In May I am about to become a father for the first time. As I prepare for that, many thoughts pass through my mind. But one line of thought in particular is close to my heart. This new phase of my life is also the end of an old phase.
That old phase began when I was 16, when the idea of being a monk, in spirit if not in actual practice, gained a powerful foothold in me. I was convinced the middle class life of the American dream – presumably the reason my family moved here – was not for me. Instead I was captivated by the image of a Shankara or a Vivekananda dedicating themselves to a spiritual life. I assumed that was my life – or ought to be. I uneasily accepted the scenic privileges of Cornell and the prestige of Harvard, feeling uncertain whether I really belonged there. At college wide faculty meetings at Bryn Mawr, while faculty debated how much of a pay increase we should get, I argued we should take a salary cut to highlight the spiritual vocation of academia which I feared was being lost. My colleagues looked at me with bemused annoyance, rightly thinking I didn’t have a mortgage and kids to worry about.
Why was I so drawn to this idea of a monk? It’s an interesting question. I never actually even visited a monastery, or do a retreat at one. It was the concept that held me enthralled, and the actual practice left me unmoved.
If asked at the time to explain the importance of the monk idea for me, I would have said: “I want to dedicate my life to God. I want to help raise society to a higher level of consciousness. If I am married and have kids, I will be too focused on my local concerns to think about the bigger picture. Marriage and kids are good. But at least some people ought to make humanity their family. That is what I want.”
This view marked a deep disagreement between myself and my father. He was my first philosophical interlocutor, my first philosophy teacher. In his youth he too had pondered taking the path of a monk, but – as was his style – once he decided to pursue marriage and the middle class life, he committed to it fully. Without feeling that in any way he had to sacrifice his spiritual life. By the time of our conversations, he had become convinced that in fact being married was the best way of being spiritual, since he felt it challenged one’s emotions in a way that a Buddha or a Vivekananda didn’t have to experience.
There is of course no such thing as the path of spirituality, as if being married or not determines how far one gets. I see now that my father also didn’t think it mattered too much. His vehemence about the importance of marriage and kids to spirituality was probably more a reflection of his love as a father for me. He must have wondered, “Why is my son so resistant to the middle class life? What is the pain behind that?”
I have wondered that too. I got married ten years ago. A couple of years ago I bought a house in the suburbs. Now I am about to be a father. The middle class life I resisted from ages 16 to 31, now I have fully embraced at 41. I feel my father’s experience is now my own. This progression into American suburbia doesn’t make me feel less spiritual. To the contrary, it makes me feel more spiritual, closer to God, confident that this is the path God has for me.
So, psychologically and sociologically, why did I resist the American middle class life so much? That too when my father didn’t?
When we immigrated to America in 1988, my father was 47 years old. His formative experiences were in India, and he came here fully formed. He was proud to be an American, and he identified fully with his new country. But culturally, he was very much Indian – in his food, his family habits, his cultural references, and ultimately, the spiritual texts he loved the most (The Bhagavad Gita and The Upanishads).
I was 11 when I came here. I was a boisterious fun loving kid. I got along with all of my extended family. But equally importantly, I had a thriving social life in India. Some of my most vivid memories are playing cricket with friends in the neighborhood park from end of the school day in the afternoon till sunset. I still can remember that feeling of being with friends who looked and talked like me, whose parents knew and talked to each other, whose lives were linked through the Telugu culture of Hyderabad, and of Indian culture more generally. Age 11 was the last time I experienced as a kid a seamless connection between my family life and the broader society life.
Once in America, in middle school and high school, there was a split between my family life and the school life; between how I spent my weekends with my extended family and how my friends spent their weekends, going out to dinners, movies and baseball games. Even as I remembered my cricket playing days and how central they were to my life and identity in India, I could feel it was all part of a hazy past as I stepped on to the baseball field and felt just a little out of step with the ease with which my friends played the game.
