How does righteousness cut us off from truth?

When I start to get angry, I see my predicament and how I’m getting caught in expectations and righteousness. Learning to give up anger has been a continuous process.

When Maharaj-ji told me to love everyone and tell the truth, he also said, “Give up anger, and I’ll help you with it.” Maharaj-ji offered me a bargain: “You must polish the mirror free of anger to see God. If you give up a little anger each day, I will help you.” This seemed to be a deal that was more than fair. I readily accepted. And he’s been true to his end of the bargain. I found that his love helped to free me from my righteousness. Ultimately I would rather be free and in love than be right.

If you feel a sense of social responsibility, first of all keep working on yourself. Being peaceful yourself is the first step if you want to live in a peaceful universe.

Have you ever noticed how many angry people there are at peace rallies? Social action arouses righteousness. Righteousness ultimately starves you to death. If you want to be free more than you want to be right, you have to let go of righteousness, of being right.

That reminds me of a story. There’s this Chinese boatman, and he hits another boat in the fog. He starts swearing at the other boatman. “You SOB! Why didn’t you look where you were going?” Then the fog lifts for a moment, and he sees there is nobody in the other boat. And he feels like a fool.

Righteousness is roughly the same thing. Say, for instance, you hold a grudge against your father, and you talk to him in your mind as if he’s there inside you. But he isn’t there. Psychologically you think he is there, because you’re identified with who you think you are, but once you begin to see this is all just a bunch of thoughts, your psychological father is just another set of empty phenomena. You are busy saying, “I forgive you, I forgive you,” to that psychological father, but it’s like saying “I forgive you” to a clock. There’s nothing there. You’re the same as the boatman.

There’s no rush. Go on being right just as long as you can. You’ll see that being right is actually a tight little box that is very constraining and not much fun to live in. Righteousness cuts you off from the flow of things.

When I’m locked in a situation in a relationship with someone, it isn’t that they have done something to me. They’re just doing what they’re doing. If I get caught up in judging, the responsibility lies with me, not with them. It becomes my work on myself. I often say, “I really apologize for whatever suffering I’ve caused you in this situation.” We start to work from there. And after a while they will come forward and will examine themselves and say, “Well, maybe I was . . .” Our predicament is that our ego wants to be right in a world of people who don’t understand how right we are.

There is a way of representing what is right, the dharma of the moment. But if you get emotionally attached to a model of how the world ought to be that excludes how human beings are, there’s something wrong with where you’re standing. You should be standing somewhere else.

Getting lost in your emotional reactivity isn’t where you want to be.

Just allowing your humanity and that of others to be as it is, is the beginning of compassion. We are in a human incarnation. We can’t walk away. To walk in the dharma is also to hear other human beings.

– Excerpt from Ram Dass’ book Polishing the Mirror: How to Live from your Spiritual Heart.


25 thoughts on “How does righteousness cut us off from truth?”

  1. we can’t turn away from social action, but we can be present in a way that transcends the anger, the agenda of being right. It is in bearing witness to all of it, including injustice and oppression, and saying, ‘enough now.’

  2. I’ve noticed many angry people at pro war rallies too. The outcome of a pro-war rally could be war. The outcome of a pro-peace rally could be peace. I prefer peace. Both media and politicians pay some attention to public sentiment. Better to attend a peace rally, peacefully, than to sit quietly at home and bliss out with an icon – or so I like to think.

  3. In principle, I agree: “If you feel a sense of social responsibility,
    first of all keep working on yourself. Being peaceful yourself is the
    first step if you want to live in a peaceful universe.”

    But I hope this is not misinterpreted to mean that it’s better to bliss out
    at a Bhakti Fest or a Christian prayer service than to attend a peace rally or any number of causes that cry out for our support.

    From my perspective, anger motivates us to act and to bring about change. Anger is not limited to lashing out and causing more harm. I feel angry when I see the the state of the world from a global perspective. It makes me angry that children are starving to death and that people boil cats and dogs alive. When I no longer turn a blind eye to the unspeakable cruelty and injustice taking place in our lifetime —I feel angry.

    Ram Das eloquently describes the yogic path, ahimsa, non violence. But let us not forget that it’s fairly easy for those of us who live in the land of milk and honey to aspire to these peaceful ideals. Even if we suffer, if we have a stroke, loose our job, our house . . . our pain is not usually of the magnitude of those who are trapped their whole life, from birth to death, in unbearable, merciless, unrelenting poverty where the most basic of human needs are not met . . .

