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This question may sound trite to some, but it is a serious one to me and my family. I recently had a group of people who I thought were my friends start some vicious rumors about me. These lies were spread not only in the small town where we live, but on the internet as well. I'm trying hard not to hate or be vindictive, but I'm losing the battle. How do people trying to walk the spiritual path handle such difficult things?

First, let me say that I'm sorry for what you and your family have gone through. But if what was said about you is untrue, then I feel sorrier still for those who said it. Releasing such negative energy into the universe comes with a price; and I can assure you that those individuals will, at some point in the future, in some way, suffer the consequences of their actions.

Now, as you attempt to deal with this issue, please remember that there is a difference between vindictiveness and justice. If you think you might have cause for legal recourse, you probably should investigate that option. More and more people are choosing to fight this battle in the courts, and more and more frequently they are succeeding in their efforts to stop these nameless cowards. In addition, in many cases they are also causing companies to be held responsible for allowing vicious internet activity to continue. Consider such action first. But in the event that the rumor-mill can't be stopped (and, in any case, the "human" damage has often already been done), do not despair.

The reason I chose your question is that for the past six months or so, almost weekly, someone who is going through something similar to what you are describing comes into my office. And the numbers seem to be growing. Unfortunately, your experience is direct evidence of the power of the human tongue for both good and evil. Let me say up front that I can personally relate to you and to thousands of others who have been hurt by gossip, rumors, and half-truths. I'm not ashamed to say that earlier in my life I shed a lot of tears over horrible things that were said about me. So I was forced to face this type of thing early. My own method of dealing with it has evolved from the old saying, "A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still." That means that since most people already have their minds made up before a "rumor" comes along, then the best (and my own "official") response to any criticism, other than that of a truly sincere nature, is no response at all.

While I don't want to make this about me, I am hoping that my own experiences can help you. I have endured much criticism in my life. And I do have to say, in defense of some of my critics, that much of it was well-deserved. I was once young and foolish, and throughout my life, I have certainly made mistakes. I was and am far from perfect. I haven't always done a great job with some of the relationships in my own life, and I would be delusional to think that every client who has ever walked through my office door has received perfect counsel from me about his or her relationships. I've had my failures, personal and professional. For these, I accept the criticisms and would gladly offer sincere and genuine apology if given the chance. On the other hand, most of the rumors that are circulated about me are so foolish that I would never disrespect myself enough to be upset by them. I know that anyone with the slightest bit of intelligence or who has spent time with me, my close associates, or my family would find them laughable as well. This is gossip that I choose to ignore.

The point that I want to make--the good news that I want to share with you--is that dealing with these very hurtful episodes helped lead me to inner peace. And I believe that such experiences can do the same for anyone who has been hurt by unfair criticism, gossip, or slander. In fact, these seemingly horrible, hurtful events can help to put you (or anyone else who is willing to do the work) on a path to becoming what I have come to call "bazooka proof."

The Nature of Gossip
Until recently, gossip has typically occurred in relatively small venues--places like schools, churches, the job site, or neighborhood. From time to time it might even "spill over" and spread throughout entire small communities. To be fair, some of this kind of "talk" within communities is probably useful, as it often serves to warn people away from involvement with unsavory characters and disreputable businesses. But that could certainly never justify the damage that is suffered by innocent people due to the spreading of half-truths and lies. The great thing about this type of "small-town" gossip is that in these communities people's lives are so intertwined that such things tend to just play out naturally. A rumor is either true or not, and in a very short time you can usually see for yourself.

On the other hand, there are other types of gossip that are much more damaging. Many people, including children, suffer unbearably and on a daily basis due to slander, criticism, and bullying. Gossip changes lives. Families move away to places where no one knows them. Relationships end. (I have often wondered how many marriages, friendships, etc., might have worked themselves out on their own had other people who were "just trying to help" stopped prying and gossiping.) Individuals explode in fits of rage due to years of pent up anger. (This last phenomenon has become so commonplace that pop culture has coined a term for it--"going postal.") Prisons and psychotherapist's offices are filled with people who were bullied and picked on as children or even as adults. Today, it is not uncommon to hear of young people ending their lives due to cyber-bullying.

People lose their careers and close their businesses as a result of this type of behavior. I remember (as some of you may) that a number of years ago, well before the age of the internet, a well-established fast-food chain was very nearly put out of business due to gossip manufactured largely by some of their competitors. The rumor suggested that the chain was using some sort of disgusting product as filler for their hamburger meat. It was the talk of our town, and I personally witnessed our own local franchise sitting empty for a while. As the damage snowballed, the corporate offices resorted to taking out full-page ads defending their products in newspapers across the country. Fortunately, truth prevailed, as eventually it always does, and the corporation survived the ordeal and went on to even greater success.