When I looked to the broader American society, and the history I learnt of America in school, my teenage mind saw a country that was mainly white and black, and Latino, and perhaps East Asian. In each of these cases, there was the assumption of the privileges of the immigrants from Europe contrasted with the bigotry faced by African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Japanese-Americans, etc. I didn’t know then of the bigotry faced by Jews, the Irish, and others in America.
But one thing seemed clear: I wasn’t like any of these people. I wasn’t white but I was also not black. My parents were not rich, but not poor either. We lived in Westchester County, one of the richest counties in America, and without really yearning for it, I ended up at Ivy League schools and then at a tenure-track job on the Philadelphia Main Line, one of the centers of old, East Coast wealth.
As a sixteen year old I looked to the broader society of my country and asked myself, “Where is my identity here, not just in terms of a job and what kind of car I want to drive, but culturally and ethically? Who am I as an American? Who can I be? Where do I belong in a land of whites and blacks, Native Americans and Latinos, of the Chinese who helped build the railroads and the Japanese who were interned during WWII?” In response I was faced mainly with silence. Blankness. Uncertainty.
What I wanted was a cohesive blend of my inner Indian life and outer American life. Where was the connecting line between the spiritual, meaningful life I was awakening to at 16 while reading the Gita and the outer American life where I was taking the SATs and watching Mets games?
Somewhere in my unconscious the link was made to how Americans thought with admiration of India since the 60s: as a land of spirituality. As I discovered that sprituality was the center of my parents’ lives, I also discovered that Indian spirituality was a dominant theme in American life since the 1960s. It was a connecting point – a thread which bound together the disparate parts of my life.
My growth into a public identity in America became merged with having a public, spiritual identity. The way my friends or family members wanted to be baseball players or rock stars or politicians or computer scientists or doctors, I wanted to be a monk – a synthesis of India and America in which I could be whole. What I wanted first and foremost was a career or simply a way to make money, but rather a way to find myself as the American that I am.
A good part of my 20s, when I was grad school, I actually yearned for the cultural, institutional and spiritual turmoil of the 60s. I felt that in that turmoil was the root of my American identity, and that the humdrum American life of the 80s and 90s had somehow covered over the soil within which the seed of my growth was planted.
Identifying with the 60s in this way meant being basically counter-culture and counter-establishment. To look upon suburban life as comatose conformism, and even career seeking undergraduates or academics as not caring about the bigger issues of life. Ironically, the way I sought to find a home in America through the framework of the 60s actually kept me alienated from America.
This is coming to a close now. I no longer feel the need to understand myself as an American through the categories of the 60s, with its sharp dichotomy of hippy spiritualists versus the ticky-tack house suburbanites. I am free now to find my own mode of being an American, just as I am, in my own time and in my own life.
I had assumed that wanting to be a monk was a reflection of my spiritual yearning. But I see now that it was more a reflection of my sociological yearning. It was understandable, but now the phase of seeking that kind of a sociological grounding for my life is over. There is no more a question of what will my life as an American be. That life is here. I am living it now. I am an American of this kind – the kind that I am, and that I am being.
Freed of the link to this sociological need, now my spiritual life guides me as I am, without worry about how I ought to be spiritual. Just as I am an American as I am, so too I am spiritual where I am and how I am, with the job and the home and the wife and the kid to be that I have.
Embracing myself wholly as I am, and embracing this moment and each moment as it is, that is the sociological and also the spiritual foundation of my life. It doesn’t depend on which decade I am living through, or which country I am in, or where my home is, whether I have kids, or if I embrace a middle-class life.
There is a freedom and a life full of meaning in each moment, waiting to be found in each moment. With that sense of openness and freedom, I am looking forward to being a father.
If you are a fan of A. R. Rahman, or of fusion music, check out this video:
It made me cry.
The song is from the movie “Swades” and it captures an Indian living in America yearning for his home land (video of the song in the movie with subtitles is here).
I have had this feeling most of my life.
But unlike in the movie, my yearning hasn’t been for India. I left there when I was 11, just long enough to have the feeling for India in my bones and somehow not long enough (at least for me) to create an unshakable bond.
