Perhaps the biggest question of life is this: Who am I?
We think we know who we are; we all have a strong sense that there’s somebody in there. But when try to put our finger on that somebody, the self turns out to be very elusive indeed.
We often simply identify with the roles we play: “I am a doctor, lawyer, teacher, plumber, etc.” “I am a husband, wife, father, mother, son or daughter.” Or we identify with our race, ethnicity, nationality, or religion. But who is it that is playing these multiple and changing roles?
We identify with our bodies (“I am sixty-one years old”; “I am six feet, two inches tall”) and with our minds (“I am happy, depressed, angry, satisfied, jealous”). But if the “I” is the body and mind, how can it be unchanging and singular? The mind-body complex is made up of many different parts, all of which are constantly in flux.
And if we are not identified with the body and mind and are therefore somehow separable from them (an “I” that has or possesses a body and mind), who (or more pointedly, where) would that “I” be?
We also like to think that the self is a kind of master or agent who gives commands both to the body and mind and to life itself. But that self also is just an illusion. Although we go through life trying to conform it to our will, there is plenty of evidence that the master self is just, like the Wizard of Oz, just a humbug.
So who am I? At one level, the self is just a name we place on a constantly changing mental and physical process. We don’t have a self, but we certainly have a self-conception. And since self-conceptions change, we can improve the only self we actually do have.
Both karma in its causal sense – producing the karmic seeds that will ripen in the future – and karma in terms of our experience of its results depend on intention. It’s not what we do or say that matters karmically, but rather what motivates what we do or say. And it’s not really about what others do or say to us that matter when it comes to our experience of the results of karma. It is what we suppose to be the intention behind those actions or words.
A “good” karmic action is one that is motivated by kindness, compassion, altruism, and selflessness. Conversely, a “bad” karmic action is one that is inspired by negative emotions and egoistical self-interest. The very same act or the exact same words can be either “good” or “bad” depending on the intention that lies behind them.
And when we are the recipients of the fruition of karma – when somebody does or says something to us – it is what we suppose their intention was that determines whether we experience it as “pleasant” or “unpleasant.” What goes around does indeed come around. We know how to presume that another’s intention towards us was positive or negative because we have had positive and negative intentions towards others in the past. And because we know what it feels like to assume that others have positive or negative motivation, we know how to formulate our own positive or negative intentions.
But we actually do not know what others’ intentions are; we can only imagine what they might be. So one way to change the karmic experience in the moment and make what would be a negative karmic result into a positive one is simply to change what we presume is the intention that motivated the action or the words. If we just assume that others have helpful rather than hurtful intentions toward us, we instantly transform the event into something positive. If nothing else, we can presume that others are trying to teach us about where our buttons are by pushing them. Even actions and words that hurt us can be changed into something beneficial if we assign a positive motivation to the actor or speaker.
By presupposing that others have good intentions toward us, we will be much more likely to generate good intentions toward others. And the converse is also true: When we have good intentions toward others, we will be much more likely to think that the other people we interact with have them towards us.
“Samsara,” says the Advaita Vedantic classic known as the Ashtavakra Gita, “is the compulsion to act” (kartavya, “something to be done”). This is a very interesting understanding of the nature of our suffering. It’s the feeling that we always have to do something to fix, improve, or escape our present situation. We are driven by the “if only” syndrome: “if only” things were different or better, then we’d be happy.
But it is precisely the “if only” syndrome that keeps us from the happiness we’re looking for. Contentment is not an attainment or acquisition; it is merely the cessation or stopping (nirodha) of discontentment: wanting what we don’t have, and not wanting what we do have.
This is very good news, I think. It’s way easier to imagine reaching the goal if it’s just a matter of stopping something we’re doing than thinking about it as something we have construct, build, reach, achieve, or obtain. And it is important to have realistic goals, for only they are realizable.
The goal of a spiritual life is complete peace of mind, deep-seated happiness or bliss, an understanding of and acceptance of reality as it is, and a heart that is wide open in love for others because the endless desires of the egoistic self have been put to rest.
With this state of mind we continue to encounter the vicissitudes of life – the waves that arise and that we encounter in life on a moment-to-moment basis. The goal is not to attempt to control those waves, nor is it to be able to predict each and every one, like you can do at a water park that has a wave machine.
The goal is to learn how to surf the waves – skillfully, contentedly, wisely, and compassionately – no matter what unexpected shape and size they take.
This is the second half of the equation that began with the previous podcast: “Change You, Change the World.” Because everything exists in interdependence (and not independently), it is also true that if we change the world, we change ourselves.