    I hope you get my drift . . . we don’t know if we’re peaceful until we are challenged. It’s easy for me to feel peaceful teaching yoga classes or meditating in nature on a rock with a nice full stomach and clean drinking water nearby. But what happens when the atomic bomb falls and I’m burned alive? Perhaps healthy anger has its place.

  4. Thank you Ram Dass for your clear, wise and loved-through words, I feel humbled. I still get angry, and the best I can so is start from there. I find that exposing myself, and apologizing open my heart breaks the chain of bondage…AHO and NAMASTE…..

  5. It may be helpful to look at the issue from a neurobiological standpoint. When we are angry, the amygdala — a major emotional controller/activator, which is in the subcortical region deep in the brain, fires up and literally disengages to some degree the prefrontal cortex — the thinking brain. Have you ever been so angry you can’t think? That’s why. When we are angry it relegates us to being something like a trapped wild animal. When we can live from the place that Ram Dass is teaching, it keeps our thinker online and well honed so we can be more effective in our social action and in our choices. It’s from that place that we really can make a difference.

    • Could it be that all emotions, taken to extremes, cloud our thinking?

      I agree that it’s much better to act from a calm, rational mind—but let’s not forget that not only can you be so angry that you can’t think —you can also be so in love that you can’t think!

      This would include the whole range of “love” from romantic love to being in love with a particular spiritual teacher, to love of a particular religion (love of God has probably caused more wars than anything else)!


      • Agreed Suza. It’s not just anger, it’s also fear or sadness or shame or “in love.” But that kind of “Love of religion” I don’t think is love. I think it’s part of our survival defenses, our protections, that closes off our minds in the interest of “being right.” Brene Brown really nailed it when she said, “Faith minus vulnerability and mystery equals Extremism.” A balanced and integrated brain gives us curiosity and a mind of wonder and awe at the mystery, which Einstein says is at the center of true religiosity.

  6. This is wonderful. Thich Nhat Hanh says that when you choose a side in any conflict, including social action, you become part of the problem. Not that social action is a bad thing. Rather, it often becomes an ego based pissing match that only ensures the perpetuation of conflict. I know a lot of socially active people and most of them have a lot of conflict in their lives. In other words, nothing is ever at peace and nothing ever gets solved. I have come to think that many people who love protest use the cause as an excuse to be violent and feel good about it. The world needs peace and examples of peace.

  7. This article expresses what I had in mind when I commented earlier on what Ram Dass wrote about anger.…/emotions/anger.htm

    HowStuffWorks “How Anger Works”
    Anger is meant to motivate us to take charge and restore the balance of right
    and wrong. Learn why anger isn’t necessarily a negative emotion.

    “Anger is a natural emotion that alerts us when something has violated the
    natural order of how we think things should go . . . ­The bodily effects
    of anger are meant to motivate us to take charge and restore the
    balance of right and wrong. But for this to occur, you have to get angry
    for the right reason and express your anger appropriately.”

    • Also, it is important to remember: He’s not saying NEVER GET ANGRY–it is important to be AWARE of the anger, and not let it get out of hand…We OVERCOME we don’t Eradicate….:)

  8. I find this to be a very interesting topic. We probably all know people who aspire to be peaceful, and who appear to be peaceful, and then one day –wham– they suddenly blow up! Whereas someone who has a more human, authentic response to the events of life, which may include moments of anger, might be less apt to one day do something seemingly completely out of character.

    According to the American Psychological Association, anger is a normal, healthy
    emotion, so long as it does not get out of hand and turn into
    retaliation, or other negative acts.

  9. I agree with the article in general. However, I’m disappointed at the way the word “righteousness” is used. Righteousness is simply “the state of doing right,” which can be angerlessness, generosity, inclusivity, open-mindedness. Clearly the writer intends “self-righteousness,” which implies entitlement, excusionary values, xenophobia, prejudice, hierarchies, and rigid concepts. I rightly call right-thinking and right-acting righteousness, and the unspecific use of the word in this article unfortunately can lead to confusion.

  10. “You must polish the mirror free of anger to see God.the dharma of the moment. ” Righteous, Judgement are fear-based phenomena and as such have no place in the dharma..PS the father analogy really spoke volumes to my experience..and I appreciate this well; I want to read Maharaja Ram Dass’ new book “Polishing The Mirror”…so profound does his words speak to my soul and makes me inclusively “dharma” whole. ((( <3 ))) RAM DASS ((( <3 )))) "To walk in the dharma is also to hear other human beings."