Since I moved to America, I have felt like a mutant. Half my body made with the soil of India, and the other half with the soil of America. That I am in my essence a trans-national and trans-racial being. That my being cannot be contained within national boundaries. That I am a being in search of that fusion soil which is my home.
Where the hero in the movie looks from America to India, I look from the present to the future.
To a time when my kind of fusion being feels grounded in a social fabric which self-consciously and openly nurtures it.
Is that future coming in a decade or a century? Or is that future what is called heaven or nirvana – which flowers not in physical or cultural terms primarily, but in terms of consciousness and spirituality?
Surely it is more the latter.
But still, the physical and the cultural are not nothing either. They can be powerful to lifting up consciousness.
That’s what I felt seeing the video of A. R. Rahman Meets Berklee College of Music.
Is everyone on that stage yearning for India? Maybe some. But not all. Many are Indian-Americans, who might be as in between worlds as I feel. Some aren’t even of Indian background. But they all share a common yearning, for a new mode of being, speaking to a hunger for going home.
Home – wherever that is for you. In whatever dimension or mode of consciousness.
It speaks to a growing global awareness – a new mode of cultural being. Where we can see that being fusion selves is not a new phenomenon, but has been the reality for thousands of years. Since the dawn of the first large societies, which were complex enough to have people of diverse backgrounds sharing a common life.
Does this mean I am against nations? Or that I am not committed to America? Not at all.
I am a resident of Maryland and also a citizen of America. My commitment to my city and to my state doesn’t take away from my commitment to my nation. Likewise, I am related to my family and friends in ways I am not to my neighbors.
That I have deep bonds with people outside America doesn’t take away from my bonds with fellow Americans.
Perhaps there is a guy born in America who moved to India when he was 11, and is now an Indian citizen, and who has the yearning for a global soil where the multiple sides of him can live together. I share something deep with that person.
But if I am trying to work on my country, I work with my fellow Americans. That only we can do together. I can do many things with my counterpart fusion guy in India . But I can’t vote for public officials with him, nor work as fellow citizens. Just as no matter how close I am to my neighbor, I need to first build my home with my spouse and my family.
Me and my fusion counterpart in India can share notes. Share life trajectories. Share ideals, hopes, dreams, frustrations. Share new cultures and modes of life. Share the dawning of a global spiritual awakening.
Even as we also wish each other luck in our engagements with our countries. I can be a fusion person and an American. Be a fusion person and be more – politically and institutionally – American and Indian. In fact, that is how I am. There is a lot of India in me. But also a lot of India that is not in me, that I lost or that never developed after I moved here.
There are many different dimensions to human life. To any individual life. Cultural. Familial. National. Intellectual. Spiritual. And many others.
The longing for home can sometimes feel as if all these dimensions have to line up into one uber longing – the longing which underlies and unifies everything. As if really the cultural, national and spiritual longings are all the same. As if being Western, Christian and American overlap into one longing. Or Eastern, Hindu and Indian. And so on.
I can feel the pull of this temptation. It has a certain centrifugal force which can take root from deep within one’s soul.
But it tramples over the intrinsic diversity within one’s own life. There are – and can be – many different kinds of pains, longings and joys. There is no need for them all to line up. When I listen to A. R. Rahman’s music, or read Tolstoy, or watch the Super Bowl, or hang out with my family, or am engaged at work – there is no one longing which all these have to meet. There are many forms of longing, joy, curiosity, puzzlement, sadness and reflection.
Being with that diversity within oneself and in the world is itself a way of finding one’s way home.
I love America. I admire America. As Bonasera says at the beginning of The Godfather, “I believe in America”.
Biographically, there is an obvious explanation. My father had a heart attack in India a few months before we moved here. A month after we immigrated, he had bypass surgery. To our great surprise and relief, New York State picked up the tab. I assume it was some version of Medicaid, and it was a heck of a welcome by the country. My father lived for another thirty years, twenty of them working in the Social Services department in Westchester County in the suburbs of New York City. Without America, I might not have had a father past my early teens.
