Vaisnava Life Skills/Personal Transformation Seminars and the Process of Krsna Consciousness
Posted September 23, 2003
This paper will discuss integration of the Vaisnava Life Skills/Personal Transformation courses with the process of Krsna consciousness. Psychological methods and concepts can be dovetailed with bhakti-yoga. Further, all that is theoretically and practically valid in the areas of leadership, relationships, and personal spiritual transformation, finds its completion and perfection in Krsna consciousness. The trainings seek to substantiate this principle.
Empathy is a foundational principle of the seminars, presented and practiced from the start of the Foundational Course. Srila Rupa Gosvami explains that revealing one's mind in confidence and inquiring confidentially are essential exchanges of love between Vaisnavas (guhyam akhyati prcchati). Through participatory exercises aided by explanatory presentations, seminar participants create a secure and trusting environment for "opening one's mind to the devotees", to use a term from Srila Prabhupada (Nectar of Instruction, Verse 4, Purport). This atmosphere of safety and confidentiality forms the basis for deep and meaningful Vaisnava relations throughout the courses. More importantly, the empathic skills and principles imbibed by students are taken into their lives, where they utilize these powerful communication tools to cultivate increasingly satisfying and effective relationships with persons dear to them and with all spirit souls whom they encounter.
Krsna consciousness manifests as service. To serve it is essential to understand the desires and needs of those we are serving, lest our service be speculative. To perceive and recognize the needs, concerns, and desires of others, whether it be aspiring Vaisnavas, the spiritual master, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, or any living entity, is the essence of empathic listening.
Hundreds of devotees have expressed how the skills acquired in the Life Skills/Personal Transformation courses have significantly enhanced their relationships and preaching endeavors. One student reported how he used empathic listening in relating with guests at a temple program. This was a new and adventurous experience for him. He described how one guest became attracted by the care he was showing through these skills. This inspired her to continue revealing her mind, and to inquire confidentially about the deep understandings of Vaisnava philosophy. Within two weeks she dedicated herself fully to the process of Krsna consciousness.
Vaisnavas are natural counselors for members of society. Research has shown that persons in distress approach pastoral professionals for help more than any other mental health professional, including psychologists, clinical social workers, or psychiatrists. Thus, it is imperative that followers of Srila Prabhupada have skills to effectively address the issues they will encounter. A senior devotee with more than thirty years of devotional service experience wrote: "It's amazing how often we are all called upon to counsel others. Krsna supplies the tools to do so, and this course has been a fabulous vehicle to receive these tools. What a wonderful experience to be in the association of such nice devotees from all over the world, multi-generational and from many different backgrounds. I was so happy." A devotee from Russia wrote "Now I am applying the skills into my daily relationships with devotees. I clearly realize how simple skills such as empathic listening, reflection, and open-ended questioning are powerful tools for better understanding and communication amongst the devotees and people in general." A mataji expressed that only one day after the courses she "&was able to communicate with both my husband and son in an assertive yet sensitive way& When we finished talking, we each walked away feeling a new sense of appreciation for and commitment to each other. I felt relieved to be genuine and honest with them, and I felt that they actually appreciated now that I cared for both them and myself."
A brahmacari in Bombay took the empathic principle to the top, applying the techniques of the course to his relationship with his beloved Deities. He reported that the morning after the course he took darsana of Lord Narasimhadeva, and became absorbed in the mood, thinking, "You seem very angry." Then he asked open-endedly, "How come you are angry?" After the Lord responded he reflected "Oh, you are angry because your devotee Prahlada is being tormented by the demon HiranyakaSipu." He related similar empathic encounters with each of the divine personalities on the altar. In this way he shared how he became more intimate with all the Deities through the skills learned in the Vaisnava Life Skills/Personal Transformation course.
Empathy, true compassion for others, is integral to Vaisnava character. There is of course the example of Prahlada Maharaja, who described that a Vaisnava feels distress at the suffering of others. Dadhici Muni (Srimad-Bhagavatam 6:10:9) expressed "If one is unhappy to see the distress of other living beings and happy to see their happiness, his religious principles are appreciated as imperishable by exalted persons who are considered pious and benevolent." Srila Prabhupada comments (SB 6:10:9 Purport) "Everyone should be unhappy to see others in distress and happy to see others happy. atmavat sarva-bhutesu: one should feel the happiness and distress of others as his own." In the Tenth Canto of Srimad-Bhagavatam it is stated, "By seeing their faces, one whose body has been pricked by pins can understand the pain of others who are pinpricked. Realizing that this pain is the same for everyone, he does not want others to suffer in this way. But one who has never been pricked by pins cannot understand this pain." In the purport (SB 10:10:14) Srila Prabhupada writes, "Unless one comes to the platform of actual experience, one cannot realize what is pain and what is happiness in this material world."
