One of the things I find delightful about writing is the way it helps me shape my views. In a recent email exchange with my friend, Larry Berkelhammer, PhD, I began by offering advice but ended up changing my opinion. Much of the text that follows is excerpted from that conversation. (Larry, by the way, has recently started a new blog on PsychCentral.com: In Your Own Hands. He has given me permission to share the details of our conversation.)
In recent essays on this site, I’ve attacked our culture’s obsession with productivity. In an email, I offered to Larry the ideas I’ve been exploring, since he was struggling with feelings of inadequacy. But his responses helped me see that my rejection of the productivity ethic was motivated, in part, by frustration. Since I find it hard to make a difference in the world, I feel tempted to reject the need to try.
By citing the example Gandhi, who worked tirelessly to evolve spiritually but also remained committed to societal change, Larry reminded me that it isn’t enough to simply attain peace of mind. One feels an obligation to help others do the same.
Our email exchange coincided with my hearing a talk by Karen Armstrong, wherein she emphasized the need for engagement, for assisting others out of compassion. She cited the legend of the Buddha, who after enlightenment wanted to withdraw and simply bask in a state of Nirvana. According to Buddhist mythology, the god of gods implored the newly awakened one to be compassionate, to help others move beyond suffering. In response, the Buddha devoted the remaining four decades of his life to the effort.
Lately I’ve been grappling with the contrast between how liberated from my prior neurosis I feel, and how difficult it is for me to spread the message of this freedom. I feel tempted to give up, yet both Armstrong’s words and Larry’s reaction make that seem like the wrong choice.
Perhaps the solution to my dilemma can be found in the Hindu concept of karma yoga. In the Bhagavad Gita we are charged to do our best without concern about success or failure. We are responsible only for the effort, not the results.
The more disciplined and energetic among us will appear more successful from the outside. Fatigue, pain, and ill health will make external success more difficult. But by the metric of karma yoga, what matters isn’t outside; rather, it’s within.
My task is to do my best as I teach and write. I work hard on the human biology lectures I deliver at a yoga institute. I hope teaching young people about their bodies will help them become good yoga instructors and to lead lives of greater clarity. In my blogging, I try to offer inspiration to others; it’s been gratifying when on a few occasions readers have credited me with helping them gain insight. But all I can do is present my lectures and essays to the world. Whether they have any good effect or not is outside my control.
I wish I could do more. I hope to build up capacity, or at least to find ways to make the amount of work I do have a greater impact. But in the recent email exchange I realized that it’s vital for me to avoid feeling too frustrated. It is therefore essential that I not judge myself by the the splash I make in the world. Rather, the emphasis must be on my progress in personal development, my intention to help others, and my sincerity in teaching and writing. The key is to focus not on what others see from the outside, but on what I know to be true on the inside.
The externals offer only flimsy support for a personality. If one depends on outward show for inward stability, one remains insecure. No success feels quite good enough, or leads to feelings that last long enough. One must always grasp for more. During my years of training at a major medical center, I knew many highly successful doctors who—despite widespread acclaim—still appeared desperate to justify their worth. On the other hand, we all have known people who are very helpful to others but almost invisibly so. They aren’t writing books or going on speaking tours, just doing what they can without being obvious about it. Yet they seem satisfied with their personalities and activities.
I’ve felt like rejecting our culture’s ethic of productivity because of all the toxicity it generates. But the email conversation with Larry helped me see that the culture is right insofar as it encourages helping others. The danger is in believing productivity best measured by outward criteria. It isn’t. It’s best measured by inward sincerity, compassion, dedication, and so on.
The problem is that this culture conditions us to measure worth by external metrics that are nearly impossible to satisfy. Is it really true that only those who become best-selling authors count as valuable human beings? Given the rarity of that level of acclaim, I hope not…
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