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Staying true to yourself

By - Nov 21, 2011 - Category Practice - Print Print - Version française

red and yellow flowers

Ostad Elahi’s philosophy is, as we know, grounded in the personal efforts made to gain greater self-knowledge not with the perspective of self development but of spiritual development. However, as soon as you set out to concretely experiment this philosophy and undertake the work of spiritual self perfection, you are bound to encounter several forms of resistance.

For my part, ever since I have started making efforts to keep some of my character weaknesses in check and to develop my human qualities and my faith, through a variety of practices, I have observed the same pattern: at the beginning of each new practice I am highly motivated and focused on my objective and my efforts do not encounter any insurmountable obstacles. But then it doesn’t take long, maybe a couple of weeks, before my attention begins to dwindle and—unless I receive some help from the outside—I fall back into the same old negligence.

I wondered why I was so fragile and why I was not able to be more determined and perseverant. Several causes stood out from the outset that could be qualified as intrinsic: character faults such as negligence and laziness. But I also identified an extrinsic cause that, although too easily overlooked, seemed to be an even greater obstacle in the practice of ethics if it was not taken into account: the influence of my environment, distracting me from my ethical and spiritual objective.

Let’s look at a few examples. Being aware of the importance of respecting the rights of others and of not harming them, I set forth on several occasions a practical program to resist the temptation to speak ill of others, deciding specifically to stop participating in the backbiting I witnessed on a daily basis, particularly at my work place. I also tried being positive and identifying qualities in others rather than focusing on their weaknesses. And then also, to fortify my faith, I set myself the objective to try and think of God several times a day.

Every time I put into practice these principles I had the same feeling: it was as if I was swimming upstream, as if I was the only one to have ethical and spiritual aspirations in an environment where almost everything is geared to the opposite of what I aspire to. This includes my colleagues, part of my friends and my family, and more generally the media, society—in a nutshell, the whole environment I live in. It is no secret that backbiting is more popular than kindness and that making fun of the weak and pointing out the faults of others is more appealing than praising their qualities. And when it comes to claiming one’s faith in God, it is almost inconceivable, and the times when the subject is brought up in a conversation, on the radio or on TV in a positive manner remain the exception.

The truth is, whatever the practices you choose, sooner or later you will be faced with “the influence of the environment”. This is why I feel that in addition to whatever practice you set for yourself it is necessary to add some form of self-evaluation: to what extent am I influenced by people around me, society and trends. Am I able to detect anti-ethical influences and resist them?

Becoming aware of the influence of your environment

Here are some test questions: Can I resist engaging in backbiting for more than a couple of days? Are my preoccupations and desires influenced by the people around me? Do I enjoy being like everyone else and being liked? Is the opinion of others so important to me that my behaviour will depend on it?

If, for example, I am depressed because I have recently turned 30, isn’t that a sign that I should watch out? Isn’t that a sign that I have been influenced by the dominant ideology that considers youth to be an essential human quality? I do know that while aging means losing one’s strength and vitality it also means gaining maturity, wisdom and peace of mind. Why then be depressed? How else explain such a reaction than as the result of some sort of contagion?

Becoming aware of this influence is the first step toward greater self-knowledge and to becoming better equipped to resist outside influence and stay true to yourself. Let’s not delude ourselves though, because it is very difficult to resist the influence of one’s environment: the pressure never lets off and it is inevitable as we move on with our lives that little by little we take on the values, adopt the desires and cultivate the expectations of the world we live in. For example, all my friends have a house and two children, so naturally I begin to want those same things. Are such important choices as these truly my own and the fruit of my free will or do my desires only echo social expectations? At a more superficial level, yet no less telling, I have started looking at make-up in the Dior line, rather than the cheaper brand I have always used and had no complaints about… Could this be about my new colleagues who are into fashion and luxury brands? The technology fans could ask themselves the same question when it comes to the latest fads in electronics. I have also noticed that when I am around people who use bad language I have a tendency of being less careful in my choice of words.

Undeniably, our environment rubs off on us and its influence manifests itself even in our frustrations. Choosing to marry a particular man, for example, I choose to renounce all others. Similarly, choosing to set out to improve myself spiritually, I will sooner or later run into situations where I will have to renounce certain things that may be more material. If I am then frustrated and come to almost regret having done my ethical duty, it is because I am subject to external influence. I was able to put this to trial in a very common situation that had to do with the choice to privilege my parents’ rights over my own right to a carefree holiday. It takes a great deal of determination not to let yourself be overwhelmed by feelings of frustration when hearing about the far-away dream vacation your friends are going on while you are stuck, having decided this year to make your parents—who you never see—happy and to spend a couple of days with them so they can enjoy their grandchildren. This doesn’t mean, of course, that it is necessary to give up vacationing without the children to privilege spending time with one’s parents—it is the choice I made at that time in the specific circumstances I was in.

