Archive for the 'Monday Morning Greetings' Category

Monday Morning Greetings 2019 #24 – Damn the Expedient!

June 17th, 2019

It bothers me when people, knowingly or unknowingly, neglect or minimize what is right for what they see as convenient or practical. It is called expediency. Perhaps that bothers all of us, but I know it especially irks me.

 

People who manage under pressure seem particularly susceptible to minimizing or neglecting what is proper for what is seemingly practical, but all of us are challenged regularly with such choices, especially when the right choice is somewhat subtle. In such situations, only the thoughtful and saintly can consistently avoid the lure of seeking a material advantage, which risks their soul, in lieu of what is right.

 

Risk their soul? For each step forward in life we have a myriad of choices to make, some more crucial than others. The soul is consciousness that reaches its fulfillment in selflessness or devotion. Dharma is the science of making the choice that moves one towards a clearer conception of the self. All other choices, by the nature of being self-serving, only further obscure that vision. So yes, expediency is at the cost of the soul.

 

It is no wonder, therefore, that this promotion of dharma and the concomitant warning against expediency rests at the root of classical Indian thought. In fact, one of the most famous moral guides in India is the Kauṭilya Sūtras (aphorisms) by Cāṇakya Paṇḍita, which was written specifically to temper the lure of expediency by promoting dharma, especially for those in positions of leadership. The first aphorism sets the tone for the book by highlighting the fruit of dharma, doing what is right in the face of expediency.

 

sukhasya mūlaṁ dharmaḥ

The root of happiness is dharma, righteousness.

 

If the Kauṭilya Sūtras is one of the most prominent moral guidebooks in classical Indian literature, the Bhagavad-gītā is the most prominent book of classical Indian thought in terms of applying spirituality in daily life. The same message that dharma, not expedience, leads to auspiciousness is also stressed there. That can especially be seen in the profound connection between its first and last verse, which is significant, as the first and last verse of a book are one of the important indications of a book’s theme according to classical hermeneutics. Here is something I wrote about in a previous Monday Morning Greetings:

 

In the very first verse of the Gītā, King Dhṛtarāṣṭra inquires from Sañjaya, his mystical advisor, about the impending battle at Kurukṣetra between his sons and the sons of Pāṇḍu led by Arjuna:

 

‘Dhṛtarāṣṭra said: O Sañjaya, after assembling in the place of pilgrimage at Kurukṣetra, what did my sons and the sons of Pāṇḍu do, being desirous to fight?’

 

The commentators explain that Dhṛtarāṣṭra is concerned with how the holy place will influence the battle, but that he expected victory in this ugly fratricidal war because of the greater size of his son’s army.[1] The verse also forebodes victory for the sons of Pāṇḍu. The battlefield is a place of pilgrimage (dharma-kṣetra) and Krishna, who upholds and protects dharma (righteousness), is on their side.

 

The last verse of the Gītā states its conclusion and answers Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s initial inquiry definitively:

 

‘Wherever there is Krishna, the master of all mystics, and wherever there is Arjuna, the supreme archer, there will also certainly be opulence, victory, extraordinary power, and morality. That is my opinion.’

 

The connection seems obvious, although I have never seen it stated. The first verse is a view of the battle through the eyes of a materialist filled with anxiety about a situation he cannot control, calculating success based on one’s personal power rather than doing what’s right. In contrast the last verse, spoken by his advisor Sañjaya is a view of that same world through the eyes of a spiritualist, seeing success or victory not by expedience or material superiority, but by choosing righteousness or dharmaDharma here is represented by the presence of Krishna, the master of all mystics, and His devotee Arjuna, the supreme archer.” (“The Talking Book”, Monday Morning Greetings 2017 #48)

 

So the Gītā also says, “Damn the Expedient!” I pray never again to fall prey to it.

 

“Cowardice asks: Is it safe? Expediency asks: Is it politic? But conscience asks: Is it right?” — William Morley Punshon

 

 

 


[1] Before the battle the sons of Dhṛtarāṣṭra were given the choice of either Krishna or Krishna’s armies. They chose Krishna’s armies which gave them even more confidence in their military superiority. It proved to have been an expedient choice.

