Author Archives: Bharath Vallabha

Leap of Faith

I like to think that I want God awareness but somehow it is not happening. Why does God hide himself from me and put me through all the useless, painful experiences?

But it’s not that at all.

Really, I am scared of God awareness. Of giving myself to it. Of opening myself to it. Of letting it blossom in me.

I want the God awareness. And I want it to make sense and fit into my life before realizing God awareness.

I want God awareness on my terms. Like it is a prized car or a super special possession. I want to possess the God awareness.

I don’t want to be possessed by the God awareness. To be uplifted and changed and transformed by it. To made different – to have my consciousness change at a deep level.

So what happens when I both seek God awareness but also resist it?

I turn it into a metaphysical other. I want to know God and yet I don’t know because He hides from me. Or because I don’t have the right knowledge of Him. Or because I don’t know how God could exist in a natural world.

The practical gulf between my ordinary awareness and God awareness is turned into an epistemic gulf.

It’s like when a man, unable to commit to the woman he loves, is lost in thought of how he can know she is the right woman for him. He doesn’t want to let himself be changed. And yet he doesn’t want to break up. So he hovers in an in between realm of: is she really the one for me? How can I know? Let me weigh the evidence.

The weighing the evidence and the deliberating and the pros and cons – to which one can devote all of ones life – then becomes the limit of how far one is willing to travel. God awareness, which in its dormancy made itself known to me, is reified and turned into the God concept, to be analyzed and debated. Comfortable in its familiarity, in its keeping the scary transformation of God awareness at arms length.

Faith is making the leap beyond from the metaphysical conception of God into the lived practical, psychological openness to the transformation of ones consciousness. Not keeping the God awareness at bay, but letting it change one from the inside out.

But: Is that all that God is, a change in human consciousness? Where is the omniscience and omnipotence? Where are the miracles and the other world and the man in the sky?

Those are all just the metaphysical expressions of God awareness. To get stuck on them is like refusing to eat food until you can eat pictures of the food.

God is not just a change in human consciousness. He is the deepest change that can happen – a move from an ego awareness to non ego awareness.

There is a psychological shift from the adolescence of the ego consciousness (an adolescence which can last all of one’s life) into the adulthood of non ego consciousness. The ego consciousness has to die for the non ego consciousness to blossom.

Concepts like resurrection, reincarnation and freedom from karma are but mental constructs to make sense of this root psychological transformation.

There is no metaphysical mystery ultimately about God. There is only the psychological path of the unfolding consciousness.

Nothing to prove. Nothing to disprove. If you don’t like the word “God”, ditch it. If you like it, don’t be limited by the word. Above all, heed the energy within which calls you into newer realms of awareness. The depth of the surrender to the newer realms – the depth of the leap of faith – is the infinite potential of God.

God’s Voice

There is God’s voice within me. Listening to that voice is the best, most meaningful, most productive thing I can do.

I hear the voice all the time. But most of the time I ignore it. I overlook it. I take it for granted. I think, “yeah, yeah, that’s true, but….” Most of the time I fail to recognize it as God’s voice. I assume it is my own silly voice. Something obvious and not exciting.

I look for God’s voice in places which seem more exciting. In the news. On the web. In the form of the rich, the famous, the powerful, the beautiful, the educated, the elite. In the big events of the day: the political battles, the intellectual arguments, the word historical changes taking place.

I assume my life is small. That their life over there is big. And God is big. So he will speak from over there. In the form of the people who are most well known, most influential, who every one has heard of.

Peering out over there, craining my neck to grasp what they are saying and doing and thinking, I worry that I don’t hear God’s voice in them after all. That therefore I don’t hear His voice anywhere. That I am abandoned.

So I despair. I cry out in pain. I moan my sense of loss and feeling lost.

In that despair, I hear the voice I hear all the time, but which I took for granted. The voice that all along I assumed was nothing but my own silly, small voice.

But now when I forget about the voices of the world, of those “in the know” and what my family or culture or community thinks, of what the rich and the famous say and their battles emblazoned on tv – when I listen to the ever present voice within me without comparing it to the voice of others, then I realize the truth. That constant voice within me, which speaks to me in my particularity and which is so close to me as if it were nothing but my inner monologue – that voice is God’s voice.

It has been there all along. His voice is always there. With me. In my innermost mind and heart. So close to me that I assumed it is just me.

Then I see God smile and say, “You are beautiful just as you are. I don’t need to speak to you through anyone else. Not through the famous or the powerful. Not through those who you envy or who you are in awe of or who you look up to. I created you as you are, just as you are, with just all the things that happened to you and all the thoughts and impulses and desires and anxieties you have, just as you are so that I can speak to you like this. This is how I want to speak to you. You don’t have to become better to listen to me. Or become different. You don’t have blame yourself or chastise yourself to be different. You just have to accept yourself as you are, really, truly are and see that as how I made you so that you and I can connect this way, now.”