These are just a few examples, but they show how strong the influence is. This influence, by the way, is not always negative. We certainly all know some exemplary people whose dignity and uprightness are such that we would under no circumstances want to be caught speaking ill of others or using bad language in their presence. When the influence is negative though, which is mostly the case, it is advisable to resist it to stick to one’s practice. This requires, first of all, to be convinced that it is possible.

Staying true to yourself and resisting outside influence: avoiding pitfalls

When I became aware of the negative influence my environment had upon me, my first reaction was to put the blame for my misconduct on everyone else: the others, society, etc. The rotten world I was living in, I believed, was the only cause of my inability to stick to a spiritual practice.

It was all too clear that such a position was both inappropriate and useless. First of all, it is just another way of going along with the general gloom that makes it impossible to make any efforts to improve yourself and prevents you from seeing all the positive aspects that may be found in others. Ostad Elahi has shown that it is precisely within society that natural spirituality has to be practiced and that society actually provides optimum conditions for someone whose efforts are directed toward developing spiritual and ethical virtues: here is one good reason not to depreciate the world in which we live. Furthermore, focusing judgmentally on the faults and weaknesses of others, is forgetting that for those who have embarked on the path of perfection, the only object of their efforts should be themselves; it is forgetting that to become a true human being you must struggle against your own weaknesses; it is “looking at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and paying no attention to the plank in your own”. These considerations should indeed raise our suspicions as to the imperious self’s cunning tactics to distract us from what is truly essential.

Next, I was tempted by another reaction: the withdrawal strategy. If others were that harmful I would just cut myself off from them. In reality, not only is it impossible to cut oneself off from the rest of the world, it is not advisable. As we have just seen, spirituality must be practiced within society and confrontation with the world is precisely what enables us to develop virtues. How easy it is to refrain from speaking ill when living on your own or to be positive when there’s no one there to annoy you. No victory without struggle!

In the third phase of this inner journey, having understood that others often behave in an anti-ethical manner, I decided that rather than be influenced by them I would influence them and change them! And there I was, transformed into this preacher of ethics, pompous and moralizing, asking people with emphasized kindness whether they truly believed that speaking ill of others and criticizing them was the right thing to do. Needless to say, this was again a short-lived experience. I soon became unbearable and realized that not only was this behaviour useless and ridiculous, it also distracted me from the real task I needed to take on: the improvement of myself.

I went back to the basics of natural spirituality. Spirituality is a personal and intimate affair. “The reason for everything that happens to you is within”, said Ostad Elahi. What does this sentence mean in this context? It means that the reason I am influenced by those around me is that I am receptive to that influence. If the anti-ethical tendencies around me have an effect on me, it is because I do not shut them out; quite the contrary actually: part of me takes pleasure in them, and it is this part that I must struggle against in order to develop divine ethical virtues.

The experience of these misperceptions and the results of my putting them into action at least helped me understand that I should not consider the influence of those around me as inescapable but rather as dependent on my will and my reaction to select what I let into my mind.

First, it is essential to keep in mind one’s true nature. This may be obvious, but if I want to stay true to myself, I have to know who I am and what I expect of myself. It goes without saying that this is a very vast question but you can try and tackle it simply and pragmatically.

I am well aware that self-knowledge is indeed one of the objectives of spiritual perfection. I am far from knowing myself perfectly but I do have a bit of an idea of who I am: I am a bidimensional being, composed of a body but also and primarily of a spirit that will survive the death of the body and has the potential to return to its Source. The “I” that says “I am” is indeed this spiritual part of my being. Thus, in order to resist the negative influence of the environment (negative being relative to the ethical norm I aspire to), I need to keep that spiritual dimension in mind at all times. Merely keeping in mind this guideline has in itself a very concrete effect on the hierarchy of my priorities. If I remember that I am a spiritual being why would I be concerned about physical aging or not wearing a luxury Rolex watch by age 50?

Then you need to remember your spiritual objectives. We are all responsible for the objectives we set ourselves. For whoever sets out to perfect themselves spiritually, the goal is to acquire self-knowledge through the development of divine ethical virtues and by fighting against one’s flaws in order to either become a better human being, or, for believers, to prepare for a better life in the other world or even to come closer to God—the Source. Having even these very general objectives in mind can have considerable impact on how receptive we are to the negativity around us; it definitely affects our “permeability” to it.