Monday Morning Greetings 2019 #23 – Our Decisions Determine Our Fate

June 10th, 2019

What we are now has been determined by the decisions we made in the past, and if that is true, what we will be in the future will be determined by the decisions we make now. There is practically not a day that goes by when we don’t have some decisions that are crucial to our future well-being. How to make the right choice?

 

Intuition

God rests in our heart and directs us from within. The force of intuition is very powerful, and sometimes the message is so strong and undeniable that the right decision becomes clear. The voices of God, however, is not the only thing in our hearts. Our hearts are also filled with the voices of ambition and desire, so how do we distinguish that what we are hearing is the direction of God?

 

Consultation

The voice of God is manifest externally through the bona-fide teacher and also via consultation with qualified peers. It is easy to find out what to do if we have the courage to accept the authority of those who are learned and wise. We are not children, however. We can’t live our life day-to-day looking for someone to tell us what to do, nor is that resource always available. Furthermore, although the guidelines to make the right decision are available through our teacher, our individual frame of reference by which to apply those guidelines, which includes our psychological capability and our personal history, is not always fully privy to others. In that case, responsibility for our final decision becomes solely ours. If we are still confused in such cases, what to do?

 

Sincerity

We often reject what is right even though the voice of God in the heart, or the voice of God through our teachers, is loud and clear. Simply put, we are naturally deaf to instructions we don’t like. Therefore, the most important thing in making the right decisions is the deep sincerity to want the truth whether we like it or not. Why would God not reveal the truth to a sincere soul who opens his heart to His will? That is often done through the voice of destiny.

 

Destiny as the language of God

God speaks to us in response to our heartfelt desire to make the right choices by moving the world around us to teach us lessons. What is the purpose of karma if not to convey a message from God? Sometimes, when we are not hearing His will, He speaks louder and louder and the challenges in our life become heavier and heavier. If what God is telling us still remains an enigma, as it often does, we can approach the Vaiṣṇavas, those who are fluent in the language of destiny. Advanced devotees can explain destiny, for they know the śāstra, which is, for all practical purposes, a dictionary of destiny. In other words, it explains what certain archetypal karmic situations mean, which learned and realized souls can apply to our life to help us understand the meaning of what is happening to us and how to respond practically.

 

Here is how it works

The topics I write are mostly things that I am thinking about at the time. So yes, I am presently on a quest for answers to a dilemma that has arisen. I first went into my heart to unconditionally seek God’s will. Although for years these questions have arisen on and off in my mind, by doing this God’s voice became unexpectedly clearer. To be certain of my choice, however, I have also opened my heart to the advice of respected well-wishers, in addition to carefully watching my destiny to see if there are any signs to confirm what I think is God’s direction.

 

An intelligent person moves thoughtfully in the world seeking God’s will, for dharma, the right decision, always leads to auspiciousness. How important to sincerely seek the will of God, for our decisions determine our future.

 

 

 

Monday Morning Greetings 2019 #22 – How to Feel Bad About Yourself

June 3rd, 2019

A friend once joked: “You’re so optimistic that you could be falling out of the Empire State Building and on the fiftieth floor say, ‘so far so good’.” I’m a hopeless optimist. We laughed, but it is no joke. A dose of pessimism, even pain in the heart, is essential for bhakti. I feel that more and more. Comes with age? Could I be advancing in spiritual life? Who knows? But my wall of unhinged optimism is cracking, and it’s sometimes heavy.

 

The pain of purification

 

One friend described being in a holy place like putting a mirror to your false ego. Devotion is like that. It cleans the heart and helps you see yourself, warts and all. When the mind is cluttered with desires it is often hard to notice our faults, like not noticing something out of place in a cluttered room. For a minute I see myself. How many lifetimes have I been parading as Pauṇḍraka?[1] Can I bear the truth of self-realization?

 

The pain of understanding God

 

To really believe in an Absolute Truth sets a standard for our life. How demanding it is to conform one’s living to something higher than one’s whims and attachments. I am reading that standard of truth. It is called the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam. I am informed page after page, “You are not up to the mark. Change!” Can I bear the truth of self-realization?

