Taking Responsibility for Ourselves

By Sarah Belle Dougherty

All of us undergo experiences at times which leave us feeling unfairly treated, victimized, even bitter. How can we come to terms with apparently unjust or undeserved happenings? Exploring the question from a spiritual perspective leads us to consider what a human being really is: not just a body and a mind, nor the sum of physical heredity shaped by environmental forces. Each of us is essentially a spiritual atom of consciousness whose beginnings are lost in the farthest mists of time. Every such consciousness-atom or monad is unique, different from all others in its accumulated experience, yet it is essentially one with all else because everything originates from the same incomprehensible divine source.

The spiritual atoms now manifesting as human beings were there at our planet's very beginning, helping to build the earth as members of the various kingdoms of nature. The earth is thought to be over four billion years old -- that's a long time to have been garnering experience and building up an individuality. For millions of those years we have been expressing ourselves as humans, making ourselves what we are today: acting and reacting, thinking, making choices, taking and missing opportunities, growing and learning. Each person has an aspect that is not dispersed at death to be reformed anew with each incarnation as are the body, emotional characteristics, and those mental faculties which depend on the physical brain. This reincarnating self, maintaining its continuity of consciousness from life to life, is more aware than the everyday ego. It is the real human being toward which the everyday ego is evolving in quest of its own "immortality." And it is this self, understanding the purpose of events in life, that is drawn by affinity to situations which best meet not only its own karmic needs but those of its lower psychological vehicles as well.

From an inner perspective, the reincarnating self is responsible for both our heredity and environment. Scientific theories that put forward environment and physical heredity as the sole factors shaping a person, reinforce the universal tendency to shift responsibility off ourselves; so do religious systems that tie creation and salvation to something outside us. As evolving centers of consciousness, however, we are responsible not only for our deliberate decisions and actions which make us the type of person we are and for the qualities and characteristics which we have gathered to ourselves again, but likewise for the parents and family we were attracted to, the culture and nation into which we were born, and the people we meet and are associated with. We decided to be there, not consciously but by creating the karma that drew our reincarnating self most strongly to those situations and people.

Our newly re-formed brain-mind cannot perceive or comprehend the causes and old connections which bring about events in life, or the patterns of thought and feeling that assert themselves so readily because they have been ours before. Sometimes it takes a long while to realize that life doesn't "owe" us anything, that we come into this life bringing everything we are from the past. When we feel that we have not received something that life owes us, it is easy to become resentful and angry, so that difficult times and relationships may leave a residue of bitterness for years: toward relatives, teachers, spouses, organizations, or simply "the system." But it is precisely such feelings that prevent our moving forward.

Is there any way to discern the purpose behind the circumstances in life? Being sensitive to the natural line of karma in daily events provides an important key to understanding what our reincarnating self is attempting to accomplish. Rather than projecting personal desires, hopes, or will onto events, we can try to intuit what that permanent self is driving at -- which is the most natural and, in the long run, the most productive course of action we could take in any situation. We can approach life from the point of view of the reincarnating self, instead of from the intellectual and emotional outlook of the limited ordinary ego, by viewing unpleasant as well as pleasant conditions as opportunities to learn what we most need.

Knowing there is within us a greater self which understands the purpose behind our circumstances, and which by means of them is encouraging us to grow into a truly human being, brings a sense of the ultimate fitness of events. The inner self is drawn to situations, not to gratify personal happiness, ambition, or pride, but to stimulate the growth of inner characteristics and qualities. Our everyday ego will probably never understand exactly what elements from the past have resulted in current situations, especially those that are heart-wrenching or perhaps even fatal. Every person, moreover, being inseparable inwardly from the rest of humanity, partakes of the collective karma of mankind that all have helped to create. By accepting full responsibility for ourselves and our life, we can make the most of every situation and work with the more evolved part of us to fulfill our raison d'etre as a human being at any particular place and time.

Once we open ourselves to this inner self, aspiring to see things from its perspective rather than our typically egocentric one, it can reach out to help us more effectively. An Ariadne's thread of duty runs through our daily lives, and following that karma as it unwinds among the many choices before us will lead us through the labyrinth of life's experiences. The particular choices made are not so crucial; there is no one "right" path or predetermined destination for anyone. Life is a ceaseless becoming, and our motives, aspirations, and attempts are the vital process by which the future unfolds. As we grow increasingly sensitive to the subtle pattern of karmic events surrounding us day by day, the presence of our greater self working through them will show ever more clearly.

Our reaction to and use of circumstances determines whether the lessons our inner self has set us will be learned or whether they must be repeated in yet another life. Holding resentment or expecting to be paid what we feel is due us only wastes our inner resources; others will inevitably meet the results of their own choices and actions through what they have made themselves to be -- nothing can interfere with their individual karma. In the same way we can be sure that our own attitudes and reactions to people and events are forming our future self and destiny. Letting go of negative emotional baggage may take years, yet seeing ourselves as fully responsible spiritual beings, rather than as victims, frees us to take the initiative in life. We can better recognize that we are the masters of our fate, inwardly and fundamentally, no matter how it may appear outwardly. By aspiring consciously toward our permanent self, we become aware of an inner strength that is truly incalculable, for the core of each person is an indestructible atom of divinity pursuing its eternal way through the cosmos.

(Reprinted from Sunrise magazine, June/July 1990. Copyright © 1990 by Theosophical University Press)

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