one's behavior to improve.

This process also works for dharmic actions, as well. We are working out as a volunteer at the temple and teaching children's classes once a month. We like the feeling it gives us in helping others. and decide to help out every week. Therefore, the jnana is to decide to give even more of it and thus, feel more joyful. Thus, we have again improved our behavior.

For all of mankind, no matter where one is on the spiritual path, spiritual advancement comes from improving one's behavior. Said another way, it comes from learning from one's mistakes. Unfortunately, this process is often inhibited by the idea that somehow we are not supposed to make mistakes. We grow up being scolded for our mistakes by our parents. Some teachers ridicule students when they make mistakes. No wonder many adults feel terrible when they make a mistake. To spiritually benefit from our mistakes, we need a new attitude toward them. Gurudeva described mistakes as, "wonderful opportunities to learn."

Those who are parents can teach their children that making mistakes is not bad. It is natural, and simply shows we do not understand something. Mistakes are wonderful opportunities to learn. The story I give to try and impress this point is of a young family. The wife is at home, taking care of the five-year old, and the five-year old makes some horrendous mistake and almost burns the house down. So the wife calls her husband and says, "You will be so happy to hear this news. Our son almost burned the house down. Isn't this wonderful? He has such a great opportunity to learn such an important lesson, and I wanted you to think about it on your way home. What lesson do we need to teach him so he does not make this mistake again?"

Of course, you all get the point, which is that, unfortunately, most parents don't think this way! Usually, it is only a question of punishment. But punishment misses the point if it does not go along with a teaching that will help the child learn how not to repeat the mistake. Quite often, punishment is all that happens. The important point is that the child does not know something. Otherwise, he never would have made the mistake. There is some knowledge the child is missing and the parents need to figure out what that knowledge is. It is fine to punish the child in a reasonable way, but it has to be done without emotion and coupled with trying to help the child not repeat the mistake through figuring out what the child needs to learn. Of course, whose responsibility is it to teach the child? It is the parents' responsibility. The child made the mistake because the parents did not teach the child about something. That is the point.

Moving on, we have four reactions to making a mistake. A common first reaction to having made a mistake is to become upset that we made the mistake, get emotional about it, or if it is a serious mistake to become quite burdened and even depressed. That is a natural first reaction, but if it is our only reaction, it is not enough. We need to deal with the emotional reaction to the action and move on to the learning stage.

Thus a good second reaction to a mistake is to think clearly about what happened, why the mistake occurred and find a way to not repeat the mistake in the future. Perhaps we were not being careful enough, and resolving to be more careful next time will prevent the problem from re-occurring. Perhaps we did not know something and now we have that knowledge. We can simply resolve to use that knowledge next time. Perhaps we created unintended consequences that caused significant problems to us or others. Now that we are aware of the consequences, we certainly won't repeat the action.

Those who are striving to live a spiritual life are self-reflective and learn quickly from their blunders. In fact, one way to tell a young soul from an old soul is to observe how quickly he learns not to repeat the same mistake.

Quite often, I get an e-mail in from someone who made a mistake and they are saying, "Oh, I should not have done this." Of course, this is just getting stuck at the first level of reaction. "I should not have done this, I am sorry." I encourage them to move on to the second level and instead of saying, "I should not have done this," to say, "I should not do it again." That is the point we are striving for: not to simply feel sorry that we made a mistake, but to commit to not making it again or, at least, trying not to make it again.

Taking that step is being self-reflective and is how we progress on the spiritual path, because the spiritual path is a series of experiences. Sometimes those experiences cause a few mistakes. If we can learn from those mistakes and we can learn not to make them again, then we progress. If we constantly make the same mistakes over and over and over again, we are not progressing. So, there is nothing wrong with making a mistake. We should not simply say, "I should not have made the mistake." We want to move on to the point where we say, "I should not make the same mistake again."

A third reaction to having made a mistake may be needed if our mistake involved other people. Perhaps we have hurt someone's feelings or created a strain between us. A direct apology can fix this if we know the other person well. However, in many situations, we are not close enough to the individual to be able to apologize. In that case, a generous act towards that person can adjust the flow of feelings back into a harmonious condition. For example, hold a small dinner party and include them among the guests.

A fourth reaction may be needed if the mistake is a major misdeed. For example, if we did something that was dishonest. in this case, even though we have resolved to not repeat the misdeed and apologized to those involved, we may well still feel bad about having done it. In this case, we need to perform some form of penance, prayaschitta, to rid ourselves of the sense of feeling bad about ourselves. Typical forms of penance are to fast, perform 108 prostrations before the Deity, or "walking prostrations" up a sacred path or around a temple.

In conclusion, whether a man's actions are evil or good, he is a divine being, a soul created by God. Let the focus not be on categorizing men as good or evil but on encouraging all to improve their behavior, learn from their mistakes and move forward on the spiritual path that returns us to God. Each of the talks has something to do at the end, go home from the Spiritual Park and do something that week.

This week look for one significant mistake you made in the last few years that you have not yet thought about how to avoid repeating. Through applying new knowledge or new understanding, or identifying unintentional consequences that were created, figure out how you can avoid making the same mistake.

Aum Namah Sivaya!

Photo of  Gurudeva
A better word than death is transition, passing into a new form of life--life into life. It is similar to moving to a new country, having completed all of one's tasks. Death is a closing of the door on deeds well done, on all beneficial karmas.