Fatherhood, Spirituality and America

In May I am about to become a father for the first time. As I prepare for that, many thoughts pass through my mind. But one line of thought in particular is close to my heart. This new phase of my life is also the end of an old phase.

That old phase began when I was 16, when the idea of being a monk, in spirit if not in actual practice, gained a powerful foothold in me. I was convinced the middle class life of the American dream – presumably the reason my family moved here – was not for me. Instead I was captivated by the image of a Shankara or a Vivekananda dedicating themselves to a spiritual life. I assumed that was my life – or ought to be. I uneasily accepted the scenic privileges of Cornell and the prestige of Harvard, feeling uncertain whether I really belonged there. At college wide faculty meetings at Bryn Mawr, while faculty debated how much of a pay increase we should get, I argued we should take a salary cut to highlight the spiritual vocation of academia which I feared was being lost. My colleagues looked at me with bemused annoyance, rightly thinking I didn’t have a mortgage and kids to worry about.

Why was I so drawn to this idea of a monk? It’s an interesting question. I never actually even visited a monastery, or do a retreat at one. It was the concept that held me enthralled, and the actual practice left me unmoved.

If asked at the time to explain the importance of the monk idea for me, I would have said: “I want to dedicate my life to God. I want to help raise society to a higher level of consciousness. If I am married and have kids, I will be too focused on my local concerns to think about the bigger picture. Marriage and kids are good. But at least some people ought to make humanity their family. That is what I want.”

This view marked a deep disagreement between myself and my father. He was my first philosophical interlocutor, my first philosophy teacher. In his youth he too had pondered taking the path of a monk, but – as was his style – once he decided to pursue marriage and the middle class life, he committed to it fully. Without feeling that in any way he had to sacrifice his spiritual life. By the time of our conversations, he had become convinced that in fact being married was the best way of being spiritual, since he felt it challenged one’s emotions in a way that a Buddha or a Vivekananda didn’t have to experience.

There is of course no such thing as the path of spirituality, as if being married or not determines how far one gets. I see now that my father also didn’t think it mattered too much. His vehemence about the importance of marriage and kids to spirituality was probably more a reflection of his love as a father for me. He must have wondered, “Why is my son so resistant to the middle class life? What is the pain behind that?”

I have wondered that too. I got married ten years ago. A couple of years ago I bought a house in the suburbs. Now I am about to be a father. The middle class life I resisted from ages 16 to 31, now I have fully embraced at 41. I feel my father’s experience is now my own. This progression into American suburbia doesn’t make me feel less spiritual. To the contrary, it makes me feel more spiritual, closer to God, confident that this is the path God has for me.

So, psychologically and sociologically, why did I resist the American middle class life so much? That too when my father didn’t?

When we immigrated to America in 1988, my father was 47 years old. His formative experiences were in India, and he came here fully formed. He was proud to be an American, and he identified fully with his new country. But culturally, he was very much Indian – in his food, his family habits, his cultural references, and ultimately, the spiritual texts he loved the most (The Bhagavad Gita and The Upanishads).

I was 11 when I came here. I was a boisterious fun loving kid. I got along with all of my extended family. But equally importantly, I had a thriving social life in India. Some of my most vivid memories are playing cricket with friends in the neighborhood park from end of the school day in the afternoon till sunset. I still can remember that feeling of being with friends who looked and talked like me, whose parents knew and talked to each other, whose lives were linked through the Telugu culture of Hyderabad, and of Indian culture more generally. Age 11 was the last time I experienced as a kid a seamless connection between my family life and the broader society life.

Once in America, in middle school and high school, there was a split between my family life and the school life; between how I spent my weekends with my extended family and how my friends spent their weekends, going out to dinners, movies and baseball games. Even as I remembered my cricket playing days and how central they were to my life and identity in India, I could feel it was all part of a hazy past as I stepped on to the baseball field and felt just a little out of step with the ease with which my friends played the game.

When I looked to the broader American society, and the history I learnt of America in school, my teenage mind saw a country that was mainly white and black, and Latino, and perhaps East Asian. In each of these cases, there was the assumption of the privileges of the immigrants from Europe contrasted with the bigotry faced by African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Japanese-Americans, etc. I didn’t know then of the bigotry faced by Jews, the Irish, and others in America.

But one thing seemed clear: I wasn’t like any of these people. I wasn’t white but I was also not black. My parents were not rich, but not poor either. We lived in Westchester County, one of the richest counties in America, and without really yearning for it, I ended up at Ivy League schools and then at a tenure-track job on the Philadelphia Main Line, one of the centers of old, East Coast wealth.