 

The pain of realization

 

I not only understand a truth; I see a truth — a realization. That realization is so clear. I kick myself. How did I miss it? I look back. How foolish to have lived in ignorance of such a simple truth. I should have known. And such realizations keep coming again and again. I am pained to have lived in foolishness, and it follows that I must be living in folly now. Can I bear the truth of self-realization?

 

The pain of regret

 

Bhakti begins with regretting a life lived egocentrically separate from God. That regret is called tapa, or remorse. It is the first step in spiritual commitment. Tapa also means heat. Remorse is heat because admission of fault painfully burns the lurking sense of ego that engines material life. No, I am not wrong! It is not my fault! It wasn’t a mistake! Am I man enough to resist such rationalization? Admit it; regret it. Let that acknowledgment burn our charade. Can I bear the truth of self-realization?

 

The pain of opening the heart

 

The essence of the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam is to chant the name of our beloved Lord without attachment or inhibition. Such simple-hearted sincerity is painful because the proud fears vulnerability and humility. Chanting means to open that heart fully and beg for the mercy of the holy name. Why the resistance? Can I bear the pain of self-realization?

 

The joy of pain

 

Crushing thoughts awaken humility, which is the foundation of devotional yearning and thus the greatest joy. That pain, however, has nothing to do with one’s psychology. It is the soul aching for connection to God and realizing our failure. It is the birth of devotion and joy, but can I bear the price of self-realization?

 

 

 


[1] A foolish king described in the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam who paraded around in the dress of Krishna and declared himself God but was later killed by Krishna.

Monday Morning Greetings 2019 #21 – A Cure for Terminal Cancer

May 27th, 2019

Disclaimer: I am not speaking about a cure as we know it. According to bhakti texts, one should try to save life as far as possible. But still, the title perfectly serves the point I want to make.

 

Years ago, I was speaking with an Ayurvedic doctor about a mutual acquaintance who was being kept alive by modern allopathic medicine. As my faith is in the Vedas and thus Ayurveda as the ultimate authority of medical knowledge, this naturally led to a discussion about the effectiveness of Ayurveda in curing the prominent terminal diseases of today. When I asked about the Ayurvedic cure for cancer, his answer took me off guard: “Death!”

 

He then illustrated his point. “Look at this photo,” he said. It showed a contemporary yogi leaving the world peacefully, surrounded by his students. As soon as the yogi found out that he had terminal cancer, the doctor told me, he fasted until death. The scene looked so dignified. The doctor continued, “By fasting to death, he was able to die before the body was completely ravaged by unbearable pain and while his consciousness and mind were peaceful and lucid.”

 

His explanation made sense, and it was consistent with one of Śrīla Prabhupāda’s last wishes. When Śrīla Prabhupāda became ill in his last days, he instructed his disciples not to take him to the hospital. He mentioned specifically that he didn’t want to leave this world with tubes in his body. I was there when he passed — peacefully and in clear consciousness, with what seemed to be minimal pain.

 

Support for this “death cure” thesis also comes from the most unlikely of places. Some time back, I read the book Morality by Christopher Hitchens, one of the most prominent “New Atheists.” The book chronicled the last weeks of Hitchens’s treatment at one of the best hospitals in the United States, just before his death due to terminal cancer. Writing was so effortless for him that he was able to describe his waning life almost to the very end. One sentence about his experience stuck out. To paraphrase, “The advancement of modern medicine is prolonging one’s torture in this world while at the same time ravaging what is left of one’s family fortune.”

 

Although Mr. Hitchens had some insight into the futility of prolonging life artificially in a body devastated by disease, he missed the real point. The solution is not just death as the end of our present suffering, but seeing death for what it actually is: the illusion of non-existence. And that’s the real import of the Ayurvedic doctor’s seemingly counter-intuitive answer about the cure for cancer. Without a culture of the soul informing our present life, including how it ends, we have no recourse but to make terrible choices, including wasting money and time artificially living in a tortured and fearful condition all because of the false notion of the eternal self as the temporary body.

 

Having lived much of my life in the holy land of Vṛndāvana, I have witnessed many saintly people leave this world. One departure in particular stands out — the passing of Mother Gauri. It also shines light on our subject — death as a “cure” for cancer.