If, for example, I have in mind that I am preparing my spiritual future by respecting the rights of others and avoiding doing them harm, I will more easily succeed in resisting the dominant tendency of speaking ill of others. If I am convinced that each of my efforts is a step ahead toward my goal, these efforts become easier no matter what environment I find myself in. It is a question of motivation. The greater my motivation, the greater my capacity to pay attention to my actions, behaviour and thoughts.

Staying true to yourself and resisting the influence from your environment: some pointers

Becoming aware of your capacity to resist

Two guiding words: consciousness and willpower

If we let ourselves be influenced negatively and become invaded by the dominant materialistic frame of mind, it is because we do not pay enough attention and do not select what we let into our thoughts. It is as if there was a fine, more or less permeable membrane between our minds and our environment. If I don’t think about it, everything is let in and I will be influenced, positively if those around me are positive and negatively in the opposite case. However, if I direct my attention to my thought, to what passes through it or nourishes it, then I can act upon this membrane and its selectivity. I can choose to absorb only what is beneficial for me.

A slight trigger is enough to activate the selectivity of your thought—a moment of lucidity and a small mental effort. Stop and measure the situation for example at a given moment, take a small sample of your thought as one would take a blood sample to analyze it: what is it that is overwhelming me? What is preoccupying me at this given moment? Is what I am saying ethical? Does my behaviour correspond to my deepest aspirations? What is my objective at this moment?

Making this mental effort is not that complicated to achieve at a given time. What is difficult, however, is to act in the long term with determination and consistency on the permeability of our mind to our environment. The means I found to do this is to develop a spiritual vision of yourself.

Developing a spiritual vision of yourself

Here are a couple of ways to develop this spiritual vision:

It seems in the end that these two objectives are inseparable from the idea that you must be conscious of your value and dignity and must realize that it is degrading to let yourself be touched by the surrounding negativity. To swim against the current you have to manage to feel, deep inside, proud of yourself, of your nature and of your objectives: I have a spiritual and ethical quest and I am proud of it. Some seek power, others seek money or affection, are passionate about sports, fashion, etc. That’s fine, it’s their choice and they are not ashamed of it. They take responsibility for the choices they make to achieve their goals and dreams. I think it is important to have that same state of mind and accept it. I owe it to myself to be proud of myself, of my differences and my priorities. It is not important for me to accumulate material wealth (even if it is not a problem if I do), to please others or to seduce them (even if my attitude can win hearts). My goal is to transform myself into a true human being, and what I am passionate about is Ethics.

An invaluable help in establishing this inner pride and finding the strength that will help me be more firm is to seek divine satisfaction in all my actions and thoughts, to say to myself that it is Him that I want to please and not other people. It is also helpful to remember, when I feel a bit lost like a little fish swimming upstream, that I am not alone swimming in this direction and that He is by my side, always. When you are able to bring to mind His presence concretely it becomes much easier to observe what is going on within you, in your thoughts, and to understand why you are acting in the way you are. Accordingly, it becomes easier to resist, to select what is beneficial in the environment and let the rest go without letting it affect you.

To conclude, I would like to suggest two practical exercises:

  • Once a day, I identify a desire or a craving that pops up in me and try and determine what brought it on. Does it correspond to my spiritual objectives or is it the result of my having been influenced by others?
  • Once a day, I make a check-up on my thoughts: are they positive and do they correspond to my ethical principles or are they negative and anti-ethical?

See also:

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  1. Kev Nov 21, 2011 4:28 am 1

    What a fantastic article! How difficult it is to stay true to yourself in these times; yet, it is in these changing times that one can truly increase his or her self-knowldge, and advance.

  2. NN Nov 21, 2011 4:57 am 2

    This was a great article. Can I just say it came at the right time. Sometimes I feel I a lack of motivation, but knowing at the end of the day I am trying to better myself it helps me. Thank you for your suggestions on the two practical exercises. Reflection is very important, and to really understand the reason behind our actions is key. It helps us develop a better sense of who we are.

  3. Sh Nov 21, 2011 8:44 am 3

    The attractive aspect of arguments about daily experiments is that one can prepare such inner space that it makes him/her self READY to CHANGE.