During the courses devotees connect with each other on the platform of actual experience, thus creating a vibrant bonding between Vaisnavas. Sri Krsna states in the Bhagavad-gita (6:32) "He is a perfect yogi who, by comparison to his own self, sees the true equality of all beings, in both their happiness and their distress." Srila Prabhupada comments "One who is Krsna conscious is a perfect yogi; he is aware of everyone's happiness and distress by dint of his own personal experience."
One temple devotee wrote "This course has helped me to attentively listen to scriptural classes. I feel I have gained a lot. I plan to use the skills in day to day life." The editor of the ISKCON Congregational Preaching Journal expressed "I feel that the listening and counseling skills presented, as well as the personal transformation tools, are essential for anyone acting in a pastoral role, guiding others and caring for their spiritual life. Such skills should be considered the sine qua non for any congregational director."
Qualities and Gunas
It may be asserted that devotees automatically possess qualities (e.g., SB 5:18:12), such as empathy, indicative of sattva-guna, and thus there is no need of specific endeavor to develop such traits. Certainly it is true that a Vaisnava is transcendental to the modes of material nature (sa gunan samatityaitan- BG 14:26) and does not need to make separate attempts to acquire qualities of goodness such as compassion, cleanliness, tolerance, and honesty.
It is also true, however, that some aspiring devotees of Krsna may mistakenly consider that verses such as SB 5:18:12 and BG 14:26 apply to them in their current situations. A safer and more authentic position for many is to consider that we are not transcendental devotees who don't need to work to cultivate sattvic qualities, but rather we are struggling in lower modes of nature. With regard to that struggle, for us it is part of our devotional service to make deliberate endeavors to actualize sattvic attributes. For example, we may have a tendency, borne of the modes, to not be truthful when confronted with a situation where the truth may be embarrassing. That is an opportunity for us to specifically practice the quality of truthfulness, whereas it would be inauthentic to assume that whatever I say or do must be truthful, because I am a Vaisnava who is transcendental to mundane qualities. Similarly, by receiving training and practicing empathic listening, a devotee can increase his capacity to help others and develop qualities conducive to advancement in Krsna consciousness. Srila Prabhupada (BG 14:11) writes "In the mode of goodness one can hear things in the right position." The courses concentrate on removing roadblocks to effective communication, allowing persons to genuinely and openly relate to each other, which requires development of a sattvic attitude, free from personal agenda and filled with knowledge. A Vaisnavi wrote "Offering this knowledge to devotees is certainly a great service to the Vaisnavas, who are compassionate to suffering souls. With these tools, their compassion will be more effectively expressed."
Pulling the Weeds
Most devotees could easily respond to queries about the process of watering the devotional creeper. Much attention is given to elements of this watering process, such as hearing and chanting. Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, in his teachings to Srila Rupa Gosvami, uses the metaphor of pulling the weeds in the heart, to describe another important component of the process of bhakti-yoga. Many devotees have suggested that we tend to neglect the process of pulling the weeds. The result is that the watering process sustains not only the plant of devotion, but also the weeds in the heart. If the weeds are not recognized and pulled, then they may eventually take most or all of the water, and the plant of bhakti will no longer grow.
In The Teachings of Lord Caitanya Srila Prabhupada writes "There are also other factors which disturb the plant of devotional service. Along with this plant the weeds of material desires also grow&If one is not particularly careful, even by watering the plant of devotional service, unnecessary weeds will grow and hamper progress." In the purport of SB 2:2:30 Srila Prabhupada states "It so happens that by the watering process some weeds are also grown, and unless such weeds are uprooted, the nurturing of the main creeper, or the creeper of bhakti-yoga, may be hampered& If sufficient care is not taken, then the watering process may only help to breed the weeds, stunting the healthy growth of the main creeper and resulting in no fructification of the ultimate requirement: love of God. The devotee must therefore be very careful to uproot the different weeds in the very beginning." In the Nectar of Devotion, Chapter Twelve, Srila Prabhupada writes, "If the dust of the heart is cleansed away, then one can actually understand the importance of the holy name. For persons who are not inclined to clean the dust from their hearts and who want to keep things as they are, it is not possible to derive the transcendental result of chanting the Hare Krsna mantra."
The light of sadhana practice reveals the weeds in our heart. Thus, for practicing devotees the impurities in the consciousness become more apparent than for most other persons. This churning process is healthy, provided that the anarthas that are exposed are acknowledged and rooted out. A common dynamic is that, when the process of Krsna consciousness reveals weeds, we will deny they are there, because such adulterations do not conform with an image of ourselves as advanced and humble devotees, respectable members of the Vaisnava community, etc. Thus, there is a tendency for us to deny the weeds that surface, because "I am a devotee and a devotee doesn't possess such loathsome qualities." In many instances much energy that could otherwise be used for productive devotional service and internal purification is used to stuff down weeds in the heart.