 

On what would be the last day of Mother Gauri’s life, I was in the room when Dr. Narottama, her Ayurvedic doctor, came to check her. He mindfully took her pulse for diagnosis, looked at Gauri compassionately, and announced, “Disease is finished. You have one hour left to live.”

 

It took me a few minutes to understand what he was saying. Gauri devi was an exemplary Vaiṣṇava completely surrendered to the mission of her spiritual master. Her dying was simply the final impetus to relinquish the last vestiges of her false ego, attachment to the body. Dr. Narottama, a vrajavāsī and elevated devotee, could understand her attainment, that she was now living within the eternal soul and thus no longer identifying with the body. As cancer exists only in the body and she had transcended the non-self, he could boldly and simultaneously declare that her disease was finished and that she would also soon die. And sure enough, Gauri devi left one hour later, peacefully and extraordinarily alert and conscious. Had she not cured cancer?

 

I leave you with a verse from a song by Śrīla Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura, which sums up the cure for all diseases:

 

“This temporary body is full of suffering. Take shelter of the holy name of Krishna as your only business.”[1]

 


[1] Aruṇodaya-kīrtana, Song 1, verse 6.

 

Monday Morning Greetings 2019 #20 – Trust No Future However Pleasant

May 20th, 2019

It’s quite a relaxing ride. I’m in the passenger seat answering mail on my phone as we cruise down the scenic Palisades Parkway on our way to the city. I receive a call. It’s Pradyumna. We exchange many thoughts. He laments that more people do not take advantage of his advanced Sanskrit class. He is going through the various commentaries on the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam to train students how to understand the depth of our philosophy, something he is uniquely qualified to do. He laments that more devotees in the city are not taking advantage of what he is giving: “I may not be here for long. Who knows — a few years, a few months, or even twenty minutes.” As soon as he says twenty minutes — zoom! A deer darts in front of our car. Al quickly swerves to the left and misses the deer by a hair. He then swerves to the right, barely steadying the car back in our lane.

 

Al has a small PT Cruiser. If we had hit the deer the car would have been totaled at best; at worst the deer would have crashed through the windshield. Who can say what destiny holds? I can’t help but see the synchronicity between Pradyumna’s call and the deer immediately tempting our fate. I read it as, “Take care of what is important now, for the future cannot be trusted.”

 

Such thoughts have already been on my mind. I am already past sixty-eight. When in the world did that happen? How long can one put off what one should and can do now? But it is not just a matter of one’s age. The message, the urgency, is for all. It’s a theme that seems to be re-occurring.

 

I began reading the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam again from the beginning about a month ago, and I kept on running into that message of urgency. I was struck by the answer to the question by King Parīkṣit upon which the whole text is constructed: “What is the duty of man who is about to die?” His answer: “Your question is most glorious for it is most relevant and beneficial for everyone.” The import of Śukadeva’s answer is clear. Such a question is relevant to everyone as impending doom is universal. It can strike anyone anytime, so who can say who is the person who is about to die? The inquiry is thus glorious because no one can put off such inquiries for the future, which therefore requires an immediate solution.

 

When what one is reading and experiencing in life synchronize, the message should not be taken lightly. Of course, I am a monk (sannyāsi), and renunciation is my station in life, so I have specific duties, but the urgency of self-realization does not mean sannyāsa. Everyone one has responsibilities according to their station in life and responsibilities in their spiritual practices according to their level of advancement. We all need to be wary of habits of rationalization or lethargy that put off for the future what we should and can do now. That includes, of course, a specific and appropriate spiritual practice. Our availability to God’s will in all aspects of one’s life is what bhakti means. That depth of surrender is the challenge of life and what we all need to confront now.

 

I was discussing with a friend how this tendency to put off things until the future is symptomatic of the lower modes of nature. He related an interesting story that highlights this unfortunate psychology:

 

A person was visiting some friends who were perfect hosts. Every day they would feed him a sumptuous feast. He felt challenged. The food was delicious and served with so much love, but he was gaining weight, and it wasn’t good for his health. He thought of a brilliant idea to help him control himself. He immediately went to his room and put a sign above his head on the ceiling that read “Tomorrow I will fast”. Sure enough, when he woke up the next morning the first thing he saw was the sign. He therefore vowed that tomorrow he would fast. He was thus able to somehow feel good about his sincerity and determination and be assured that he would never have to regulate himself at the same time.

