In 1887 Chief Yellow Lark of the Sioux Indians translated an Indian prayer into English. The translation included the following words:
. . . Make me strong,
Not to be superior to my brothers but to fight my greatest enemy —
Myself. . . .
What a splendid prayer — for our present civilization, I thought. How refreshing it would be to hear such a plea for strength, strength to overcome that greatest enemy.
Or perhaps you do not agree entirely; you have some doubts as to the relevance of such aspirations today? Certainly, it is a prayer we hear little or nothing of. People still pray for strength to help face suffering and problems of a thousand different kinds. But strength to fight oneself?
Well, you say, under the conditions of those times it took great valor to face combat and dangers that now arise mainly in wartime when the soldier similarly prays for the will to carry out his duties, to the death, if necessary.
Maybe so. Yet I feel old Chief Yellow Lark had not lost sight of a deeper and far more significant truth than the need for courage in a dangerous world. The prayer continues:
. . . Make me ever ready to come to you with clean hands and straight eyes
So that when life fades as the fading sunset,
My spirit may come to you without shame.
Clearly the spirit to which he refers is not the self that has to be overcome, the "myself" regarded as the greatest enemy. In the context of the prayer, "myself' is no figure of speech used merely to illustrate the need for bravery; it is a self seen as separate from the one who is going to do the fighting, the "spirit" of his final plea.
Of course, you reply, we all have a personality which pretty obviously dies at our physical death . . .
And thus the prayer might be discussed with the majority of people these days. Sad thing — we don't hear so much any more of that chap buried in the personality; and as to actually fighting to overcome that personality — well! We are so very progressive. Surely our personalities are such modern, reasonable and — yes — attractive entities compared to those of far-off days that no such stern measures are necessary.
To consider the matter carefully one must really go back in history. One might even pose the question: whatever happened to the struggle to control the personal self? One does not have to run the film of time backwards very far to see such moral restraint in effect, at least in the Western world, on a very large scale. Not everywhere, of course; there were always plenty of people who had given up the fight temporarily or possibly for a lifetime or two. But even if we stop the time machine just a hundred years ago, we observe a big difference in this one respect, that is, in the far wider subscription by earlier generations to the religious beliefs and concepts of the time.
There was indeed a "thought atmosphere" with some of whose features Chief Yellow Lark could — I am sure — have readily identified. There was, for example, the question of "good" or "bad" conduct. Even when I was young there were still a thousand things which were beyond the pale. True, many still are; but the dissimilarity in approach to right and wrong is enormous. Now it is more a case of the personality agreeing to some restriction because of a sophisticated notion of equality, "fair shares for all," or the need for law and order. No longer is it a matter of what Chief Yellow Lark called "spirit" trying to "control" myself' — and therein lies all the difference between an impermanent, negotiable format of restriction designed to make life more tolerable, and a real appraisal of humanity as sentient beings whose inner Divinity is — for its own high purposes — urging the spirit-self to control the outer personality.
Whatever did happen to the struggle, then? It does seem odd that the personality could have been so relatively controlled a century ago, yes, even downright repressed at times, whereas nowadays the pendulum seems to have swung quite the other way. Perhaps the situation is not intrinsically bad; perhaps a reaction was necessary in order for us to find the "middle way" between extremes.
Could it be that so much talk of good and (more especially) of evil made the personal part of us feel insecure, helpless, often hopeless? So much so that it began to rebel and in doing so became as over-inflated as it previously had been deflated? If so, then much would be explained and a number of the jigsaw pieces fall into place: the prevailing disenchantment with more conventional religion; the new interest in occultism (though, unfortunately, not always of the most healthy kind); the rise of psychology and psychiatry during the era when the personality in its irritated reaction cut itself off from its own lofty source; and, last but not least, the current obsession with the ego.
This surely is the dilemma of our civilization today. The solution, naturally, would be to recognize our duality with the simple and courageous acceptance of the old Chief. He was no doubt as confident of it as of the phases of the moon, but who in the Occident is as certain that he or she has a temporary personality inhabited by an inner man who always aspires to greater things?
In place of this eternal verity we pursue an absolute frenzy of activity, perhaps seeking refuge from a conflict we have never satisfactorily resolved. However, there are plenty of high-sounding theories, and statistics also, to absorb our attention and convince us that we really are a very progressive race and full of the greatest affection for humanity. How we do worry, for example, about problems of ecology, and the elderly, and the population explosion — certainly they are matters of vast importance. But what is the use of any of it if we are no longer concerned with all levels of our own mysterious nature? The glib assumption, held for centuries, that the universe is here for our exploitation illustrates the extent to which the mere personality has been inflated, and it can hardly be a surprise that such a perspective has at length led to the present world upheaval, with hospital beds full of mentally sick people, with screaming discontent in the face of an affluence never previously known.
It is — unbelievably — as though man is largely trying to "opt out" of the rules of existence, as though he can create a backwater in space and time in which he can form his own club and adopt his own rules!
I really wonder what the old Chief would have said . . .
(From Sunrise magazine, May 1975; copyright © 1975 Theosophical University Press)