As a sixteen year old I looked to the broader society of my country and asked myself, “Where is my identity here, not just in terms of a job and what kind of car I want to drive, but culturally and ethically? Who am I as an American? Who can I be? Where do I belong in a land of whites and blacks, Native Americans and Latinos, of the Chinese who helped build the railroads and the Japanese who were interned during WWII?” In response I was faced mainly with silence. Blankness. Uncertainty.

What I wanted was a cohesive blend of my inner Indian life and outer American life. Where was the connecting line between the spiritual, meaningful life I was awakening to at 16 while reading the Gita and the outer American life where I was taking the SATs and watching Mets games?

Somewhere in my unconscious the link was made to how Americans thought with admiration of India since the 60s: as a land of spirituality. As I discovered that sprituality was the center of my parents’ lives, I also discovered that Indian spirituality was a dominant theme in American life since the 1960s. It was a connecting point – a thread which bound together the disparate parts of my life. 

My growth into a public identity in America became merged with having a public, spiritual identity. The way my friends or family members wanted to be baseball players or rock stars or politicians or computer scientists or doctors, I wanted to be a monk – a synthesis of India and America in which I could be whole. What I wanted first and foremost was a career or simply a way to make money, but rather a way to find myself as the American that I am.

A good part of my 20s, when I was grad school, I actually yearned for the cultural, institutional and spiritual turmoil of the 60s. I felt that in that turmoil was the root of my American identity, and that the humdrum American life of the 80s and 90s had somehow covered over the soil within which the seed of my growth was planted.

Identifying with the 60s in this way meant being basically counter-culture and counter-establishment. To look upon suburban life as comatose conformism, and even career seeking undergraduates or academics as not caring about the bigger issues of life. Ironically, the way I sought to find a home in America through the framework of the 60s actually kept me alienated from America. 

This is coming to a close now. I no longer feel the need to understand myself as an American through the categories of the 60s, with its sharp dichotomy of hippy spiritualists versus the ticky-tack house suburbanites. I am free now to find my own mode of being an American, just as I am, in my own time and in my own life. 

I had assumed that wanting to be a monk was a reflection of my spiritual yearning. But I see now that it was more a reflection of my sociological yearning. It was understandable, but now the phase of seeking that kind of a sociological grounding for my life is over. There is no more a question of what will my life as an American be. That life is here. I am living it now. I am an American of this kind – the kind that I am, and that I am being.

Freed of the link to this sociological need, now my spiritual life guides me as I am, without worry about how I ought to be spiritual. Just as I am an American as I am, so too I am spiritual where I am and how I am, with the job and the home and the wife and the kid to be that I have.

Embracing myself wholly as I am, and embracing this moment and each moment as it is, that is the sociological and also the spiritual foundation of my life. It doesn’t depend on which decade I am living through, or which country I am in, or where my home is, whether I have kids, or if I embrace a middle-class life.

There is a freedom and a life full of meaning in each moment, waiting to be found in each moment. With that sense of openness and freedom, I am looking forward to being a father.

Longing for Home

If you are a fan of A. R. Rahman, or of fusion music, check out this video:

It made me cry.

The song is from the movie “Swades” and it captures an Indian living in America yearning for his home land (video of the song in the movie with subtitles is here).

I have had this feeling most of my life.

But unlike in the movie, my yearning hasn’t been for India. I left there when I was 11, just long enough to have the feeling for India in my bones and somehow not long enough (at least for me) to create an unshakable bond.

Since I moved to America, I have felt like a mutant. Half my body made with the soil of India, and the other half with the soil of America. That I am in my essence a trans-national and trans-racial being. That my being cannot be contained within national boundaries. That I am a being in search of that fusion soil which is my home.

Where the hero in the movie looks from America to India, I look from the present to the future.

To a time when my kind of fusion being feels grounded in a social fabric which self-consciously and openly nurtures it.

Is that future coming in a decade or a century? Or is that future what is called heaven or nirvana – which flowers not in physical or cultural terms primarily, but in terms of consciousness and spirituality?

Surely it is more the latter.

But still, the physical and the cultural are not nothing either. They can be powerful to lifting up consciousness.

That’s what I felt seeing the video of A. R. Rahman Meets Berklee College of Music.

Is everyone on that stage yearning for India? Maybe some. But not all. Many are Indian-Americans, who might be as in between worlds as I feel. Some aren’t even of Indian background. But they all share a common yearning, for a new mode of being, speaking to a hunger for going home.

Home – wherever that is for you. In whatever dimension or mode of consciousness.

It speaks to a growing global awareness – a new mode of cultural being. Where we can see that being fusion selves is not a new phenomenon, but has been the reality for thousands of years. Since the dawn of the first large societies, which were complex enough to have people of diverse backgrounds sharing a common life.