The Vaisnava Life Skills/Personal Transformation seminars provide practical and effective methods for identifying and uprooting weeds in the heart. This is an essential process on the path of bhakti-yoga. After the Life Skills/Personal Transformation courses a student at Bhaktivedanta College wrote, "I could see clearly how this process of 'pulling the weeds' is intrinsic and essential to our process of Krsna consciousness& The course was so great and wonderful that I didn't want it to end." Another graduate of the courses wrote "It was very confronting for me to see the weeds in myself. Pulling the weeds was painful, because they were firmly rooted. Sometimes it felt like open-heart surgery, but I could see that it was very helpful. Besides a nice theoretical basis, we were actually working towards the result&Reflecting on his experience with the Foundational Course an editor and brahmacari wrote "It entered like a needle and came out like a plough! I felt greatly guided in an instructive, enlivening, challenging learning experience. This is the first time someone has taught me how to pull the weeds off my heart in such a clear, systematic, practical, and simple way."
During the seminars devotees discover renewed energy within themselves that they then devote to their practices of Krsna consciousness. After pulling the weeds and clearing the dust, stores of potential are released and engaged for spiritual endeavors.
Personal accountability is a core concept of the Vaisnava Life Skills/Personal Transformation trainings. Throughout the world personal responsibility is prized and appreciated. Vaisnava precepts provide a framework for the deepest comprehension of this principle. With a Vaisnava understanding we can understand how we are responsible for the circumstances of our life, including even the conditions of our birth. This insight does not of course preclude a devotee from manifesting genuine compassion and empathy for suffering souls. This sensitive compassion is enriched and informed by the philosophical understanding of how each of us is responsible for our lives. With such knowledge a Vaisnava helper is well equipped to encourage others to make the best use of their self-determination.
One Vaisnavi, on the morning following the final day of the course, related how her new realizations of taking full responsibility for her own life affected her sadhana practice, "This morning, like any other, I chanted my rounds, but something was different. I realized that I did not HAVE to chant. Rather, I have the PRIVILEGE to chant! I GET to chant the holy names of God! I actually get the opportunity to associate with Krsna every single day! In fact, every single moment! What is more, it is up to me how much I want to be in that association. How greedy am I to be in His presence?"
The cit potency of the spirit soul intrinsically imbues us with consciousness and free will. Uncovering this conscious entity that at every moment has power of choice is a recurrent theme in the Life Skills/Personal Transformation courses. Regaining our conscious element is integral to the process of releasing ourselves from lower gunas and assuming a sattvic mode. To be Krsna conscious presumes that we are conscious, and a sattvic, conscious and aware position is thus the platform for choosing Krsna consciousness. Krsna consciousness is a voluntary process, and necessitates that the volition of the living entity is fully operative. The soul is full of knowledge, and the courses serve as a vehicle for participants to realize the potential within, to effectively handle their life situations and achieve far beyond what they considered possible.
Realization of our accountability connects us with the power of the soul. Clear intention of what we, as spiritual beings, truly desire, overcomes material impediments, because spiritual energy is superior to material energy. During the courses students focus on clarifying what they want to create in their lives, in terms of internal experience and external accomplishments. This clarity is best facilitated by a stance of personal responsibility. An ISKCON leader wrote, "The course was extremely deep, powerful and transformational for all participants, without exception. It helped us to go very deep within ourselves and identify obstacles to personal development, both from the human and the devotional point of view, and gave us the determination to make serious commitments in our lives to overcome these obstacles." A course graduate at a Vaisnava educational institution wrote, "The course has given me invaluable tools for dramatically increasing the quality of my life. I can openly and honestly say that it is the best course I have ever taken, and its value is equally applicable to all persons who have a desire for change. " A senior mataji stated "I'm excited with the challenge of maintaining and developing my newly discovered power- and using it to serve Srila Prabhupada's mission." Another Vaisnava student wrote "I learned from this course that there is a power in me that wants and needs to come out to serve Srila Prabhupada in a better way."
The Life Skills/Personal Transformation courses are designed to be effective for practically all human beings, not just those identifying themselves as devotees of Krsna. The principles of communication, accountability, and uncovering the genuineness of the soul and its qualities are applicable for all. Each particular course has a unique mix of students, with regard to depth and degree of sadhana practice, and identification as a devotee of Krsna. Each student possesses an individual relationship with Vedic standards and practices, with respect to inter-gender interaction and other elements of relationship and belief.