As I hear God’s voice, an amazing thing happens. I am no longer subordinate to anyone in the world. I don’t have to put myself down and listen to them so that I can hear God through them. No need, thank you very much. I can hear God just me as I am, and that is how God intends it.

This doesn’t make me better than others, since after all God is speaking to everyone else also in just the same way, in their voices to them personally, if only they will listen to it.

But it makes me as good as any person alive. Or dead. As good as Bezos and all his billions. As good as Trump or Obama or any president. As good as Einstein or Wittgenstein. As good as John Lennon or Michael Jordan. Not in singing or basketball, or in physics. But as good as any of them as just a person. If I meet them I don’t have to bow down to them or feel second to them.

I am God’s child. And they are God’s children. God loves us the same and equally. We each have the same, equal access to Him, for he opens himself to each of us as we are, in the depths of the unique voice we each have.

In God there is only love. Pure love. Disseminated to all equally.

That is what God’s voice in me tells me. As I hear it and know I have come home to that voice, I smile. I open my heart and ears to God’s voice and let the sweetness of his love and his words wash over me.

Descartes, Tolle and Merton

My worldview can be summed up as follows:

1) The personal, inter-personal, social, economic and political troubles we face cannot be solved by the fragmented domains of knowledge production that has developed in the last 200 years of the modern university. What more is needed is the holistic thinking of a philosophical awareness and modes of questioning. (Academic philosophers and new age philosophers would agree).

2) The necessary holistic thinking of philosophy requires a broadening and synthesis of out understanding of philosophy itself. In particular, it requires to bring into harmony the intellectual and logical thinking of academic philosophy with the spiritual and intuitive thinking of new age philosophy. (This many academic philosophers would deny for being too spiritual, and many spiritual philosophers would deny for being too intellectual.)

I am a man in between worlds. Between east and west. But also between academic philosophy and spiritual philosophy.

I love both academic philosophy and spiritual philosophy. I admire Kant, Russell, Cavell and Anscombe. And also Vivekananda, Aurobindo, Thomas Merton and Eckhart Tolle.

But, alas, the two sides I like rarely ever talk about each other. And even when they do, it is was suspicion and a crude sense that the other is a kind of limited philosophy. For academics, new age philosophy is woo-woo mysticism. For new age philosophers, academic philosophy is intellectual, logic chopping.

Both sides are right. And yet both are wrong. If philosophy cannot itself find harmony within its many dimensions, how can it bring harmony to the splintering of dimensions in the world? We need a broader consciousness which solves, dissolves, overcomes and transcends the intellectual-spiritual dichotomy which has paralyzed much of the public discourse.

As a step in this direction, in this post I will begin by critiquing a standard trope on the spiritualist’s critique of the intellectual philosophers.

Like Heidegger and Dreyfus, often spiritual philosophers find their target in Descartes:

The philosopher Descartes believed he had found the most fundamental truth when he made his famous statement: “I think, therefore I am.” He had, in fact, given expression to the most basic error: to equate thinking with Being and identity with thinking. The compulsive thinker, which means almost everyone, lives in a state of apparent separateness. (Eckhart Tolle)

Nothing could be more alien to contemplation than the cogito ergo sum of Descartes. “I think, therefore I am.” This is the declaration of an alienated being, in exile from his own spiritual depths, compelled to seek some comfort in a proof for his own existence (!) based on the observation that he “thinks.” If his thought is necessary as a medium through which he arrives at the concept of his existence, then he is in fact only moving further away from his true being. (Thomas Merton)

Tolle and Merton are of course right that identifying with our thoughts is a main obstacle to a broader awareness. Most basically, what they are criticizing is what the Buddha was gesturing at when he said:

“He abused me, he struck me, he overpowered me, he robbed me.” Those who harbor such thoughts do not still their hatred.

“He abused me, he struck me, he overpowered me, he robbed me.” Those who do not harbor such thoughts still their hatred.

Identifying with our mind, understood as identifying with the ego stream of consciousness of “I want …”, “I fear…”., “I hate…” and so on is the root grip of the ego on us. Tolle’s compulsive thinker and Merton’s alienated being are people who are unable to get out of the grip of the stream of consciousness of thinking which is often the majority of our thinking.

When Descartes said of himself that he is a thinking being, is this what he meant?

Of course not. Anyone who has felt the excitement of reading Descartes’ Meditations can tell that Descartes’ identification with the mind was not an affirmation of the ordinary consciousness, but rather a move towards self-reflection and radically questioning one’s whole view of life. When I obsess about how my neighbor took my parking spot or how he drives a better car, that is not what Descartes is talking about.

