Arjuna’s Insecurities

It’s easy to think that spiritual progress means something grand, mystical and other wordly. That’s it’s removed from the everyday life of ordinary human beings.

But spirituality doesn’t point to some other world that is mysterious and only for special people. Spirituality is seeing the everyday world in a new way. It is itself part of the everyday world of self understanding and personal growth. It isn’t about metaphysical truths we can’t fathom or special experiences of consciousness that require mystical insight. Some people might have elaborate metaphysical ideas, just as some people might have visions and enter into trances. But those aren’t the essence of spirituality, as if they are a marker or signal that one is really spiritual.

Spirituality is the most mundane thing in the world: overcoming insecurities. It feels hard, and can be hard, when we think it is something we ought to do like homework or making the bed or donating to charity – a good deed and a good habit we should cultivate to be other than who we are.

A main obstacle to spirituality is the interpretation that it is something mystical and not for us ordinary folk. The desire for spirituality often manifests as a desire to see it as a diamond in the sky far above us, like we are ants looking up at a distant star light years away. In this picture the very image of the unbridgeable, incalculable distance between us and the diamond we admire becomes an obstacle to seeing how we are already holding the diamond in our hand.

When reading The Bhagavad Gita this sense of the diamond in the sky can present itself in two ways. First that one has to be a great warrior/thinker/human to actually even want spiritual truth. And second that to gain that truth one must gain some special, esoteric mystical awareness like seeing the thousandfold image of Krishna as the entirety of the universe. But in fact it’s so much simpler and also so much more beautiful in its ordinariness than that.

The root of Arjuna’s problem isn’t that he doesn’t have mystical knowledge. It is the extremely mundane problem that he is beset by anxiety. In contemporary terms we would say he is having a panic attack or he is depressed or he is having a nervous breakdown. He is frozen in the face of an action he experiences as overwhelming. He is nervous, unable to think clearly, obsessing over what to do and whether he can do it. He feels a natural easy flow of action has been thwarted, like he can’t do the simplest things with the ease with which he did them all his life and which others still seem to be doing with that ease.

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Struggling from the Depths

When I think about the war in Ukraine it is obvious how comfortable my life is. Compared to getting bombed, losing family members, becoming refugees and one’s life getting turned upside down, any complaint I have in my life is trivial and any dissatisfaction I feel seems selfish and not really justified.

And yet I can’t live my life simply telling myself constantly how much luckier I am than others who are worse off. Comparing myself to people who have more money or prestige or good looks than me and feeling bad about it is a sign of weak character – of not having enough inner fortitude to be comfortable with oneself as one is. But if comparing in that way is bad, why is comparing in the reverse direction (thinking how much luckier I am and so feeling less bad about my life as a result) any better?

I have come to think it actually isn’t better. If envy at others who are better off is one way of thwarting one’s growth, telling oneself to be content in comparison to others who are worse off is another way.

In both cases others are made the arbiters of the evaluation of one’s life. As if to know what I should think about myself, and whether I can be happy or not, I need to first look outside myself.

There are struggles in my mind and psyche which are central to my growth. Unhappiness and sadness, even sometimes depression and a sense of wretchedness, are an inevitable feature of these struggles. What if I told myself, “I shouldn’t have this sadness because there are refugees in the world and I am so lucky in comparison”? If I accepted this, my sadness will dissipate to some extent in the moment. But along with the sadness, something of my will to life dissipates as well.

Imagine someone trying to solve a complicated scientific problem and in the process feeling discombobulated and ill at ease. They don’t feel good because the problem is gnawing at them. Now also imagine if in that moment he told himself, “I shouldn’t feel bad because I am so lucky in comparison to refugees.” That might make him feel better but if it comes at the cost of feeling fine if the scientific problem isn’t solved, something has been lost in the process. That something is the natural will to life, to struggle, to persevere, to face challenges and confront pain, and to push through to the other side, and to keep moving and growing.

Not all sadness is a form of self-indulgence to be done away with by thinking of those who are worse off. Some forms of sadness or dissatisfaction are part of the internal growth of a person, and which is not meant to be set aside but meant to be lived through and pushed through.

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Vivekananda (1863 – 1902) was the first and greatest modern exponent of Hinduism to the West. Well before the gurus of the 60s, Vivekananda had already charted the path of connecting Hinduism to the spiritual yearnings of the broader world.

To most Hindus Vivekananda is the quintessential Hindu. And to many Westerners as well. But something crucial and subtle is lost in this view of Vivekananda as essentially Indian and Hindu.

Like Aurobindo in the generation after him, Vivekananda was educated deeply in Western philosophy. In his college education in British India in the 1880s, he studied Hume, Kant, Hegel, and Mill. It is little asked how Vivekananda was able to communicate so effectively in the West. If he was simply a devout, traditional Hindu, would that have been possible? Not quite. Vivekananda resonated with audiences in the 1890s in London and New York and Chicago because he knew the Westerner’s intellectual history and language as well as them. For he had received something of the same British education in India. In fact, being a prodigy and gifted with supreme intellectual skills, he knew more about the Western intellectual tradition than most of the audience he was speaking to in the West.

