Dancing on the Demon of Ignorance

A couple of years ago my sister and I were in the British Museum in London. We were admiring some beautiful Hindu statues when we saw one described as “Lord Shiva dancing on the dwarf of ignorance.” After joking about renaming our small but silly dog The Dwarf of Ignorance, I read up on the subject, and the idea has stuck with me ever since. The story goes that Apasmara is a demon who represents ignorance, selfishness, and laziness. Although he is referred to as a dwarf, he actually has the body of a child, reflecting his immaturity and small-mindedness rather than someone with dwarfism. The god Shiva wanted to vanquish him but realised that to maintain balance he shouldn’t kill him. In a world without ignorance, all knowledge would come to everyone without effort and so would become valueless. Instead, he decided to keep him crushed under one foot while joyfully dancing. Apasmara is immortal, but he can be kept in check with education and good-humour.

At this stage you might be thinking of a few Apasmaras that you know: that colleague who acts like they’re more intelligent than they really are, or the one who always has to take a phone call when there’s work to be done, that client who was so patronising and rude, the ones who treat you like an idiot even though you know more about the subject at hand than them. They can be frustrating, and it can make you want to scream, yell, tell them exactly how annoying they are, or just leave. However, arguing very rarely gets you anywhere and being rude is not going to change anyone’s mind. Leaving might be better than saying something you’ll regret later, but it won’t make things better, for them, you, or the next person who has to work with them. You’ll achieve much more if you approach the situation calmly, try to see things from their point of view and discuss it with them. Sometimes people don’t realise that what they’re doing is wrong and all they need is to have it discreetly pointed out to them. Sometimes it can take a little persuading, but engaging them with openness and cordiality is more likely to bring them round than bickering. Even if it doesn’t, it saves you from appearing unprofessional and you can walk away with your head held high, knowing you tried your best.

Of course, the whole point of the Apasmara tale is that we all have a demon of ignorance inside ourselves. That petty and mean part of us that makes snap judgments about people, that lashes out at others because you feel threatened or embarrassed, that blames others for your own mistakes, that puts other people down to make yourself seem clever, that does a half-assed job because you couldn’t be bothered, that gives in to addictions because it’s easier than facing up to what’s causing them. More recently this has been called the ‘lizard brain’ because these impulses usually come from our basal ganglia: the most rudimentary part of our brain, which controls basic instincts. This exemplary blog refers to it as our ‘inner mammoth’. Cognitive behavioural therapy categorises these thoughts as negative neural pathways, which are often well-worn and easy to default to if you don’t have the time or energy to overcome them. It’s particularly easy to let them take over when you’re tired or stressed, which is a pretty common state in this job!

Perhaps counterintuitively, we can often act rudely because we’re afraid of what people think of us. I know I get more snappy and make stupid mistakes if I’m stressing about getting something I find difficult right, or ironically if I’m trying to make a good impression! If you’re confident about your abilities, it’s much easier to be level-headed, patient and forgiving with the people around you. The more you educate yourself, not only about the gear you use and the principles behind your job but also about how we all think and interact, the easier it will become to battle your own demon of ignorance. It is definitely not easy. I’ve lost friends, work and relationships because of my demon of ignorance, and I still find it raising its sniveling little head on a pretty much daily basis. I’m sorry to say it still wins sometimes, and it feels awful. As the story goes, it will never go away, but once you learn to acknowledge when it happens, you can take a step back, then do your best to counteract it. You can also learn to recognise it in others and help them with compassion and understanding. In time you can make your workplace a less stressful, more productive and all-round more pleasant place to be, and even do the same for your personal life. Then you can have a good laugh at Apasmara’s expense.

Photo Source: A view of Nataraja Shiva Temple at Chidambaram, Tamil Nadu, by Richard Mortel, is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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