REFLECTIONS ON LIFE AND EDUCATION - "STOP SLEEPWALKING THROUGH LIFE!"
What happens when the big dreams get fulfilled? What happens when you become rich and famous? Will you attain an enduring state of fulfilment? Will you then be able to live happily ever after? Or, will there be some something vital missing, something that you need to address now, when you are young and full of life? Is there not a deep truth in the old saying of Jesus: What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his own soul?
When I pose these basic questions to the students, they feel uncomfortable - but usually not sufficiently to question seriously their direction in life. The majority are too heavily "programmed"; one cannot really blame them for their strong sense of insecurity and discomfort, and inability to address the question. There appears to be too much at stake in the rat race of life, and it takes considerable courage, even just to pause and reflect, especially when one has travelled far and got ahead in the race. It becomes even more difficult, if not impossible, as one grows older. The dreams of our brightest and best students are ones that have been consciously and unconsciously ingrained in them by our social conditioning, by parents and teachers. Their dreams are but a faithful reflection of the prevailing materialistic world-view.
Is this the best our education can offer today? Are we not completely evading certain key issues in life?
There is a nice story on awakening (or the lack of it), a story about the chicken and the eagle, made popular by Anthony de Mello. Once upon a time, there was an eagle's egg that somehow got lost and got mixed up with the eggs of a hen. The eggs hatched, and the eaglet grew up with a brood of chicks. The eagle believed it was a chicken (although it did look rather awkward to other chickens), and it lived all its life doing what the other chickens did. It clucked and cackled, and scratched the earth for insects and worms. It could even fly up a few feet into the air, thrashing its wings about, like the other chickens.
Many years later, on a bright cloudless day, the eagle-chicken saw a magnificent bird high above in the sky. With its wide wings fully spread out, the great bird glided effortlessly and majestically. Awed by this sight, the eagle-chicken asked "Who's that?" and a wise old hen replied, "That's the eagle, the king of the birds. The great eagles live in the sky; but we chickens can live only on the earth". And so, the eagle that believed it was a chicken, lived like one and eventually died like one, without ever realising its true identity and potential.
The erudite scholar is as vulnerable as anybody else, if not more, to common human failings such as greed, envy, manipulation, pretension, anger and fear. Erudition has done little to bring liberation from these failings. The suffering and humiliation that a brilliant scientist or intellectual or artist undergoes when, year after year, he finds himself overlooked for a prestigious award, can be very severe. Furthermore, it is like adding insult to injury when a "less deserving" colleague wins the award; the pain can become unbearable.
How ironical it is that extreme brilliance can coexist with extreme stupidity in the same individual! How ironical it is that with growing age, education and experience, one may gain tremendous knowledge and yet remain tremendously unwise!
The underlying deep-seated fear in one relates to the very essence of one's being. One is afraid of being reduced to a "nobody". One craves unconsciously a sense of importance, an acknowledgement of one's worth by others. When such acknowledgement is not forthcoming, one ventures to create the grounds for it. Could this be the reason why many old people love to narrate to us, often with endless repetition, their so-called accomplishments? They become legends in their own minds.
Why are we in such dire need of a continual reassurance of our own worth? Why can't we just be? Why are we ashamed sometimes to be simply ourselves, which means dropping all pretences and image building exercises? Why are we so afraid of the natural process of aging: the wrinkles in the skin and the greying and falling off of hair?
We do not dare confront such questions, because we are afraid of the possible answers.
In the best of the traditional Indian systems, whether based on the "gurukula" model or the Nalanda University model, the fundamental principles, the philosophical foundations (based on Upanishadic or Buddhist wisdom) were well enunciated. It was recognised that the human problem is essentially one of fundamental ignorance, and that the ultimate purpose of life, and indeed of education, is to discover liberation from this deep-rooted ignorance. The ignorance pertains to the nature of one's self and the inter-connectedness of one's innermost being with that of the entire universe. One is unconsciously trapped into identifying, completely, with a narrow sense of self. This mistaken identity is the root cause of all problems in life, and denies us the realisation that our essential nature is already perfect.
This simple, yet profound, truth is the basic essence of all Oriental wisdom. Secular knowledge (dealing with worldly affairs and science) and the arts were also valued and developed, but the transient and illusory nature of all worldly phenomena was apparently never lost sight of.
Today, those fundamental foundations of education are conspicuous by their absence.
The "best" education of today is significantly different from that in ancient times (Nalanda University, for example). Priorities have changed completely, and there is absolutely no hint in today's education of what was considered to be of the highest priority earlier. The guru ("dispeller of darkness") has yielded place to the pundit ("learned scholar"). There is now tremendous awareness of technological things related to the material world, and at the same time, appalling ignorance related to man's inner world.