Westerners were amazed at this “miraculous Hindoo” because they couldn’t fathom that a brown person could so eloquently and effortlessly reference Christianity, modern science, Shakespeare and Kant in the course of speaking about The Bhagavad Gita or The Upanishads. When they heard him speak of Hinduism and use Sanskrit words, they assumed that he was a village sage, a diamond removed from a backyard uneducated village who magically could talk to New Yorkers in a language they could understand. But Vivekananda was no backward villager. Born into an aristocratic, highly educated family in Calcutta, Vivekananda acquired the best possible education in India, and indeed better than was possible for most people in the West.

The crux of Vivekananda’s genius was fusing his modern, British education with the spiritual insights of his teacher Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, who was more of the Hindu village saint Westerners imagined Vivekananda to be.

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Opening to Humility

I find there is something soothing about big words like philosophy, reality, consciousness, religion, meaning of life, epistemology, ontology, divinity, and so on.

What is soothing to me about these words? They make the whole world seem homey and hospitable. As if the world can’t be a harsh, mysterious place if I can grasp through ideas it’s nature. It’s essence. When I think about the meaning of life or about the nature of consciousness, it feels like I am penetrating beyond the surface reality of daily life, in which I might be tossed about like a ball in a pinball machine, and grasping the deeper reality as it is. And in that deeper reality I am ok. I am safe. In that deeper reality nothing can surprise me because I understand that reality. I grasp its essence. Or so it feels.

This is what I have come to think of as the protection of big words.

Some people seek protection and solace in money. Some in beauty. Some in their job. Or their car. Or their relationships. As an intellectual, I sought it in big ideas. There is just something very soothing about the big words of philosophy, as if they are a warm cup of milk which can make me feel safe and put me to sleep in a warm blanket.

From within the perspective of the big words, it feels like I am just trying to understand the world. That it is just a beautiful, natural desire I have – to understand. To live an examined life. What could be more innocent and more noble?

For a long time I resented my family and friends, and pretty much anyone I knew and especially those closest to me, because I felt they didn’t see the depth of my love of the big words. They didn’t see how innocent and noble it was. That they might be, in a part of themselves, laughing at me, or mocking me, and thinking that my holding on to the big ideas was just the form of solace I was taking. What to me seemed my grand and world historical desire for philosophical understanding (that’s a nice big phrase), might seem to them like a desperate holding on to a fantasy by someone who felt lost in everyday life.

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Why I Matter in Human History

This title might seem strange because I am not famous. It might seem arrogant, deluded, desperate. Like someone on social media or reality TV trying to grab some glimmer of the spotlight. However, historical mattering and fame are two entirely different things.

Fame is a publicly perceived sense of historical mattering. A focus on fame assumes there can be no historical mattering without the public perception of it. This is a childish perspective.

Since my late teens I had a strong sense that I matter in human history. That my life is not meant for just being one more sheep in the crowd. That there is more to my life than climbing the social ladder, or keeping up with my generation in terms of social prestige, or getting married and having children. Some people have a sense early on that they are meant to do big things. I was one of those people. I didn’t know why or how this would be. But I just had a sense that my life is best seen from the impact it has on the course of human history. This was not a desire or a hope or a fantasy. It was an inchoately felt sense of the reality of my life and how I fit into the world.

It’s puzzling how this change happened. It happened almost over night when I was around 17. Until then I was mostly a loving and greatly adored family member. I grew up in a big extended family and valued my relationships with my grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins. Besides my immediate family, my extended family identity was the center of my life. In fact, like most extended families, it was hard to distinguish where the nuclear family ended and the extended family began. It was all just family.

In my last year in high school and beginning of college, I hit a sudden depression. I tried to hide this depression from my family, and perhaps even from myself to some extent. But in retrospect it was undeniable.

There was an assumption of a natural transition from high school to college, from the life centered on my family to that of the broader society. But for me this transition didn’t seem natural. For me, as I felt it, the transition seemed stifling and suffocating. At the center of this transition was supposed to be my path towards a career, which was one’s main public identity in society. But somehow my mind and identity skipped over ordinary adult social identity of being a doctor or engineer or activist or artist or a carpenter or parent, etc. , and went straight to my identity in the history of human consciousness.

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What is Spirit?

Spirit is the synthesis of body, culture and reason through the deep unconscious.

Body is our physical mode of being. It is our ability to move, eat, procreate, sleep and so on.

Culture is the material transformation of the human body. Unlike many animals, our bodies are not defined by nature or genes alone. In mammals, the young are vulnerable for sometime after birth and so are taken care of by their parents. This enables the young to be encultured into the habits of the parents. In humans, this is the case the most because to become a human adult means to internalize the language, norms and ability to use the artifacts of a culture.

Reason is the cultural activity of engaging in open, critical conversation. Reason is not a special inner capacity independent of culture. It is a way of being encultured.

One can grow into a culture without one’s capacity for reason being fully utilized. This is the norm in communities where people are brought up to accept their cultural habits without question. People brought up that way can do a great many things, often highly sophisticated things. But there are certain forms of social interaction they don’t, or aren’t able to, cultivate. They aren’t able to question their own upbringing, wonder if it could have been different, talk to others about those possibilities and debate the pros and cons of various ways of structuring society.

