American Mahatma vs. the Greatness Virus
aka 9 ways to discover your innate goodness and forget about being GreaT
The virus is so ubiquitous, many of think it is who we are. We don’t notice it sucking our time, energy, attention and joy. In fact, the more infected we are, the more “successful” we are likely to be, the more acclaim we will garner and the more money we are likely to earn.
Unfortunately, no matter how successful we become at meeting the demands of the virus, the more impaired is our ability to feel satisfaction, contentment or fulfillment. This virus has one ceaseless demand: become Greater, and Greater and then Greater still.
Many, if not most Americans, are thoroughly programmed by the Greatness virus in their conduct and emotions. The programming runs something like this:
- If I’m not continually improving, I’m failing.
- Every next step has to be a step up.
- Growth and expansion are always good.
- I am destined to be Great (at something.) If I’m not, it’s because I screwed up.
- Greatness consists of measurable, visible accomplishment: Degrees, certificates, certifications, net worth, salary, position, size and location of domicile, possessions, including “Great” relationships, or even number of friends on facebook. And for spiritual folk, greatness is measured in amazing “spiritual” experiences, spiritual initiations by and meetings with “Great” teachers, numbers of students, lineages held, and general buzz about spiritual me.
Viruses are dead things. When we embody the Greatness virus instead of life, we become enslaved to the endless, repetitive work of promoting our self image and the attempt to antidote fear, uncertainty and loneliness.
We waste our precious time aggressively and defensively manipulating how others see us and hiding from how we really feel about ourselves.
The survivalist strategies and activities of the virus stand between us and real intimacy. They express our fundamental anxiety about existence and our fear of change and death.
But we could approach greatness in another way, in a way that would lead us to deeply relax instead of perpetuating our tensions.
The word “great” doesn’t just mean expert or good at something measurable. It can also refer to a person who exhibits greatness of heart.
The Sanskrit prefix maha indicates the glorious and abundant embodiment of wisdom virtues such as generosity, compassion and kindness. A Mahatma is a person who embodies the highest qualities of the Atman or universal Self.
Baked into the ancient Indian concept of real greatness is also great modesty. Modesty is not some faux, head-lowering attitude for which one hopes to be admired or praised. Modesty comes from a real understanding of the equality of all aspects of the creation. We are all made of the same “stuff.” In this light, seeking individualistic Greatness as a goal in and of itself is laughable.
A person who really gets equality naturally exhibits modesty: a lack of interest in measuring accomplishments, measuring oneself against others, or being measured by others. A natural feeling of happiness at the success and happiness of others, and a sense of humor about one’s own foibles and failings.
The fact that we have no equivalent Mahatma concept in our U.S. culture is telling. But don’t let that stop you. You can still get started relaxing and creating an inhospitable environment for the Greatness virus.
How to become an American Mahatma
1. Recognize that life has natural ups and downs. Nature does not operate as a continual climb to a fictitious top. Allow yourself to live by this recognition. Learn to gracefully adapt. Relate to life’s highs and lows with equanimity – not grasping hysterically at the highs or hysterically over-reacting to the lows.
2. Do what you enjoy and enjoy what you do. Many people put off living the life they really want while they pursue the demands of the virus. But this is actually your life. Right here. Right now. And time is passing. The best choice is to simply do something you enjoy without worrying about what will happen in an imagined future or how others will judge you. You will receive many unexpected rewards if you follow this natural course.
3. Take a pause from measuring. Just stop. When you find yourself comparing, contrasting, and judging, take a pause. Don’t put anything in place of that measuring activity. Let emptiness arise, and then out of that, livingness and immediacy. Take a dip in immeasurable life. Accustom yourself to it. The more you do this little exercise, the easier it will become to just live.
Apprenticeship is an attitude of of forever-learning, deep attention, the cultivation of precision, patience, modesty and a quiet passion for the craft. Anxiety about mastering something, being perfect, or being seen as an expert or a master are all part of the virus’ programming.
Real mastery knows itself to be eternally unaccomplished and to emerge from eternal apprenticeship.
The Greatness virus tells you that you should be in control of what happens in your life and even the lives of others. It tells you that when something goes wrong or even when it goes right, that is down to you. This is a totally false view.
Cause and effect are infinite. You are never the sole factor in determining the outcomes of your actions. The only control you have is over how skillfully and open-heartedly you act. The rest is up to the rest of the world, and grace.
Equally important is the understanding that the result you want may not be the best result. How would you like it if your life today was a reflection of what you wanted at age 13? Sometimes when we achieve our aims, we have only obstructed ourselves.
Use your energy to cultivate your skill in living and opening your heart. Let wisdom take care of the rest.
6. Notice what moves you in others and aim to embody that. What really moves you from the heart? Is it a certificate? An award? A promotion? A big bank account? Admiration? Praise? I doubt it.
Look at the people who deeply move you and ask yourself what is it about them that brings tears to your eyes and a swell of gratitude and nameless love to your heart. Those are the qualities and “accomplishments” you really value. Organize your life around learning to embody those qualities.
7. Feel the compulsion of the Greatness virus. People often ask me how they can tell the difference between natural expression and fixation. It’s easy. All fixations (aka karma), come with a feeling of compulsion. It can be compulsive worry, or compulsive excitement, or compulsive competitiveness. But the feeling of that little engine of compulsion chugging away is unmistakable.
Despite that fact that you may think you are in control and on top of the world, when you peel back the layers, what you will discover is compulsion—the compulsion to repeat, and repeat again your demonstration of yourself. The compulsion to aggress and defend.
You need to get in touch with compulsion and anxiety in order to learn that when you are meeting the demands of the virus, even if it brings you conventional success, you are not in control. Recognizing this will give you the motivation to relax and allow a more natural course of life to unfold.
8. Take a at least a 1/2 day a week and do nothing. Don’t work. Don’t plan anything. Don’t read books. Don’t do errands, or catch up on home improvement chores or exercise. Go on a media fast. Rest quietly at home, or go out in nature (no strenuous hikes) and just be. Cook some simple food. Take your time eating it. You may feel anxiety as your senses relax and you come back into touch with your surroundings and yourself. Let it come, and keep relaxing. Keep experiencing everything without trying to make anything happen or push anything away.
9. Take refuge in serving. When we are serving and have an attitude of service, no matter what is going “wrong” in our lives, and no matter what failings we feel we may have, we can always get in touch with our fundamental goodness.
In your work, choose what the Buddha called “right livelihood.” In other words, choose a profession that you enjoy and that does good in the world, or at least does no harm.
In your homelife and your daily life in general, choose activities and ways of relating that contribute to the well-being of yourself, others and our world.
Your contributions don’t have to be grand. They don’t have to be perfect. Service can be as simple as a kind word or a small act of generosity and open-hearteness.
Spending your life in service is the antidote to insecurity, self-hatred and fear. It will help you to develop confidence and to know your own essential goodness.
The Greatness virus cannot accomplish this for you. No matter how much others admire you or how many accomplishments you rack up, you will be compulsively seeking the next Great thing.
Great goodness or compulsive greatness? You choose.
By Shambhavi Sarasvati