 

I loved the story. It’s so true. How foolish! We make vows for the future to feel good about ourselves, but that is usually all we achieve because things almost never happen unless we do them now. I think the famous American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow summed it up so succinctly in his famous line, “Trust no future however pleasant”.[1] Sādhus take heed!

 

 

 


[1] From the poem “A Psalm of Life”.

 

Monday Morning Greetings 2019 #19 – Heart Massage

May 13th, 2019

I am often asked how I come up with a topic to write about every week. It seems a bit mystical. I just think about the first realization that came to mind since I began the last Greetings. I then begin to write. I often get stuck on a paragraph, or even a sentence, feeling hopeless on how to proceed. It’s hard to envision a completed piece. I move forward, however, in the mood of service, confident that the inspiration will surely come for Krishna is in everyone’s heart and from Him comes remembrance and knowledge[1]. Inevitably it does. Writing is just such a faith builder because it works every time. I start, can’t imagine how something of worth will come, but then watch the process unfold. By the time I am finished, I am generally quite surprised by the result. It seems to have far exceeded my own abilities, almost as if I didn’t write it myself.

 

I am staying upstate this week at my place. It is my paradise. Nothing to do, no one to meet. Just writing and chanting. Japa meditation, and all forms of meditation, are like starting a car. You don’t start in the highest gear. You have to gradually build up speed. So gaining chanting momentum takes some time, not in how quickly I am chanting, but in the intensity of focus attained. I have that time this week, and with increased focus comes realization. Well, I had one. Chanting is like a heart massage. And that is the focus of today’s Greetings.

 

A massage is something one enjoys that happens to one without one’s effort. The holy name is Krishna. We can’t create God, or the holy name, by our effort. It is something that only manifests to us fully by Krishna’s mercy in response to our heart or the sincerity of our chanting, and when the holy name does come no effort is required. Chanting then happens to us. We can relax. Let the vibration of the holy name massage the heart.

 

Krishna is not different than His name. We vibrate the name and we have direct communion with God. The vibration of the holy name is the hands of God loosening the knots of desire in the heart. Don’t just hear the holy name, feel the holy name. Let the vibration of the holy name massage the heart.

 

The best massage is done out of love. The holy name masseur does not charge anything. He is serving His devotee only out of love. The heart massage is thus Krishna’s mercy — undeserved kindness. We feel grateful. Devotion then awakens along with a strong desire to serve. And what is that service? To become purified. We accept the caress of God only to make our heart a worthy offering of devotion. Heart massage is thus our most important service. Let the vibration of the holy name massage the heart.

 

Krishna giveth. Krishna taketh. I haven’t really met my quota in the sense that I prefer Monday Morning Greetings to be a bit longer. Usually the flow continues and ends at right about the appropriate length. I paraphrased at the beginning a verse from the Bhagavad-gītā where it describes that Krishna gives remembrance and knowledge. I left out a part. From Him also comes forgetfulness. Krishna has turned off the flow of this article, so I guess it is time to end. Maybe I will just go for another massage and wait for my next realization to appear.

 

 

 


[1] Paraphrase of Bhagavad-gītā 15.15

Monday Morning Greetings 2019 #18 – Difficult and Simple at the Same Time

May 6th, 2019

It’s early morning. My thoughts are clear. As I am writing, a simple but challenging question suddenly appears: Why am I writing this article? Is it for “likes”, a fan base, or any other egoistic adulation that fuels my sojourn in this world? Bhakti is for Krishna. Am I really writing for Krishna? If not, then how is it bhakti? I feel challenged. Bhakti, only for Krishna?! That’s not easy! A counter thought comes: But anyone can do bhakti, even a child. Bhakti is easy. Well, which is it? Here are my reflections.

 

Bhakti is easy

 

The Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam was originally spoken in four verses from Krishna to Lord Brahma at the beginning of creation. The fourth verse describes the abhidheya-tattva, the means for realizing the truth, which is bhakti. Bhakti is specifically described there by the words sarvatra (applicable in all space and time) and sarvadā (applicable in all circumstances). Bhakti is thus a path that is uniquely independent of any material prerequisite. In that sense it is the easiest thing to do.

