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I have many amusing and yet frustrating exchanges where people tell me: So, you are saying <something which I never said>. Then I refute that claim and clarify it. But then I get even more amusing and frustrating answers: So, you are saying <some new concoction which I never said>. Can you confirm?

Sometimes, the situation gets so ridiculous that people mount four or five questions and objections based on the assumption that I said something which I never did. In most of these cases, you can put what I said side-by-side with what someone claims I said. The discrepancy is obvious like chalk and cheese. But somehow, others derive chalk from cheese.

More attempts to clarify what I’m saying don’t make the situation better. Things don’t get better if I try to end the debate. The other party either starts retaliating harshly or accusing me of arrogance and attitude issues.

People are incapable of hearing what another person is saying. The mental noise is so high, that they cannot compartmentalize what I said vs. what they believe in. They cannot put their current beliefs on hold even for a moment to listen attentively to what the other person is saying. The instant they hear something, they immediately mix it with some of their existing ideas and produce a concoction. They start with the assumption that the other party has to be classified into their mental categories. If a person has only two categories, then you have to be fitted into one of those two. You cannot be in a third category, or something in between those categories, because that’s all the person is currently capable of.

In any conversation, we have to compartmentalize our beliefs from what we hear. Hearing is nothing but compartmentalizing. If we hear sincerely, which means compartmentalizing, then the truth will grow over time, and it will push out the false ideas. However, if we cannot compartmentalize then things will never get better.

We can understand this problem by a simple example. Imagine that there is a pot full of poison, and you pour some milk into it. The process of hearing is that you compartmentalize the milk and the poison. If you keep them separate, then as the milk increases, the poison will be pushed out. But people have lost the ability to compartmentalize. The moment there is a drop of milk, it will be immediately mixed with the poison. The result is poisonous milk, which is also poisonous. As you go on pouring the milk, you only produce poisonous milk. Then if the pot starts overflowing, the milk is at the top and the poison is at the bottom. So, the milk pours out of the pot, as the poison stays intact at the bottom. The result of mixing is that the process of removing the poison can never be completed.

In every Vedic scripture, we can find questions of the following types:

  • What is the nature of X?
  • Can you tell me about Y?
  • What did A say to B, and how did B respond?
  • What was discussed in the such-and-such august gathering?
  • Here’s my situation; what should I do?

You almost never find a statement that says: I think <some belief>. Your response? In the rare scenario when such assertions are made, as in the case of Arjuna making numerous assertions at the beginning of Bhagavad-Gita, the response is: While talking like an intelligent man, you are a fool. Krishna never responds to anything that Arjuna asserts. He calls him a fool and moves on. Hence, ideally, you should never begin with assertions. You always begin with questions, if you are interested in knowing.

Then you listen attentively, compartmentalizing your beliefs from what is being said. You hear out the full answer before you ask another question. Even when you ask a question, it must be to seek clarification. Out-of-the-blue whataboutisms are absolutely forbidden. Hold your mental noise aside, and go with the flow of questions based precisely on the last answer. Understand what the other person is trying to say before you decide. There will be a time for out-of-the-blue whataboutisms. But by that time, you will know the bigger picture, context, and overall position of the person that you are talking to.

That patience doesn’t exist today, and that is because people don’t know how to compartmentalize. Essentially, we cannot hold two thoughts—that differ from each other—in our minds, even for a short moment. The instant people hear anything, they mix it with something they already believe in, without even trying to understand what was being said fully. Alternatively, they immediately reject what is being said, without fully understanding it. Their brains cannot fathom that someone might have a different idea, which may be a better idea than what they currently hold. Even if they think that the person knows more than them, they cannot listen attentively. They will always mix what the person is saying with what they believe in. Even the clarifications they seek are after they have mixed.

Due to this inability to compartmentalize, there is simply no hearing at present. If we cannot hear, we will always be mixing milk with poison, and we will never be able to produce a pure milk compartment. As we continuously pour milk, the top layer of what is being poured keeps getting lost, while the lower layer remains intact. In effect, the whole process of education becomes an utter waste of time.

Under this utterly wasteful process, people keep asking questions of the following sort:

  • You said this <quote>. Does this mean <based on my limited categories>?
  • After the clarification: So, you are saying <what was never said>, and yada, yada, yada.
  • Some <irrelevant character> says <irrelevant things>. Can you respond?
  • You said this <quote>. Therefore, it means <what it would mean in another context>.
  • I believe <some unjustified claim>. So, what you are saying is wrong.

The process of hearing attentively means: Compartmentalizing rather than mixing. If we compartmentalize, then the milk doesn’t mix with the poison. The milk compartment grows and it keeps pushing out the poison compartment. This is a very rapid process of purification, that leads to quicker realization.

When I started studying Śrila Prabhupāda’s books, I did not understand what he was saying about Krishna consciousness being a science. I accepted his statement that Krishna Consciousness is a science, but I never tried to mix this with the modern idea of science. I had a lot of other nonsense in my head that I had acquired by studying centuries of Western science and philosophy. But, at that stage, I never made an attempt to mix these two worlds. I compartmentalized everything. Very quickly, my compartment of Prabhupāda’s teachings grew, and I got two different compartments. Then, I looked from Prabhupāda’s compartment into the other compartment and everything became clear very quickly. I could see how science was a bunch of contradictions, stilted upon false assumptions, while Prabhupāda’s compartment was pure and perfect, free of all the contradictions of the West.

My capacity to compartmentalize comes from numerous childhood difficulties. There were so many things that I could not resolve, or even understand why they were happening, that I would escape into other worlds which were disconnected from the real world. For example, I would look at Atlases and escape into the world of other countries. I would read Ripley’s Believe It or Not, and I would escape into the worlds of fantastic occurrences. I was living in many parallel realities, which I never mixed.

This has continued over the course of my life. I have worked in jobs, I have had a family, I have had artistic tendencies, and I’ve had devotee associations (which haven’t turned out quite the milk I thought they would). I have compartmentalized all these experiences into mutually-exclusive boxes. The result of numerous boxes is that nobody truly knows me, because they know one of the boxes at most.

But Prabhupāda’s box is the most important of all. I live in that box more often than any other box. It is my home box. Every other box is alien. I look at all these boxes from Prabhupāda’s box, and I get immense clarity on what to do about the other boxes. Sometimes, I reorganize the other boxes by looking at them outside-in. When I cannot reorganize them, I leave them as they are. I don’t try to mix these boxes. Prabhupāda’s box keeps growing and the other boxes keep getting pushed out. But even when they are there, by keeping them separately compartmentalized, I don’t get confused.

I can’t tell you how valuable that is—if you can do that. I think it is incredibly important for those who want to teach Vedic philosophy in the modern world because you need to have many boxes pertaining to what other people are saying and then a box of what you know to be the perfect truth because that compartment is internally consistent and complete. It is also incredibly important for those who are trying to learn this philosophy after being educated in modern materialism or living with materialistic people even as they are trying to progress spiritually.

I would recommend compartmentalizing. You can avoid mixing the milk with the poison. That means: If you are living in modern society, compartmentalize what you have to do socially from your inner life. Don’t let the world dictate your beliefs. Don’t let other people, or worldly events, change you. That doesn’t mean you ignore them. But it means that you compartmentalize them into a separate box. Sometimes you have to drink the poison, but it will never be poisonous milk. You will know the difference between milk and poison only if you keep the milk separate from the poison.