But there is more to it than biography. When in college I read Enlightenment philosophers like Locke, Rousseau and Kant, my admiration of America increased. The American Constitution of 1789 was a bold experiment in liberal democracy, a living example of Enlightenment values. The more it sank in that America was the first modern nation to try this experiment, the more I was grateful to be here. The American dream for me wasn’t mainly economical. It was intellectual and cultural: to contribute to the experiment started by the Founding Fathers.
However, there is a major difference between the America of the Founding Fathers and the America I immigrated to in 1988 at age 11. Since its beginning, America was ethnically diverse, with Europeans, Africans, Native Americans, and later in the 19th century, Hispanics, Asians, and many others. But the governance and cultural self-representation of the country did not reflect this diversity. The liberal democracy experiment was limited to whites.
Naturally racism played a big part in this. But it’s worth noting how fantastical democracy seemed to even many whites at the time. Most Europeans then thought the colonists were crazy to try a government without a king. Many of the farmers who fought in the revolution might have been fine if George Washington became their king. But Washington wasn’t fine with it and that is his greatness. So democracy being limited to whites was like the training wheels used to achieve the balance of a representative government.
American history for the next two hundred years was the struggle to take the training wheels off. This culminated in the 1960s when, with the end of segregation, America became an explicitly multicultural liberal democracy.
This was the America I immigrated to. With the naiveté of a child I had first imagined that America was a completed project, one which I could simply benefit from. But far from being complete, America is continually evolving. The Founding Fathers did the hard work of establishing a democracy. Lincoln’s generation maintained that democracy. Martin Luther King’s generation transitioned America into a multicultural democracy. The current generation, like Lincoln’s, faces the task of maintaining and unifying the democracy we inherited.
Stress is discord between expectation and reality.
By instinct, we respond to stress by trying to change reality. If the world or others don’t confirm to my expectations, then I will make them conform. I will remove the discord by aligning reality with my expectation.
This instinct is pervasive. Deep seated. And often largely unconscious.
It also perpetuates stress. The more I try to make reality conform to my expectations, the more the discord increases. More stress rises.
The other extreme is to try to give up expectations altogether. A forced resignation to reality.
But this too leads to stress. Giving up expectations becomes an expectation, which conflicts with the reality of being unable to give up all expectations.
What then? If I can’t change reality to fit my expectations, nor give up expectations, how to respond to stress?
Be aware of it.
Don’t just act out of it. Nor try to dismiss it or cover it up. Be with it. With the sense of discord. With the tension between what you want and what is happening.
You can’t change reality however you want. Nor can you get rid of expectations by fiat.
If you sit with the discord, a third option arises: reality will slowly transform your expectations, which in turn will slowly work on reality.
If you don’t try to control how expectations and reality coexist, but give them space to exist with each other even in discord, they will slowly make friends with each other.
Expectations then won’t try to impose themselves onto reality. Nor reality try to bully expectations.
Both are equal partners. Stress arises when one is seen as more in control. When one is experienced as the aggressor and the other as the supplicant. Stress is the feeling of war between the two.
Peace is the experience of not taking sides. Not favoring reality or expectations. Seeing both as intertwined and inseparable.
Reality is reality. Vast. Uncontrollable. A wild bull which can’t be harnessed.
As a human, as a cognitive being, expectations are reality. Built into me through millions of years of biology, thousands of years of culture and decades of biography. My expectations are no easier for me to control often than I can control the wind or the lightening. Expectations flow through me like lava through an erupting volcano.
Expectations I can easily control are only surface expectations. The more the stress, the deeper the expectations in play and harder to be aware of them, let alone control.
The deep expectations are no more in my control than reality outside me. The deep expectations are just ultimately part of reality. The more I relate to them as reality, as something I can’t just control through my will, the less the stress.