  4. adissam Nov 21, 2011 9:00 pm 4

    “It is Him that I want to please”.
    I’ve experienced that this mindset gives me tremendous strength in society. In my job for example, I’ve been suggested to adopt an unethical attitude. I refused to do it and did not fear the consequences because my account is with Him.
    The first result was to trigger an opposite reaction (i.e. from my superior, colleague,…). Then I questioned myself whether my attitude was not too firm. However, I noticed that my emotions did not turn bitter or hard-hearted, and I interpret it as a sign that my intention was right. Finally, the suggestion was dismissed.
    I could also notice that depending on the person this noble attitude can help refrain from new attempts. A sort of reverberating effect.
    This experience suggests that such intention or mindset can act as a protector.
    These are only preliminary results that would need to be replicated.

  5. aprince Nov 21, 2011 11:18 pm 5

    Great Article! Sometimes you do forget and become influenced by your surrounding and you have to remind yourself what the ultimate goal is. This article was sort a reminder and a refresher that divine ethics and God’s satisfaction is the ultimate goal in everything that we think and do in our daily life.

  6. Naz Nov 22, 2011 6:08 am 6

    It’s amazing, how things appear just as you’re losing motivation for change. It truly is a difficult feat to fight against the pressures and commonalities of society. However, when we keep the final goal and our intentions in mind, the fight becomes somewhat easier. Although spirituality may not be the “popular” thing, it is the most important. Thank you so much for this boost of motivation and strength!

  7. Juneone Nov 22, 2011 5:43 pm 7

    Such a strong article. I am so often stuck in place, in my everday encounters, where I am trying to “do the right thing” for the wrong reasons. A material perspective makes it difficult for me to be consistent in my actions : when the material response is not what I expected, I crumble. Thank you for a thoughtful, practical piece.

  8. Nella Nov 22, 2011 7:01 pm 8

    I can’t possibly thank you enough for this brilliant article. Wow, it is so true and I feel that every single word had made me think twice. Also the daily exercises are very useful.

  9. NN Nov 23, 2011 8:11 am 9

    Very good article-hands down very beneficial for myself and has made me think very differently already. Thanks for that.

  10. k Nov 24, 2011 12:32 pm 10

    My problem is currently more the intrinsic part: character faults such as negligence and laziness.

  11. red Nov 25, 2011 7:32 am 11

    Having problem with the intrinsic part, clearly effects the extrinsic part. When we get lazy and negligent to work on ourselves, that will allow our environment to influence us even more: we spend our days only on material acts just like most of the society. The two parts clearly go hand-in-hand. We have to first motivate ourselves to put our laziness aside and then use our willpower to fight against our imperious-self and execute what our sound reason is telling us to do. After reading this article, if we decide to work on ourselves, we MUST take baby steps. Start with putting two minutes aside every night to think of our intentions behind our actions during the day or just one intention behind one action. If we do this EVERY SINGLE NIGHT, without involving our emotional state – i.e. “I’m tired now, I can’t do it,” or “I’ll think twice as hard tomorrow night, I’m not in the mood now” – we will start liking this exercise and we’ll devote even more time to it every night. We should not be the victim of circumstance and let ourselves get lazy. We must have enough dignity to stand up to our imperious self, even if it’s for two minutes. It will make a difference in our process of perfection.

    Thank you very much for this eye opening article. I also love the picture of the white flower among all the pink ones! Very symbolic of our situation in society.

  12. S Nov 25, 2011 11:03 am 12

    I was able to relate to this article very well, because I am going through very similar situations. Just earlier today before reading this article I had actually convinced myself that it was okay to expose other people’s mistakes at work just like they do, to not fall into a material disadvantage.

    Reading this article reminded me of what’s truely right and wrong, and will hopefully help me adjust my thoughts and actions in future days at work.

  13. M Nov 25, 2011 4:25 pm 13

    Thank you so much for this brilliant article, it brought clarity to my mind and tears to my eyes. I do indeed feel like “a little fish swimming upstream” sometimes and when I remind myself and truly feel “that I am not alone swimming in this direction and that He is by my side” it is such a relief.

    Due to my weaknesses and the situation I’m currently in, I have recently been overwhelmed by the idea that I (as opposed to many people in my environment) don’t have any “big projects” in my life that I’m really passionate about…and when surrounded by people with such “big projects” I have sort of felt empty. But after having read this article (several times) I have clearly been reminded of my “project”. “My goal is to transform myself into a true human being, and what I am passionate about is Ethics!” And what an amazing project indeed.

  14. maxfarsh Nov 28, 2011 7:12 pm 14

    Thank you for your interesting article. I persume that the environment can also be described as causal gravity which drags us in if we do not resist it actively.

