May 22, 2022 | Acharya Prashant
Questioner (Q): I have discovered that being a little altruistic, a little selfless makes me feel that I am elevating my consciousness. That is what works for me. But one problem associated with this is the problem of the violation of boundaries. So, suppose I want to help a person and put in the effort to help that person. It is inherently linked with the sense of guilt that I would feel at a later time if I choose to not help that person. This leads to me violating my own interests at times and makes me feel guilty when I say no to others. How should we deal with this? How should we define our boundaries when it comes to sacrificing our time for others?
Acharya Prashant (AP): See, altruistic behavior or helpfulness, these are not ends in themselves. However, they are often recommended or taught because mostly they go hand-in-hand with an elevated state of consciousness—mostly but not always. You have to remember what is the end and what is just a medium. Helpfulness is a medium, not an end in itself. You have to ask: Is the helpfulness really delivering what anything is supposed to deliver, what anything must deliver to be of any worth? If helpfulness is delivering that, only then what you are doing can be called as help in the real sense of the word. Otherwise, it is not help.
Somebody comes begging to you, “Help me, help me! Please give me some cocaine! Please help me!” And he is desperate, he is crying, he is begging. The only help he seeks from you is the powder that he wants. Now, here you have to be very clear about the real meaning of the word ‘help’. Now, in this instance, help, as we usually know it, is not aligned with elevation of consciousness. As we normally use the word ‘help’, help is about giving something to the one who desperately needs it, right? A fellow comes begging desperately for something and you give that thing to that person, and it is called help; that is the normal usage of the word. But here, this case highlights clearly how help can be very disastrous. That means help, etc., those so-called good qualities, are not ends in themselves.
Any good quality is good only to the extent it elevates consciousness. Beyond that, that good quality is of no use; beyond that, that good quality is, in fact, bad.
Now, because we do not know that the real objective is consciousness itself, hence we keep overdoing the so-called good things, and also we keep absolutely rejecting the so-called bad things. Now, giving poison to someone is a bad thing, is it not?
Q: Generally, yes.
AP: What else do you give as an anti-venom to a person suffering from a snake bite? But if you tell someone, “You know, I just poisoned him”—you give somebody an anti-venom shot and then go and tell a random stranger on the road, “There is a person inside, I poisoned him,” he will declare you a criminal. He will probably call the police. “This fellow just poisoned somebody!” The fact is that poison, in this case, is lifesaving.
So, even poison is not something necessarily to be avoided. Help is not necessarily good, poison is not necessarily bad; these are not ends in themselves. The end has to be remembered. The end in the case of human beings, our species, is consciousness. What is this thing doing to my mind? How do I know whether relationships are good or not? Ask, what is it doing to my mind? No other criteria is valid, only this: What is it doing to my mind? The mind’s nature is realization, freedom, simplicity, and Truth. Is this relationship setting me free? Is it bringing me closer to the Truth, or is it pushing me into deeper bondage?
So, always remember the one thing that you need to remember; all else is secondary. We all know how important vaccines are, and you for sure know, as students of science, what you put into your body as the vaccine. What is it?
Q: Weakened or dead germs.
AP: It is a diluted dose of the virus itself. So, even getting infected is not necessarily bad. That is what all the research labs, WHO, and all the doctors are doing: they are putting the virus in your body. You tell someone, “I just put virus in that fellow’s body”; he will say, “See, irresponsible and hateful!”
You have to remember the end. If the end is remembered, practically anything can be a means to that end. If the end is remembered no means is important. Only that particular means is important that leads to the end at any particular moment. And you don’t need to stick to any particular means; because life changes, so means have to change. The end alone is changeless. The end alone is endless. Everything else must come to an end, except the end itself.
Q: It is sometimes hard to determine how one should help another. Helping someone through some immediate pain might be a temporary solution but exacerbate the situation in the long run, because the helped one might become dependent on the help and become more prone to falling into pain again. I guess this is where being dynamic with it comes in, because the situation can always be different and change.
AP: Then you have to intelligently operate. Obviously, as a human being, you want to help the other to get rid of his immediate pain. Here, you need to be a bit tactful. Here, you need to operate in a way where both the things happen: to some extent the current pain reduces, and, mostly, the fellow is enabled not to fall in pain again.
You see, that is the characteristic of real help: If you are helping someone really, then you would be reducing his need to seek help again and again.
So, test your action of help on this criteria: “I have helped him in this instance. Now, is this enabling him to operate independently of any help, or will he come repeatedly to me to again seek help?”
Reduce his need to be helped. That is the real help.
Q: We see that in romantic relationships, there is a kind of need or identity association with the other person. So, if we actually enable and empower them in a way that they no longer feel the need of that relationship or that that relationship may add value to them in the future, then that may actually be the point where the relationship starts getting destroyed.