But how do we do this? At one level, we change ourselves when see ourselves trying to change the world – acting, speaking, and even thinking motivated by the intention of wanting to help others and promote their welfare.
Karma is at bottom all about intention. When we are guided by “good” intention (relatively selfless, compassionate, and other-directed) we receive a pleasant result; and when motivated by “bad” intention (selfish and self-centered, without concern for others) we reap unpleasant results.
While we know what our own intentions are, we cannot know what motivates other people. And so one quick and easy way to change our experience of karma when it comes to our experience of other people is to just assume that their intentions toward us are positive no matter what they say and do. With such an assumption, every interaction with others becomes beneficial to us. How is this person trying to help me? What are they trying to teach me?
Such an attitude allows us to see the world differently. Instead of a fearful, dangerous place in which others are always out to get us, we come to our interactions with others with a mind-set of trust and openness. Paranoia is transformed into “pronoia” – everyone is out to get me. . . enlightened.
Change the world (i.e., our assumptions about what motivates others in their relations with us) and we change ourselves (into people much more confident, at peace, and happily engaged with other people).
While in Massachusetts this summer, I had the chance to speak to a group in North Reading, most of whom were friends of Jon Weir – an incredible person and the owner of Kitty’s restaurant which he opened up to the event.
The talk I gave there came straight out of a section of “Be Nobody” dealing with the fact that when we change ourselves we actually do change the world. The reasoning behind this rather startling conclusion is not based on any magical worldview or “law of attraction” or some such, but rather proceeds from an honest evaluation of how we perceive the world.
Since none of us has an objective view on the world, and therefore since all of us only have a subjective perspective, we do not see the world as it is but rather as we are. And, therefore, when we change our subjectivity (who we are), we change the only knowable world there ever has been, is, or will be, which is one apprehended through our subjective perspective.
Change you, change the world.
See if you agree. The logic, it seems to me, is pretty air tight. But the implications are enormous, and we shy away from them. The stakes are very high indeed when it comes to self-improvement.
It’s been interesting to discover how much resistance there is to thinking of contentment as the real goal of a spiritual life. This extract from a teaching I gave in Brooklyn last month makes the case that it is precisely the need – the compulsion – we feel to always have to do something to change any given situation that defines samsara or the cycle of suffering.
Samsara is defined in a classic Sanskrit text, the Ashtavakra Gita, as “nothing other than the compulsion to act.” And this feeling of obligation to change what is comes from what is called “karma,” which by definition forces us to act.
And karma has always been the problem in Indian religions, not the solution. Karma may be good or bad, but all karma keeps us bound in samsara.
Acting freely would mean not only without compulsion but also without expectation. This is what Krishna means in the Bhagavad Gita by “karma yoga”: action done (freely) for its own sake, without regard for the “fruits” of action.
In the yoga texts, we learn about two energies – raga (wanting something you don’t have) and dvesha (not wanting something you do have) – which run our lives. These are the two forms of discontentment, and both of them compel us to act (to get something we want, and to avoid something we don’t want). The goal of yoga is to transform these energies into radical contentment and acceptance, which is sort of esoterically depicted as getting the energies to “enter, stay, and dissolve” into the “central channel” – a fancy way also of speaking about the ultimate stress-free condition, for stress is obviously a by-product of discontentment with what is.
“It’s like this now”: the mantra of acceptance of reality. When times are good, pay attention and enjoy them fully instead of spacing out and taking them for granted. And when times are challenging, “it’s like this now” will help us focus on the situation at hand instead of running away from or sitting around wishing it were different.
I thought it would be a propos to give a talk on the “cult of busyness” in New York City, the adrenaline capital of the world as part of the summer, 2014, “Be Nobody” book tour. This is an extract from that talk, given at Ava Gerber’s “Lucky Lotus” yoga center in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.
Part of the culture of narcissism and self-centeredness we live in includes the idea that the self will improve and magnify itself through constant activity. We hope that by just staying busy all the time, following the inner compulsion to accomplish, we will become bigger and grander somebodies.
The irony is that it wasn’t supposed to be this way. In the 1960’s, experts were predicting that with the widespread introduction of labor saving devices, we would all have much more leisure time. Instead, it has turned out to be just the opposite.
Not only do we on average work longer workweeks than ever, our jobs have encroached on our dwindling time off. Employers expect to be able to reach us on our smart phones and computers nights and weekends, and we dutifully keep our devices on all the time in order to be available.