Does this mean I am against nations? Or that I am not committed to America? Not at all.

I am a resident of Maryland and also a citizen of America. My commitment to my city and to my state doesn’t take away from my commitment to my nation. Likewise, I am related to my family and friends in ways I am not to my neighbors.

That I have deep bonds with people outside America doesn’t take away from my bonds with fellow Americans.

Perhaps there is a guy born in America who moved to India when he was 11, and is now an Indian citizen, and who has the yearning for a global soil where the multiple sides of him can live together. I share something deep with that person.

But if I am trying to work on my country, I work with my fellow Americans. That only we can do together. I can do many things with my counterpart fusion guy in India . But I can’t vote for public officials with him, nor work as fellow citizens. Just as no matter how close I am to my neighbor, I need to first build my home with my spouse and my family.

Me and my fusion counterpart in India can share notes. Share life trajectories. Share ideals, hopes, dreams, frustrations. Share new cultures and modes of life. Share the dawning of a global spiritual awakening.

Even as we also wish each other luck in our engagements with our countries. I can be a fusion person and an American. Be a fusion person and be more –  politically and institutionally – American and Indian. In fact, that is how I am. There is a lot of India in me. But also a lot of India that is not in me, that I lost or that never developed after I moved here.

There are many different dimensions to human life. To any individual life. Cultural. Familial. National. Intellectual. Spiritual. And many others.

The longing for home can sometimes feel as if all these dimensions have to line up into one uber longing – the longing which underlies and unifies everything. As if really the cultural, national and spiritual longings are all the same. As if being Western, Christian and American overlap into one longing. Or Eastern, Hindu and Indian. And so on.

I can feel the pull of this temptation. It has a certain centrifugal force which can take root from deep within one’s soul.

But it tramples over the intrinsic diversity within one’s own life. There are – and can be – many different kinds of pains, longings and joys. There is no need for them all to line up. When I listen to A. R. Rahman’s music, or read Tolstoy, or watch the Super Bowl, or hang out with my family, or am engaged at work – there is no one longing which all these have to meet. There are many forms of longing, joy, curiosity, puzzlement, sadness and reflection.

Being with that diversity within oneself and in the world is itself a way of finding one’s way home.

 

My Father the Taoist?

Do you want to improve the world? 
I don’t think it can be done. The world is sacred. 
It can’t be improved. 
If you tamper with it, you’ll ruin it. 
If you treat it like an object, you’ll lose it.

– Tao te ching, 29

When I was 16 I said to my father: “Dad, you care so much about philosophy. Truth. Living a good life. What about all the suffering in the world? The homeless people. How can they be helped?”

He said, “That is not my concern. Nor yours. Just live your life as best as you can, follow your spiritual path. Find the Truth. Focus just on that. Don’t worry about others.”

This seemed to me a bizarre response. How can such a wise person be so… uncaring? Didn’t the young Buddha grieve seeing suffering and death? Didn’t Christ die for us? The spiritual person cares more for others than for himself, so I thought. Yet, the most spiritual I knew as a young sixteen year old was a my father. So how can he say. “Forget about others, improving the world, and live just for your personal spiritual task?”

I said to myself: “There is the philosophy side of him and the middle class, conventional, conformist side. His apathy towards my anxieties about homelessness and injustice and all the pain in the world – that is the conformist side of him. It can’t be the philosophy side of him! It must be his philosophy side being overwhelmed by the conventional side. Why can’t be like Gandhi, or MLK? How can such a strong spiritual person be so…ordinary in terms of his acceptance of injustices and not try to change the world?” I felt sad. For him, for what seemed to his inability to break out of the orbit of middle class complacency. And for me, for my inability to break out of his oribit – for being caught in the pull of his complacency.

But could it be that his response to me was itself a philosophical response? That he meant it as a philosophical response to me? That in his regard at least he was a Taoist, warning me that if I tampered with the world, I would ruin it? That if I treated the world like an object to be saved, I would lose it? 

 He would have denied this and not identified as a Taoist. I am not sure he even knew about Taoism. To him the Tao Te Ching would have seemed like some Far East mumbo jumbo, far removed from the clear affirmations of the Truth in the Gita or the Upanishads.

Still, the resemblance between what Lao Tzu said and what he said is unmistakable.

Seeking can get in the way of being. Caring about others in an anxious way can be an obstacle to knowing yourself – and to helping others. The peace the world needs begins in oneself. As that peace flows outward without intention or fear, it multiples without effort.

What my father meant wasn’t, “Forget the homeless. Focus on your material goods and satisfaction.” He meant: “Forget the homeless. Let go of ordinary desires, including the desire to help. Be mindful of that desire, as with any desire. Don’t grasp. Don’t get caught in the world of should, oughts, deserves. Be still. Be one with all. Relate to others not as external beings who need your help, but as your own self.”