Each course is similar in that a basic framework is provided to support and encourage students to achieve the skills and personal growth they seek. Simultaneously, each seminar has a different flavor, largely because of the unique mix of individuals. With regard to inter-gender interaction, course staff does not prescribe or proscribe (within the bounds of propriety, of course). Each participant determines whether and to what extent s/he wants to interact with the other gender. This in itself provides participants an opportunity to examine patterns of behavior and relationship, which may be useful, productive, and healing. In this regard it is naturally expected that a group including mostly sadhakas will manifest differently than a group where most of the students, although perhaps identifying themselves as devotees, do not emphasize the practice of the rules and regulations of the process of bhakti-yoga.
For example, there are several dyad processes throughout the courses. Though in a few instances the facilitator may specifically direct that one form a dyad with a member of the same gender, in the vast majority of instances each participant determines the choice of the gender of ones partner.
We have seen, in our experience with dozens of courses, that students derive tremendous benefit from the diversity of participants, including heterogeneity of ages, backgrounds, and ethnicity. "It was wonderful that the group developed such Vaisnava sanga that the age, gender, and nationality diversity enhanced rather than inhibited the respectful dealings and appropriate disclosures. The intimate, personal interaction will not easily be forgotten by those of us who had the good fortune to experience it." Having both genders represented has been very valuable for students, enabling men to learn from women and vice versa. Life involves interaction of genders, and thus the courses characterize a realistic environment. That said, there may be advantages to conduct a course with only one gender, because for some persons such an environment may support them in feeling safer to do the transformational work they want to do.
We should note that a strong relationship and adherence to a Vedic standard of inter-gender boundaries does not imply lack of interaction with the opposite gender. Some participants in the seminars have become more resolute in their asramas of saffron cloth as a result of the course, while also, as a result of the seminars, increasing their natural appreciation of women as mothers.
The Vaisnava Life Skills/Personal Transformation courses provide, or help one to rediscover, valuable tools, such as reflective listening, assertiveness, accountability, methods for pulling the weeds from the heart, techniques for expressing oneself openly and frankly in relationships, and qualities within oneself that have been covered and unmanifest for a long time. How we use these tools is our decision. It is the prayer and hope of the staff of these courses that each graduate will utilize the tools in ways that will increasingly manifest the glorious qualities of the self that Krsna has created.
Upon completion of the courses, especially after the Advanced Course, participants characteristically experience a supercharged Sakti springing from newly released energies from the soul. Much energy that was devoted to preserving masks and facades and pushing down weeds and dust is unleashed.
At the completion of the advanced course one brahmacari expressed "I see Krsna from beginning to end manifest in this course. He was guiding us all along and showed the immense power of revealing the mind in confidence, and also inquiring confidentially. There was such a mood of trust and love- I have never experienced in my life. This was liberating. I feel now as if I have dealt with anarthas that would have taken me years to overcome. The topmost priority in ISKCON and society at large is to create these forums where such loving exchanges can take place." A senior devotee wrote, "I would like to conclude by expressing my deepest-felt gratitude for this experience. I consider it a turning point in my life. I went through a real transformation and have witnessed seventeen similar transformations within just a few days. I have witnessed real miracles with wonderful manifestations of jewels from the hearts of devotees who attended." After the foundational course a student expressed "This course is the best thing I did for my devotional life since I took initiation. If everyone in the movement took this course, it would be a different movement." A leader in ISKCON North America wrote, "I feel that the skills I have learned will help me to be a better husband, father, friend, and above all, a better devotee. Your courses will help make a more harmonious situation for pursuing our Krsna consciousness." An ISKCON sannyasi stated " . . . it was inspiring and interesting how you put it within a Krsna conscious framework. I have a view that your course should be an integrated part within the training and teaching of our leaders, preachers, managers, etc."
An ISKCON leader and graduate of the Advanced Course expressed that the training allowed him to dig deep inside and bring to the surface a lot of stuff; it helped me to remove a lot of blocks and masks I was carrying for years (and perhaps lifetimes) that were like anchors weighing me down, like leeches sucking my energy. I gained the clear insight and conviction that this course could represent a historic turning point in the life of the members of ISKCON and therefore a turning point for the movement as a whole. I would make it a prerequisite for responsible positions in our Society, as it would do a lot for personal balancing and realignment&This course can help devotees remove their camouflages; to release their pent-up negative emotions; to improve and deepen relations; to become more focused, centered and productive; to create a generation of more authentic and transparent servants, and to firmly establish the powerful, loving, friendly spiritual movement that ISKCON is meant to be.
Frequently during the courses we state that the training begins on Sunday
evening (that is, when the course formally ends, which is often on Sunday
evening). The real test is to take realizations from the training room and
transform our lives in profound ways. Srila Prabhupada gave us the most
sublime transformational process, as well as a house in which the entire
world can live. We have been encouraged by devotees from diverse sectors of
Srila Prabhupada's movement to develop and continue to offer these Vaisnava
Life Skills/Personal Transformation courses as an ornament in that house.
We ask for comments and feedback from the Vaisnava community so that we may
improve our meager attempt at service. Hare Krsna.