Illuminations 34 – Choosing to Fall Down

We have been discussing vows in the past two newsletters. Any discussion on vows would not be complete without addressing falldown. Falldown can be traumatic. In this issue I focus on positive and productive ways to deal with falldown, ways that will enable you to move forward with renewed enthusiasm.

May you always think of Krsna,

Mahatma Das


 Choosing to Fall Down

What is falldown? Breaking the four regulative principles or giving up devotional service is generally referred to as falldown. Although this is the main focus of this newsletter, the principles I discuss relate to dealing with any kind of setback in spiritual life.

Falldown happens to many devotees and it can be discouraging. It can even cause one to give up.

“Women and wealth are very difficult problems for the devotee making progress on the path back to Godhead. Many stalwarts in the devotional line fell victim to these allurements and thus retreated from the path of liberation.”   – SB 1.2.17

Despite the fact that “many stalwarts fell victim,” Srila Prabhupada made very strong statements against breaking initiation vows. He once said that only an animal cannot keep a promise. He also said that one is not even a gentleman, what to speak of a devotee, if he doesn’t keep his promise. And he added that love means to follow one’s initiation vows. (Of course, he did make a distinction between an occasional accidental falldown and repeated falldowns).

Many devotees find these words sobering and purifying, just the medicine they need to keep them committed to their vows. Yet if we do not regularly follow all our vows, these statements can be upsetting. They can cause guilt, shame or even depression.

“Because if I’m fallen, then I’m a divided person. I’ve got an internalized set of ideals—the voice of the spiritual master, the voice of the community, the voice of Krsna saying to me, “This is the way you ought to be.” And my own perception is, “I’m not that way.”So one develops an acute sense of being ill at ease.”  – Ravindra Svarupa Prabhu

Choosing to Fall

Fortunately, being fallen is not our constitutional position. It is a position we choose, albeit it doesn’t always feel like we are choosing it. Yet, we are responsible for our actions.  If someone screams at you and you become angry and fight back, you are choosing to act in that way. You could also choose to forgive them, apologize to them hug them, or touch their feet.

“Wait a minute. Doesn’t Krsna say in the Gita that activities are carried out by the modes of nature and that I only think I am doing them? And doesn’t He say that we are forced to act helplessly because of the nature we have acquired? How can you say I always have choices? Prabhu, I am a ksatriya. If someone screams at me I’ll punch him right in the nose. I ain’t no brahmana. I don’t go around hugging people that scream at me.”

If the modes are responsible for our actions, there would be no meaning to karma. If we are all forced to act helplessly, how can we be held accountable for our actions?  And why would Krsna even bother telling us what to do and what not to do if we have no control over our choices? The Vedanta sutra says:

“The jiva soul must be a performer of actions because the injunctions of scripture must have some purpose.”

Baladeva Vidyabhusana says that sastric injuctions that state that one gets different results from different actions would be meaningless if the modes of nature were the actual cause of one’s actions.

So if we ever have difficulty following our principles or vows, it’s best to honestly admit our shortcomings. This means to admit that we chose to fall down. Something very powerful happens by admitting we personally chose to not follow certain practices: we realize that right now we can choose to follow them. And even if you are not having difficulty following the four regulative principles, you can apply this principle by choosing to improve yourself or overcome bad habits.

Lamentation Means Purification

LamentPrabhupada advises that we should feel regret and remorse for our past sinful activities. This will then motivate us to rectify ourselves. The following prayer from the Srimad Bhagavatm exemplifies such regret:

“I am such a sinful person, but since I have now gotten this opportunity, I must completely control my mind, life and senses and always engage in devotional service so that I may not fall again into the deep darkness and ignorance of material life.”

Note that a dangerous alternative to regret is extreme guilt (Prabhupada did say a little guilt is helpful). Generally, excessive guilt throws us on a downward spiral by making it more difficult to follow the principles that we feel guilty we are not following. In other words, the more guilt we feel about not following, the more we don’t follow. And the more we don’t follow, the more guilt we feel that we are not following. In this way we get caught in a vicious cycle.

The good news is that we don’t have to stay down if we don’t want to. No matter how many times we have fallen, no matter how hard we have fallen, we still can do something about it; we can choose to stop falling. But we will only do this when we decide that we want to be Krsna conscious more than anything else. When we chant and follow the principles because we “want to” rather than because we “have to,” we will be standing on firm ground. We only deceive ourselves when we remain fallen and blame it on something other than ourselves. By doing this we virtually give away the power we have to rectify ourselves.

So the greatest problem solver we have at our disposal is our desire to be Krsna conscious.