Over the past several years, the dangers and potential damage of gossip have expanded tremendously due to the widespread influence of the internet. Gossip and criticisms which might otherwise be heard by only a few people within a particular community or small town can now be spread globally to millions. While there was once a bully in every school, there can now be a bully on every computer!

Gossip and the "Mini Me"
Gossip, in its many forms, has existed since time immemorial. Holy books have warned us about it. Right thinking teachers advise against it. And most people have tasted the pain of it, directed toward either themselves or those they love. Yet still it exists. I believe that the human ego (or the not-so-little "mini me," as I have come to call it) is one of the fundamental reasons that gossip and unfair criticism occurs. Since we humans are insecure by nature, we are always looking for ways to help the "mini me" feel better about itself. We seek the validation that comes with attention. Children, for example, from very early on will learn to utilize attention-getting behaviors. Generally, they don't care whether they get attention from making good grades or from acting out, just as long as they get it. As adults, the ego-building continues. We live in a bigger house. We weigh less, look better, age better. We compare and then privately (and sometimes not-so-privately) put others down, thereby making us feel better about ourselves or else giving us a reason to feel sorry for ourselves. (Sometimes the ego loves that as well.)

The next time you're having a get--together--say, a meal with a group-ask if anyone has heard about the good fortune that has come to someone you all know. Now, tell them of someone you know who is divorcing, filing bankruptcy, or having an affair. Measure the amount of attention given to each story, and you will clearly see how we humans tend to enjoy "dirty laundry." These negative stories "hold court" and gain attention, because the lower self, unattended, likes bad news--hearing it as well as passing it along. I have watched people practically break their necks trying to deliver bad news to someone before another had the chance. We may not acknowledge or like this about ourselves, but it is truer than most will care to admit. Why do so many pull over to see a serious traffic accident? When bad things happen to others, it often makes us feel better about ourselves. If that feeling takes the form of gratitude, then it is a good thing. If, however, it serves to feed our egos, it's disastrous.

Besides being an attention-getter, bad news sells. Take a look at the billion-dollar tabloid industry. Even the most seasoned spiritual seeker would have trouble standing in line at the local grocery and not looking at the tragic, mostly concocted stories of the rich and famous. (Even our beloved Dolly Parton doesn't go unscathed for long.) Public relations firms are paid millions either to do damage control in the wake of gossip or to manufacture more of it in order to sell movies or music or to help get someone elected to office.

Jealousy is yet another reason many of us gossip. Perhaps someone we once worked with, went to school with, or grew up with has married or is dating someone we thought would end up with us. Perhaps that individual has a life that we imagined would one day be ours. When someone does better than we feel we have done ourselves, instead of being proud and happy for them, we often experience envy. And that poison then consumes us.

Stopping the Cycle
Frequently, when I'm speaking to a group or when someone comes into my office for counseling, I am asked some form of the question, "When will I know I'm on the right spiritual path?" or, "How will I recognize the road to 'enlightenment?'" Some of them look bewildered or surprised when I answer, "When you quit gossiping." It's that simple. Have you stopped gossiping? If you are not listening to or in any way participating in the spread of rumors and gossip, then you are well on your way to being a student of truth and to finding peace. And you are also well on your way to removing the "gossip target" from your own back.

The fact is if you can't stop gossiping yourself, then you certainly have no right or reason to expect others to stop gossiping about you. To break this vicious cycle, you must refuse to participate at any level. If someone asks you if you want to know what someone else said about you, your reply should be, "It's none of my business what others think of me." Then breathe in that truth. And even though a part of you may feel curious, insecure, or perhaps even a bit anxious about what you might have learned, refusing to hear it means that you trust a power higher than yourself to handle it for you. And you will be surprised to find that something will fill you up and much more completely than that bit of gossip (basically, someone else's opinion) ever could. You can't control gossip. The only thing within your control is the development of your own character. Control that long enough, with consistency, and all of the "bad" will fall away.

Using Rumors, Gossip, and Criticism
There are a number of "laws" that unite us as human beings. Among them is one I like to call, the Law of People. This rule dictates that because people are basically insecure, they are also two-faced, jealous, and greedy. It's a part of all of us--built into our lower natures--and it's what makes life fair. We are all in the same boat. Or at least we start out that way. As we progress in our spiritual walk, we learn to use the Law of People to our advantage. There is a place, emotionally, that is not too high or too low, not too far to the left or the right. It is this center place that we strive to reach. This place is peace.

