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Friday, August 28, 2020

Desire and Fear

  

The vigrahas (wrongly called idol or icon in English) of all the Hindu pantheon of Gods will have one hand in abhaya hasta (do not be afraid) mode and the other in varada hasta (I will protect you) mode. It makes sense because two driving forces of life are desire and fear. Desire because of need to seek food and mate leading to exploration and fear needed to save oneself from becoming food and escape death.

The problem with desire is that it is often unreasonable, always asking for more and leads to attachment. The desire to save oneself and escape death leads to fear which may result in running away (physical escape) and to imagination (mental escape). That is why Buddha advised us to let go of everything including desires and fear. Upanishads went one step further and suggested that “we let go of that by which we are trying to let go”. (In Sanskrit, it is a beautiful command: yena tyajasi tat tyaja). This means letting go of the mind itself, which is not possible.

The best we can do is to control the mind. That is also a difficult task. That is where meditation comes in. We are also asked to let go of the attachments by looking at our emotions such as desires and fears, looking deeply to understand the source and the seeds of suffering. We are asked to observe our inner landscape without judgment and  as a witness. A witness is not part of the scene. A witness is an impartial observer from outside to report to the judge. She is not the judge.

Bhagavad Gita asks us to do the same thing in relations to our actions. Since we cannot help but act, Lord Krishna asks us to “act but let go of your attachments to the fruits of action”.   He did not recommend sitting idle. (ma tey sangostu akarmani)

Friday, August 21, 2020

Diversity and Inclusion

 

It is interesting that when you are thinking about some topic, your eyes and ears are primed to pay attention to so many articles and books on the subject. That is what happened to me about Diversity. The first lesson I learnt last week was that this topic is now referred to as Diversity and Inclusion – not just Diversity. This is a conceptually important point.

In his book on Ten Principles of Free Speech, T.G. Ash includes Diversity as a crucial element. He further explains that “we should be able to express ourselves openly and with robust civility about all kinds of human differences”.  During the past several decades, there has been vast movement of people across nations and continents for various reasons. We are told that almost half of the population of Toronto is foreign-born. In the city of London, three hundred different languages are spoken. It is predicted that by the year 2042 there will be no ethnic majority in the United States – only plurality. Ash points out that we are living in a “Cosmopolis” and we need to learn to live with differences.

We need more than tolerance to live with differences. We need acceptance of differences. Some differences are immutable such as sex and color and some which we are born into or choose, such as language, political belief, and religion. Both  sex and skin color have been vexing problems. That  should not be since they are immutable. We cannot do anything about them. We are told that a group of individuals in Brazil were asked to describe their skin color in their own words. There were 134 different descriptions. We know that all our organs underneath that skin look the same. So why this hang up?

To live in a civilized society, we need to emphasize uniformity of “hearts” and not identical skin color or eye color or belief systems. Can you imagine how dull this world will be if everyone looks the same, dresses the same, speaks the same language and eats the same kind of food? Besides, if everyone is alike, it does not require much effort to live in “peace”. It requires effort and maturity to enjoy the variety and live a life that is peaceful to oneself and to others.

In the book I referred to earlier on Free Speech, T G Ash suggested that “we express ourselves openly and with robust civility about all kinds of differences”. I suggest an addition to this statement: “we also concede freedom to others to be themselves with their immutable and mutable characteristics and express them with robust civility”.

Civility is not just acceptance to be politically correct. It is not just politeness and good manners. It is  deep acceptance capable of aligning one’s thoughts, manners, and actions. If not accepted deeply at the mental and spiritual level, the intolerance will show up sooner or later. It will also make it difficult to teach the younger generation what true acceptance is. They will see through our hypocrisy.

Ash defines civility as: “respect for the dignity and the desire for dignity of the other person”.

The need for full acceptance of diversity and the need for inclusion is upon us right now, in this 21st century “cosmopolis”.  We should be able to have open and civil conversation on this important topic and preserve the freedom of speech which is so essential for such conversation.

 

 

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Dealing with feelings and emotions

 

In Hinduism, we are taught to meditate to a point at which we become witness (sakshi) to our own thoughts. It is part of gnana marga to merge with the divine.  A witness is an observer and a reporter. He does not judge. At that level, the mind is the subject and, also an object of perception. The idea is to reach a point at which there is only the Subject.

