Upheavals of Nature

A few years ago, while my wife and I were taking a walk at night, I was overcome with grief. I sat down at a nearby bench and was crying. When my wife asked me why I was crying, I said something to the effect of “It’s going to be so horrible. There will be so much pain, so much suffering. The catastrophes are coming and we as a society are not ready for them at all!” I had a sense of a coming apocalypse and it frightened me.

Was that an overreaction on my part? To the contrary. It was entirely rational. It was the first time it had really sunk into me that the nice middle class lifestyle which we take for granted is not sustainable. That the future won’t just an upward escalator of material progress for all. That behind the material achievements and even the scientific intellectual insights, we as a people still have a basically primitive consciousness, not far removed from the ancestors of thousands of years ago.

That in fact we as a species haven’t yet caught up to the great awakenings of consciousness of the sages of the past from two to three thousand years ago. We are surrounded by better technology and greater material well being than what the Buddha or the Upanishadic sages or Lao Tzu or Jesus Christ or Socrates had. But we haven’t yet tapped into the evolution of consciousness which they achieved. Our very material well being – which we haven’t earned individually but is something we have been gifted by our recent generations – covers over our emotional and spiritual stuntedness. It hides our inability to truly transcend our egoistic impulses. The ideals of an Ivy League degree or a BMW or a fancy salary or the good likes of a model give us the sense of sophistication – when all the while underneath the degrees and the material goods and the sophistication is the same limited and ego driven thinking of past ages.

Worries of apocalypses is nothing new. Every century has its share. Perhaps every generation at some point feels the world as they knew it is about to end. But this fact doesn’t render worries of apocalypses as mundane.

Rather, it is each generation’s chance to confront the limits of material well being and ego awareness, and to see that greater flourishing requires greater transformation of our modes of consciousness. That ultimately computers, medical care, high rise apartments with fancy gadgets – all these are still just tools. Or at most transformations of our basic cognitive modes of being. But they don’t on their own change our deepest fears or anxieties, distrusts or pathologies. Only we can change those through a heightened awareness.

The fear of the coronavirus, for example, is rooted first in fear of what will happen to me, my family, my life patterns, my society – basically, life as I know it. The anxiety is real. And rational.

But if I step back for a moment from my personal anxieties of what will happen to me, my family, my job, my city, my country, and even yes, my world – I am confronted with a stark reality which normally I ignore or forget or bury, and which the pandemic doesn’t allow me to ignore, forget or bury. And that is awareness of my own insignificance – of this limited being called Bharath with his wife and child and family and income, and tastes and desires and hopes and ideals – in the broader cosmos.

Is my life worth more than an ant’s? Or more firm and guaranteed? More important than the life of the chicken I had for dinner last night or the animals that are becoming extinct in the light of humanity’s “flourishing”?

The fantasy of normal life is that things are basically right and just. Even when thinking of racism or deep injustice, the thought is just around the corner that if only we changed some things, true justness and goodness in society is achievable. As if with some changes, deep though they are, our lives and the meaning of humanity would be etched into and merged with the meaning of nature as such. As if nature itself is calling out for our felt next step to be the next step of the cosmos as such.

Catastrophes obliterate this fantasy. Yes, there is racism. Yes, there is mass inequality. Yes, there are the hungry and the homeless. Yes, there is so much for us to do as a species. But catastrophies force us to confront the basic reality that the doing of these things – all good and important and essential – aren’t written into the very essence of nature. Rather, they are important because they are important to us. They matter because they matter to us.

That doesn’t make the mattering less important. It is mattering enough. We want to survive and thrive as a species because we want to. Not because nature will keep its hurricanes and heat waves and forest fires and diseases and cathastrophies at bay for us. That is the brute reality which catastrophies force us to confront.

This can be depressing if we assume that our lives mattering must somehow be affirmed by nature itself protecting us – as if we were its special children. So when nature seems to turn a blind eye to us, as if it were unmoved by our mass deaths the same way we are unmoved by the mass deaths of other species, it can provoke existential anxiety. As if we are abandoned. Uncared for. Where is God in all this?

God is on the other side of the fantasy. On the other side of seeing our own limitedness in the vastness of nature and being strong enough to pick up our courage and work to retain and create our world.

