Aspects of Vaisnava Theory & Practice
Making a "Case" for the Reconstitution of Srila Prabhupada's "Mission"
Rasing Our Spiritual Standards

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Chapter 5
The Priceless Value of Criticism

Part 1

“In ISKCON the Word Criticism is Used Negatively. It Invariably Means an Unfavorable Comment or Judgment of a Person or an Action. Fault-Finding”

“One way to judge our effectiveness as a leader is the amount of honest feedback that we get.” (To Lead is to Serve”, by S. McBee)

In ISKCON the word criticism is used negatively. It invariably means an unfavorable comment or judgment of a person or an action. Fault-finding. The on-line dictionary.cambridge.org, however, offers several meanings to the word and the popular ISKCON usage is,

“An opinion given about something or someone, esp. a negative opinion, or the activity of making such judgments.”

The primary meaning is,

“The act of giving your opinion or judgment about the good or bad qualities of something or someone.”

One may say “a critique.”

Criticism in this sense has immense value, and this is the sense in which I use the word here, and in a number of other places in this book. This usage and practice of criticism should be made more commonplace, for such criticism is essential if one is to develop one’s faculty of discrimination, if one is going to be dedicated to reality, and open to challenge.

In 1986 I moved from Philadelphia to Virginia Beach to open a preaching center. At the time I was a regular contributor to BTG and going through a period of intense effort to improve my meager writing skills. I began attending the monthly meetings of the Hampton Roads Writers Workshop where I learned one of the most important lessons of my life, from “non-devotees”. I learned the value of criticism, something I have always had trouble with.

I was not alone in my difficulties with taking criticism. One of my services at BTG was correspondence secretary. This mainly involved writing to contributors, whose submissions the editors had refused. I had to let the contributor know why his or her submission was turned down and sometimes pass on the editors’ guidelines how the piece may be salvaged.

All philosophy aside—points about transcending the false ego, about thinking oneself lower than the straw in the street, and so on—what I found from this service was that 9.9 out of 10 devotees, whom I had to correspond with, could not take criticism of any kind, be it well-intended, direct, indirect, gentle, hard, or otherwise. And, again, here I mean criticism in the primary sense of the word, not in the usual ISKCON sense of a bare negative judgment. In the majority of cases all criticism was taken as a personal attack on the contributor, as a devotee, as a human being. I found out that many were as bad as me about this point. A good number were worse.

Actually, according to our philosophy, Vaisnavas should be the easiest people on earth to face a critique of their work, but experience did not bear this out. It seemed that everyone reacted to criticism as I did. Whenever I got criticized, my mind went into a tailspin.

My breathing became shallow and muscles in my neck became constricted. My heart raced. For some period of time afterwards I fantasized about my critic falling down long flights of stairs, suffering a stroke, or at least having some major embarrassment. Then I’d feel better. My desires were often dashed, however, because nature did not oblige me.

But in all this emotional turmoil something nagged at my conscience. The problem was that my response was not backed by our philosophy. I knew my reaction was improper, and this disturbed me. But I still have the problem of overreacting to criticism and thereby missing the value of it. And after years at BTG, I did not know any devotee who could be a good role model for me on this point.

Instead, Krishna arranged that I would learn the value of criticism from “non-devotees”. The monthly meeting of the Hampton Roads Writers Workshop was made up of a cross section of people. Most were professional writers. The procedure for the meetings was that people took turns reading their current project—novel, magazine article, poem, whatever. He or she would read a section for say ten minutes and sit down, and then for the next fifty minutes or so, whoever wanted to say something could have a go. Most of the criticism was negative, but these people were not looking for praise. They wanted solid analysis on their performance, because they wanted to get better at their vocation (service).

The writer could not comment once the reading phase was over. Taking notes was okay and responding to direct questions was okay. Otherwise, it was a matter of listening, sifting what came in and taking or leaving what one wanted from all this free criticism.

I attended for six months. I never commented. I simply listened and observed. I never read a single thing in those meetings. I was too terrified. In that six-month period, I saw people take it on the chin, go back, work on their piece, return to the meeting, read it again, only to get slugged again. And the result was pretty amazing. I saw people improve. Once someone did cry. Only once. But she did not quit. The next meeting, she read the same piece again and it was considerably better. The man who chaired most of the meetings was fond of saying,

“You do not grow from praise.”

In a similar vein, Canakya Pundit says:

“Chastising the son and the disciple is pregnant with many qualities; whereas leniency is the cause of many bad habits. Therefore, intelligent men chastise them instead of showing them affection.”

That’s not to say we do not need encouragement. To grow, however, we need to know where the soft spots are, and for that, honest criticism is crucial. There is no substitute for it. I saw those people grow as writers and as people because of the workshop experience. I was only a passive participant, but I grew too. I still have a difficult time taking criticism, but I know its value and I certainly aspire to be able to take it.

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