Exposing the “Know-It-All”

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For several years in the late 1990’s  and early 2000’s, I wrote articles about my experiences with Amma for “The New Times,” a free newspaper that was, at that time, available in Washington and Oregon. I have started sharing some of those articles on my blog. The article below was published in March of 2000.

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One of my major enjoyments in life is to watch and experience the ways in which Life/God/Spirit/Guru reveals the lessons I need to learn. I see each lesson as a potential adventure, an opportunity to participate in one detective mystery after another.

Many lessons become evident when a situation results in exposure of a self-defeating behavior. Once unmasked, we have the opportunity to examine the behavior and then look for new ways to act, ways that will be more nourishing to ourselves and others.

While I know that I will have lessons to learn throughout my entire life, I find that when I am in the presence of my guru, Mata Amritanandamayi (Amma), the lessons are considerably less subtle and seem to come at a faster rate. Luckily, when I am with her, I am usually able to work through the lessons faster.

Earlier this year, while visiting Amma’s ashram in South India, I experienced a series of events that made the theme of a new lesson quite obvious. I was so fascinated by witnessing this process unfold that I decided to write about it.

The new series began when I informed my daughter that Kollam, a city north of the ashram, would be a good place for her to buy new glasses. When others told her the Kollam shop produced poor quality glasses, I insisted they were wrong.  I KNEW that the shop’s glasses were of EXCEPTIONAL quality. After experiencing some of the events that followed, I reflected on this incident once again. I realized that my strong pronouncement had been based on a sample of one, i.e. I knew of ONE person who had purchased glasses in Kollam and SHE had been very satisfied. I could see that I had no basis for having drawn such a strong conclusion.

Next, while waiting for Amma to arrive at the temple for the nightly music program, a woman sitting beside me remarked that it was too bad that the number of Indian visitors coming to the ashram had decreased. I was shocked because there had actually been a HUGE increase in the number of Indians coming to see Amma. In fact,  now there were frequently more visitors than the temple could hold.

I said, “You mean during the last day or two, now that the holidays are over?”  “No,” she said, “I mean all of the time.” She went on to say, “In fact, fewer people are attending the programs she leads throughout India.” As I readied myself to tell her how thoroughly wrong she was, Amma arrived, ending the possibility of further discussion. I agitated throughout the evening program, filled with the desire to correct her misinformation.

I hoped I would see her later, but I never had the opportunity to rectify the situation. I remained agitated for some time, uncomfortable that someone was passing on such mistaken information.

The next day, I observed an interaction between a young Indian girl and a Western man. He said “Om Namah Shivaya” as she approached. This is a mantra that is frequently used as a greeting at the ashram. “What does that mean?” the girl asked. He responded in a shocked and rather demeaning manner, “You don’t know what that means? It is a greeting used all over Kerala (the state in which the ashram is located). Where are you from?”  “Kerala,” she replied. He shook his head, unable to believe that she did not know something so fundamental.

I, without invitation,  inserted myself into their conversation, informing him that “Om Namah Shivaya” was NOT the primary form of greeting used in Kerala. While some Hindus may use it, it was not even that common.   “Namaste” or “Namaskar” was a much more common greeting. He insisted that I was wrong, restating that “Om Namah Shivaya” was the proper greeting. He walked away, totally ignoring the girl’s request for a definition of the phrase.

That same day, I told my daughter the story of a brahmacharini  (female monk) who at one point had chosen to abstain from Amma’s darshan (time when Amma hugs each person who comes to her) for two years. Later in the day, I told the brahmacharini I had shared her story. She informed me that the period of time had actually been six months, not two years. I was shocked. I was SURE it had been two years. Again I saw my urge to be right, but I could not ignore the fact that her recall of the subject matter was more likely to be correct than mine.

As I reflected on these four incidents, I saw how they exposed my tendency to insist that something is fact when I don’t have enough information to warrant that certainty. The woman in the temple and the man who had been talking to the Indian girl had mirrored that behavior. In all four instances I could see my strong desire to “be right” as well as my ongoing urge to “set people straight.”