  11. I may be (undoubtably!) at the very beginning of ‘awakening consciousness’.

    When I see or experience that which generate anger – senseless destructiveness & cruelty that even takes pleasure in the destructon & cruelty or simply doesn’t care — when I see horror, I acknowledge it as horror.

    That great suffering and fear is HERE NOW, is being or has been or will be created, and Life (health, creativity, a feeling of love and well-being) is/was/will end or is/was/will also experience itself as pain, horror — and IS – in a NO MERCY IS PRESENT, NO LOVE, NO SANITY world — I am horrified. A ‘universe’ simply ‘unfriendly’ or simply un’caring’ — IS.

    All these things, at least at times, seem real and true – and TODAY! Difficult for the ego and for the mysterious being (that we seem to be) to experience, and very frightening and discouraging.
    People, including a lot of people who call themselves enlightened and caring, smart and active, FLEE from this reality, FLEE and deny the possibility of true evil being (in the sense of harming Life) that IS, and is/was/will be part of this universe.
    Now, many of us (and I) want this not to be – because we EXPERIENCE (the coming in and going out) LOVE and beauty and creativity. This, too, IS – it IS (experienced).
    There seems a mind-blowing and Transcendent, beyond words, Mystery to our human experience — and perhaps there we can take refuge – the experience of love or an idea or experience of a Oneness — that ‘contains’ all. And perhaps this Transcendent Mystery, an experience of Oneness, is part of what we ARE, that humans like Ram Dass can point out.

    Yes, how can all this (suffering – from horror and tremendous waste and cruelty to mere foolishness and casual carelessness) be – in a LOVING, ‘safe’ universe (safe, like Emmanuel claims and Ram Dass reports on)? And why, for God’s sake, from a loving Oneness?!? (to infinity?!)
    Duality and AWAKENING, BECOMING AWARE about that duality does feel, maybe, IS a step along the way of freeing ourself from fear & sense of loss, which is apparently, from out brain/heart limited capacity, inevitable part of being alive and human.
    Anger – or seeing that it could be otherwise – paarticularly around cruelty and waste and madness that comes from unmet human needs, and anger and despair at the refusal of many humans to WAKE UP, as long as we as blind, egoic are, seems OK. It seems part of waking up.
    At the same time, I realize it is somewhat ridiculous to be angry at IGNORANCE….

    The point made by Ram Dass about letting the anger be, but not fanning the flames (out of egoic habit) sounds very wise — because it equals less suffering.

    I remain confused about expectation. I understand something about reactivity, and I understand that one can be MORE EFFECTIVE & DO LESS SUFFERING if one can ‘just notice’ one is caught in reactively. I can create more peace by being more peace (inside & out). If peace is indeed what I ‘want’.

    But action is often required, action which itself requires courage, energy, discrimination and equanimity — from ending interaction with people who can’t or refuse to ‘wake up’ and are hurting us/others/themselves – in my personal life, after many attempts to make things better, to taking collective action to ‘stop the madness’ of a species who is destroying itself on this planet, does MUCH CRUELTY – today, NOW, and is
    taking many other sentient beings with it.
    I realize – I have much to learn and realize! Thank you for this place to share.

  12. This
    is an interesting idea to ponder, but I wonder how the civil rights
    movement, anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and Ghandi’s work to
    liberate India are viewed by Ram Dass. Would he consider the
    participants in these movements to be “righteous?”

  13. I love what was written but how do you remove a toxic person from your life and place no judgement? Do I just walk away in peace? This is what I struggle with.

  14. If they are just doing what they are doing, why do you have to apologize to them for “causing” their suffering? Doesn’t this perpetuate duality, the root of their suffering?

  15. Meanwhile the Dalai Lama published a book in 2019 titled “Be angry” in which he acknowledged anger in the face of the destruction of whole ecosystems, social injustice and exploitation of nature and human beings as a natural and healthy reaction and he encourages everybody to use the power of his / her anger in a creative way .
    In my understanding there are two aspects: the challenge to individually live a ethical and sustainable life but also creating political pressure for big changes in the way the current capitalist economy ( which includes China, Russia and India ) is exploiting and destroying the very basis for a healthy human life in the future. We all depend on clean water, clean air, fertile ground and a stable climate.
    Namaste and best wishes to you. 🙏


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