The difficulties in coping with studies and examinations are compounded by the verbal torture that parents often unleash on the poor performers. Comparisons are inevitable within and outside the family, and the poorly performing child is acutely made conscious of its inadequacies, and even begins to believe it when the parents say: You are good for nothing. Naturally, everybody cannot succeed in this mad race. The losers outnumber the winners multi-fold, and so we end up with a fairly large number of "good for nothing" individuals in society, thanks to the neurotic delusions of their parents.
It is unfortunate but true that religion, like education, has also been reduced to a means to serve materialistic ends and to encourage delusion. The higher and common objectives of religions, relating to the surrender of the ego-self to the all-pervading ultimate reality, are lost sight of, and it is only the lower forms of ritualistic worship that are commonly practised. "God-fearing" is considered virtuous, and it is obviously not recognised that fear is an unhealthy basis for any relationship!
God, to many of us, is some kind of a feudal lord to be appeased and worshipped periodically so that "He" may bless us with all the goodies in life. Such worship, unfortunately, does little to dispel the fundamental delusion, and on the contrary, strengthens the false identification with the ego-self.
One of the more serious ailments of the present civilisation is its obsession with "productivity" and the associated illusion of "progress". As someone once said: Passion is good, but not obsession, because obsession results in lop-sidedness and imbalance. You may gain something apparently precious, but at the same time lose something even more precious. Our obsession with material progress in this technological age has created all kinds of problems because of this. We are hurtling "forward" at such a reckless speed that, unless we slow down and ask whither and wherefore, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to "sustain development" of mankind as a whole.
The central message of our ancient teaching, testified by innumerable sages, is this: You are not the ego-self that you think you are, and this misidentification is the root cause of all your problems. Awaken from the deep-rooted ignorance related to your identity and find liberation.
This, of course, is more easily said than done. In the first place, the vast majority of us are blissfully unaware of this teaching, and it may appear to be rather formidable. Secondly, in this modern age of reason, there is no reason why we should accept such a teaching, which cannot be established by modern science or psychology. Thirdly, even many of those who seem to have theoretical knowledge of such wisdom are not necessarily awakened.
Above all, the greatest resistance comes from one's own ego-self, and this is something that anyone who practises self-awareness will easily understand. After all, can the ego-self be expected to allow its own annihilation without resistance?
What is the stuff that one's ego-self is made of? One's physical appearance, personality, possessions, achievements, affiliations, etc. - these are the things that commonly define one's ego-self. In every society, there is a sense of power associated with these attributes, the value of that power depending on the value-system practised by that society.
The sequences of various pleasures and pains are like peaks and troughs in the waves of the ocean. The waves are numerous and endless, having varying amplitudes and frequencies. The ocean is, in fact, an archetypal image reflecting the basic problem of human existence (samsara sagara in Sanskrit), with many meanings. One such meaning relates to the delusion in identifying the self with the ocean wave, which is tossed and turned relentlessly by the tide of time. Wisdom lies in discovering the vastness, immensity and stillness in the depths of the ocean, and this enables one to deal effectively with the ego-ripples on the surface with detachment and responsibility. The ripples will always be there, but one is no longer entrapped by the belief that the ripples constitute the totality of one's existence.
The power of thinking is well recognised, but not so the power of "awareness". We may talk of two dimensions of awareness: that of one's "inner" world and that of the so-called "outer" world, although at the deepest level, the distinctions of inner and outer tend to dissolve. Most of us are unaware, or, at best, superficially aware, of what is going on inside us and around us, and this is because we are entrapped by our ego-selves all the time. Some degree of freedom from the ego-self is necessary to enable both inner and outer awareness.
Inner awareness manifests in looking calmly at oneself, like a witness, with detachment, without judgement and without intervention. It is almost like scientific observation, except that there is no labelling and theorising. Awareness is a dynamic activity, always in the present. It is perhaps more like looking at oneself through the eyes of God -- not a frightening and judging God, but an omnipresent and compassionate One.
Our "normal" mode of consciousness is usually characterised by a complete lack of awareness. We are not in touch with what is really going on inside us moment-to-moment, because our attention is unconsciously projected outward. There appears to be need for a conscious motivation on the part of the "subject" to choose itself as the "object" of attention. Indeed, the very fact that this is possible, suggests that one's essential reality (subject) is distinct from one's ego-self (object).
This object manifests as thought and emotion, and when the ego-self disappears (even momentarily) from the field of attention, one remains in a state of "pure consciousness", which is the ultimate reality that is referred to repeatedly in our ancient teaching. The discovery of this ability to treat one's own ego-self as an object of attention is the beginning of inner awareness.