Enthusiasm After the Fall

It can seem contradictory to be enthusiastic to continue in Krsna conscious after a fall. I have even become discouraged by having a dream about a falldown or a persisting thought about doing something sinful. So how can we be enthusiastic after we break a vow or commit a sinful act?

The reality is that if we don’t become enthusiastic about improving ourselves, we are going to have trouble moving forward. We can lament and feel remorseful about our fallen condition, yet we can be enthusiastic for bhakti at the same time. We see this mood in many of the prayers of our acaryas. On one hand they are lamenting their fallen nature and on the other hand they are expressing a strong hankering to achieve Krsna’s lotus feet. These “negative emotions” can be the very impetus to move us forward.  How? They can make us disgusted with being fallen. Like the saying goes, “I am sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

When we become ill, we don’t think, “Well, I am sick and weak, so what’s the use of taking care of myself? Rather, we take better care of ourselves. So if we fall down in our spiritual practices doesn’t it make sense to do the same thing – to take more care of our spiritual life?

“Okay,” you say, “that makes sense. But the fact is that when I am not following all my spiritual practices and vows, I am not enthusiastic. So it really does seem to be a contradiction. Isn’t enthusiasm a by-product of strictly following?”

Yes, that true. But it’s also true that we need to be enthusiastic to become Krsna conscious.

In the Nectar of Instruction Rupa Goswami advises that first we must be enthusiastic. If enthusiasm naturally comes when we do bhakti, why would Rupa Goswami need to recommend it? He recommends it because we are not always enthusiastic for devotional service. So he is saying, “Be enthusiastic even if you are not enthusiastic.”

“That enthusiasm must be maintained under all circumstance. That is our price for entering into Krsna’s kingdom. And maya is always trying to take away our enthusiasm to serve Krsna, because without enthusiasm everything else is finished.”(Letter from Srila Prabhupada)

It’s Your Choice

You might think it’s artificial to be enthusiastic when it’s not real. But if you wait to be enthusiastic until you feel like being enthusiastic, you might be waiting for lifetimes, especially if you are not following your devotional principles strictly. What if I say I don’t feel like being humble? Should I just not treat others with respect now? Should I indulge my ego at every opportunity simply because I don’t feel like being humble? Should I only think of myself as an insignificant servant of Krsna if it comes naturally? If I think like that it will never come naturally. The reality is that to advance in Krsna consciousness we have to do what is favorable for our spiritual advancement, even if we don’t feel like it. And being enthusiastic is first on the list. As Prabhupada said: “Without enthusiasm everything is finished.”

When I’ve had difficulty I’ve always understood that this was the optimum time for maya to discourage me. So I would react by becoming twice as enthusiastic as normal. You might wonder how I could become twice as enthusiastic after messing up. I just figured that if I don’t become twice as enthusiastic I’ll probably become twice as discouraged.

The truth is that you can become twice as enthusiastic anytime you want. What happened a minute ago doesn’t matter – and I can prove it to you. Stand up while you keep reading (go ahead and stand up for me). Now put your arms in the air and yell out GAURANGA as enthusiastically as you can. See. It didn’t matter what else was going on in your life; you just enthusiastically did it (and if you didn’t do it, please do it so I can prove my point).

So, you can choose to be enthusiastic even if you don’t feel enthusiastic. And there is a big side benefit to this: when you choose to be enthusiastic you’ll start to feel enthusiastic. And if you are feeling more enthusiastic right now as a result of yelling out GAURANGA, you can yell out GAURANGA as much as you like.

Remember, if you don’t choose to be enthusiastic you are choosing to be unenthusiastic. Not choosing is also a choice.

Fall-down is Not Failure

Fall down is only a failure if we stay down. Since maya’s job is to keep us down, she’ll tell us we are weak, we can’t follow strictly, we will never be a good devotee, etc. If we listen to her enough, we’ll start to believe her (and we want to believe her when we are looking for good excuses). So our bhakti is that if we do fall, we rise every time we fall. Remember, there’s a big difference between failing and being a failure.

What’s Good About This?

When a devotee who has fallen down comes to me, I ask them, “What’s good about your fall?” Since they are usually discouraged, the normal response I get is: “Nothing is good about this.” But I keep asking and usually the devotee lists all the mistakes he or she made that led to the fall. Then I ask, “So what did you learn from this?” And we review the lessons in a way that insures, as far as possible, it won’t happen again (part of the lesson they learn is they are not as Krsna conscious as they thought they were.) Then I ask, “If the result of this fall is that you now understand enough about yourself and falling down that it’s unlikely to happen again, do you think this fall-down can actually be your pillar to success? All of a sudden the lights go off in their head and they go from being discouraged and distressed to being optimistic about their future in Krsna consciousness.