AP: Scary thought, right? “If that fellow no longer needs my help, why will the relationship exist at all?”
Q: I mean that if the fellow no longer feels that this is something he can’t come to in the moment of crisis, then…
AP: He must come to. So, if the fellow is no longer needy, will the relationship exist at all? Is that not a very disturbing, rather scathing comment on the nature of most of our relationships? They are need-based. “You fulfill my need, I will fulfill your need; you scratch my back, I scratch your back.” Not good to hear, and much worse to live!
And your fear is that if this mutual dependence is no more there, then the relationship would cease to exist. Yes, the relationship would cease to exist in the form it currently exists, and the current form is hardly any good, don’t you agree? The relationship right now is mutually parasitic. Two parasites feeding upon each other! “I can’t live without you, you can’t live without me. I suck your blood, you suck my blood. And the deeper is your dependency, the more you say you love me.” This is just not good.
And also, relax. When you are mentally evolved, that does not mean that you are left with zero relationships; you are left with healthy relationships. The problem is, mostly we know only sick relationships. So, if we are told that we can’t have sick relationships, that translates into we can have no relationships. If I have only rotten fruits on my table and somebody says, “You can’t have rotten fruits,” to me that translates into “You can’t have any fruits because everything is rotten.”
Don’t be afraid. Nice, juicy, fresh fruits do exist, and all of us are eligible for them. There is no need to discount your eligibility. There is no need to think that life is condemned to be lived in stinky relationships. Things can get better. Even with the same person you can have a much better relationship. Persons need not necessarily change. Even with the two or three or five or whatever persons remaining the same, the relationship can be completely new and healthy. But that will require, obviously, a lot of work, discipline, a lot of love actually, and a lot of wisdom. You cannot just operate on the back of your normal, personal, social knowledge and hope to have a truly healthy relationship; that won’t happen.
Knowledge of the kind that can transform a relationship can come only from spiritual sources, not social sources. TV and media and stand-up comics and your neighbor and apocryphal wisdom will not enable you to have true relationships. All you will have is replicas of the kind of relationships you see all around you in family, in the neighborhood, in the movies, in the past, in social media—don’t you see relationships there? So, wisdom coming from those very same sources will not allow you to have better relationships. You require wisdom from elevated sources if you want elevated relationships.
Q: So, what should be the metric based on which we must evaluate whether a person or the relationship that we are in is healthy for us or not?
AP: To begin with, freedom. Have you been engaged or encaged? Mostly, when you are engaged, you are actually encaged. Freedom—the True Self is another name for freedom, and ego is another name for bondages. Any relationship that brings bondages to your life is just not the real thing. Wisdom—can you see things in a sharper light? Does the person bring you roses or books? Is that not a credible enough indicator?
One of the diseases of consciousness is body-identification. The more body-identified your consciousness is, the more lowly is the life you are living. Is the person making you more of a body? In the presence of that person, do you feel more bodily, more body-identified? Does that person look at you primarily as a body? Runaway. It is a very, very bad relationship.
What is the content of the usual discussion between the two of you? Is it about wisdom or is it just mediocre, animalistic, body-centric gossip? What do the two of you do when you get together? Do you talk literature, do you talk wisdom, do you talk science, do you talk climate change, do you talk philosophy, or do you talk breasts and hips? You have to figure out. There are very powerful indicators. You cannot miss them unless you are intent on deliberately missing them.
Q: I have observed that this happens mostly in work-related relationships: We have our colleagues who may need help from us, but sometimes it happens that we are busy with personal stuff and we are not able to help them. After some time I will regret that I was not available to that person, and due to that regret I keep giving in to that person’s wishes. But every time I do that, I feel like I am sacrificing myself. So, to what extent is sacrificing alright?
AP: No, sacrificing is something wonderful. But what is the definition of sacrifice? Giving up on something of little value for the sake of something of higher value—that is sacrifice. And therefore, sacrifice is an affirmative thing; it is a constructive, productive thing. Sacrifice is not just about negating or renouncing; sacrifice is actually about creating. Sacrifice is about creating something.
‘Sacrifice’ is not a negative word; ‘sacrifice’ is the most positive word you can think of, positive in the sense of it being very pro-life, it being creative and constructive: it gives rise to something. In fact, you cannot create anything worthwhile if you do not sacrifice something relatively worthless, or can you? I am pretty sure, at this moment, all of you had other competing things to do as well. At least I had a lot of other things that I could have done at this very moment. I sacrificed on those things to be here with you, and I am glad I did. Because this, in my assessment, is a higher thing to participate in.
So, there always are these tradeoffs. What is sacrifice? Sacrifice is a great tradeoff. And that is why even in the most ancient of scriptures you find the word ‘sacrifice’, and you find it around the world. And obviously, sacrifice is not about slaughtering an animal, or just offering milk or money or cloth to the deity. Sacrifice is a much deeper psychological concept. Sacrifice is a recipe for mental health.