 

In his commentary on this verse, which is almost eighteen pages, Śrīla Prabhupāda supports this contention of how the qualification for bhakti is so undemanding and so easy that there is no impediment to executing it, whether by caste, gender, creed, or even species. Even the unborn are qualified![1] Śrīla Prabhupāda once said that his purports are his personal ecstasy. Perhaps his extended thoughts in his long purport on the universal applicability of bhakti are an expression of his faith and joy in sharing bhakti with all.

 

“Therefore there is no need to seek properly qualified candidates for discharging devotional service to the Lord. Let them be either well-behaved or ill trained, let them be learned or fools, let them be either grossly attached or in the renounced order of life, let them be liberated souls or desirous of salvation, let them be inexpert in the discharge of devotional service or expert in the same — all of them can be elevated to the supreme position by discharging devotional service under the proper guidance.” (Bhag. 2.9.36, Purport)

 

It’s quite a declarative statement. The conclusion couldn’t be clearer: As bhakti is applicable in all time, place, and circumstance there can be nothing easier than practicing bhakti. But is it?

 

Bhakti is not easy

 

Even the simplest things are often the most difficult to execute when you have no interest or liking for them. Have you ever struggled with saying “I am sorry” or “I am wrong”? You can do either immediately in any circumstance, but it all depends on your liking — whether you want to do it or not.

 

Bhakti is like that. Although it is the simplest thing to do because there are no material prerequisites for practicing devotion — even a child can bow his head before God — it is still difficult to execute if you have no interest or liking. But how can one not like to do bhakti?

 

Certainly, simple devotional activities that attract us are to our liking and easy to do, and our various tastes in Krishna consciousness are the door to our full absorption. Pure bhakti, however, is a bit different. It is not just the activities we like to do in devotion, but the consciousness and identity in which all our activities are done. Pure devotion is to serve God without motive, never seeking the center for ourselves. To the extent that we are still seeking to be the center and thus still desiring for ourselves profit, adoration, and distinction for ourselves, is the degree to which devotional activities will be difficult when we see no personal gain. Can we deny that this spirit to be the enjoyer and controller rests in all of us, both subtle and gross? Otherwise why wouldn’t we fully surrender to guru and Krishna right now when such devotion is the ultimate benefit?

 

I like the way Śrīla Prabhupāda reconciled this simple yet difficult quandary with a concise phrase: “The process is simple. The application is difficult.”

 

My internal struggle today with writing

 

Back to my inner dialogue. Am I writing for Krishna? Is it bhakti and is bhakti easy or difficult to do? These are my thoughts: Writing is my service and it takes determination and sacrifice to do it. That’s certainly devotion. Sure, I see that there are personal fruits from my service that agitate subtle desires for distinction, but the main thing is to engage in devotional service and to give your work to God. No matter what impels us, we will be purified. But is that enough for me?

 

Śrīla Prabhupāda taught pure devotion. It means not just giving your work to God but giving yourself to God. And once you offer yourself to guru and Krishna then whatever you do will automatically be offered to Krishna and imbued with devotion. That’s real bhakti, and that’s my goal and also my challenge, to just write in a spirit of devotion.

 

I am writing this before a large picture of Śrīla Prabhupāda. I begin and end with a prayer that I may consciously write only for his pleasure, without any desire for personal adulation or profit. For one who fully takes shelter of a guru that is very easy from the start. Just flip the switch to the consciousness that I am servant of guru and Krishna, and we are liberated. So easy. Yes, simple, but easier said than done.

 

 


[1] Śrī Prahlāda performed devotional service in the womb when his pregnant mother listened daily to Śrī Nārada recite the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam.

