Waking up to Wisdom
In Stillness and Community

Three Great Forces

--by Brother David Steindl-Rast (May 10, 2010)

The three great forces that the Christian Elders in the Egyptian desert identified as the enemies against which we’re battling are anger, lust, and laziness. The third one is called the noonday devil. It is in the middle of everything — of a day, of a life — that you can lose your resolve, that torpor can set in. When you’re in the middle of swimming across a river, it’s too far to go back and seems too far to reach the other side, and you are tempted to give up. Well, these three elements—anger, lust, and laziness—are precisely the three ways that we can fail to be present where we are, and the whole idea of getting yourself together is to be present where you are and, in the Christian context, to respond to the presence of God.

Anger really means impatience (as opposed to the righteous anger that is desirable in many circumstances). Impatience makes us get ahead of ourselves, reaching out for something in the future and not really being content with where we are, here and now.

Lust extends much wider than the sexual sphere, and essentially means attachment to something that is not present, or is not the appropriate thing right now.

And one by-product of laziness, of being victimized by the noonday devil, is sadness -- not the genuine sorrow of compassion, but the lifeless ennui of never really being involved in the present, with what’s happening.

It’s all about struggling with the forces that are all around us in the world and within us and that distract us from being really unified, in one piece.

--Brother David Steindl-Rast

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Previous Reflections:

On May 10, 2010 Steve wrote:

Steve, This is a cool one, the noon day Devil, thought you would be interested. 

On May 10, 2010 Simi Maharaj wrote:

Couldnt be said any better....another by product...bitterness

On May 11, 2010 Parul Gupta wrote:

it really touched mr

On May 11, 2010 Parul Gupta wrote:

it really touched me

On May 11, 2010 harish wrote:

some things u wrote is right but only these three things are not sufficient to make your note effective

On May 13, 2010 yasaswini wrote:

should give more info but a very good source

On May 13, 2010 Pree wrote:

Thanks for writing about the lesser struggles in life, although they are lesser, they are still battles which need to be won day to day!

I know i battle to stay awake at work on somedays. And everyday I struggle to get out of bed; in the end i usually kick it and jump out and seize the day. Its the only way! I think on weekends some of us really give in!

On May 13, 2010 Chris Johnnidis wrote:

I loved this passage. We're presented with these omnipresent challenges to staying present in everyday life -- and then left to figure out for ourselves how to counterbalance them! It's a wonderful implicit challenge. Of course we truly respond by the way we live, but it's fun to talk about it as well. :)

First, I think it's helpful to consider these words in the context of "early Christian Elders in the Egyptian desert." Unfortunately, the terms like "Christian" and "Jesus" have been so loaded with baggage by now that it becomes difficult to find the true value in them, amongst the noise. But this early Christianity which the author references was probably MUCH unlike most of what we see today. Before any institution called a church even existed. From reading the texts sometimes referred to as the "Gnostic Gospels" ( we can surmise that these early Christian Elders were true seekers, looking within for wisdom, not to an external authority figure -- monks cultivating the contemplative solitude of monastic life. There we'll find mystical and powerful words attributed to Jesus: "If you bring forth what is within you, what is within you will save you; if you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you." In effect: know yourself (more on that later). Elaine Pagels has done excellent historical research into this long-lost chapter of early Christianity, and Tucker Malarkey  wrote a wonderful historical fiction novel called "Resurrection" that tells the riveting story of the unexpected discovery in mid 1900s of the early Christian texts in Nag Hammadi, Egypt, and the quest to share them with the world.

With that in mind, it may at first seem less than relevant to apply these teachings to our modern day, hustle and bustle life. But looking deeper, we can each see the seeker within us and recognize the wisdom of identifying these three blockages -- anger, laziness, lust -- to staying present as we progress on our path.

There were some wonderful reflections in the circle this Wednesday. Neil opened with thoughts on the many other obstacles to presence! :) -- while noting their impermanent nature :) -- and held wonderful space for the rest of the circle, including a touching mother's day reflection to close. Around the circle, a gentleman shared a wonderful image of an open mind as an open sky, to which Steve later poetically painted on passing clouds of emotion; Pancho offered his perspective on the "most powerful force" of ahimsa, or nonviolence; another gentleman shared a great insight that to enter into these states of mind in front of others we must first have a feeling of superiority over whomever may be in our present company ... Amidst reflections on when anger, for example, might be appropriate, Ripa reminded us of the wonderful saying: "between suppression and expression lies observation." Some say depression is anger turned inward, and along those lines, Aumatma recounted a time when one of her patients began feeling angry for the first time in while and her recognizing that as a step along the healing path; Ayush complemented that nicely, musing on the need for balance and knowing when to step into anger and when to come back out. Auntie and Uncle blessed us, as always, with peaceful, wise words and of course, the gift of the opportunity to share our journeys in this sacred way. I loved Auntie's final reflection: "I noticed that simply sitting still can be a remedy to each of these three forces." 