In fact, there are many different things going in with Descartes. He is creating a framework for critiquing the Church’s scientific views. He is trying to articulate a vision of the mind which can make sense in the modern, scientific worldview he wants to put in place of the scholastic views. He is channeling ancient skeptical methods to enable oneself to break down one’s own habits and to see things afresh.

In doing all this, does he make mistakes? Of course. I think Ryle, Wittgenstein, Heidegger and Dreyfus are right that the Cartesian, dualistic view of the mind is basically mechanistic – that the dualism actually hides how much the view has in common with reductive materialism. Similarly, Descartes’ view of the mind makes no reference to the higher modes of consciousness that are not mathematical or scientific – no reference to poetry, literature and yes – this is Tolle’s and Merton’s point also – no reference to spiritual consciousness.

But these limits in Descartes’ view is no reason to make him the symbol of the egoistic thinking which is the mode of awareness which is Tolle’s and Merton’s real concern. It is as bad as when academic philosophers dismiss someone like Tolle as “just a self-help guru.”

In developing a more holistic consciousness, we have to be mindful of the easy dichotomies we draw and then pin the bad guy label onto one of the heroes of the perceived “other side”.

Tolle and Merton’s objection to Descartes is not historically grounded. But the real problem is deeper than that: the way they make the objection highlights the force of the egoistic thinking in their views.

Imagine if you are a scholar of Descartes, or someone who loves and admires Descartes’ philosophy and saw it as enabling you to explore new modes of questioning and thinking. What are the chances that you will see in Tolle’s objection to Descartes the Descartes that you love and admire? No chance at all.

Tolle and Merton speak as if it is just a fact of the world that Descartes made this gigantic mistake, which then had vast implications for European modernity. As if in making this point they are doing nothing but, in Rorty’s phrase, “mirroring the world.”

But, of course, that is not what they are doing. They are not just mirroring the world. They are meaning to point out that there is this whole way that modernity has gone wrong, and yes, that the mistake can traced to the father of modern philosophy. They are telling a historical narrative, with the good guys and the bad guys, the ones who got it right and those who messed up. And they assume that their listeners or readers will assent to this way of carving up the landscape of ideas and histories.

At bottom, this kind of throw away criticism of a major thinker in a different age and a different context than ours in a paragraph is the kind of crude, fragmentary thinking which spiritual consciousness is meant to move us beyond.

By saying that Tolle and Merton get Descartes wrong, I am not thereby just reaffirming Descartes scholarship in academic philosophy, as if the philosophy professors get it right. I don’t think the Decartes scholars get it right. I think they miss the spiritual dimension of Descartes’ thinking as much as Tolle and Merton miss it in Descartes.

But the crux of the point isn’t who gets Descartes right. It’s about how we can speak so that we don’t essentialize good and bad in a way which alienates those who see things differently than us.

In making their criticism of Descartes in the flat-footed way they do, Tolle and Merton are setting themselves against any reader who admires Descartes. And so they are creating a fork in the road moment, saying as it were, “If you want to engage with us, you need to follow our take on this issue.” But – and this is the main point – the unfolding of the non-egoistic, spiritual consciousness means not creating or not reenforcing these “you are with me or with them” kind of dichotomies.

But if Tolle is so spiritually advanced, why is he making this mistake?

As Tolle himself says, his skill, if we want to call it that, is that he doesn’t identify with his thoughts. It’s not in the fact that he has the right thoughts. The spiritual consciousness that Tolle is talking about and which I believe he possesses doesn’t require that his ideas about Descartes are right. He has ideas about Descartes just the way anybody does. And like anybody, those ideas can be wrong.

Nothing in Tolle’s philosophy requires the idea that Descartes set humanity on a wrong path. So that makes Tolle’s criticism of Descartes doubly off. It gets Descartes wrong, and that criticism of Descartes is not even needed for Tolle’s positive view.

This is symptomatic of the gulf between academic and spiritual philosophy. There is no gulf in reality. All there is are people trying to better understand themselves in a holistic way and to expand their consciousness. But all these little contrasts and digs on both sides which we normally look past create the illusion of the gulf. So overcoming the gulf requires simply giving up and rooting out of oneself all these little contrasts and digs which we use to prop up one side at the cost of the other.

Spiritual Compassion

Goal for self: cultivate spiritual compassion.

Ordinary compassion privileges others over oneself. It says we shouldn’t be selfish but should aim to help others.

Spiritual compassion looks on self and others equally. It doesn’t identify oneself with the self but looks to ones own self with the kind of compassion we normally reserve for others.

Ordinary compassion looks outward as an escape from egoism. As if the only way of relating to oneself is in a selfish way. In a grabby, id driven, impulsive and possessive way. As if the self can only be overcome by devoting oneself to the service of others. As if we are meant to subdue our selves while promoting other selves.

Spiritual compassion goes deeper. It seeks to bring the full force of compassion to ones own self, removing all traces of self blame, anxiety and self doubt.