This know-it-all attitude can be considered a personality trait. Luckily, all personality-based behaviors can be placed on a continuum, having both healthy and unhealthy elements. At the healthy end of the continuum, this trait allows an individual to be efficient, responsible, insightful, helpful, and productive. At the unhealthy end of the continuum, however, the individual becomes arrogant, judgmental, suspicious, pushy, and obsessive.

I appreciated having been presented such a clear picture of ways I sometimes operate from the unhealthy end. In the days and weeks that followed I was repeatedly given opportunities to choose to indulge in those behaviors or to “do it different.”

Since I have returned to the U.S., the same lesson has come again and again, growing in magnitude each time. Even now, while still feeling the pain from the most recent incident, I can see my mind working in ways that makes it obvious I have not fully learned what I need to learn. While I regret the pain I cause myself and others, I am grateful that Life/God/Spirit/Guru is committed to revealing the work I need to do as I continue on my journey Home.

(Above article written in March 2000)

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“The New Times” articles that I’ve already shared:

Support in Times of Trouble

A Multitude of Lessons

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Photo Credit for the Know It All: Clip Art Panda

There Is No “Other”

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In the mid 90’s, I read a book that really spoke to me. It was called “The Balkan Express: Fragments from the Other Side of the War” by Slavenka Drakulic. She is a respected journalist and commentator from Croatia. The publication contained a series of essays about the effect the Serbo-Croatian war had on her colleagues and fellow countrymen.

The portion of the book that I remember to this day is her essay “High Heeled Shoes.” In it she described her growing awareness that she had turned citizens of her country, even close friends, into “others.”

First, she saw that instead of seeing refugees as people who had escaped slaughter by the Serbians, she had started stereotyping them. “They are just sitting smoking, doing nothing. Waiting. Waiting for what? For us to feed them. They could work, there are plenty of jobs around, houses to be repaired or working the land.” She heard a woman on a train say “This city stinks of refugees” at a time when there were refugees sitting beside her.

As she continued to examine her own attitudes, she saw that she had reduced individuals to the category of “they” and from there to “second-class citizen” or “non-citizen.” She realized when we do this, they soon become “not-me” or “not-us.” We may feel some sense of responsibility for them, but it is the type of responsibility that we feel towards beggars.  “The feeling of human solidarity turns into an issue of my personal ethics.” We help only if we want to.

As her reflection continued, she wondered :

Perhaps what I am also witnessing is a mechanism of self-defence as if there were a limit to how much brutality, pain or suffering one is able to take on board and feel responsible for. Over and above this, we are often confronted with more less abstract entities, numbers, groups, categories of people, facts– but not names, not faces. To deal with pain on such a scale is in a way much easier than to deal with individuals. With a person you know you have to do something, act, give food, shelter, money, take care. On the other hand, one person could certainly not be expected to take care of a whole mass of people. For them, there has to be someone else: the state, a church, the Red Cross, Caritas, an institution.

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Out of opportunism and fear we are all becoming collaborators or accomplices in the perpetuation of war. For by closing our eyes, by continuing our shopping, by working our land, by pretending that nothing is happening, by thinking it is not our problem, we are betraying those “others” – and I don’t know if there is a way out of it. What we fail to realize is that by such divisions we deceive ourselves too, exposing ourselves to the same possibility of becoming the “others” in a different situation.

I still resonate with everything Slavenka Drakulic said in that essay. I know I put panhandlers in the “other” category. When I see someone whom I think might be about to ask me for money, a whole litany of judgments erupt within me. While I’ve worked on this issue, it is not gone. While I don’t believe I have the same negative judgments about the victims of war and the natural disasters that are occurring with increasing frequency in the world, I believe I am still seeing them as “others.”

I need to confront my judgments, help more, and remember to think of people as individuals who like me have needs and wants. I need to remind myself that we belong to the same human family. They are a part of me; we are one. No, I can’t fix all of the problems in the world, but I can do more than I am doing and it can be from a place of love, caring and inclusion rather than from some “better than thou” place within myself.

