Born on February 14, people refer to me as a Valentine’s Day baby. That holiday doesn’t thrill me. I prefer the Latin American celebration: el día del amor y la amistad (the day of love and friendship).
Not a fan of Hallmark greeting card observances, I encourage honoring loved ones, and oneself, every day through actions and words. Not money.
Through my long yoga journey, I retooled my interpretation of the word love. I shelved the romance novels and Disney movies as I tuned into the wisdom of my mentors.
Last month, Mumbai-based ISKCON monks, Chaitanya Charan Das and Shyamananda Das, spoke about love to my group of spiritual seekers. Not the boy-meets-girl and knocks her off-her-feet crush. Rather, a deeper form, which encompasses what I teach in my First Love Yourself therapeutic workshops. The men who shared teachings daily, said self-love, self-esteem, self-care, gratitude, and forgiveness are critical to well-being.
Chaitanya Charan, aka “The Spiritual Scientist,” has a knack for talking about life's ups and downs from a philosophical and practical mindset. He acknowledges each person can be the director of their own happiness. “There is always goodness in life and goodness in our heart.” One must take responsibility for personal growth and remove perceived obstacles.
“My favorite verse in the Bhagavad Gita is, ‘We have to elevate ourselves with our selves.’
“You can be your own friend…or your worst enemy. We often talk about improving our relationships, but we don’t talk about our relationship with our self.”
Maybe that’s because self-examination isn’t comfortable. For most, it’s easier to critique or coach someone else rather than dive into self-growth or self-enlightenment. Just as a writer needs an editor, a soccer player their coach, and a student their teacher, everyone benefits from an objective outside source of reflection, says Chaitanya. Unfortunately, “Society acts like a distorted mirror at an amusement park. One is convex. Another is concave. We need a [faithful, realistic] mirror to look at ourselves.”
Finding the clear-looking glass is within reach. But as a toddler can’t comprehend calculus, one has to be ready to change.
According to the monk, the course to master self-love begins with an honest evaluation of oneself. “Self-awareness has to come before self-love. If we have self-awareness, we can recognize ‘this is not acceptable.’ Once we become self-aware, we can evaluate what is healthy or unhealthy.”
The distorted or fuzzy mirror (an example of maya) does no good. Evaluation must be sincere. Additionally, one must take full responsibility. As Chaitanya says, “When we rationalize, we ration lies.”
“The opposite of self-love is self-loathing. A person who loathes themself is making their own life miserable.” The Bhagavad Gita teaches us to evaluate ourselves and balance acceptance with expectations. “Some people are so burdened by expectations that they just check out of this life. They’re running on empty.”
Chaitanya Charan’s close friend and colleague, Shyamananda Das, acknowledges the importance of balance and level-headedness. Uncontrolled self-love is narcissism, he says, whereas total absence equals self-hate.
Chaitanya’s solution: From your place, at your pace, you can access the grace.
Shyamananda compares the mind to a digital camera with unlimited storage. “Whether you like [the image] or not, it’s stored. When you say you don’t want to remember somebody, you’re already remembering them. We don’t have any ‘forget’ buttons in our brains. Some wounds heal completely. Others leave a scar. The more we hold on to the anger, the more we allow [it] to continually assault us.”
No matter how long we have stored those pictures, you can erase and edit those images. As an example, Shyamananda recalls the guru of a dear friend of mine.
Bhakti Tirtha Swami attended Princeton University and was president of his student council. But he was far from privileged. He grew up poor in the ghetto. When his father passed away, they found shoeboxes stuffed with sorely needed cash in the attic. It took Bhakti Tirtha 19 years to forgive his father for hiding the money.
Bhakti Tirtha, who succumbed to cancer at age 55, spoke about releasing resentment.
“Forgiveness is something we mainly do for ourselves so we can personally free ourselves from various stagnations. When we hold unhealthy anger, it normally means we want to retaliate or we want to see the person hurt. Consequently, we must ask ourselves, ‘How much harm or pain must the person experience before we can release them from our psyche?’ Their feelings of remorse or lack of remorse should not really dictate or impose upon our own life. We no longer want to keep living in the past. We are ready to live in the present by making healthy choices that are not clouded by past negative influences. We are ready to be loving always, not only when someone else acts favorably.”
Chaitanya marvels at our capacity to overcome challenges. “Humans are incredibly resilient. No matter what the depths one may be in, one can bounce back and rise up, with a positive mindset and approach.”
“Forgiveness is one way of dealing with anger. It requires mental discipline and the decision to be satisfied. Forgiving is not condoning. It is not trusting. Forgiveness is a gift we give ourselves. Forgiveness is an action…an aid to find closure.”
We can choose to forgive to close the chapter of hurt. Chaitanya’s three-step process to forgive oneself begins with acknowledging the incident. Second, apologize to yourself or others. Then, you can amend and move on.
In summary, Chaitanya Charan circles back to the sacred text.
“One of the things that struck me when I read the Bhagavad Gita 25 years ago was each of us is a part of the divine. Everyone doesn’t have to be a hero or heroine. There are so many forces working to open our hearts to spirituality. Wherever you are in the world, there’s an opportunity to keep evolving. We are all on this same journey upward. Sometimes life, with all its troubles, can seem like Mission Impossible. [But our spiritual journey] is Mission Unstoppable. We all come with baggage. Hopefully, we can lighten our baggage and that of others.”
Note: Above images are deities at the Srila Prabhupada museum in Vrindavan, India.