But if I relate to them as myself, shouldn’t that mean I ought to care about them since of course I care about myself?

My Dad’s point: “Care without caring. Be without striving. Quiet the mind. Don’t give in to the mind as it comes in the seductive form of guilty or judgmental compassion. Be unmoved by the seduction of the mind. Disassociate from your small self, even as it presents itself to you as the compassionate, caring, world directed self, and judges your stillness as complacency.”

Thinking is irrational. Non-thinking is rational. Doing is irrational. Non-doing is rational. 

Caring is selfishness. Non-caring is compassion. Selfishness is compassion, and compassion is selfishness.

One who doesn’t strive wins because he never loses. He is everywhere because he is still. He doesn’t fight or push or resist or accumulate because he has all.

He sees a homeless person and sees just him. He doesn’t see himself as privileged, nor the other as unlucky. He sees words and concepts as incomplete, and sees only the Tao as complete.

“How can we tell the difference between complacency and being with the Tao?”

Focus on other’s actions and if they are complacent, and be caught in judgments. There is no healing, no helping there.

Focus on yourself and if you are complacent, and be caught in guilt. There is no freedom there, no growth.

Complacency is a coping mechanism when the natural flow of energy is blocked. Pushing against it makes it stronger. Be with the natural flow. Let the Tao move around and through the coping mechanism. The Tao changes without effort. With effort, the mind strengthens the resistance.

A batter who constantly swings the bat doesn’t hit the ball. Or can’t control the ball if he hits it. Knowing when not to swing, to be still, to let go is the source of strength. The strongest batter is the most patient. He swings through non-swinging. He resides in emptiness and follows the Tao into movement. And into stillness. He surrenders to the Tao. He is free because he doesn’t control.

He resides in himself without being alone. He lets go and never loses what he has. 

Post-Election Mindfulness

Like all life, yesterday’s elections, first and foremost, just are. Each individual race happened as it did. This person won, that person lost. And the broad scale results are what they are.

I am with the results as one is with the rain and the sunshine, with babies being born and loved ones dying. As something much bigger than me, much bigger than any politician, much bigger than any one group.

As a Democratic voter, I am happy about some things, unhappy about others. As a friend and family member of Republican voters, I am happy for them for some things, unhappy for them about others. As an American, I am happy about some results, unhappy about other results. As a person, I have this and that emotion, this joy and that anxiety.

Being mindful doesn’t mean I am any less a Democrat than one who is excited or unhappy. Or any less committed to liberal causes. It just means I am mindful. I am aware of my emotions. I am aware of others’ emotions. I try to see both with a caring and yet dispassionate glance.

Being overcome by emotion suggests one’s life is determined by those outside events. One feels empowered because that happened over there. One feels disempowered because this happened over there. In both, over there sets the tone. And the voice within says: “Of course, over there sets the tone. You are only a very small part, with very little power on your own. Unlike those big, powerful people who have power, who are on TV winning or losing, and with whom you have to align yourself.”

Mindfulness suggests something else. Yes, I am less famous than those on TV winning and losing. Yes, I have less power in many ways. But no, they don’t matter more than me. Not in the big picture.  If I can step out of my monkey mind and am just aware of it, I am doing the most work I can do right now, right here. And it is the most work any person can do, no matter how famous, rich, smart, good looking or powerful. If they do what they do without mindfulness, it is one big step forward, two big steps back. But if I do even a little bit with mindfulness, it is only one very little step forward, but without going backward.

Politics is a part of human life. An important part. But not the main part or the most essential. Life is for growing as a human being. I focus on that and fit politics into that, and not the other way around. It is the best way to help others in the long run. To help without selfishly taking in the process.

Mindfulness. Prayer. Contemplation. When these are the center of one’s life, they center all else one does. And gives those actions a glow of inner strength which radiates outward.

Act with a glow. Without fear or seeking spikes of pleasure. Act with awareness. Be awareness. It is the best you can be and the most good you can do. Let the glow reflect through your politics, rather than letting the politics limit your glow.

Be big. Very big. Be the biggest big awareness you can be.

The World Without Me

By instinct I am the center of my world. What happens to me and those I identify with feels like the most important things in the world.

I know I am only a speck in the universe. There are billions of other humans, of whom I know maybe a few hundred personally.

This is hard to hold onto: that for those billions of other humans, and for the billions of other nonhuman animals, it is as if I don’t exist. My toothache or life threatening illness or financial problems or self esteem concerns don’t matter to them at all. I could die right now, or be in excruciating pain, or be riddled with anxiety over my appearance or social position, and it won’t make any difference to them. Their lives move on as if nothing happened, propelled only by the concerns of their lives.