The Law of People is unchangeable. If we accept this, then the basic characteristics that go along with it will become easier to handle. Every day when you wake up, remind yourself of the Law of People, and keep in mind that you will see it in action every single day throughout your life. Some of what you experience will be the upside of this principle. Sometimes the "talk" is good, and the end result is easy-ready compliments, popularity, being well--liked and appreciated. It's the downside that gives us trouble-criticism, insults, being ignored, and so on. Just remember that the Law of People is unchanging, and the cycle endless. If someone likes you, don't get too cocky; someone else won't. If someone compliments you, don't get too self-assured; someone will insult you. I can promise you that this circle will be forever unbroken, and you have not one atom of control over this or any other of the laws of human nature.

What you can control is your mind. In order to do so, it is best to strive for a place where compliment and criticism evoke the same emotion. Not only will that keep you calm, but it will begin to kill the ego. Do keep in mind that this does not apply to genuine appreciation, which can help you know you're on the right path, or to sincere constructive criticism from someone who cares. I'm talking about training our minds to be unresponsive to the kind of ego-feeding that will set us up for being "used" as well as to truly unfair criticism that can keep us from staying true to our path or from following God's will. If we are not on our "spiritual toes," without a word said and practically without our awareness, others can create these negative effects in our lives.

As illustration of this point, I like to tell the story of a certain professor of psychology, a remarkable man who was by heart a master of human nature and who was also known to be a "pacer." As he lectured, he constantly walked back and forth in front of his class. During a period when the class was studying how people can control and be controlled without the use of words, his students decided to put the professor's teachings to a test. Unbeknownst to him, they divided the class into two groups. Then, by prearrangement, when the professor paced to one side of the room, half the class would pay attention, ask questions, and be very interested in what he had to say. When he then paced to the other side of the room, those students would look out the window, yawn, and otherwise act disinterested. It took only a few minutes for the experiment to pay off. As the unsuspecting professor stopped his pacing and came to standstill on the side of the classroom where he was receiving the more positive feedback, the students broke into applause and laughter. And the good natured prof was obliged to admit that he had indeed been "fish hooked" by compliment and criticism.

Remember--once the ego is dead, you will be a slave to neither compliment nor criticism but instead will remain "even" at all times.

Use the Hurt

Use your hurt;don't let it use you

We know the purpose of life is to know God. With this as our goal, we should experience some "awakenings" along the way--light bulb moments--when something that we just "believe" becomes something that we "know." Very simply put, if enough "light bulbs" come on, you become "enlightened." That doesn't mean "superior." It just means that you "get" life-both the big and the little pictures. You not only "get" it, you "live" it.

Enlightenment is the end of suffering; yet there is no enlightenment without suffering. For example, you would be much more likely to attain enlightenment from living in a wheel chair than from running a marathon. Similarly, being the object of gossip or slander and finding a way to rise above it will be more likely to move you toward this goal than will being publicly exalted and widely admired.

Remember, you cannot change the Laws of People. But you certainly can rise above them through acceptance--being willing to see things as they really are and not trying to force people or situations to be anything other than what they really are. I know, from my own struggles and from watching the struggles of others over the past thirty-five years, all of our suffering generally arises as the result of our hopeless desire for someone or something to be different. And as we often say in the South, "Sometimes it just ain't!"

Rejection is Protection
Although it could be hard to believe at first, "rejection" truly is always "protection." For example, let's say you wanted to purchase something--maybe a house or a car. And let's say you couldn't secure the proper financing. Of course it's probably not much consolation at the time, but the fact is that you probably couldn't have afforded that particular purchase. The chances are high that it would have gotten you into all kinds of trouble. You were protected.

If you like someone, or even love them, and they don't return your feelings, you are protected. If someone leaves you for someone else, it may hurt tremendously. But in time you will come to see that you weren't where God wanted you to be. God often allows rejection in order to protect us from ourselves; to show us that we are not where we belong. This holds true, as well, in those instances where others lie about us, gossip, and unfairly criticize. God is protecting us from those individuals and encouraging us to move on and away from them--with joyful affirmation and "good riddance."

No One is Jealous of a Fool

There is an old saying, still true today: "Nobody kicks a dead dog." If you are of no particular importance in the community, no one is going to say anything much about you. If, on the other hand, you make a splash, there will always be jealousy. Again, this is one of the Laws of People. If you plan to be successful, prepare for jealousy. It can appear cruel, but it goes with the territory, and it is the biggest compliment you can receive.

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