Buddhism expanded on it and applied it to living in this world. Starting with Buddha himself, Buddhist monks developed methods to deal with human feelings, emotions and “mental formations”. They said “when feelings arise, just observe them without judgement . Do not fight them. Do not get carried away by them either”. That is being a witness to our thoughts, but with a different purpose.

Buddhist teachings advise us to acknowledge the feelings and emotions. Instead of fleeing from them, name them, experience them without judgment, and even embrace them. If you do so, you realize that “you are not afraid”, but “fear is in you”. You are able to see fear as apart from you. You are able to see that fear is not controlling you but that you are in control of fear by observing it, naming it and looking at it as a witness rather than as a participant.

Behavioral psychologists have started using this approach. In fact, I heard Mr. Tristan Harris say the same solution in dealing with social media which control our lives. He says: “Instead of saying I am a victim”, take the approach “I am being victimized”. That may or may not be true, but makes you think differently. Who is in control?

Guided meditation exercises which teach us how to deal with our emotions and feelings, accepting their presence without judgment will be helpful in dealing with emotions such as fear, anxiety, sadness etc. Living without fear, anxiety, anger is a bliss by itself.

Saturday, August 8, 2020

Skin, the outer cover

 

 

The other day I was peeling off the sheaths covering a cob of corn. For no reason, it became a mystical experience – the mystery of its design and beauty. I almost felt guilty boiling it, leave alone eating it. The overlapping sheath, the arrangement of the pearls inside and the silky tuft require more than genetics, physics and chemistry to be explained.

Today, I was peeling a cucumber admiring its beauty with similar feeling. Later in the day, I was reading about the color of human skin as an immutable reality.

All these are covers. They are covering something essential inside. The cover (sheath, cover or hide or skin) is the limiting structure, margin between one individual life structure and its surroundings. It sets limit to the contained. It separates. It separates one from the many and from the whole.

We must look deeply and look past the separation our “skin” creates between what is inside us and inside the “cover” of others. As was pointed out several centuries back, a pocket of air inside a pot is the same as the air outside. Break the pot and see the wholeness of the interior landscape.

Saturday, August 1, 2020

Information and Consciousness

While reading Roberto Calasso’s book on The Unnamable Present, I was thinking about collective consciousness and group knowledge. It is amazing that there is no proper definition of information as applicable to consciousness. There is no acceptable definition of consciousness either. Calasso’s comments made them clearer for me.

To me, definition of information must state that it is the content of consciousness. Calasso points out that information is discrete, refers to individual fact and can be digitized. Consciousness is continuous, global and an analog. Just like what we know about recorded music in the modern world, digitized music is crisp and clear, sanitized. But, does not have the nuances and subtle noises of the original which gives the full flavor.

“Information by encircling thought, basically suffocates it…” says Calasso. Yet, without bits of information based on experiences and perceptions woven into memory, there will be very little or no content for thought. Consciousness is the light that shines by itself mysteriously in a living body and also lets us know we are alive and make us aware of our own  thoughts.

What do I mean by “group knowledge”?

When I saw a group of birds flying in formation, I noticed that two birds from the rear of the formation came over to the front to take the lead. This is a well-known observation and I have seen it many times, particularly when we were sailing in the waters of the Galapagos.

I asked myself: “ is group knowledge activating individual minds”? Birds do not have language to think “I have to go and relieve those guys in front” etc., The birds in the back probably do not know the concepts of back and front as we do either. But they must have some neural representation in their brains to know that they are in a cluster of “many” with some of their kind  visible in the field of vision (which has to be presented as in front, if they think like us). Why not call it “group knowledge” or “group mind”? If so, that should be able to affect the “individual minds” of members of the group and their knowledge. This group mind transcends the individual mind and affects it. The individual mind does not make the group mind; but knows it and operates through the group mind.

Is this similar to Universal Consciousness (Brahman) inherent in and influencing individual consciousness? As the famous Upanishad (Kena 1:6 )  says: “Brahman is not the mind that thinks, but it is that by which mind thinks”.