In spiritual compassion we love ourselves. Truly love ourselves. Not the needy, clingly, immature, surface everyday love of the self of the ego awareness. But the rich, pure, bottomless, unjudgmental love of letting oneself just be. Giving oneself not this or that thing one wants, but the space to truly and unequivocally be – just be oneself without needing this or that thing to be more fully oneself.

Ordinary compassion seeks to overpower the self and chastise it to turn its attention to others.

Spiritual compassion is the natural outgrowth of ones love for oneself. But pruned of its egoistic manifestation and narratives.

Ordinary compassion is an ought we tell ourselves. Spiritual compassion is our very nature maturing into its full blossoming.

Because ordinary compassion is grafted onto the ego awareness, it is always in danger of falling away. Of us becoming selfish again. A threat we have to safe guard against by judging ourselves constantly.

Because spiritual compassion is nothing other than love of oneself in its purest form, there is no danger of it falling away. Once attained, we only want more and more of it. And as we get more and more of of it, we give more and more of it to others. Give them space to seek it in themselves.

Ordinary compassion has immediate results. Spiritual compassion produces lasting changes.

Ordinary compassion is a steeping stone to spiritual compassion. Initially growing beyond ego awareness first means turning outward. But truly growing beyond ego awareness means turning back towards oneself with complete compassion for oneself.

Ordinary compassion produces results we envision. Spiritual compassion creates results we can’t envision and which transforms our very nature.

Ordinary compassion reaffirms the difference between oneself and others. Spiritual compassion transcends the distinction and merges oneself with others.

Ordinary compassion is work. It takes effort to go against one’s own impulses.

Spiritual compassion is no work. It arises in giving up effort and going with one’s deepest impulses.

The problem with egoism isn’t the orientation to the self. It’s that it doesn’t go deep enough into the self.

Go deep. Be fully yourself. Leave egoism and ordinary compassion behind. Be spiritually compassionate.

Anthropology and Religion

Our current discourse of religion and science is mired in 19th century contrasts and framing of issues. In Darwins time, nature was seen as mainly a non human realm, as if to see humans as natural meant seeing us as just molecules.

This inspite of the fact that from early in the 19th century Hegel and others were underlining the importance of culture for human beings. We are natural not because we are simply material but because we are cultural. But 200 years ago this appeal to culture was hand wavy at best and mixed with racism at worst.

The growth of anthropology and archeology in the last 200 years, as well as the rise of history and comparative religion at a truly global scale in the last 100 years, has helped us flush out what culture means for humans. And what it looked like 50,000, 5,000 years ago and 1,000 years ago.

Usually talk of the origins of religion fall prey to two problems. The religious think of origins only in terms of their chosen religion. What kind of experiences did Moses have of God? The answer is given only in terms of what is said in the Bible. As if any perspective beyond the Bible is essentially atheistic. On the other hand, atheists speak of origins by generalizing from the most dogmatic, unspiritual religious people they have encountered. So they reduce the origins of religion to the question of the origins of religious bigotry or stupidity.

Neither side takes the actual historical, anthropological perspective seriously. This is for a simple reason: their interest isn’t really the origins of religious consciousness or concepts, but using the idea of such history to attack the other side.

Something amazing happens when we take the anthropological perspective seriously. It dissolves much of the conceptual puzzles that normally pass for debates on religion.

When we think of a hunter gatherer tribe’s religious activity of dancing, chanting and their stories of their dream ancestors and their exploits with power animal ancestors, what jumps out – at least to me – is how far removed much of this conceptualization is from our current modes of thought. Even from our current modes of religious thought.

What we think of as the ancient religions – Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, the Homeric Gods, etc – are all comparatively recent in human history. No more than two to four thousand years ago. And all in the context very far removed from the hunter gatherer life. In fact, the ancient religions that are part of our current life all arose within civilizations that were a far cry from the hunter gatherer life.

This means to understand the origins of religion requires understanding the changes in forms of social organization. And how that relates to the convulsions of individual consciousness which gripped Zoroaster, Abraham or Yagnavalka.

I am a Hindu, born and bred. It is easy enough to know what that means: I grew up in a certain way and identify with it. But that gives me no special knowledge of what modes of awareness the Upanishadic sages were channeling when they recited the Upanishads. In fact, most Hindus, like many people in my family, never read the Upanishads or even the Gita. For them Hinduism consists of practices and prayers which they know not where they came from and which they don’t care about. Or rather: where they assume to seek to understand the origins of the beliefs is somehow irreligious. The beliefs and practices just hover in a timeless realm. Hence easily used for political or other uses.

This is the reality: most religious people don’t understand religion. Nor seek to understand it. Not because the religious truths go beyond the rational mind, though that is the excuse given. But because they identify religion with practices which they assume must be eternal or beyond our understanding.