So if you have ever fall down, ask yourself, “What’s good about this? What can I learn that will prevent this from ever happening again?” “One who does good will never be overcome by evil” (at least not for long).

The reality is that if you think you can play with maya then you will probably have to get burnt a little to learn your lesson. Fortunately, we learn a lot from our failures. Thus the saying goes: “sometimes you win and sometimes you learn.”

Keeping Moving Up

Sometimes, especially if one has fallen hard or has not been able to keep one’s vows for a long time, it’s difficult to get back to chanting 16 rounds daily and following the four regulative principles. Still, in whatever situation we find ourselves we should at least be standing and moving upwards by being committed to maintaining a certain level of Krsna consciousness daily. We are not finished when we are defeated; we are finished when we surrender (unless it’s to Krsna, of course). Failure doesn’t mean you’ll never succeed; it just might mean it will take a little longer. So do what you can and aim to eventually get back to following all the principles and chanting all your rounds.

There’s a story about a person who went to a guru and asked to be directed to the road to success. The guru didn’t say a word; he just pointed to a place in the distance. The excited man ran off and soon a loud “SPLAT” was heard. The man limped back to the guru, bruised and stunned. Thinking he had gone to the wrong place, he again asked where to find success and the guru again pointed to the same place in the distance. He faithfully walked off and soon an even louder SPLAT was heard. When the man returned, he was bloody and broken. Obviously upset, he said to his guru, “I followed your directions and all I got was splattered. So this time could you please just tell me exactly where I’ll find success.” The guru finally spoke and said, “Success is where I pointed. It’s just a little past SPLAT.”

It’s a Glorious Struggle

Is it difficult to always follow one’s vows? Sometimes it can be a piece of cake and other times it can be the greatest challenge. One thought that has helped me during times of struggle is this: it’s a glorious struggle. Every one in the material world is struggling to achieve happiness, sense gratification and a myriad of goals they set for themselves. Even lazy people are struggling to avoid work – and then struggling to pay their bills. But there is no glory in these struggles because the ultimate result is death and rebirth. But in Krsna consciousness the stakes are very high – the opportunity to play and dance with Krsna. So if I am going to have struggle anyway, why not struggle to get Krsna’s special mercy so I can go back to Him? Why not struggle for something glorious?

The following story perfectly illustrates “the glorious struggle.” In India, disciples often do madhukari for their gurus (collecting food from different homes). In the summer in Vrndavana, disciples would go out early in the morning to avoid the heat. However, there was one disciple who went out every day at noon. Because it was so hot at that time of the day, the people that he was begging from became concerned about him. So they all went to his guru pleading that this disciple be allowed to do his begging early in the morning. The guru told them that it’s better he goes out at noon. They couldn’t believe he was so insensitive to his disciple’s suffering. He then added, “Because Krsna is giving him more mercy because of the suffering he is undergoing.”

So during difficult times, times when you might feel like “what’s the use,” think of it as a wonderful opportunity to receive an abundance of Krsna’s mercy by showing Him that despite the difficulties or fall-downs you had in the past, you are willing tolerate the pushing and pulling of your senses in order to come closer to Him. Take this wonderful opportunity to show Krsna that you want Him more than you want anything else.

And then what do you think will happen? Guru and Krsna will show you special mercy. And what will that mercy look like? It will come in the form of all the strength, intelligence, and determination you need to get back on your feet and stay there.

Exercise

Brainstorm three ways to get around, over, through or totally blow up obstacles or roadblocks that are making it difficult for you to strictly following your vows and devotional practices. For every obstacle you regularly face, come up with three different strategies for handling it.

There are any number of ways that will work, but you will only find them if you spend time looking for them. It all starts with asking how I can solve this problem. Seek and ye shall find. Ask and the door will be opened. Krsna is in your heart. He’ll help you.

Here is a suggestion for dealing with some of your more overpowering weaknesses. Have a game plan. Make a list of five right things you could do when you are driven to do something wrong (by wrong it could just mean wasting time doing something you don’t need to be doing). Have your list handy and when you are feeling the urge to do the wrong thing, pull out your list and choose one or more things to do.

Those five things could include calling a friend who knows and understands your situation, someone who can give you “first refusal.” The list might include taking a japa walk, writing in a journal, jumping in a cold shower, eating a sweet ball – anything that puts some time and energy between the impulse to act and the actual choice to action.