A person who is able to reason about himself and his society is one who is able to play a certain kind of game. The game doesn’t involve balls or bats, cards or dice. It’s a game which involves the giving and taking of reasons. It’s an abstract game which involves a particular way of talking, and a particular way of respecting others and oneself. (The idea of reason as a form of social interaction is a core idea in Hegel, Wittgenstein and Sellars.)

When you play this game – this mode of social interaction – you give yourself a certain respect: that of not being determined by your culture. You recognize that the culture that has formed you didn’t always exist as it does now. That it too was created in the past by particular individuals who wanted to rethink the norms of the culture. The respect you give yourself is that you are no different than those creative individuals in the past. That you don’t have to simply be defined by current cultural norms, but that you too can innovate and can contribute to new cultural norms just as the creative people of the past did.

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Freedom To Just Be

In the last post I said around any negative thought there is a positive thought we can hold onto instead. Wisdom consists of just this: seeing that in any situation we can see it negatively or positively, and so understanding that in itself the situation just is. It is we who impose the negative or positive interpretations on life.

When we are cut off in traffic, it is natural to feel angry, disrespected, annoyed and frustrated. The situation seems to call out for these reactions, as if a bad thing happened, objectively, out in the world which we are simply experiencing. But we can turn this around. Instead of being caught up in the frustrated emotions, we can look at it positively: the situation is a chance for me to exercise peace and compassion. On this way of looking at the situation, being cut off is not a negative situation I have to experience passively, but is in itself a neutral situation to which I can choose how to respond. I can respond with frustration and anger. Or with compassion and understanding. Or with no particular interpretation – I just let it be as something that happened and which doesn’t require me to invest myself in it one way or another.

For the most past negative emotions get a grip because we experience situations passively. When we see a red rose we don’t actively choose to experience it as red as opposed to as yellow or green. No amount of “active color thinking” will allow us to simply see the rose in a different color. In that sense we simply see what is out there.

Often emotions are experienced the same way. As if we are simply seeing and reacting to what is out there. Like the rose is red, so it seems that the situation is frustrating or unfair or boring or depressing or joyous or happy. We step into a situation and it feels like we simply grasp the “emotional color” of the situation and react accordingly.

We can be so used to relating to life passively this way that it seems like mere common sense. Just a fact of life, the nature of our relation to the world. Like that we can’t fly by flapping our hands or that we aren’t 20 feet tall. This is just how life is. Situations carry their emotional meanings within them, and if we are lucky, we get to have more positive situations than negative ones. Through no fault of his own, a farmer might be confronted with a famine. The situation sucks. It just does. Some peoples’ lives are like that all the time, moving from one unfortunate situation to another. Others are lucky in getting happy and positive situations. We can maybe be active with regard to a few situations, turn lemons into lemonade. But for the most part we are simply trying to survive situations the way a drowning person feels at sea: hoping to find momentary relief by finding a plank to hold onto.

This entire picture of passivity is an illusion. A compelling, gripping, powerful illusion. But an illusion nonetheless. Once the illusion is shattered, it is the most obvious thing in the world that it was an illusion all along.

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Creating Positivity

It never fails to amaze me that wisdom doesn’t require a PhD in philosophy or a lifetime of book learning. There is a clear sense in which a person who never went to school, and who doesn’t understand Plato or Confucius, can nonetheless be wise. How can this be?

Wisdom is the art of creating positivity. The world is neither intrinsically good or bad, positive or negative. It can feel as if the world comes with positivity or negativity built into it, as if we simply react to circumstances depending on whether they are good or bad. But this isn’t true. Positivity isn’t a feature of the world. It is a feature of how we see the world.

In any event or situation, one can see it in a positive light. When someone cuts me off in traffic, it seems like the event (being cut off) is obviously bad. When seen in this way, we are left with trying to figure out how best to salvage a bad situation. Positivity then seems like making lemonade out of lemons. It presupposes that the world in fact gave us lemons.

The world, however, doesn’t give us either lemons or bouquets of flowers. It just is. This is the essence of wisdom: to see the world without the value judgments we impose on it. We do this imposing so constantly and so unconsciously that it appears like the world is intrinsically itself laden with value judgments. A bad being cut off happened. A horrible disease happened. A unforgivable betrayal happened. A happy party happened. A relaxing evening happened.

Like a spider weaving a web, we weave these judgements around ourselves and experience the judgements as reflecting the nature of the world. We mistake the web we create with the world. We are trapped in the web, and mistaking the web for the world, we don’t know how to break free of the value judgments that rob our peace and unsettle our minds. We assume then this is just how the world is, or this is just how I am. Nothing to be done about it.

There is a simple trick to distinguish the web of judgments we unconsciously weave from the world itself. And that is: always around a negative judgment, there is a positive judgment lurking in the vicinity. When it feels like “This is horrible”, there is also nearby a feeling of “It’s not so bad. In fact, it’s good. The situation I am afraid of is actually kind of a positive.”

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