 

 

Monday Morning Greetings 2019 #17 – Seeing Through the Eyes of the Q Train

April 29th, 2019

Yes, us New Yorkers pride ourselves on our “antennas”. It’s a phrase we use for reading minds, a skill that seems to get refined by growing up here while negotiating the melting pot of various people, streets, and hoods. A more gross synonym for antennas would be “crap detectors”. Pardon my French. Better I stick with the term “mind reading”, or even “antennas”. Today I decided to practice my skill on the Q train. Well, not exactly practice. I haven’t used the trains for some time and was looking forward to studying New Yorkers on my way to join the kirtan in Union Square. A thought came to mind: Is this “antenna” thing just imagination or a silly cultural pride? I remember reading something on the subject of mind reading.

 

Malcolm Gladwell, in his classic Blink, discusses how the science of mind reading was discovered. He describes how two scientists, Silvan Tamken and Paul Eisen, studied the correlation between the activation of 3,000 different combinations of the muscles in the face with the emotions they represent. They then categorized them scientifically into what they called the Facial Action Coding System (FACA). Gladwell describes that Tamken was so proficient in understanding the face as a language of emotions that he could walk into a post office and tell by just looking at the most wanted criminal posters what crime they had committed.

 

In a similar vein, Gladwell also discusses autism, the mental disability where one is “mind blind”, or unable to see what another person is thinking by observing his or her behavior and bodily expression. So yes, there is something like “antennas” — an ability to decipher what a person is thinking and feeling by observing the contortion of muscles in their face. Now, back to the Q train.

 

I put on my “antennas” for the thirty-minute ride. My first impression from scanning the train: “All the lonely people, where do they all come from?”[1] Well, that didn’t take much heightened perception. Anyone could see that ordinary people in the city are generally miserable and exhausted to one degree or another. No special talent here. How could you miss what the people there were thinking and feeling about life?

 

Sitting next to me I observed some people whose mood seemed to be in stark contrast to the other people in the train. They looked so light and unburdened. The group was composed of two young Orthodox, not Hassidic, Jewish couples in their late twenties/early thirties and their children. They were joined by another middle-aged couple that seemed to be the parents or in-laws of the couples. I could overhear them talking. Maybe their buoyed spirits were because they were taking their children to the zoo, but it was more than that. I think my prejudice would tend to see Orthodox people as stodgy, but here I was surprised by how relatively carefree and joyful they were, and how functional and satisfying they seemed in their relationships with one another.

 

As I was carefully studying the situation, I began to notice that in assessing the situation around me I was using a tool even more insightful than the mind reading one. I also had at my disposal the lens of knowledge from studying a tradition of knowledge for so many years. In other words, more important than what you see is having the tools to properly evaluate it. In my tradition that tool is called, jñāna-cakṣus, seeing through the eyes of śāstra or knowledge.

 

One way to highlight the importance of jñāna-cakṣus is by describing what it would be like to perceive something without such a lens of knowledge. For example, without the lens of knowledge a misguided person could see someone as humble, but misunderstand it as weakness, while at the same time seeing one with bravado and ego as someone to emulate.  The ability to appropriately value and digest our perceptions is thus essential to navigating the world properly. Here’s what I saw today through the eyes of knowledge.

 

Through the lens of śāstra I could see beyond the fact that these people were relatively happy to the reason they were so carefree.  I have gleaned from the śāstra four pillars of stability[2] that are essential for a relatively peaceful life: a set place that one calls one’s lifelong residence, a stable life partner, a suitable and satisfying career path, and a set spiritual tradition or path to pursue. A stable tradition and community provide these pillars of stability automatically to their congregation, where the modern man, generally lacking a culture and tradition, is mostly left on his own to gain footing in life. As a result, so much energy that should be used for spiritual development has to be channeled into establishing one’s basic foundation, especially the burdensome task of finding a suitable partner, what to speak of finding a community and occupation that supports and suits one’s nature. What anxiety!

 

The first principle of satisfaction is understanding that the world is not just about oneself. Commitment to family and community, although not the highest conception of the self in itself, does give relief from the burning angst of selfishness by inspiring the principle of duty before self. Spiritual traditions that foster community by teaching and inspiring commitment to a common interest help the individual transcend the limited or selfish “I”, the root of all despair.

 

Finally, a tradition that emphasizes and keeps family and community intact provides the individual with a greater variety of healthy and dependable relationships. If there is one thing more than anything else that can be directly correlated to good health and over-all well-being, it is the number of good relationships one has had in life.[3]

 

Yes, traditions can be close-minded and hierarchical systems can be abused, and not everyone properly takes avail of their tradition properly, but today I clearly observed the relationship between tradition and contentment.