This of course makes for an easy target for atheists. “Look how stupid the religious people are.” True. But that doesn’t mean the atheist understands the origins of religion any better. Or the origins of rational thought for that matter.

The anthropological perspective can free one from this dual limitedness of the typical theist and atheist and open up a newer, broader perspective. Which can show how religion arose and also what can continue to inspire.

Shamans

What is the best way I can contribute to (a) my well being and (b) the well being of our society? It is not by following the news everyday.

There is a lot happening politically. There are many people handling it all, in politics, news, culture at large. Some of this is good. Some bad. Some useless venting. It is up to each person to decide how to navigate this.

But one thing is seriously wrong: the idea, assumed by some on the left and right, that if one doesn’t have an immediate opinion on the latest news, then one is being complicit in the injustices of the other side.

This attitude forces all reflection onto the latest, newest issue. It equates stepping back to look at the bigger picture as caving to the other side.

Ultimately it is this need for instant impact which derails conversation and critical thinking.

I feel the force of this. Sometimes I log onto newsites or twitter every hour or half hour, needing the next hit of the latest reaction. Whether this is good or not depends on what one wants and one’s position. If you are Jake Tapper or George Conway, perhaps it is necessary given the role you are playing and the effect you can have.

But if you are me, someone just absorbing the news but without any outlet for what to do about it, it is harmful to my well being. I am not Jake Tapper. Or George Conway. Or Ta-Nehasi Coates. Or a modern day Hannah Arendt.

I have to ask myself what is my role in society. How does my well being coincide with the well being of society?

I am an intellectual shaman.

There have been shamans since the beginning of human communities. Their task is to look at the biggest picture possible about the direction of society and to create the intellectual, emotional and spiritual energies required help the society move in the best direction.

Shamans do this by first overcoming their own limited consciousness and so by detaching their immediate, local, personal concerns from the concerns of the society as a society. This detachment is transcendence.

The nature of thought is such that any person thinking assumes that just in virtue of thinking they achieve transcendence. Hence most everyone, minus those lack confidence, assume that they see the big picture, they see where society is and where it should be going, who is right and who is wrong.

Shamans though are the people who work on themselves to get beyond this surface feeling of transcendence to a deeper reality of transcendence. Who are able to separate immediate, knee jerk reaction from thoughtful, measured response. Who therefore might seem to the world as if they are being complicit or thinking too much or unconcerned about the immediate pain others are in right now or as if they just don’t care. But who actually are none of this, but are only a stand for a deeper perspective.

The shaman’s greatest work is the transformation of mood.

People usually fight, argue and don’t see eye to eye not mainly because they have different values or ideas or desires. It’s because they have different moods.

Giuliani is outraged by what Obama is unmoved by. Warren is horrified by what Pence is ok with. The moods function as spheres of protection which tell us who is our own and who is not.

Most people, even great politicians like Obama or Reagan, struggle to transform the mood. Their greatness lies in capturing the mood. That is what Trump did. He captured a mood and became its personification. The democrats are struggling to respond because they haven’t yet been moved by a single mood which can be personified by their leader. That leader will emerge in due course.

But even when the leader emerges, be with Warren or Biden or whoever in the next year or the next four years after that, they are still not aiming to shift the mood at the deepest level of human consciousness.

That hasn’t been the task of politicians. That we expect politicians to lead on all human ills speaks actually to the leveling of our human awareness.

Christ wasn’t a politician. Nor was the Buddha. Nor Lao Tzu. Even those who were more in the realm of politics in their day, like Confucius, usually weren’t successful in their day.

Politics isn’t the cutting edge of human consciousness. It never is. The cutting edge is always within oneself. Political gains or losses depend on chance and the shifting winds. Tying yourself to politics is like tying yourself to mad horse and thinking that you can control it. It is in its nature uncontrollable.

The shaman sees this. And so gains control by focusing on where the deeper levers of control are – namely, within ones own awareness.

Famous people look like they are controlling what is happening out in the world. They seem to have power. Whereas I don’t. Others listen to them. Not to me. They can afford great doctors and maybe even in the next century live for 150 years. I might get cancer or get run over tomorrow.

Is the big tree that is falling in greater control of itself than the small plant growing next to it?

Bigness isn’t a sign of control. It creates an illusion of control.

I can’t spend $10,000 on dinner. Jeff Bezos can. So he controls that which I can’t. I can list a million things like this that Bezos controls that I can’t.

I can’t call up generals or talk to world leaders. Trump can. Obama can. I can list an indefinite number of things like this that they control that I don’t.

Can Bezos or Trump control their emotions? Can they control their mood? Or grasp the unfolding of the human consciousness down the millennia?

Why would we think they can? Because they have money? Fame? Because their days are filled with important meetings?

Or due to this seeming asymmetry: Because their choices affect my life whereas my choices don’t affect their life?