Can I blame them for this negligence or uncaring attitude towards me? How can I? I am equally uncaring towards them. Even the thousands living in my neighborhood are but for me neighbors in my life, devoid for me of any concern beyond being my neighbors.

Nor can it be different. Can I keep in mind all 70,000 people who live in my city? Maybe if I were a computer with large processing powers. Still, that would be to track them as in a database. Can I care about their lives personally the way I care about me and those I know personally? Of course not.

To be conscious is to have a limited awareness.

Fame appeals because it allows for the illusion of overcoming this brute reality. If I am famous, my death, my pain, my joy, my life matters to millions. Matters objectively. Matters really. Or so it seems.

It feels if I am famous, then others will know me the way I really am. But of course this is not true.

I think about many famous people. Obama. Trump. Gandhi. Jesus. My life doesn’t and didn’t affect them. Their life affects and affected mine. Still, for me it is not their lives as they live them that matters. But their lives as it affects me that matters to me. They are in my life the way my neighbors are. As contours in my life. God himself is experienced most of the time as my God, based on how he manifests in the world of my concerns.

There is no caring for all people. To keep them in mind. That is an illusion, like fame.

What I can do is try to still the me-ness implicit in my perceptions and thoughts. To be more aware of the world in which I don’t exist. To embrace my own limitedness, and that of any conscious being. To see past the shadows I cast over my perceptions.

Wisdom isn’t about accumulating. It is about chipping away.

Until I can embrace the world without me.

Politics and Spirituality

Yoga demands a total dedication of the life to the aspiration for the discovery and embodiment of the Divine Truth and to nothing else whatsoever… You must go inside yourself and enter into a complete dedication to the spiritual life. All clinging to mental preferences must fall away from you, all insistence on vital aims and interests and attachments must be put away, all egoistic clinging to family, friends, country must disappear if you want to succeed in yoga.
– Sri Aurobindo, Internal Yoga

There are great upheavals happening our world – political, social, technological. Watching the news, things seems unpredictable, chaotic, transformative. But for good or for bad? Sides are being chosen. And people call out, “Don’t be silent. Don’t pretend to be neutral. Choose a side now, before it is too late!”

In this situation, Aurobindo’s quote is a great soothing balm.

There are always upheavals happening in the world. Old regimes topple, new regimes arrive promising heaven on Earth. Each side claims only it can lead the way, and claims you have to choose them now, before all is lost.

Currently, the big issue, if you are on the left, is whether Democracy will survive. The issue is raised with a pitch of frenzy and urgency. I can understand where they are coming from. But no – I will not embrace the frenzy and the anxiety.

I am here on Earth mainly to grow spiritually – to be with the Divine. That is my primary task. My primary task isn’t to ensure whether this form of government or that form, this form of economy or that form thrives. Christ was born in a time without democracy. So was the Buddha. It didn’t diminish their lives any less for that. By modern standards, they were “unfree”, subjugated (Buddha after he left his kingdom, anyway!), rendered voiceless. All true in a sense. In an important sense.

And yet! Oh, what a yet!

And yet, they lived a full life, as full a life as imaginable, because they lived primarily for their spiritual calling on Earth. They lived for spiritual awakening, for the Divine, for the Truth of a cosmic awareness.

This is the main task. My main task for myself. What Christ calls me to do – to be with Him!

Like with the left, I understand the concerns of the right. The world seems to be hurtling into a choatic free for all, where traditional ways of life and cultures and modes of interaction are being upended. Or so it seems very much. And I also want to say “Merry Christmas!” and mean it to speak of the Lord who died for my sins, rather than a mundane “Happy Holidays!” which speaks to an economic event.

And yet! Oh, thank god for that yet!

The purpose of my life is to be with Christ. To find that connection within me, every moment, every second. To nurture that relationship at all costs, prior to all needs. It is the most personal and immediate relationship. And no one can get between me and Christ. No one can inhibit my relation to Him. There is no threat to me, as long as I look to Christ and make him the center of my life. In that relation is a deep peace, a deep fulfillment. A deep awareness of the passing ups and downs of cultures, times, empires, traditions.

I was born to be with Christ. To realize that relation to Him. To nurture it, to grow in it, to feel it within me with a bond that cannot be broken. That is the purpose of life. That is the purposes of yoga, of the spiritual calling at the heart of every human being.

Raise to that calling! Embrace it! Live just for the Divine, and not for what the mental attachments of what your mind says, no matter how important or how big, or how much it concerns famous people living in famous buildings doing famous things.

