Acharya Prashant is dedicated to building a brighter future for you
Why do we indulge in self-harm? || IIT Kharagpur (2021)
Author Acharya Prashant
Acharya Prashant
9 min
68 reads

Questioner (Q): In spite of being fully aware of the consequences, why do people engage in self-harming behavior? Why do people stay in toxic marriages, relationships, friendships, get into addictions, do substance abuse, or get into other miscellaneous self-harming activities?

Acharya Prashant (AP): See, nobody engages in self-harm knowing fully well that the action will lead to harm. Whatever one does, one does for the sake of happiness or pleasure. That is how we are.

Q: That was going to be my follow-up question, that there is definitely some happiness involved even in self-harm. But they should realize that that happiness is short-lived.

AP: ‘Must’ and ‘should’ do not work in the domain of Prakriti (physical nature) and body. You tell your body, “You must wake up”—does it oblige you? You know of the physical tendencies, how they are. You tell your body, “You must not inhale the virus along with the air”—would it listen to you? It won’t. It has its own mechanism. It operates as per its own ancient design. And we were saying that we share this design with the jungle, the bananas and the monkeys. We are actually quite helpless when it comes to this design. It is just that there is a ray of hope: human beings have a peculiar consciousness that not only seeks liberation but can actually attain liberation, that too within its lifespan.

So, what you call as self-harm is actually just an attempt towards liberation gone wrong. The fellow was trying something and he thought it would work out—it didn’t. And when it doesn’t work out, it results in harm. That is self-harm.

Self-harm is not merely when you pop some toxic pills or the kind of things you narrated—somebody is indulging in violent behavior, somebody is getting into neurotic relationships, somebody is tolerating toxic relationships. Self-harm is not merely that. Those are just very visible expressions of self-harm. Self-harm is when you make a bad choice thinking it is good. Self-harm is not only when you say, “Oh, my relationship has gone awry”; self-harm is when you first of all enter that relationship. Self-harm is when your entire concept of life is a borrowed one. Those who have realized, they have said self-harm is when you take birth as a deluded human being.

So, we are born greatly vulnerable to self-harm. Irrespective of what we decide, the usual decisions that we make will be towards self-harm. It is just that sometimes the bitter consequences of those decisions are revealed, sometimes they remain hidden even till the moment of death. So, we keep saying, “Oh, I made a good decision; oh, this thing has worked out for me; oh, this relationship is good, this career option has been great; oh, I built a mansion; oh, I am such a successful person; oh, I am respected by all.” And then we don’t realize that all that we have done has actually just been a very long series of steps in self-harm.

You allow your usual tendencies to dominate you, and whatever you do is an act of self-harm. In fact, acting as the conditioned ego is the fundamental act of self-harm. Patronizing your ego, patronizing your false freedom, is basic self-harm. Saying, “I know what to do and I will lead my life as per my terms and conditions” is self-harm. Saying, “Oh, I do not know what to do and I will lead my life as per others’ commands,” that too is self harm. Being a slave to others’ opinions or advices is obviously self-harm; being a slave to your own thoughts and desires and feelings is self-harm even greater.

So, you see, that is the extent of the disease. Whatever we do is likely to result in self-harm. Therefore, one has to tread very cautiously. And that is where wisdom literature comes in; that is where Vedanta steps in.

Q: So, self-harm is our attempt towards liberation gone wrong. Who is taking this step? Is it the consciousness?

AP: Consciousness that has yielded to the body. The steps are always taken by consciousness—always. The actor is consciousness. The question is, who is counseling that actor? Who has that actor appointed as its chief advisor? If you appoint your body as your chief advisor, if you appoint your conditioning, your education, your past, your experiences, your own fancies and concepts as your advisor, then you will choose wrongly, and that’s self-harm.

Q: Is it the consciousness who is responsible for harming the body, then?

AP: Spirituality calls it impure consciousness. Consciousness fettered to the body is called impure consciousness or conditioned consciousness. We all say ‘I’, right? That is consciousness. The moment you utter ‘I’, you are conscious. The thing is, what is that ‘I’ wedded to? When you say ‘I’, you say “I am something.” So, you have very strongly linked yourself to something. What is it that you have associated yourself with? That is what matters in life. “I am”—what? What are you?

Q: This is still not very clear to me. You said that consciousness is wedded to our body and that is the fundamental self-harm. But how can we be conscious of this fact and see that we are harming ourselves by this association?

AP: You see, there are many, many ways. One thing is, the bodily tendencies are repetitive in nature. So, if you find yourself repeating what you have been doing in your past and thinking that that is you, that is one strong sign that you are in bondage. Second, the body does not know anything of its own. It only has a conditioned structure. So, if you find yourself operating as per the knowledge or conventions supplied by the world to you, or you find yourself operating as per your experiences or the customs of your society, that is another strong sign that you are not acting freely.

And the third symptom is quite telltale: If you find what you are doing is fundamentally the same as what animals do, that is a strong indicator that you are not free.

You see, you are very interested, let’s say, in building a house for yourself. That is something even animals are very interested in. You are very interested in territorial occupation: “I want to call this room as my room.” Or, let’s say, “I want to capture a certain market share”—even that is territory, mental territory, no? “I want to capture a certain market share for my product or service”—that is something that even animals do. “I want to have the best alpha male for myself”—that is something even animal females do. “I want to spend my time just running after food, shelter, pleasure, sex”—that is something even animals do.

So, if you find that your urges are fundamentally the same as that of an animal, you are most probably in bondage. If you find that your urges correspond very strongly to what everybody else is doing or what most people are doing, chances are you are in bondage. If you find what you are doing today is very similar to what you were doing five or ten years back, chances are you are in bondage.

And there can be many, many other signs to figure out that you are in bondage, the most important one being suffering itself. If you find that your actions go wrong, the output is hardly what you had expected, that you are thrown into suffering again and again, then you should realize that you are acting in an unconscious way.

Now, when you realize you are acting in an unconscious way, a very bad kind of response can be to suppress your suffering and start saying, “I am not suffering at all.” Don’t do that. If you suffer, acknowledge that you are suffering and that will open the possibility of correction.

So, there are many ways. If you want me to add to the list, a great way is good companionship. Be with good books, be with wise people and see how they go about their lives, and it is almost certain that you will find striking differences, and that will tell you where your bondages lie, because a wise man is a free man.

If your way of living, if your center of thought, if your relationship with your body and feelings is fundamentally different from the way the wise ones have had, then it is time to do a reality check. I am not saying that you have to blindly follow anybody, but it is a red flag, is it not? “How is it so that that person, worthy of respect and love, has been operating from a center that is very different from mine?” As a young person, as an honest enquirer, you must address this question.

YouTube Link:

Receive handpicked articles, quotes and videos of Acharya Prashant regularly.
View All Articles