We’ve interiorized the idea that there is a correlation between busyness and importance, that staying busy all the time is somehow a sign of the value of our lives. We’ve lost the fine art of just doing nothing – and of being nobody – and we need to regain it if we are to survive the times we live in.
This is the last excerpt from the meeting I had with Standard Charter Bank execs in Singapore, exploring the several possible meanings of their business slogan, “Here for Good.”
The last connotation I discussed was “Here (and Now) for Good,” emphasizing the fact that we’re always here and now. We’re actually never “there and then,” although in our minds we often review the past (calling up and rehashing what we call “memories”) and cast ourselves ahead into the future (fantasizing what might happen “there and then”).
It’s not wrong to do what we can do to help insure that the future will be OK for us as individuals and groups. But that work always is done in the here and now – we shape our futures only in the present.
Living in a time of information overload, multitasking, and all the stress that’s associated with them, there is an urgent need for us to learn to be more mindful about the here and now. Mindfulness, I argue, is already the next “big thing,” possibly soon to eclipse even the multi-billion dollar international yoga industry. And while mindfulness can be presented in more or less complex way, the essence of the technique is always the same: just be here, now.
Mindfulness and the acceptance of the present are also the best ways to handle ongoing change. Figuring out the best way to play the cards we have been dealt on a moment to moment basis requires that we first fully accept the cards we have in our hands in the here and now: What’s the most skillful way to negotiate the cards I’ve been given so as to maximize “the good” both in the present and for the future?
This podcast continues the discussion with the executives of the Standard Charter Bank in Singapore, the company slogan of which is “Here for Good.” The talk I gave to this group of multinationals centered on the possible connotations of that slogan.
First off, “Here for Good” can refer to the common and universal desire to live the “good life” in the sense of a prosperous, comfortable, and pleasurable existence. This segment explores two more dimensions of what “Here for Good” might entail.
The “good life” in the first sense depends on the “good life” in a second sense, that is, a life governed and guided by ethics. And while knowing what the right thing is to do is sometimes not entirely clear, in general we need not overly complicate what constitutes a “good life” in the moral sense: don’t harm others, don’t take what doesn’t belong to you, don’t sleep with people you shouldn’t sleep with, don’t lie, and so on.
We all know the rules, but when it is inconvenient to follow them we are tempted to just jettison them in the hopes that we will somehow “get away with it.” So perhaps the most important of the ethical guidelines is this: Every action will have a consequence, either positive or negative. What we do, say, and think matters.
The third connotation of “Here for Good” evokes a sense of continuity, stability, and trustworthiness. As individuals, groups, and institutions, it is important to convey to others the sense that they can count on us, that we are dependable. But it is unreasonable and unrealistic to think that “Here for Good” means permanence and changelessness. Mistaking changing things for unchanging things is a major source of our suffering, and the life that we live is characterized by change in every one of its dimensions.
The Cosmic Dealer gives us new cards on pretty much a moment-by-moment basis. And it doesn’t matter if we like or don’t like the hand we are dealt – these are the cards we have to play, and we can’t just turn in our hand (or any part of it) in the hopes we will be given better cards. A skilful player makes the best of the cards he or she is dealt in the best way possible, maximizing the possibilities inherent in any situation.
Acceptance is not the same as apathy; contentment is not synonymous with complacency. As we play life’s card game, we must both acquiesce to the reality of any situation – “It’s like this now!” – and also negotiate the situation as wisely and adeptly as we can.
I had the opportunity last March to speak to a group of business executives at the Standard Charter Bank in Singapore. I don’t often have the chance to address to such an audience and I really enjoyed it. They were all obviously intelligent, talented people and were very attentive and at the end asked really good questions.
The talk was structured around a teasing out of the several possible meanings of SCB’s motto: “Here for good.” In this segment, I explore one connotation of the phrase. We’re all here to try and live the good life – a life that is fulfilling and satisfying.
The “good life” in this sense includes what I call the Big Five: 1) having enough money and material possessions; 2) having a rewarding job; 3) having good and meaningful personal relationships; 4) having health and vitality; and 5) having entertaining and relaxing experiences that restore us.
These are five aspects of what constitutes the “good life” and it is desirable to have some version of each of them. The problem is thinking that any one or a combination of them will bring us what we’re really looking for in life. They are necessary, but not sufficient.
So what is that we really want when it comes to the “good life” in this sense? Isn’t what we really desire when we desire enough money, a good job, nice relationships, physical health, and recreation a sense of satisfaction and the end of perpetual desire? Isn’t what we really want just contentment, which is the real meaning of “happiness?”
Have a listen and see if you agree.