Finally, I mentioned the implicit challenge in this passage to come up with our own responses to these three great forces of anger, lust and laziness, and in that spirit I will offer what came to my mind. And as a preface, let me gratefully acknowledge the numerous perspectives that were offered last night in favor of honoring our beautifully imperfect humanity, which means we need not be dogmatic or holier-than-though (superior ;)) in addressing these very normal phenomena....

For laziness, live your gift. Laziness implies a lack of motivation to do something. Last night I shared that of all the four types of external motivators, positive rewards are most effective (negative rewards, positive punishers, and negative punishers being the other three), so find your own best positive reward of living a meaningful life. But I'll take it a step further here: to counterbalance laziness at the root, go beyond external motivators and find your own intrinsic motivation. (with a hat tip to Alfie Kohn: This requires deeply knowing oneself, and this is what leads us to the true gifts that we have to offer. That which brings us most alive; that which is in abundance for us, and offering it to another loses us nothing but only enriches both lives. Nipun shared a great quote from his recent trip to Japan: "The purpose of life is to discover your gift; the meaning of life is to give your gift away." At that point, perhaps the joy of giving your gift away beats out the lure of laziness. :)

For anger, awareness. As we mentioned in the circle, anger is often vilified as a "bad" emotion, but it comes up in all of us at one point or another, and how can we pre-judge its purpose? As we also pointed out, becoming consumed in anger does not serve anyone. Awareness will always serve us when anger is arising, and keep us rooted in the unfolding present. As Ripa was also sharing: what does anger feel like on my body? Why is it arising now? These are questions that have subtler and subtler answers that will aid us in knowing ourselves. And to complete the counter-balance of awareness, I would add in a healthy does of acceptance. :) If we do not accept what is, we are stuck with it, but once we accept, we can begin to move and flow with it.

And last but not least :) for lust, impermanence. Lust is an interesting word to use here, and has a very Buddhist ring to it -- attachment to something that is not present. Craving for what is not yet our organic reality. So let's counterbalance with a quintessential teaching of Gautama Buddha: anicca, impermanence, or the ever-changing nature of all things. With that, let me thank you for your attention, and pass. :)

On May 14, 2010 Priyanka Goel wrote:

cudn't be summed up in a betr way... small and impactful...

On May 14, 2010 Priyanka Goel wrote:

cudn't be summed up in a betr way... small and impactful...

On May 14, 2010 david mbithi wrote:

Anger may result from lazinnes wich only leaves us lusting for things we don't have.the passge although brief contains a lot.

On May 17, 2010 Ripa wrote:

Thanks, Chris, for sharing your insightful comments! I agreed with Neil that there were other 'great forces' left out of this passage - particularly fear. Swami Sivananda has said that fear is the root cause of all the negative emotions. And at the root of all fear lies a fundamental fear, which is that of death. Fear causes people to do many things that they later regret. So many people, for example, stay in abusive relationships due to the fear of being alone. Fears around financial sustainability abound, and yet so many of the poorest people I have met have television sets and expensive clothing to address the fear of not fitting in without accounting for basic necessities like healthy food. This pattern also has to do with another great force: greed. It takes a degree of fearlessness to truly live simply and yet, when we live simply, all our needs stand a higher chance of being fulfilled. As Gandhiji once said, "There is enough for human need, but not enough for human greed."

Fear causes us to remain small and limited by the constraints of what we already know. Many people even associate being 'adult' with a point at which growth stops. Collectively, fear tends to be conditioned deeply into the western psyche in particular, with the government choosing to respond to the fear of being attacked by terrorists by fighting a war against terror that only serves to attract more of the same treatment. Thus, fear becomes cylical, tending to accelerate deeper and deeper, only becoming increasingly more difficult to root out as fear follows this natural process of intensification.