The tension is really between reality and itself: outer reality and inner reality, both vaster than anything I can easily change. Stress is the identification with one aspect of reality over another.
Stress is like identifying with one wheel of a bicycle and seeing the other wheel as an antagonist. “I want it to move when i move, but how dare it makes me move when it wants to move!”
Leave to outer reality what is outer reality. Leave to deep habit and expectations what is deep habit and expectations. Identify with neither. Don’t get caught in their fights.
Give each space and observe them. Be friendly with both without trying to resolve their dispute. Don’t seek the happiness of an easy resolution. Open yourself to the peace of them working it out slowly over time. Be open to new, unexpected solutions and paths.
Stress is like greed: it’s pain and desire can’t be satisfied. Trying to satisfy it only leads to temporary satiation and ultimately to further craving and deeper pain.
Step outside of stress and just observe it. Don’t side with expectations or with reality.
Stress can’t be fulfilled. Through yelling or force or getting them to do what you want or you being better.
Stress can only be dissolved. Deflated through not identifying with it.
Stress can’t be overcome. It can only be side stepped.
Step to the side and let it pass. Observe it as it passes.
Observe the tangle between expectations and reality the way you would observe two wild animals locked in battle. With caution, with respect. Mindful of them and the space of their battle. And mindful to keep your distance and not be pulled into that space.
Do you want to improve the world?– Tao te ching, 29
I don’t think it can be done. The world is sacred.
It can’t be improved.
If you tamper with it, you’ll ruin it.
If you treat it like an object, you’ll lose it.
When I was 16 I said to my father: “Dad, you care so much about philosophy. Truth. Living a good life. What about all the suffering in the world? The homeless people. How can they be helped?”
He said, “That is not my concern. Nor yours. Just live your life as best as you can, follow your spiritual path. Find the Truth. Focus just on that. Don’t worry about others.”
This seemed to me a bizarre response. How can such a wise person be so… uncaring? Didn’t the young Buddha grieve seeing suffering and death? Didn’t Christ die for us? The spiritual person cares more for others than for himself, so I thought. Yet, the most spiritual I knew as a young sixteen year old was a my father. So how can he say. “Forget about others, improving the world, and live just for your personal spiritual task?”
I said to myself: “There is the philosophy side of him and the middle class, conventional, conformist side. His apathy towards my anxieties about homelessness and injustice and all the pain in the world – that is the conformist side of him. It can’t be the philosophy side of him! It must be his philosophy side being overwhelmed by the conventional side. Why can’t be like Gandhi, or MLK? How can such a strong spiritual person be so…ordinary in terms of his acceptance of injustices and not try to change the world?” I felt sad. For him, for what seemed to his inability to break out of the orbit of middle class complacency. And for me, for my inability to break out of his oribit – for being caught in the pull of his complacency.
But could it be that his response to me was itself a philosophical response? That he meant it as a philosophical response to me? That in his regard at least he was a Taoist, warning me that if I tampered with the world, I would ruin it? That if I treated the world like an object to be saved, I would lose it?
He would have denied this and not identified as a Taoist. I am not sure he even knew about Taoism. To him the Tao Te Ching would have seemed like some Far East mumbo jumbo, far removed from the clear affirmations of the Truth in the Gita or the Upanishads.
Still, the resemblance between what Lao Tzu said and what he said is unmistakable.
Seeking can get in the way of being. Caring about others in an anxious way can be an obstacle to knowing yourself – and to helping others. The peace the world needs begins in oneself. As that peace flows outward without intention or fear, it multiples without effort.
What my father meant wasn’t, “Forget the homeless. Focus on your material goods and satisfaction.” He meant: “Forget the homeless. Let go of ordinary desires, including the desire to help. Be mindful of that desire, as with any desire. Don’t grasp. Don’t get caught in the world of should, oughts, deserves. Be still. Be one with all. Relate to others not as external beings who need your help, but as your own self.”
But if I relate to them as myself, shouldn’t that mean I ought to care about them since of course I care about myself?