  15. Y Nov 28, 2011 7:53 pm 15

    Thank you for this article .
    Knowing that HE is always with us and we are not alone helps me not to give up struggling against the Imperious Self.

  16. FK Dec 03, 2011 3:35 am 16

    This is a very enlightening article! I had already started having doubts about my ability to overcome the environment and the negative influences it had on me. Having read this article, I feel like God is talking to me through this eye-opening, insightful paper. It brougth tears to my eyes when I remembered, once more, that I am not alone and in every action I do, in every single thought that creeps into my mind, He is watching me and cares for me. So I need to be more selective in what I let into my mind and what actions I choose to do. Thanks so much for this very thought-provoking article.

  17. happi Dec 04, 2011 1:23 am 17

    Thank you for the great article.
    What I learned the most from this article was to practice checking up my negative thoughts. One of the negative thought that became a habit for me is complaining. What does it mean when I complain? is like I am saying that the problem needs to be “fixed” by someone other than me and I can’t do anything about it. Like I am powerless! I like to focus and keep track the habit of complaining. And see how many times I can stop myself from thinking negatively.

  18. holly Dec 12, 2011 3:57 pm 18

    simply briliant – a very honest and easy read – I certaily will be thinking more about why I behave in certain ways more – and the influences of the environment that I live in – wheather these influences are from friends, family, work mates or simply the media.
    thanks for sharing it so well.

  19. Peter Windsor Dec 30, 2011 3:02 am 19

    Thank you for this article. Beautifully written and also practical. Paul deBell recently spoke about being “objective” in our lives and “cutting” our material thoughts when they begin to stray. Both concepts, I think, are encompassed by the phrase “Developing a spiritual vision of yourself”.

  20. 7 Aug 18, 2012 3:12 pm 20

    “I am passionate about ethics”. This has been a very powerful statement for me.

    I have tendency to get jealous about other people’s money and success . Ever since I have read this article, whenever these negative feelings manifest themselves. I ask myself, what is your passion? ETHICS? or Money ? Getting rich or getting closer to God?

    It is amazing that this sentence “I AM PASSIONATE ABOUT ETHCS”, neutralize all the negativity!

    Thank you for such a wonderful article.

  21. ad Aug 19, 2012 2:13 am 21

    Regarding the influence of others on you. Younger it affected me a lot, but now it is less and less a concern.
    Looking back at that radical change, I realize that I’ve found my strength in the One.

    And it all started with a small act (in relation with food), I failed, yet this practice had such an importance for me that it kick-started my relationship with Him. It then progressively got stronger over the years, with more difficult situations but with more Help too.

    So I can say, whatever you do, even if you fail, it does not matter, what counts is the importance you give to something (i.e your priority).

    1. rosa Jun 24, 2015 4:05 pm 21.1

      …and all the effort that you put through it.

  22. TJ Aug 19, 2012 4:00 am 22

    This article clicked with me.
    Recently, I learned that we weren’t made for this world, but instead for the spiritual world. This earth is like a tool and crutch to help us develop and prepare for the other world. Keeping in mind everything in the article, combined with what I had learned above, I realized that these are the basics of what I need to advance here spiritually. It looks so simple when said, but it is quite a tedious and almost painful task. Not only knowing that He is by our side, even if we are lost or having a difficult time, but knowing that there are large schools of fish traveling to the same goal that I have is also self assuring.
    I could relate in that, for me, this environment is constantly leaving an effect on me. Sometimes it’s positive, but most times it’s negative. I realized I had to be careful. By acquiring these negative attributes, I could rub them off onto other people, causing a chain of negativity among others, which leads to a general negative cycle. But I recognized that behaving polite and friendly also leaves a trace on others, causing some to maybe look up to you. Not that you should preach or push your ethics and values onto others, but just the way you hold yourself can influence people to behave in a more positive manner as well. The scary part is, some people do this without even realizing it!
    Maybe one day, the environment’s effects will become mostly positive with the combined efforts of people in general.
    Overall, this was a truly amazing article.
    Thank you for helping me pull this all together.

  23. n Jan 08, 2013 12:40 am 23

    I felt every word you have wrote. Thank you so much for this great article. It gives someone like me more motivation and I see that I am not alone (even if i know God is always with me). The daily exercise you have posted is what I took as a practice before reading this article and I really was unmotivated until I read your post.

  24. Saga Oct 26, 2015 8:39 am 24

    The two practical exercises suggested, aren’t they more in vitro practices?

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