Revolutions are happening out there, yes. True. But the deepest revolution is always happening not out there, but in you. Be revolutionary. Change the world. Embrace the Divine in you, and live as it seems impossible to do.

Likewise, traditions are in danger. Cultures are being lost. Yes. True. But the deepest and oldest and greatest tradition is not other there, but in you. Be a stand for tradition. Uphold the past. Do what the great humans of the past did: live for the Divine in you, without expecting the Divine to live for you in the way you imagine.

The whirlwinds in the world blow always. Sometimes they die down a little, sometimes they rise up into major storms. But either way, your life isn’t decided by the whirlwinds. It is decided by what you were born to do.

Spiritual Selfishness

Couple of questions raised by newfie931 to the previous post:

As we go through this process, do we forsake the possibility of being in a loving romantic relationship?

Another question is, to what extent is this radical turning inward, this focus on personal transformation, sustainable without ever having to fight others?

These are very important questions, which I struggle with every day.

My response comes down to the concept of spiritual selfishness.

The questions get their grip by a contrast we often draw between spirituality and everyday life. This contrast then gets drawn as spirituality as selflessness and everyday life as selfishness. As if spirituality means giving up our interests, while ordinary life means holding onto our interests. And so it becomes an issue – an often pressing, confusing issue – how spirituality can be compatible with our interests such romantic love or fighting someone who is mugging us.

The way out of this tension is to see that spirituality is about letting go of our ego interests for the sake of our deepest, most personal interests. The tension only gets going when we identify the ego – understood as the self in competition with other selves – as the deepest source of our interests/needs/desires. On this identification with the ego, I want always get understood as a relational, comparative thing: as in, I want what he has, or I want what I deserve and others are keeping from me, or I want what will make me respectable in others’ eyes. 

Call such comparative wanting ego selfishness. In contrast, spiritual selfishness is embracing one’s interests/needs/desires without making it comparative. In ego selfishness, the push for the wanting comes from a sense of where one feels one ought to be in a group hierarchy. In spiritual selfishness, the push for the wanting entirely from within oneself, altogether independent of a sense of where one ought to be in relation to others.

The irony is we normally think that ego selfishness consists of the (a) brute, (b) a-social and (b) deepest selfishness within us. As if the ego selfishness within is like a solitary animal roaming the savana. But all three assumptions are false.

Ego selfishness isn’t a brute part of us at all. It is a highly socially cultivated part of us. For example, I am walking on a spring day, and I see a beautiful girl. Hot, as we say. She looks like she walked out of a billboard. And I am drawn to her, to pay attention to her. How do we characterize this attention? We might say, “It’s the sex impulse. Biological.” But, simple phenomenology, some self-awareness to what I am feeling and thinking in the moment and to my own situation, shows this is incorrect.

If she was my girlfriend or wife, I feel drawn to her in one way. If I am single, I am drawn to her in another way. If I am in an unhappy marriage, I am drawn in another way. If I am in a happy marriage, yet a different way, or even maybe not much at all.

If I am single, and unhappy about it and resent it, I am drawn to her thinking about how she might be someone else’s girlfriend. How that guy gets to kiss her and hold her and talk to her. And why does he get to do that, while I don’t? Life is so unfair! How full his life must be to be with someone like her. And how full her life must be, to be like a model, and she seems rich. She lives in a world I don’t. Damn it all! I want that!

In the “I want that”, what is the that? It is not just sex, and not even mainly sex. The that is a whole social world and sphere, which one feels cut out of. Or not appropriately successful in. The sexual impulse itself becomes a marker for that insecurity, but the desire – the ego desire – is deeply socially mediated. The ego desire is, first and foremost, for recognition of the ego as a thriving self within a set social domain. That is what the ego wants.

Obviously, then, ego selfishness is also not a-social. It is extremely social. It is a mode of being social. A mode of wanting a certain place and recognition and status in society, be it one’s family or community or at work or the world at large. The ego impulse isn’t a bit of brute, individualistic force which comes just from within. It is fundamentally a force to be seen in certain ways in social groups one cares about.

The power of ego selfishness is that it seems like the deepest, personal desire we have. To the single person resentfully, or forlornly, looking at the happy couple, it feels like wanting to be like that – like them – is the deepest desire within him. I know this feeling, as I suspect everyone does in some way or other.

When I was in grad school, at a certain point my girlfriend (later my wife) broke up with me, and my thesis was going nowhere, and I wanted to drop out of grad school. Feeling alone without a relationship and without a career I was happy with, and feeling lost to both India and America, as if I was a nomad without a community, lost in the margins, I sat on a park bench, and watched happy, academic couples walk by, holding hands talking about balancing their work and their relationship, and where they would go to dinner with friends and the bars and concerts and vacations – and sitting on that park bench, I felt my deepest desires were being thwarted. Because it felt like my deepest desire was to be like them, to have what they have. And the pain of not having it – and why not, what was wrong with me, what is so misshapen and broken and ugly about me – made me despair, and I wanted to kill myself. Then I felt my deepest desire was what my ego wanted, and felt it needed. That the starvation of my ego – and my ego was starved, hungry, malnourished by not having what I felt I deserved – was the same as my starvation.