My Dad’s point: “Care without caring. Be without striving. Quiet the mind. Don’t give in to the mind as it comes in the seductive form of guilty or judgmental compassion. Be unmoved by the seduction of the mind. Disassociate from your small self, even as it presents itself to you as the compassionate, caring, world directed self, and judges your stillness as complacency.”
Thinking is irrational. Non-thinking is rational. Doing is irrational. Non-doing is rational.
Caring is selfishness. Non-caring is compassion. Selfishness is compassion, and compassion is selfishness.
One who doesn’t strive wins because he never loses. He is everywhere because he is still. He doesn’t fight or push or resist or accumulate because he has all.
He sees a homeless person and sees just him. He doesn’t see himself as privileged, nor the other as unlucky. He sees words and concepts as incomplete, and sees only the Tao as complete.
“How can we tell the difference between complacency and being with the Tao?”
Focus on other’s actions and if they are complacent, and be caught in judgments. There is no healing, no helping there.
Focus on yourself and if you are complacent, and be caught in guilt. There is no freedom there, no growth.
Complacency is a coping mechanism when the natural flow of energy is blocked. Pushing against it makes it stronger. Be with the natural flow. Let the Tao move around and through the coping mechanism. The Tao changes without effort. With effort, the mind strengthens the resistance.
A batter who constantly swings the bat doesn’t hit the ball. Or can’t control the ball if he hits it. Knowing when not to swing, to be still, to let go is the source of strength. The strongest batter is the most patient. He swings through non-swinging. He resides in emptiness and follows the Tao into movement. And into stillness. He surrenders to the Tao. He is free because he doesn’t control.
He resides in himself without being alone. He lets go and never loses what he has.
Like all life, yesterday’s elections, first and foremost, just are. Each individual race happened as it did. This person won, that person lost. And the broad scale results are what they are.
I am with the results as one is with the rain and the sunshine, with babies being born and loved ones dying. As something much bigger than me, much bigger than any politician, much bigger than any one group.
As a Democratic voter, I am happy about some things, unhappy about others. As a friend and family member of Republican voters, I am happy for them for some things, unhappy for them about others. As an American, I am happy about some results, unhappy about other results. As a person, I have this and that emotion, this joy and that anxiety.
Being mindful doesn’t mean I am any less a Democrat than one who is excited or unhappy. Or any less committed to liberal causes. It just means I am mindful. I am aware of my emotions. I am aware of others’ emotions. I try to see both with a caring and yet dispassionate glance.
Being overcome by emotion suggests one’s life is determined by those outside events. One feels empowered because that happened over there. One feels disempowered because this happened over there. In both, over there sets the tone. And the voice within says: “Of course, over there sets the tone. You are only a very small part, with very little power on your own. Unlike those big, powerful people who have power, who are on TV winning or losing, and with whom you have to align yourself.”
Mindfulness suggests something else. Yes, I am less famous than those on TV winning and losing. Yes, I have less power in many ways. But no, they don’t matter more than me. Not in the big picture. If I can step out of my monkey mind and am just aware of it, I am doing the most work I can do right now, right here. And it is the most work any person can do, no matter how famous, rich, smart, good looking or powerful. If they do what they do without mindfulness, it is one big step forward, two big steps back. But if I do even a little bit with mindfulness, it is only one very little step forward, but without going backward.
Politics is a part of human life. An important part. But not the main part or the most essential. Life is for growing as a human being. I focus on that and fit politics into that, and not the other way around. It is the best way to help others in the long run. To help without selfishly taking in the process.
Mindfulness. Prayer. Contemplation. When these are the center of one’s life, they center all else one does. And gives those actions a glow of inner strength which radiates outward.
Act with a glow. Without fear or seeking spikes of pleasure. Act with awareness. Be awareness. It is the best you can be and the most good you can do. Let the glow reflect through your politics, rather than letting the politics limit your glow.
Be big. Very big. Be the biggest big awareness you can be.