I was recently given a rather pointed reminder of the bitter fact that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. This proverb has become such a cliche that we don’t often think about what it means; it gets thrown out to try and shut up those with whom we disagree in social, political, economic, or religious matters and as quickly dismissed by our interlocutors for the silly gambit it was, but it is never used as intended: introspection. Turn the phrase on yourself and see where it leads you. Sincerely ask yourself—and, by God, don’t answer immediately!—”What motivates me here?” Often, we quietly, so quietly we do not hear it ourselves, bury our ignorance, egotism, attachment, repulsion, and fear under a pile of philanthropic projects, community outreach programs, educational pursuits, or simple free-floating sentiments of humanitarianism and good-will.
For a time, there, I was multiplying my public obligations: working on writing some books, advertising my work as an astrologer and Tarot reader, teaching a meditation class, giving “talks” on various topics, and so forth. But this is precisely why we have need of the Guru. My preceptor, in a gentle but clear way, brought my attention sharply around to what I was doing. So now, I’m pulling back.
This doesn’t mean that I’m cutting all of my public involvements, nor would I presume to tell anyone else to do so. Rather, I was given the opportunity to look my own motives and needs in the face and that’s my only recommendation. Do not “vote in haste and repent at leisure” but consider why it is you want to do something, support something, say something.
This is not a repudiation of compassion. I’m sure that some will want to take it that way, but that, too, is a defense mechanism for the ego: “If you aren’t coming out in vocal support of my priorities, it’s because you must be The Enemy.” Remember, whether you are tempted to say this to someone else, or someone says it to you, it is close enough to 100% that it’s just an ego trying to protect its own borders. Real compassion doesn’t often look like either an Internet meme or a Facebook rant. It’s often much more like the Karma Yogi’s quiet willingness to do what he knows he ought, apart from any expectation of enjoying the fruits thereof. To put it sharply, “Compassion sometimes looks like indifference,” if only because the observer’s field of view is limited.
Neither is this a repudiation of taking care of one’s self. To the contrary: the understanding of one’s own motives is an irreducible necessity for real peace, freedom, and happiness. When we know why we want something (or want to avoid something) we can make more intelligent decisions as to whether or not it is worth our while. Does this actually help anyone’s attainment of peace, freedom, or happiness, or is it just another entanglement?
This is all something we have to gradually awaken to. It is the Yogic capacity for discernment—Insight, buddhi, pratibhā—so it does not serve us to too harshly flagellate ourselves when we fail to exercise it. It does, however, serve us to take notice when we’ve dropped the ball. For this, a spiritual friend who has walked before us along the way is invaluable. But even if you do not yet have such a person, you can always try to remind yourself: “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.”