The Battleground of Character
Life is a battle. Everyone is grappling with energies within themselves and outside of themselves in order to try to experience comfort and pleasure. From without we have to navigate ever adapting complexities in our environments, interactions, relationships, responsibilities and duties, and so on. From within we have to navigate the drive of our inherent needs as conscious living beings — needs like physical well-being, authenticity, intimacy, harmony, autonomy, joy, and purpose.
I heard a teacher once say, “what’s most personal is most universal.” Everyone is motivated to act according to their perception of how to best experience fulfillment of these needs, no matter how conscious or unconscious we are of these needs of the soul.
Of course, because no single person is exactly like another, the strategies with which to try to eradicate our discomfort are unlimitedly nuanced. This is the Battleground of Character…
How can we manage the constant input pouring into our psyches and the obligation that come from the external world, all the while maintaining an awareness of our internal world and the needs that inhabit it? How can we mold our character in such a way that we intuitively and spontaneously act in the most enlightened way possible to experience the satisfaction of our innate existential longings?
These are the questions that underpin and instigate the Battleground of Character that we all find ourselves on…
You may have heard the perennial Native American adage that within everyone there are two dogs — a good dog and a bad dog — and whichever one we feed more gains dominance and drives our behavior, which in turn molds our character. This illustrative proverb alludes to the powerful relationship between the mind and destiny.
There is a famous quote: “Sow a thought, reap an action; sow an action, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny.” The outcome of The Battleground of Character is our destiny, and that outcome depends on the quality (or lack thereof) of our thoughts and actions.
According to the Vedānta-sūtra, the summary text of all ancient Vedic knowledge, the destiny, or nature, of the soul is to be increasingly and unlimitedly joyful (Ānandamayo ‘bhyāsāt).
The Bhagavad Gita, the central text which presents practical methods and guidelines for imbibing Vedic knowledge (which fittingly was spoken on a literal battlefield before the onset of a war), elucidates this point in verses 6.20–23:
“This perfection (of the soul’s destiny) is characterized by one’s ability to see the self by the pure mind and to relish and rejoice in the self. In that joyous state, one is situated in boundless transcendental happiness, realized through transcendental senses… Being situated in such a position, one is never shaken, even in the midst of greatest difficulty.”
Perfecting our destiny necessitates upgrading our knowledge, which influences the way we think; and enhancing our realization of that knowledge, which then influences the way we act. The point is that our destiny (our future destination/state of consciousness) is changing at every moment based on what we are cultivating.
Though we are inherently and unconditionally blissful as spiritual beings, we have to choose that destiny in order to experience it. And that can ONLY be done through humility!
Humility is the best defense against the invaders of low thoughts and degrading actions and habits. In the 13th chapter of the Bhagavad Gita, it is described that the cultivation of true knowledge begins with humility.
The word humility comes from the Latin root humus, which means the earth or ground. This is what it means to be humble — not to be self-deprecating, but to be grounded in reality. And reality is that we are inconceivably insignificant and yet inconceivably powerful simultaneously. We are powerful because we come from the Supreme Source, who is infinitely powerful. But it is only by accepting and embracing our insignificance that we can claim our true power, by opening ourselves up to receiving true knowledge (that will blossom into realization) of how we can attain our spiritual destiny.
There is a type of ecstasy in insignificance. A genuine feeling of insignificance — “I am so small and limited in my knowledge and abilities” — leads to surrender to and dependency on the mercy of God — “I have no ability to do anything without your empowerment. Everything I have is a gift. Please allow me to work, serve, and live as an instrument of your love.”
Modern society puts a lot of emphasis on being independent, but according to the Vedic paradigm real independence is realized through complete dependence on God. As the Bhagavad Gita (18.58) states: “If you become conscious of your Divine Source, you will be graced to pass over all the obstacles of conditioned life. If however, you do not work in such consciousness but act through false ego, you will be lost.”
By deepening our relationship with God through gratitude and prayer, and nourishing that foundational relationship — the source of all other relationships — as well as aligning ourselves with mentors and peers who can support and challenge us in these endeavors, we become empowered to gain the upper hand in the battle against negative thought patterns, low actions, and bad habits that we may default to in order to try to meet our needs. Instead, we can establish a strong, integral character which facilitates the natural qualities of the soul to manifest increasingly in a way that our deepest existential longings become satisfied. If, however, we feel ourselves entitled and independent of mercy, we lose out on our actual potential to live a life that truly brings contentment, because we can only feel real satisfaction through contact with the source of all satisfaction.
Stephen Covey brilliantly illustrates the Battleground of Character in his book “Spiritual Roots of Human Relations” where he wrote:
“We are all conditioned heavily by our past experiences. These influence our present reactions and behavior, and therefore they influence our future, because our present becomes the future. If we become enslaved to our past habits and conditions, this process will be self-reinforcing and circular and we will never be able to arise out of it.
But if we become enlightened and knowledgable about what we should do, and we learn to marshal all of the forces within ourself, with our heart and our mind, and make a commitment in the present with the full knowledge of what cost and sacrifices that commitment may mean, all the forces within and without us will be unified, and the blessings of heaven will be sacred upon us so that we can break loose of the tremendous gravity pull of the past and of past habits.”
This is the ecstasy of insignificance that a properly aligned warrior on the Battleground of Character can experience. Nothing is as satisfying as true progress and integrity.
One final concept to tie these ideas together and conclude is that of the balance between being humble and dependent and taking responsibility and initiative. It’s not that we sit around passively and don’t assert ourselves in the name of humility. Rather, true dependency encourages drive and commitment, through placing our consciousness in the (spiritually aligned) result that we’re striving towards. Being commitment-driven and absorbed in our vision for what is possible, we remain connected, confident, and patient in bearing and navigating (so-called) obstacles and setbacks because our goals are centered around divine love and service. The alternative is to be history-driven and feel discouraged by difficulties and limiting conceptions of what is possible based on our past conditioning and experiences.
As my guru says, “assume it can be done.” The more conviction and faith you have in what is possible, the more reciprocation you will experience to help you attain it.
My sincere gratitude for anyone who has read this far. I feel so fortunate for all that I have/am learning and experience in my life and I’m praying to serve as an instrument by paying it forward by imbibing and sharing these life changing principles and practices as much as I can.
Aspiring in your service,
*Note: “The Battleground of Character” is a phrase I got from Anton Boisen (1876–1965), a brilliant contributor to the field and study of pastoral counseling and psychology of religion/religious experiences.