Now, if this is what sacrifice is, then it should be easy for you to know whether you are sacrificing rightly. See whether your sacrifice is creating something bigger than the thing sacrificed. “I gave up on something small”—check whether something bigger has been created. Otherwise, it is a bad tradeoff, no? To give up on ten rupees for the sake of two rupees—poor arithmetic; similarly, poor sacrifice.
The rider here is that in real life things are not so easy to quantify. You will not know whether something is worth rupees two or ten very easily, especially when stuff is intangible. For example, you have to sacrifice your pizza for your sister. Now, the pizza costs rupees four hundred, but the quantum of love or affection between you and your sister that is aided by the sacrifice is something you cannot know. You also do not know whether giving up on the pizza was actually good for your sister; she might already be fat, she might already be addicted to pizza. That is where you require wisdom to know the value of something in life.
Wisdom is essentially about having a sound value-system—what is worth having, what is worth valuing, what is important and what is not. And what is important? To begin with, freedom is important; Truth is important; clarity is important; compassion is important. These are important things, and they have a very high value. And if they have a very high value, then something small can be sacrificed for them. But if your sacrifice is not in the direction of love, Truth, compassion, and clarity, then your sacrifice is going waste; then it is just an exercise in some kind of morality. This sacrifice will not help you, or the sacrificed thing, or the one who is receiving the sacrifice.
Q: So, let’s say my sister asks for pizza, and I give it to her. Later on I realize that the pizza is not good for her, that giving it to her was the wrong thing to do, and then I will not give her any pizza. Then she gets offended, and then I feel that she is feeling bad because of me, and then there is regret. I was using the example you gave, but I experience this kind of regret in my life whenever I act in this direction. I think that I am doing the right thing at that moment, but later on there is regret.
AP: That regret is there only because you do not know the value of the thing sacrificed versus the thing obtained.
Okay, let me clarify with an example. Let’s say you come to know that somebody sacrificed her entire bank account for the sake of a packet of peanuts. What would you say? You will say it is a bad tradeoff, right? Just for peanuts, she gave up on her entire bank balance, and there is regret now. You used the word ‘regret’, right? So, there is regret. Let’s say you are that person, and you will be very regretful: “Oh, I have given up on my entire account for the sake of peanuts!” But if you go closer and examine and find that your bank account had only two rupees, are you still regretful? That is the thing: you do not know the value of the thing, therefore you are regretting.
Sacrifice must always involve something of smaller value compromised for something of larger value. Otherwise, there will be indecision and regret. You will just not know what has been lost and what has been gained, so you will have mood swings. Sometimes you will feel, “Oh, something nice has happened, it is good I sacrificed”; sometimes you will change your mind and say, “No, no, no, it was a bad decision!” because you do not concretely know the value of stuff, value that you can know only when you go close to something. You have to know that thing, you have to know yourself, and that determines the value of the thing.
What is the value of something? The value of something is only as much as it aids your own liberation. That is the value of the thing. Something that takes you to freedom should never be sacrificed; something that brings you the Truth should never be sacrificed, because freedom and Truth are invaluable. Whereas, something that just feeds your body can be sacrificed, not a big deal; something that just entertains you can be sacrificed, not a big deal; something that just feeds your ego and inflates you can be given up, not a big deal.
The art of valuation, that is the real thing. Learn what is valuable in life; never sacrifice that. And for the sake of what is valuable, everything else can be sacrificed. Then there will be no regrets. In clarity there are no regrets.
Q: So, if we take the same thing in terms of time—for example, I have one hour to use, and I can give it to myself or to being with a friend. How do I evaluate where this time should be going?
AP: How do you know you shouldn’t have been watching Netflix the last two hours?
Q: Because I know this is a productive session.
AP: What is the definition of productivity?
Q: You gain something from it.
AP: What something?
AP: We are not having this conversation for anything. There is something very concrete this session is for. What is that thing?
Q: This session is for the conversation between us.
AP: Conversation is the method. What is the aim of this session?
Q: To clear our minds.
AP: So, that is what is important, that is what has value—clarity. Clear up your mind, as you said.
So, that will enable you to know where to spend that one hour. Spend that one hour where you get clarity. Avoid those places where you get even more fogged up, where even the clarity you get gets surrounded by haze. Avoid people who stand as obstacles to clarity, who will not allow you to think freely, who put fear in your mind or tempt you with greed, or who create situations in which you just cannot be attentive and look at life. Those are the things, places, and times to be avoided.
One could call him the best contemporary representative of Advait Vedanta. Or one could simply call him a teacher beyond any tradition. Equally, one can see an abundance of compassion, love and reverence in his being. But the most appropriate way to know him would be through his work. Know More