In my experience, this is how people normally walk around. Not as explicitly all the time as I felt on that park bench, but with that despair lurking in the background. As happened with me. Later, I got back together with my girlfriend, finished my thesis, got married, got an academic job. And yet the despair was lurking. Because the marriage and career I had seemed so … much less, so much more broken, so much more mediocre, than what They, the thriving, happy people, hadSo much less than what I wanted and needed, and – yes, most of all – deserved. This ego impulse of frustration came through in the fights I would have with my wife and my colleagues, the isolation and depression and self-stigmatizing I was prone to.

And mostly I felt stuck. After all, if the ego desires are the deepest impulses within me, and those desires seem thwarted, then what can one do but despair?

The reality – which only dawned on me slowly, later on – is that the problem with the ego selfishness isn’t the selfishness part, but the ego part. Because by caring so much about how I looked in the world of others, and whether I had what others had or not, and why they got to have a happy academic careers, whereas I was torn between worlds in a way which made me dis-identify with my academic situation – what all that meant was that, really, I wasn’t living my own life. 

The problem wasn’t that I was too selfish. It was that I wasn’t selfish enough. And not selfish in the right way. In a way that actually worked for me, and for my deepest needs/desires/goals.

I started to be happier when I realized that being truly, deeply, really happily selfish is a skill. That ego selfishness is actually a lower grade of selfishness. Ego selfishness is selfishness constantly seen through the gaze of the Other – a selfishness which gives all the power away to those who the ego wants to be recognized by, and then fights and screams and vents and complains that others have all the power, and constantly schemes and plans about how to take that power back in fits and starts, here and there, through this argument and that power struggle.

To see ego selfishness as a lower form of selfishness is to awaken to the spirit within oneself. To trust that spirit is to let It – whether in the form of God, or a Buddhist self-awareness – guide your desires/needs/goals. Knowing that being free of the constant comparison with others which is the foundation of ego selfishness, deeper parts of you and what you want and what you were always perhaps afraid to acknowledge and let grow within you can now grow freely and without obstacles. 

The deepest desire of the self – the core of selfishness – isn’t for things. Cars. mansions. Nor even for recognition. Fame. prestige. Or even knowledge. Cure for cancer. Solution to the trolley problem in ethics. Or even doing good. Helping the homeless. Being kind to a neighbor.

The deepest desire is, as for any living creature, for growth. And in humans, unlike most other animals, there is growth beyond physical growth. One can be fully physically mature, at 30, and still crave growth. One can even be on a physical decline, at 90, and still crave growth. There is a kind of growth which humans care for, which is for growth without limit. For limitless growth. Or, as we might say, growth into the infinite within us.

This growth is impossible as long as one identifies with the ego, and assumes that selfishness of the ego defines the parameters of growth and desire within oneself. We are meant to grow beyond the ego to fulfill our deepest desires.

Ego selfishness is wanting ice cream for every meal, as the only meal, because it tastes so good and isn’t that what life is all about? Spiritual selfishness is like wanting a nourishing, complete meal so that beyond the immediate satisfaction of taste, there is a deeper satisfaction to the body and soul.

Ego selfishness is listening to teen pop music, and thinking how free and self-realized this sixteen year old is fighting against adults to wear what he wants. Spiritual selfishness is like listening to Beethoven’s 9th, as one appreciates the expansion of the self into the infinite.

Ice cream isn’t bad. Life without it would be duller, especially on hot summer days. And teen pop isn’t bad. It gives hope and joy to millions. But that is not the same as flourishing into the deeper potential within us as humans.

Ego selfishness isn’t all bad. But it is confused, because it is prone to think of itself as the essence of selfishness, and thereby, the essence of life. Move beyond it to embrace spiritual selfishness, and it will incorporate all that is good in ego selfishness and help discard all that is bad and painful.

How this looks can differ from context to context, person to person. Sometimes you might fight the mugger, sometimes you might give him the money peacefully. Sometimes you might fight for romantic love, sometimes you might be ok without it. Spiritual selfishness isn’t about which way things turn out, in this or that instance. It is about how you are. Your being. Your mode of existence. Your growth. It makes the growth into the infinite – rather than the recognition of others – the focal point around which all else turns. That makes all the difference.