However, the ego-self usually ensures that this awakening does not happen by keeping the mind preoccupied with relentless mental activity all the time. It is as though we are possessed by something over which we have little or no control. There is a deep sense of insecurity in its very existence, and it has to make its presence felt somehow, all the time. Awareness can reveal this insecurity, whenever the notion of the ego-self is threatened. This is revealed by the reactions of the ego-self in the form of boredom, anger, jealousy, hurt, worry, etc. These reactions are accompanied by characteristic manifestations in the physical body and one learns to recognise these signals. The mind may say, "I am not angry", but the body reaction will expose the lie.
One awakens in the early morning to the songs of the birds in the trees. One remains lying down, just listening to the greetings of nature. There are thoughts of a hundred chores that try to interfere with this listening, but one recognises that this is the ego-self trying hard to assert its phantom existence. One smiles and continues listening, enjoying the full-throated calls of different birds, of the squirrels, and in the deep background, the orchestra of the crickets.
One gets up, splashes cold water on one's face, and enjoys the tingling sensation. One then goes out for a walk, often accompanied by one's spouse, or perhaps child, or a friend. One greets the other with a genuine sense of joy, and maybe touches the other's hand, or caresses the face. During the walk, words are sparingly used. One breathes in the fresh air of the early morning, takes in the sounds and smells of nature, as one observes the changing hues in the surroundings with the coming of dawn. Mental noise makes its appearance now and then, and one allows this to happen without controlling.
As one walks, one feels the pleasantness of the earth beneath one's feet, and the softness of the breeze caressing the skin. There is a spring in one's gait, and one feels the lightness of being. One observes flocks of different types of birds, flying or gliding effortlessly in the sky. The sky itself looks wonderful, lit up with changing hues that look like liquid brush-strokes of a magnificent painting, one that is alive. The blueness of the sky, viewed through the dark branches and green leaves, emphasises the beauty of the trees. One has seen this spectacle several hundred times before, but every time it is new and fresh and original. The leaves on the trees, some of them glistening with the morning dew, flutter and wave continually in the breeze, and one acknowledges the greeting that nature seems to be sending out, and waves back.
In those moments of unalloyed joy, characterised by the complete absence of the ego-self, one truly experiences a kind of sacred state of being, of aliveness and oneness with everything else.
The world may be in a total mess, and yet paradoxically, everything is perfectly in its proper place. This may sound absurd, and yet this is exactly how one feels in the awakened state. One is aware of this apparent dichotomy, not only in the so-called external world, but also within oneself. On the surface, there may be chaos, but strangely, in the depths of one's being, one feels a wonderful peace and a sense of order. And one can also see this perfection in nature all around oneself.
There is nothing wrong with our big dreams in life, but it is wise to see them in proper perspective. There is nothing wrong with planning for the future, but it is wise to recognise that it is worrying that often masquerades as planning. There is nothing wrong with thinking, but it is wise to be aware of the compulsive mental activity that operates in the guise of thinking. There is nothing wrong with judging, but it is wise to discover detachment to one's mental positions.
There is nothing wrong with anger or jealousy, but it is wise to recognise that these are expressions of one's suffering. There is nothing wrong with ritualistic worship, but it is wise to see the deeper meaning in the ritual. There is nothing wrong with disbelieving in God, but it is wise to see that disbelief is also another kind of belief. There is nothing wrong in keeping secrets or telling lies, but it is wise to realise that there is perhaps an omnipresent intelligence at work, and the notion of privacy is but a myth.
There is nothing wrong with wanting to be important, but it is wise to see the delusion. There is nothing wrong in seeking fulfilment in the outer world, but it is wise to see that true fulfilment can be found only in one's innermost being. In the words of Jesus: The kingdom of heaven is within you.
One discovers the art of discriminating between two different states of happiness: the joy that springs from the lightness of being (enjoying little things, like watching little children at play or being stunned by a beautiful sunset) and the ego-pleasure that arises from some accomplishment (some "success", like winning a prize). One learns to value the former, and to be wary of the latter (which is but an exercise in self-aggrandisement). One also discovers that the joy that arises from the state of being does not have an opposite, unlike the ego-pain associated with "failure".
Having tasted the power and grace of the "meditative" dimension, one trains oneself to return to it again and again, and to be aware whenever that dimension is lost by the movement of the ego-self and drowned in the cacophony of mental noise. One can actually observe this happening, for example while getting drawn into petty gossip, and one can see how one's power and energy easily gets "scattered". One learns the art of being aware of this and of remaining detached and inwardly still, centred in the state of being.
One discovers the extraordinary in the ordinary.