This is an illusion. Which majority of people fall for but which the shaman overcomes.

The ordinary person sees Bezos, Trump, Obama, Modi, Brad Pitt and Einstein and thinks: they are better than me. More a person than I am. More fully alive. Leading more meaningful lives.

The shaman sees them and thinks: they are no different from me. The things they have are good but not necessary for a full life. They don’t give necessarily a bigger picture on life. Or an entrance into the heightened awareness which is available to everyone.

The non shamans define people by their outer appearance. The poor non shaman thinks he is poor, that is who he is. The rich non shaman thinks he is rich, that is who he is. The capitalist non shaman thinks this difference between the rich and poor is justified. The Marxist non shaman thinks the difference is wrong and the poor need to overtake the rich.

Of course the poor need help. But the shaman sees that the deepest engine of the help begins not out there but within his own heart and mind and consciousness.

What creates lasting change isn’t pushing the rock of change up the mountain of an uncaring world. It’s the shaman’s energy spreading from person to person so that new, previously unimagined possibilities arise and become second nature.

What needs to change primarily isn’t just our material circumstances or social institutions. But deeper beyond that, our very way of looking at the world and our perceptions and modes of awareness. And at the core one’s own way of looking at oneself.

Embracing Change

One side of me longs for the free air of a wider consciousness.

Another side of me fears the losses inherent in that freedom.

Tremors of past turbulent transformations linger in my bones, making me clutch what I have now lest I lose my grounding again.

At 11 I nearly lost my father to a heart attack. The same year we moved from India to America. I lost my India self with his India habits with his India friends and family. A decade’s worth of grounding, roots in habits and happiness. Torn and displaced, unclear why to the child’s mind, fearful of losing father and fatherland at once, unmoored. The first earthquake.

Two decades later I lost my academic self. Years of habit and anticipations of decades in the future of debate and friendship suddenly broke off, fell off, cut off. Moreover, lost not from negligence or outside forces but chosen by my own mind and will and choice. Which casts doubt in my own mind at times about itself and its trustworthiness. The second earthquake.

Can I handle another earthquake? Will another come? When, how, in what form?

Vigilant for the slightest tremor, anxious when the next big one will hit.

And yet bored by the present, the limits of my current awareness. Can I be freed from the shackles of my mind and habits without embracing radical change, the passing episodes of nature in which I am only a speck?

Like a baby bird learning to fly, which has fallen twice in its early attempts and fears the third and the fourth and the fifth attempts while on the edge of the branch waiting to try flight again, I teeter and tooter in my attempts at spiritual flight, anxious about leaving the ground and yet anxious to let go so as to be carried by the wind.

When will the next earthquake come? Or were they in the past not earthquakes at all, but just the rumble of my feet leaving the ground and coming down, again and again, as I pick up speed for an epic flight?

The Three Paths

In each moment there are three paths in front of us.

The familiar path is what we are used to. We know its ups and downs, its reliefs and pitfalls, its openings and dead ends. We know we can walk down this path, that it is available to us.

The covetous path is what we day dream about. What we wish, hope, crave would happen. We are unsure if it will happen and most of the time even are certain it won’t happen. But we long for it as what we wish would happen, and what should happen if only the world were better. More just. More fair. More rational. If only the world were different.

The mindful path is what opens up in between the familiar and what we covet. In between the lull of what we know we can do and grasping for what we wish we could do, there is a force which pulls us up with a serene energy. In which there isn’t the resignation of the familiar nor the thirst for the unfamiliar. In which the familiar becomes mysterious and translucent.

The familiar feels boring. The covetous feels exciting. The mindful turns the boring into the exciting.

The familiar is content with what we can have. The covetous longs for what is out of reach. The mindful opens up what is overlooked in what we have.

We are resigned to the familiar. We long for the coveted. We are at peace in the mindful.

The familiar is here. The coveted is there. The mindful is everywhere.

The familiar feels safe and stagnant. The coveted feels powerful and in motion. The mindful feels inspiring without movement.

The familiar changes little. The coveted changes a lot. The mindful changes our vision of change.

The familiar says, “I wish there were more to life, but for me this is my lot.”

The coveted says, “There is so much more to life, if only I weren’t dragged down by the world.”

The mindful says, “I am the cutting edge of the world, the tip of the breaking wave, unhindered and unhinderable.”

Truth, Power and Love

Donald Trump’s way of relating to truth shows something important.

Trump seems to see truth as secondary to identity. What he likes, what reenforces his beliefs and worldview, what makes his supporters like him is the truth. Anything that is critical of him or which makes him look bad is false, spread by the fake media.

What is primary for Trump is his own will to power. His own affirmation of who he wants to be. Since he sees himself as the best, anything that suggests otherwise is put into the category of doubting oneself – of letting others determine what you can or can’t do.