The truth and meaning of our lives isn’t determined by living or dying. By being in good health or bad. Hence the coronavirus can’t rid our lives of meaning. It can take my life, my family, change society, force radical transformations. Some changes will be unfortunate. Some for the better.

But what remains is the same basic choice we face, a choice which something like the coronavirus forces us to confront more consciously. And that is: do we live with the fantasy of our specialness in nature, a fantasy which resists seeing our place in the cosmos with a straight face, or do we live with a continual awareness of our limitedness and so with greater appreciation each moment for our fragile and yet beautiful lives in the cosmos?

This is not a silly philosophical issue which we can ignore. It is crucial for our lives. For the more we are able to live in harmony with nature and with our own place in it, and bring that awareness not just to “saving the planet” but to each and every human interaction and to using it to get beyond our own fantasies of daily life, the more we will survive.

Those changes in consciousness add up and a hundred years from now, our descendants – no matter what their economic or family or cultural situations, no matter if there are robots or aliens living among us – will be more rooted and secure because they will then be more conscious and mindful in their living. And in their dying. And in their confronting the pleasant times and the harsh times, the ups and downs of life.

Yes, future generations will need and have greater techonology to deal with the changing tides of nature. But they will also need a basic transformation in modes of consciousness to retain those techonologies and to try not to kill each other in the process. Techonologies will transform our consciousness. But there is a lot for us to do to transform ourselves in the process as well. To change outdated modes of habit and forms of consciousness, and to grow from within to a higher light of awareness.

Beyond Fear

If the elephant of my mind is firmly bound on all sides by the rope of mindfulness, all fears will cease to exist and all virtues will come into my mind. – Shanthideva, The Way of the Bodhisattva

I have so many fears.

Fears about what will happen. To me. To my loved ones. To the world.

But alsostrange as it seems – fears about the past. About things that happened which I regret, which I fear I can’t change, which I am still angry about.

Every day, every thought, every action – there is a fear, even a swarm of fears, hiding behind it.

The fear breeds restlessness. Anxiety. Exhaustion.

Within the ocean of fear, there are small islands of forgetting the fears. I call those islands “happiness”. But at any moment the islands can get flooded by the ocean and the forgetfulness can be eroded so that I am back facing the fears.

All this is unconscious of course most of the time. Or at least subconscious. Or in the background of consciousness. Ordinary consciousness is defined more by the forgetting of the fear and then the remembrance of it – the oscillation between the two. And hoping the forgetfulness wins out so I am not devoured by the fears. But the fears peak out in every interaction where there is the potential for the elephant of the mind to run amuck and stampede over my peace.

Normally I just accept all this as the reality. That the world is a fearful place. Filled with things, events, people, possibilities and eventualities which are frightening. Unnerving. Which rob me of my composure.

All these fearful things are like wild animals roaming in my world. If I can avoid them and survive the day without getting scratched or bitten or mawled by them, that is a good day. But if I do get attacked by them and they take a bite out of me, and I am caught in the grips of the fear, that is a bad day.

Shanthideva – as he states in the quote at the top of this post – suggests my ordinary way of thinking is a delusion.

He says the fears are not really out in the world. Rather, they are products of my mind. They are created by my perception of things.

That means I am not the passive experiencer of fear. Someone who is bombarded by fears from outside myself. Rather, I am the cultivater of the fears. They exist only in my mind, and only as long as I don’t realize that.

The mind creates the fear and the projects it onto things in the world. Then the things seem intrinsically fearful, as if it is the nature of the things in the world, independent of me. As if in fearing those things I am simply responding, reacting and am confronted by the nature of things as they really are. The possibility of losing the job or losing the marriage or my life being meaningless or my goals not being fulfilled or my house needing repairs – all those appear as just things to fear, and when I fear them I am just tracking the truth. That’s how it feels.

In this ordinary way of thinking, there can be no life without fear. The world is full of fearful things. So only a delusional person can live without fear. The normal person accepts there are fearful things and tries to avoid them. Even if it means constantly worrying about it.

Shanthideva flips this around. He says there can be a life without fears. Not because one has mastered all the fearful things in the world. But because he sees that his fears are actually caused by his mind. That they are projections of his mind to begin with.