Explosions from Within

Some people once lived in a compound. They were often attacked by invaders who shot arrows of fire into the compound. When the arrows were shot, huge explosions went off in the compound. The people living in the compound were frightened and agitated by the explosions, and would focus all their energy on attacking the invaders and stopping their arrows of fire.

But no matter how much they stopped the invaders, inevitably some arrows would break through and there would be devastating explosions in the compound. In response, most people in the compound spent their time figuring out more and more elaborate attacks on the invaders. Yet each time they felt they would destroy or at least control the invaders, an arrow would pass through and the compound was rocked with explosions yet again.

Finally one person realized that there was dynamite all over the compound. And it was really the dynamite which was causing the huge explosions. He saw that when the arrows of fire fell on empty ground, they were relatively harmless. But when they fell on dynamite, there were huge explosions.

So he removed all the dynamite from the compound. Confident there wouldn’t be anymore explosions, he was unperturbed by the arrows of fire and was able to focus on how best to deal with the invaders.

A wise person is like the person removing the dynamite from his compound.

An unwise person is like the people ignoring the dynamite in their own compound and looking outward for the cause of the explosions.

Normally I try to not be angry or frustrated or upset when interacting with others. When I am feeling grounded and calm, it feels like I am ready and poised to thwart and not be overcome by any arrows others might shoot towards me.

And yet, no matter how poised and on guard I am, usually at some point, there is an explosion. The hull has been breached. There is an explosion from within. While I am looking out for attacks from outside, fire explodes from within me – destroying my equanimity and filling the air with dark clouds of negative, painful, frustrated emotions.

At that point, panicked for myself and confident that the bomb which exploded in me was thrown from someone on the outside, I focus all my energy in retaliating against that person.

But did the other person throw a bomb or was it the dynamite I carry within me which exploded?

An unwise person gets surprised every time he becomes angry or depressed or frustrated. He asks, “Where is this emotion coming from? Who is triggering it?” And he looks out at the world to find the cause. He keeps looking until he pins the cause on something out there. So he can focus his anger on that and release the anger in that direction.

A wise person is unsurprised every time he becomes angry or depressed or frustrated. He doesn’t ask where the emotion is coming from, or who is triggering it. He knows right away that the emotion is an explosion from within. That it is his dynamite which went off. And that the explosion will cloud his judgement and make him look outwards. But instead of falling for that illusion, he turns away from the outside. He looks towards himself and focuses on removing the dynamite he carries within.

The unwise person looks at the wise person and sees a fool and a coward: “Look how he is not attacking the enemy in righteous fury and is running away, navel gazing at himself! Not to worry: I will find the enemy out there and destroy him!”

The wise person looks at himself and sees a diligent worker. Methodically removing the dynamite from within himself so that he can be free of pain.

Simplicity of Wisdom

Knowledge is complicated. It requires searching the world through the senses and using the mind to think things through. One might find what one is looking for. One might not. Knowledge is unsure, unpredictable, uncontrollable. It is searching for what is outside oneself, or outside one’s immediate consciousness.

Wisdom is simple. It doesn’t require searching. Looking is the wrong mode for wisdom. It is defined by remembering. Seeing what one already knows but is constantly liable to forget. It is what is inherent in every breath, every move, every thought. It requires simply being with it. Not finding it, or discovering it, or spreading it with others, like a treasure found in one place but not in another place.

Knowledge is like treasure. Wisdom is like air.

Wisdom is just one thing: being aware, not forgetting, that the universe is much bigger than me, much bigger than my family and friends and community, much bigger than my opponents, much bigger than humans in general and much bigger than life on earth.

This awareness is in us, made evident by our lack of control in the vastness of the world.

But we forget it, through the grips of desire. When I want something, it looms large in my world, as if me and it are the center of the world. Or when I am angry. Or upset. Or hurt. Or happy. Or excited. Basically, when I am moved in my ego world.

Wisdom is seeing past the ego world, mine and others.

It doesn’t require special insight or knowledge of scriptures or whether god exists, or nature of knowledge, or nature of humans or of science or of the world.

It doesn’t require knowledge.

It requires coming back to the obvious, the smallness of our lives in the vastness of the universe.

The wise person is able to come back to this in each moment, even in the midst of their pain, anger, disappointment or joy. The unwise person is unable to do that, caught in their pain, anger, disappointment or joy.

Wisdom is simple. It is clear, ever present.

But it feels hard and evasive and difficult when wisdom is seen as knowledge. As something to grasp, something new to acquire, somewhere far away from where I already am. This is the root illusion.

Wisdom is simple. It doesn’t require knowledge. It only requires not forgetting the obvious.

Embrace in each moment how vast the universe is in relation to you, and wisdom will be your constant companion.