As Theodore Vail once said, "Real difficulties can be overcome, It is only the imaginary ones that are unconquerable." So much of fear, particularly in the West, is just a quality of an unfocused mind. Many of the people I have met who live in the most dangerous circumstances are also the most fearless - because they are more acutely aware of the brevity of life, it seems, and thus tend to make the most out of every moment. This of course doesn't mean more work needs to be done to make the world a safer place, but at the same time, it is important to recognize that, beyond proper law enforcement, one of the most sustainable ways of creating a safer world is to reach out to those who cause danger, violence and crime. To teach them how to handle their anger, in particular...

That's why I feel so grateful to have the opportunity to teach yoga and meditation in juvenile halls (prisons). It's so amazing to see the transformation that comes about when young people learn how to recognize and thereby control their own anger (instead of letting their anger control them, leading to crime and self-destruction). The gift of awareness, as Chris described, is so important in the process of transforming negative emotions. That's why we always have our youth really identify what anger feels like in their bodies, to notice their heart pounding faster when they get mad. How fast their breathing becomes. The heat on the body. Tension in the forehead. Blood rushing to the head.

It's important, as Aumi wisely shared, to accept anger as an indicator, particularly when healing victims of abuse. "In between the poles of expression and suppression lies a third option, of mere observation." Being able to observe anger is important, because it also enables one to transmute the strong energy of anger (connected to pitta, or the element of fire in Ayurveda) into a powerful force for creating change in the world. Fire can burn and harm the body, but it is also what fuels transformation, whether personal or collective. And ahimsa takes a lot of strength and power. As Gandhiji once said, "The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is an attribute of the strong." In order to fully forgive, to fully embody the powerful 'soul force' Gandhiji did, one needs to fully accept and feel the emotion of anger pass through the body and mind.

Yoga practices provide an amazing opportunity to work with the sensations in the body and to transform negative emotions like anger, lust and laziness. Backbending poses, for example, are powerful ways to overcome anger, through opening the heart. Inversions help one manage feelings of lust. Many bramacharis, or celibate men with monk-like vows, were able to transmute sexual desire through practicing headstands, shoulderstands and handstands on a regular basis in the times of the ancient Indian rishis, or seers, from whom modern yoga practices stem. For laziness, surya namaskar (sun salutation) sequences help the body get moving. Asanas like halasana (plough pose) and salamba sarvangasana (shoulderstand) are specifically designed to help one overcome feelings of laziness.

I first learned about Ayurveda during my yoga teacher training days last year. It was very interesting, and a bit scary, to learn about how intimately connected food is with the emotions. In the Bhagavad Gita Chapter 17, verse 9, it says "Foods that are bitter, sour, saline, excessively hot, pungent, dry and burning are liked by the rajasic and are productive of pain, grief and disease." Rajasic foods and substances include onions, garlic, radishes, coffee, tea, tobacco and any other kind of stimulant. Refined (white) sugar, soft drinks, pungent spices, highly seasoned foods and anything that is excessively hot, bitter, sour or saline is thought to be rajasic. Rajasic foods are believed to increase feelings of anger, lust, greed, violence and selfishness. On a larger scale, these kinds of foods actually lead directly to violence and wars.

The next verse of the Gita says "That food which is stale, tasteless, putrid, rotten and impure refuse, is the food liked by the tamasic." Tamasic foods and substances include meat, fish, all intoxicants (drugs and alcohol), canned, processed and frozen foods, as well as those that are deep-fried. Tamasic foods also include stale, decomposed, unclean, over and unripe fruits. Food that is reheated too many times becomes tamasic. Tamasic foods make people heavy, dull, inert and lazy. They fill the mind with depression, darkness, anger and other 'great enemies.' 

In the fifth verse of this Gita chapter, sattvic foods are described as "The foods which increase life, purity, strength, health, joy and cheerfulness, which are savory and oleaginous, substantial and agreeable." Sattvic foods are fresh and natural, without preservatives and consumed either raw, steamed or lightly cooked. Grains, proteins like nuts, pulses and seeds, dried and fresh fruits and seeded vegetables, as well as natural sweeteners (including honey, molasses, maple syrup and raw cane sugar) are all examples of sattvic foods. Sattvic foods help conquer the great forces while increasing the vitality, energy, health and joy one feels. These foods also keep the mind pure and calm and generate equanimity, inner peace and poise. Sattvic foods are most conducive to the practice of meditation and provide the maximum energy to increase the strength and endurance of those who do even the most strenuous work.

The presence of the great forces, though destructive, must never be written off, as it is only through knowing one's weaknesses that an individual can transform them into his or her greatest strengths - which, as Harshida Auntie beautifully shared, is possible to do through simply sitting still in silence. In the writings of the Mother, it has been said that, "You carry in yourself all the obstacles necessary to make your realization perfect. Always you will see that within you the shadow and the light are equal; you have an ability, you have also the negation of this ability. But if you discover a very black hole, a thick shadow, be sure there is somewhere in you a great light. It is up to you to know how to use the one to realize the other."