Trump doesn’t relate to the world as a spectator. He doesn’t start with a neutral description of the world and then situate himself within that reality. He starts instead with the reality he wants to see of himself and sees the world through that prism.

Contrary to all the worries about how Trump is creating a post-truth society, the problem with Trump’s relation to the truth isn’t that he doesn’t acknowledge truth as a neutral arbiter.

That can’t be the problem because truth can’t play the arbiter role on its own.

If two people disagree about something, so much so that they can’t agree on a fact which will decide the issue, there can be no fact which can play the arbiter role. Truth is like an umpire who calls balls and strikes. The claim of the umpire only holds if both teams agree on the rules of the game. If one team says they are playing cricket and the other team says they are playing baseball, and yet they disagree and are on the verge of fighting about whether the batter is out (this is pretty much most political arguments currently), what the umpire says isn’t going to settle the issue. For there is always the added question: does the umpire know what game is being played? Can he determine what game is being played? Or is his ability to determine whether the batter is out dependent on the players themselves, and on whether they agree on what game is being played?

Very little in everyday human life has truth as an arbiter as such. Is it sunny or cloudy? Are the Lakers a good team? Were Ross and Rachel on a break when Ross slept with the other woman? We normally navigate these issues not by resorting to truth as an arbiter but by getting aligned on what kind of game we are playing. If two people are fighting and don’t trust each other, they can fight about why the other person is wrong about the weather or the Lakers, or about the facts of who cheated on whom, when, where and why.

But surely somethings are just true or false, like if there is milk in the fridge or if it is raining right now outside the house? Actually, no. Not in the sense that the truth of the matter is prior to the coherence of the human interaction at stake. How much milk does there need to be for there to be milk in the fridge? This depends on what the practical tasks are for that milk. If it is for one bowl of cereal, perhaps there is milk. If for baking a cake for 30 people, then no. And what counts as raining: drizzling, a downpour, for how long, with what intensity? Depending on the context and the tasks at issue, the answers vary. There is no “the truth” attached to the abstract question “is there milk in the fridge?” or “Is it raining?”

Does this mean that truth is just whatever the powerful or the stronger person says it is? That is the worry raised by Trump. If truth can’t be a neutral arbiter, then how can we hold him accountable? Or hold anyone accountable? If truth can’t be an arbiter, is there only power?

I suspect, insofar as Trump might think about this kind of question, he might say “yes”. Like Thrasymachus in Plato’s Republic, Trump might think that truth, justice and so on are just what the strong says they are. Therefore don’t ever give in and apologize. Don’t ever agree anything you said is false or that your opponent said is true. For that would be a weakness, which gives your opponents a win and increases their power.

But this doesn’t follow. Truth as a neutral arbiter and the strong man’s power aren’t the only options. There is a third option rooted in compassion and love.

If two people are disagreeing so deeply that neither can agree on what fact might resolve the dispute, the deeper problem isn’t one of truth but of trust.

Marriage therapists know this. The issue is never really about which spouse is right or has the true beliefs (“You never take out the trash!” “I do too!”). The inability to agree on a common way of getting at the truth is a sign of the lack of trust between the two sides. If there is trust, then there is a momentum to work together and then to heed common norms. If there isn’t trust, even if one is shown truth as an arbiter (“Here is a video tape of the last year in the house, and you never took out the trash”), that itself would evoke a new round of resentment and anger (“You video taped me?! How dare you!”).

When there is a lack of trust, it doesn’t take much courage to give up shared norms and resort to brute power. It doesn’t take courage because that is what we naturally want to do when there is a lack of trust. Nor does it take much courage to assert the importance of shared norms only to say that shows you are right and they are wrong. Because that is also what is natural to do when there is a lack of trust.

When trust breaks down, courage is related not to truth directly, but to being willing to heal the wounds and to build trust.

This in fact requires a deeper commitment to truth. Wanting truth as the arbiter is the easy affirmation of truth. It doesn’t require any work to change on one’s own part – the truth shows the other side is wrong, and I just have to repeat the truth over and over again, in ever louder or nuanced ways.

The greater commitment to truth is the commitment to compassion. Which requires me to change my own assumptions and to see the world from the perspective of the other person. To step out of my shoes and see the world differently so that a deeper truth that neither of us can see can come to the surface when we work together.

Trump is right that fundamentally truth seeking is secondary to, and must be seen in the context of, our relations as people, and of our ideals, aims and hopes. This is not a threat to civilization, a break down of truth, law and science.

For our relations as people need not be defined by our fears or our anger, or by the will to power to show the other people are weak and I am strong. The spiritual insight, be it of Christ or the Buddha, is that there is another way we can relate as people, rooted in self transformation and a commitment to healing wounds and building trust. Which acknowledges the priority of human interactions over an abstract, dehumanized truth as an arbiter, but which sees in humanity more than a desire a win or to put down the opponent. Which sees in humanity at root not a will to power but a will to love.