As I was completing this post, I remembered a part of a guided imagery meditation from “Legacy of the Heart: The Spiritual Advantages of a Painful Childhood.” by Wayne Muller. I will leave you with his words.

Observe how birth, suffering, illness and death touch each one of us who lives on the earth. This is the pain we all share, in which we all partake, the pain of being human that touches our common bodies, hearts and minds. You may say to yourself as each image arises. “I am your other self.”

Embrace each image with forgiveness, mercy and love, touching the pain your heart, touching all the beings who suffer with your heart. This is the inheritance of the family of creation. This is your family.

Feel the depth of connection to all beings as you allow the pain to be the doorway into community with your greater family. Feel the truth of that belonging. Gradually return to the awareness of your breath as it naturally flows in and out of your body; feel your body as a tiny cell in the larger body we all share.

 

Lokah Samastha Sukhino Bhavantu
May all beings in the world be happy.

 

Written for Challenge for Growth Prompts: Looking for the Good in Others.

Life Lesson: Acknowledging My Arrogance

By 9:00 this morning, I had already been given the opportunity to witness one of my less virtuous sides. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, one of the sevas (volunteer work) I do at Amma’s ashram in Amritapuri, India is to work in the vermicomposting center, separating the worms from the compost they make. The harvested worms are sent back to make more compost and the finished compost is bagged and stored for use in the gardens. This is the third year I am doing this seva.

Last year, there was a woman in the center who was working so fast. It seemed to me like she was taking handful after handful of the compost and making no effort to separate out the worms. She had way more experience than I did and worked many hours a day, but my judgment was that she was being careless and not taking her job seriously. “I”, on the other hand, was being meticulous, going carefully over every handful of compost looking for even the smallest of worms. “I” knew what I was doing and “I” was doing it way better than she was.

Fast forward to this year. Yesterday, while I was harvesting the worms, another woman joined me. This year there is a different set up in that the material we are to separate has been formed into mounds that are about 16 inches high. The woman sat down in front of a mound and started picking up handful after handful of the compost and placing it in the bucket which contained the finished compost. She didn’t even seem to be looking for worms, and I rarely saw her put a worm in the worm bucket. Then she started lightly brushing the sides of the mound with her hand.  She would pick up the material she had brushed off and placed it in the compost bucket. Again, I was full of judgment. She was being so careless, while “I” was working slowly and methodically, making sure that “I” didn’t miss a single worm.  I left soon after that so did not see how she completed the process.

I should mention that my way of harvesting the worms is very different.  I know that worms gather at the bottom so I take the mound apart and go directly to the bottom.  I am then able to quickly gather large numbers of worms and place them in my worm bucket.  That process is very satisfying because I see the fruit of my action right away.  Next, I examine every bit of the remaining compost to make sure I haven’t missed any worms.

I thought about that scenario during the day and began to wonder if there was something that I was missing. Was it possible that the two women knew something that I didn’t know? That would make sense since they were the ones who did this work day in and day out. This morning I decided to try it their way.

Once I looked at the mound with fresh perspective, I had a sense of what was happening. The outer part of the mound is drier and, in addition, is exposed to light. Worms want to be where it is damp and dark, so if the compost is dry or there is light, they would burrow deeper into the mound. And the act of someone brushing off the outside layer of the mound would certainly result in the worms quickly moving deeper inside.

Today, when I picked up the compost around the base of my mound, I discovered it didn’t contain a single worm. That was also true when I brushed the outside of my mound; none of the material that I brushed off had worms in it.  It was not until I was much deeper into the mound that I found more than the occasional worm. Once I reached the center areas, I joyously harvested big clumps of worms!

Worm composting
Worm composting

It had taken me a full hour to separate the worms from one mound of compost when I did it “my” way.  Using their techniques, I finished sorting two mounds in about 40 minutes!  Clearly, these two women knew how to efficiently separate the worms and the compost and I did not. I not only had learned a new way to harvest the worms, but I had also received an opportunity to examine my arrogance! And it is still early morning. I wonder what the rest of this day will hold?