On May 17, 2010 Somik Raha wrote:

Very grateful to read the reflections here. I found myself wondering that when I envision a better tomorrow and work toward it, am I not lusting for it? 

The author says, "Lust extends much wider than the sexual sphere, and essentially means attachment to something that is not present, or is not the appropriate thing right now." 

The answer seems to emerge from the last few words of the line - "is not the appropriate thing right now," suggesting awareness and discrimination. Indeed, if I act out of a desire to change the future with a specific idea of what it should be, then I am lusting for that which is not here, and many wise people have cautioned us against working with attachment. Then, must we give up envisioning the future?

It is in our nature to create, and creation involves envisioning that which is not. However, the best creators cannot explain how they create, and usually have some vision of where they want to go, but no vision of what the end result is going to be. Their life (like the rest of us) makes sense looking backwards, but not when looking forward. 

Being aware of what needs to express itself through me seems to be an important distinction that can help me check if something is appropriate or not, for awareness is the first step toward discrimination.

On May 19, 2010 ducwhatic wrote:

Now if only this interpretation was used to discribe the true meaning of Jihad, it would help go miles to explain the Islamic faith.

On Jun 24, 2010 Pancho wrote:

My family calls me Pancho and I'd like you to know that I love you all.

May 10th, Mother's day. But for me all Wednesdays are Mother's day. Today, wasn't the exception.

While I didn't resonate that much with this passage, I enjoyed a lot to learn from the different perspectives offered in the circle. That's the beauty of Wednesdays (and that's why I _love_ Wednesdays! ;-)). We can talk about pretty much anything and the collective intelligence/feeling builds up until the point where I loose myself into the infinite to become one with the tens of people at the Kindness Temple.

I didn't resonate with it because I was trying to find the positive counter parts of the "3 great forces" addressed in the piece, but perhaps I was thinking/feeling about greatest forces or the greatest force. I realized then that love has no opposite.

And because of that, I shared only one point:

1. The Greatest Force at the Disposal of Humanity: Ahimsa.

Ahimsa, nonviolence, is a powerful method to harmonize relationships among people (and all living things) for the establishment of justice and the ultimate well-being of all parties. It draws its power from awareness of the profound truth to which the wisdom traditions of all cultures, science, and common experience bear witness: that all life is one.

Ahimsa is not only the absence of violence, it is not simply the negation to cause harm, but it is something infinitely more: it is when one’s heart is so full of love, so full of courage, forgiveness, generosity, kindness and compassion, that there is no room for hatred, resentment and violence. It is not a double negative but a SUPERLATIVE POSITIVE!

Nonviolence it is a call to disobey inhumane laws and treaties; it is a call to obey the law of love; it is a call to not control anger (if it arises) but to express it under discipline for maximum effects; it is a positive force; it is love in action; it is the thoughts we have, the words we use, the things we do, the cloths we wear, the food we eat… it is a way of life!

For Gandhi women were the epitome of nonviolence:

"To call woman the weaker sex is a libel; it is man's injustice to woman... If by strength is meant moral power, then woman is immeasurably man's superior. Has she not greater intuition, is she not more self-sacrificing, ha she not greater powers of endurance, has she not greater courage? ... If nonviolence is the law of our being, the future is with woman."

To confirm Gandhi's insight, mamá Harshida shared the perfect reflection to close the circle. She said something like: "sitting still is the remedy to any problem." Gandhi was right and Mamá was serving as an instrument to share the Divine Radio. According to the Mahatma (and mama Harshida!):

“When one comes to think of it one cannot help feeling that nearly half the misery of the World would disappear if we, fretting mortals, knew the virtue of silence. Before modern civilization came upon us, at least six to eight hours of silence out of twenty-four were vouchsafed to us. Modern civilization has taught us to convert night into day and golden silence into brazen din and noise. What a great thing it would be if we in our busy lives could retire into ourselves each day for at least a couple of hours and prepare our minds to listen in to the Voice of the Great Silence. The Divine Radio is always singing if we could only make ourselves ready to listen to It, but it’s impossible to listen without silence.”

A powerful Mother's Day where many of the sons and daughters of mamá Harshida and papá Dinesh spent quality time/space together as a family. Indeed, home is everywhere we go.

May all become compassionate, courageous and wise.