Four Dimensions

There is a cycle of pain people fall into.

Disharmony causes confusion. Which causes mental pain. Which causes bad habits. Which causes physical pain. Which causes disharmony. The cycle of pain repeats over and over.

In this cycle, physical pain and mental pain, discomfort and confusion all get blurred together to create a general torpor. A sense that one’s life is not going as it should, that the world is not right, that something needs to be done to “fix” things, but unclear what that is.

The search for the meaning of life, or for God, or for wisdom is just this: a way out of this cycle of pain.

At the root of the cycle of pain is disharmony. Of feeling out of whack.

What is out of whack?

Four aspects or dimensions of life: the personal, the communal, the intellectual and the spiritual.

In other words: autobiography, history, science and myth.

Every person partakes of these four realities. Like pieces in a puzzle, if the four realities don’t mesh harmoniously together within oneself, there is existential anxiety and pain. And emotions that flow out of that: anger, disappointment, disorientation and frustration. When they mesh together harmoniously, there is peace and strength. And emotions that flow out of that: serenity, compassion, equanimity and joy.

The personal is what we are most in touch with. It is the realm of our personal ups and downs. It is the main stories and battles in our lives as we think of them. For me it has to do with my immigrating to America from India when I was 11, my path into and out of academia, my philosophical relation with my father, and so on. The things I think about everyday, which structure how I view my life and its triumphs and challenges.

The communal is the stories and reality told in the broader community. Be it family, city, country or the world as a whole. It is the space of the broader causes and effects within which my personal realm has its place and meaning.

The intellectual or scientific is our attempt to understand the synthesis of the personal and the communal through analysis, discussion, debate, observation – through a focus on understanding.

The spiritual or the mythic is our attempt to understand the synthesis of the personal and the communal through stories, rituals, habits – through a focus on transformation.

Each of these four dimensions are initially in tension with each other. Well, the dimensions themselves aren’t in tension. Our awareness of them is in tension.

The personal takes the egocentric point of view that my life is the center of my life. What happens to others happens to them, but what matters most is what happens to me. That is what I will spend most of my time thinking about. Naturally, this pulls against the communal, which takes the group point of view that an individual’s life is but a part of the broader fabric of human life – a mere drop in the ocean of billions of other people.

The intellectual views the spiritual as a fantasy, as a pre-intellectual mode of cognition. Whereas the spiritual views the intellectual as a mere tool, as a pre-spiritual mode of cognition.

All the struggles and battles we see are but variations of the tensions between these four dimensions of life. Between oneself and others. Or between this group and that group. Or cultural battles between science and religion. Or between religions. Or between nationalists and globalists. Etc.

A person is not just defined by the personal. A person is the synthesis of these four dimensions – of how those four dimensions come together withing a particular body and space of consciousness.

If each person only cared about the personal dimension, we would be worse than many animals, which are also defined by the communal. We fight and argue with each other not because we are selfish as in care only about one’s personal dimension, but because we are making a claim on each other in virtue of our communal dimension.

Most fighting is not a reflection of our selfishness. It is a reflection rather of differing modes of communalness. We fight because we know we are bound up with the other, and yet because we don’t know how to coexist with that other. Coexistence is part of our blood. And it was more simple when it meant just bands of a dozen people in a hunter gatherer group. What it means when that coexistence and sense of community involves thousands, millions, billions of people, and ultimately all people – that is the story of human history.

Religion began as a way to tell that story (or stories) of human history in a way which harmonizes the personal and the communal. But the complexities of that history meant that religions, science and atheism, agnosticism and nihilism are themselves part of the very big picture story any of them want to tell.

No matter how much one wants to tell a matter of fact story of just what happened – “God created Adam and Eve”, “It’s all evolution”, etc. – the telling of that story and that vision itself becomes part of the disagreement and disharmony of our lives and interactions. No one can enter simple and prestine and just get the facts right. We are all sinners in that sense – all struggling with the same sense that, in a certain way, entering the communal conversations means we are but one part of the conversation and don’t see the whole picture.

Live one’s personal life while having the communal in view. Take the communal perspective while remembering that at root the communal is just made of individual persons. Take an intellectual view while realizing that it requires one’s own transformation to better understand. Live the spiritual view while having the humility to express it intellectually so that others with different views can understand.

Be oneself but also be a we. Be the mind while transcending it. Be a we in the midst of a personal life. Be with God while being open to those who don’t experience God as you do.

The four dimensions are aligned only through contradiction and paradox. This and That. Neither This Nor That.

Those who want harmony without paradox remain in disharmony. Those who embrace the tensions of paradox live in harmony.

Embrace the paradox and enter the fifth dimension where the four dimensions merge without being the same.