So if he can be self aware of his mind when it does the projecting, then the illusion of the world being fearful can’t get a grip.

The normal person, in response to fear, tries to control the world. They assume their mind is helping them by making them afraid so that they can see what is really happening and can then act quickly to avoid it. The normal person (like me normally), even as he is fed up with the fear, deep down is grateful for it. He thinks his perception of the fear is helping him navigate the world better. To avoid the lions and the tigers waiting for him the world.

Shanthideva’s point is that the implicit gratitude for the fear is the root of not being mindful. It is to accept the mirage and the fantasy that the mind is playing over us. So that we fail to see that it is the mind itself which is creating the fear in the first place.

So the job goes. So the illness comes. So the house needs repairs. Yes. These are just events. Like it’s raining or snowing. Or a rock rolling down a hill. They are neither fearful nor wonderful in themselves. They just are.

The fear comes from what my mind adds to the events. Only the mind adds the fear so quicklyin a fraction of a fraction of a second – and so smoothly that, like an audience member seeing the magician pull a rabbit out of the hat, the ordinary person falls for the mind’s trick that the fear is actually in the events.

To be mindful is to keep the focus on the tricks of the mind rather than on the world where we are caught by the minds projections. To focus on the mind is to catch the mind in its act of doings it’s tricks, and so to not fall for the tricks.

Watch the mind as it tries to project the fears onto the world. Then the projection fails. The things in the world then just are, and not colored by the projection.

All along I am the one creating the fear. Unaware of this, I am also the one consumed by the fear. When I pay attention and am mindful of how the mind goes through the mechanics of creating the fear, I see fear for what it is: just my own projections onto the world. Knowing I am creating the fear, I am no longer consumed by it.

Who is Bharath?

Am I Bharath?

The question isn’t whether really I am John or Ram or someone else instead. It’s: am I a particular person designated with a name?

There is a voice in me which identifies itself with Bharath. As Bharath. This voice flares up when it is happy or sad or annoyed or bored. It says “This is great” or “This is awful”.

When I stand back and try to observe this voice, it says, “What are you standing back from me for? I am you. You are me. I am Bharath. That’s you! These good and bad things that are happening aren’t just happening to me. They are happening to you! Don’t feign detachment or as if you don’t care. As if you are different from me. You aren’t different. You are me. All these are your thoughts and concerns and issues. You might be growing bald. You need to pay the mortgage. Your daughter needs more things. Your pride and happiness is at stake. It’s not just me, some voice that cares about all this. I am you! You are Bharath! You need to care!”

Here is an existential reality: should I believe this voice or not?

Where does the voice come from? It acts as if it was always just there. But the voice is nothing but the internalization of other external voices. “Bharath is like this.” “Bharath is like that.” “Bharath is good.” “Bharath is loving.” “Bharath is serious.” “Bharath is judgmental.” These things others say coalesce into a single voice when those things are accepted.

So the voice that says “I am Bharath” is nothing but a product of others saying “You are Bharath and you are like this and this and this.”

And who are these others saying this about Bharath? Satyam, Subha, Gautam and other family and friends and neighbors and colleagues and strangers?

But then who is Satyam? Is he real? Well, there is a voice there too saying “I am Satyam. I am like this. I am like that. This is good for me. That is bad for me.” Is that who that person is, just that voice which identifies with being Satyam?

So there are all these voices which claim they are real selves, as real as can be, and they are all defined just in terms of each other. Every voice is just an internalization of what all the other voices say about it.

That’s all well and good. But what does that have to do with me? Is that who I am? Just a node in a matrix of social selves, defined with respect to all the other nodes?

Or am I the awareness of this dance of the nodes in the matrix? The awareness which doesn’t get its identity by what the voice says about itself. The awareness which observes the voice and its screaming and its laughter and its pain, and observes even the voice’s claim to be identical with the awareness, and still doesn’t identify with the voice.

The awareness is the cosmic awareness, which sees the voice as just the pebble on the beach that it is. And seeing the pebble as just a pebble, one among billions and billions of other pebbles, the awareness doesn’t – and can’t – identify with the pebble. How can the ocean be the same as a pebble?

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.


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?