By Arcana Siddhi Devi Dasi

To move forward along the spiritual path, it’s important to understand our unique conditioned nature

I’m ten years old and standing at the blackboard in elementary school on an island in Puget Sound, part of the state of Washington. I’m the only Jewish child in the school; most of the kids don’t even know what that is. It’s geography class, and we are studying Israel. I feel proud, since Israel is a Jewish country. The teacher asks me if I know Hebrew. I lie and say yes. Next she asks me if I can write the alphabet. Again I lie and say yes. She hands me a piece of chalk and tells me to go the chalkboard to write the alphabet and pronounce the letters.

Panic runs through my body. I promise God I’ll never lie again.

I take the chalk from her hand, walk to the front of the room, and stare at the blackboard. I’m perspiring and feel sick to my stomach. I don’t even know how many letters there are in the Hebrew alphabet.

“It’s okay,” I tell myself. “Nobody knows Hebrew. They won’t know I’m making it up.”

I start to make up little characters like those I’ve seen in the prayer books. I know they read from right to left, so I inform the class and gain some confidence. I make up sounds to go with the letters as perspiration drips down my arms.

I finish, and the teacher and students applaud.

Relieved, I take my seat and again and promise God, “I’ll never lie again.”

Triggered Memory

This embarrassing memory of mine emerges during a therapy session with one of my clients. She is talking about finding her authentic self and how she has pretended to be someone else all her life. Her father wanted her to be a successful professional, and for years she suppressed her artistic nature and worked as a computer programmer. After years of unfilled days at work, she walked out of her office, leaving a note on her desk: “I quit.”

After the session ended I wondered about the emergence of my own memory triggered by my client’s search for her authentic self. While growing up I tried to paint a picture of myself for others that fit what I wanted, rather than an accurate “me.” In psychology this is known as our persona or projective ego. Our projected ego might align with our actual feelings and beliefs, or it might diametrically oppose them.

Many of the choices I made in life were for my persona rather than me. In this way I cheated myself by denying myself the things that were important to me so I could appear a certain way to others. I took French instead of Spanish because it was considered a more difficult language. Knowing French has never been of much use in my life, whereas Spanish would have been very helpful. I got a Bachelor of Science in psychology rather than a Bachelor of Arts—again because it was more difficult and would give the impression that I was more intelligent. Instead of taking classes that were interesting to my nature, I took intellectually grueling courses in math and the hard sciences.

To have our projective ego accurately represent our inner state is good for our mental stability and spiritual growth: “To thine own self be true.” I remember other times when I misrepresented myself to others—running for class president, talking to a boy I liked, interviewing for a job, trying to impress someone or beat the competition. To look good, I had to lie and take credit for things I hadn’t done, exaggerate something positive, or minimize or deny something negative.

I rarely got caught at my game, except the time I copied a poem from a book and told my father I wrote it. It wasn’t a serious offense, so he just smiled and told me I could go outside when I told him the truth about the poem. I felt stupid, although the whole reason I did it was to feel smart—it backfired. I wanted to be smarter. My brothers were brains, and my parents belong to the Mensa Society—people who score in the top 2% of IQ in the world. They knew lots of big words and lots of facts about the world. I had my own gifts, but I didn’t see them as valuable and therefore found myself standing at the chalkboard making up the Hebrew alphabet. I once heard a saying: “Be who you are because no one else is going to do it for you.”

Accepting One’s Nature

This theme of accepting one’s own nature is found in the Bhagavad-gita. In the beginning of their discussion, Arjuna tells Krishna he wants to leave the battlefield and go to the forest to live the life of an ascetic. In this way he hopes to avoid killing his family members and his teachers and being implicated in the degradation of society. Throughout this divine discussion, Krishna repeatedly encourages Arjuna to accept his conditioned nature and use it in serving the Supreme Lord.

Krishna goes so far as to tell Arjuna that even if he could do something outside his disposition perfectly, he should reject that and stick to performing activities in harmony with his particular psychophysical nature. Arjuna was a warrior and a leader among men. He was courageous, fearless, powerful, and resourceful. His desire to leave the battlefield and seek refuge in the forest would only lead to his misery. He didn’t have the mentality or disposition for a renounced life and would thereby be unfulfilled. When the mind is unfulfilled, it looks to engage the senses with sense objects—the antithesis of renounced life. He would likely end up using his natural inclinations in the forest to kill other living entities and would incur reactions for acts not sanctioned by scripture.

Eventually Arjuna understands that the Lord has ordained the war. By using his God-given skills and talents in the war for Krishna’s pleasure, Arjuna would become free from any sinful reactions and gain the greatest gift—devotion to the Lord.

To act according to our conditioned nature alone is not enough to make progress in our spiritual evolution. But when we combine acting according to our nature with serving Krishna, we then have a recipe for spiritual advancement. If we want to jump to touch the stars, it is good to start with two feet on the ground.

Out of Touch

In my work with devotees as a psychotherapist, I see depression and anxiety that stem from being out of touch with who they are in this body—something my husband and I dubbed “the authentic illusory self” (our psychophysical nature, which covers the real self, the soul). While it sounds like an oxymoron, there is a lot of merit to understanding our conditioning. This illusory self is a covering of our real eternal spiritual nature. The goal of life is to transcend the illusory covering and activate our dormant spiritual self by engaging in devotional service to the Lord. But to achieve the goal, we need to use our conditioned body to traverse the path.

The more we can work with, rather than against, our conditioning, the more we will gain momentum in our spiritual journey. A big part of the therapeutic process is uncovering, identifying, and understanding a person’s “authentic illusory self.” The more clearly people understand who they are in this body, the easier it will be for them to identify the kind of work or service they are most suited to engage in.

In Vedic culture astrology was used to help determine a child’s particular conditioning. This would help the parents know how to train their child and to have some understanding of the karmic lessons the child would face in life. In modern times it is hard to find expert astrologers, but some devotees have found astrology helpful in understanding their particular natures. There are also other systems for understanding personality that devotees have found useful, such as the Myers-Briggs Personality Types and the ancient system of Enneagrams. While imperfections may exist with any system, we have to use what is available and know that Krishna will help.

Krishna kindly guides us from within as the Lord in our heart, and from without as gurus, teachers, family and friends, books, and other resources. Much of our work in knowing our authentic illusory self is to be tuned in and open to receiving input from these sources. This will help us look inside and honestly assess our strengths, our weaknesses, our gifts, our preferences, our desires, our fears, and all the elements that constitute our material conditioning.

Aside from understanding our conditioning, it is also important for devotees to understand their position on the bhakti path. If you are in the mall and want to get to a particular store, first you have to know where you are. Then you can look at the mall map and figure out the best way to get to the store. Devotees need to understand where they are in their spiritual journey, with the help of advanced Vaishnavas, and proceed accordingly. When devotees jump ahead of or fall behind their actual standing in bhakti, they may fall from their spiritual practices. Accepting our conditioned natures and our spiritual position with a humble attitude will assure our gradual success over time.

Over the years Krishna has helped me bring my heart and persona in harmony. After thirty-five years of practicing devotional service, along with honest introspection, I now accept who I am in this body, while knowing that my actual identity is different from this body. I’m at peace with my nature and feel liberated from trying to be something different.

Recently a visitor to the temple asked me if I knew Sanskrit.

“No,” I happily said, “but I know how to chant Hare Krishna. Would you like me to teach you that?”