Becoming a More Spiritual Person Part 2

Part 2 of 3 - Bodhinatha continues his second class during Guru Purnima, talking about becoming a more spiritual person and how we can do that through learning from our mistakes. This process is often inhibited by the idea that somehow we are not supposed to make mistakes. But that's not true. We need to spiritually benefit from our mistakes. Bodhinatha talks about the typical reactions to mistakes and the importance of moving beyond feelings of remorse into a stage of learning from the mistake and resolving to not make the mistake again. Penance may also be needed to rid ourself of feeling bad about what we did.

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Questions? Bodhinatha is the successor of "Gurudeva," Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami. If you have questions on subjects about spiritual life you will find answers in Gurudeva's books and teachings. Learn about ways to study these teachings by visiting The Master Course site or writing to mastercourse@hindu.org.

Unedited Transcript:

Continuing our subject that we were on yesterday, we have a couple of new areas. The subject was becoming a more spiritual person and how we can do that.

Yesterday we looked at the yama of ahimsa, the first yama and we were looking specifically at the refined areas of it because no one here goes around hitting people. It is not a question of such simple physical violence. The group here is way beyond physical violence. But that does not mean we cannot improve in upholding the yamas.

So, we were talking yesterday about how often we hurt people with our words and also how we hurt people with our words because we have gotten angry. Therefore, controlling anger is an important part of fulfilling ahimsa.

Today we are moving to a new area, which is learning from our mistakes. Becoming a more spiritual person through learning from our mistakes.

I will read from an Editorial in 'Hinduism Today', a couple of issues ago.

For all of mankind, no matter where one is are on the 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. Supervisors at work yell at workers when they make a mistake. No wonder many adults feel terrible when they make a mistake. Therefore, to spiritually benefit from our mistakes, we need a new attitude toward them which Gurudeva describes as, "Mistakes are wonderful opportunities to learn."

Mistakes are wonderful opportunities to learn. The story I give to try and impress that 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, almost burns the house down. So, the wife calls up the husband and says, "Dear, you will be so happy to hear this news. Our son made this huge mistake today. He almost burned the house down. Isn't this wonderful? He has such a wonderful 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?"

Okay, by the smiles ... you get point that unfortunately parents don't think that way! These are parents of a rare breed.

Usually, it is just a question of punishment. But punishment misses the point, if it does not go along with a teaching so that you are helping the child learn how not repeat the mistake. Quite often, punishment is all that happens but the important point is 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 parent. The child made a mistake because the parents didn't 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 and why the mistake occurred and find a way to not repeat the mistake in the future. Perhaps, we were not being careful enough, and so, resolving to being more careful next time will prevent the problem from occurring. Perhaps, we didn't know something and now we have that knowledge and can simply resolve to use that knowledge next time. Perhaps, we created unintended consequences that caused significant problems to us or others and now that we are aware of the consequences, we certainly won't repeat the action. Those that are striving to live a spiritual life are self-reflective and learn quickly from their mistakes. 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 mistakes.

Quite often, I get an email in from someone who made a mistake and they are saying, "Oh, I should not have done this."

I mentioned this the other day. Of course, that is just getting stuck at the first level of reaction. "I should not have done this. I am sorry." But 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 it is how we progress on the spiritual path, because the spiritual path is a series of experiences and sometimes we make mistakes. If we can learn from those mistakes and learn to not make them again, then we progress. If we are constantly making the same mistake over and over and over again, we are not progressing. So, there is nothing wrong with making the mistake. We don't want to say, "I should not have made the mistake." We want to say, "I should not make the same mistake again."

We will come back to that point in a minute.

A third reaction may be needed if the mistake involved other people. Perhaps, we have hurt their feelings or created a strain between us. A direct apology can fix this, if we know the 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 them can adjust the flow of feelings back into a harmonious condition. For example, hold a small dinner party and include them among the guests. That is the third reaction. If we make a mistake and it has upset other people, we have to fix that upset. It is more than just ourselves involved.

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 not to repeat the misdeed, 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 our self. Typical forms of penance are to fast, perform a 108 prostrations before the Deity or walking prostrations up the sacred path or around the temple.

Here is a nice story. A young couple was here recently and the wife was explaining how she had been raised and one of the practices that the whole family did including the kids when they went to Tirupati temple was they would get up at 3:00 in the morning, bathe in their clothes and then roll around the temple in their clothes. This was even the young children. I was quite impressed. That is prayaschitta.

So we have a five-minute exercise. Our spirit here is, trying to improve our behavior. In this case, take five minutes and look for one or more significant mistakes you have made in the last few years, that you have not yet thought about how to avoid repeating. Look for a mistake, a significant one, in the last couple of years and you have not yet thought of this question, "How can I avoid doing this again?" Then, see if in five minutes you can figure out a way not to repeat the mistake. Through applying new knowledge or some understanding, through understanding unintentional consequences, figure out how you can avoid doing it again. Okay, so we will take five minutes on that.