 

And that is what I saw through the eyes of the Q train.

 

 

 


[1] From the song “Eleanor Rigby”, which can be found on The Beatles album Revolver.

[2] The teachings of bhakti are not taught in a vacuum. In Bhagavatam a whole society and culture is described that supports one’s spiritual life. I have never saw these four pillars of stability listed, but from studying the text  in became evident that these four facilities were provided automatically in a varnashram or traditional social structure.

[3] https://www.adultdevelopmentstudy.org

 

Monday Morning Greetings 2019 #16 – Happiness: What It Is and What It’s Not

April 22nd, 2019

Quickly, without thinking, say the first thing that comes into your mind: I will be happy when _____?

 

Whatever answer you gave fits into one of two general categories: I will be happy in the future when I change the world to conform to what I want, or I will be happy now when I change my consciousness to conform to what the universe or God wants.

 

If you chose the former, your faith is misdirected for three reasons: you are not the controller, so the world will not conform to your desires; even if you were successful, your achievement would be temporary; and even if that change was permanent it still wouldn’t be happiness. Real happiness is in the heart and not just the world.

 

The world is beyond our control.

 

Our quest for happiness will fail if our objective is solely in the future, because no matter how much power we amass in the form of wealth, beauty, or fame to achieve that goal, we still are not the ultimate controller. Something will surely go wrong and frustrate us. In fact, even the littlest thing out of our control can negate all of our material happiness. Think of Bill Gates with a toothache. In other words, to really be the enjoyer of the world, we need to be totally the controller of the world or our destiny, and we are not.

 

The world is temporary.

 

Even if we could control the world to finally conform to our desires, we still wouldn’t be happy, because anything achieved in this world is temporary and filled with duality. Duality means that even the best of material things is also imbued with distress, because when something is temporary there is fear of loss, and always pain when we do.

 

The world is not happiness anyway.

 

Even if you could control the world to finally conform to your desires forever, still happiness would allude you, for real happiness is not what you have, but how you feel. It is not power and consequent material accruement, but an internal state of flourishing.

 

Real Happiness

 

Two of the main words for satisfaction are very revealing concerning the internal nature of happiness: contentment and fulfillment.

 

The word “contentment” indicates that to be content (satisfied within) depends on your content (what is inside of you). One of the suspected etymological explanations of this connection between the two definitions of this one word is a phrase first used by Shakespeare, “heart’s content” [1], which means doing something to your full satisfaction. In other words, reaching the point when you are fully satisfied or content is not just how much you accrue but the content of the heart, the point where you feel full. In that regard, fulfillment as a synonym for contentment has the same connotation — that we will be happy not just with what we have but also by how much the heart is fulfilled. How many times have we seen people with everything but not feeling satisfied or full?

 

We aren’t talking renunciation here. It’s not that one shouldn’t pursue their needs, or that family and career cannot be connected or important to one’s fulfillment. Done properly, they should be. They are just not ultimate happiness in themselves, and to pursue anything external without a connection to the eternal will surely fail.

 

There is a saying I have quoted often that really sums up this concept of what happiness is and what it is not, which merits repetition and a very short analysis:

 

“Pleasure is the happiness of a madman and happiness is the pleasure of a sage.” The words can be synonymous, but in the first phrase pleasure is used to indicate external stimulation in terms of the senses and ego, which is a foolish goal. Happiness in the second phrase is defined as contentment, or an internal flourishing, which for the enlightened is actual pleasure or joy.

 

I will leave you this week with another of my oft-repeated phrases, one I heard from a simple vrajavāsī gardener. I consider it like a mantra to describes the true and internal nature of happiness:

 

Happiness is a heart filled with devotion.

 

 

 

 

 


[1] This phrase is first put into print in Shakespeare’s plays and there’s every reason to believe that he coined it. He used it in at least two plays:

Henry VI, Part II, 1592 — “Her grace in Speech, Makes me from Wondring, fall to Weeping ioyes, Such is the Fulnesse of my hearts content.” 

The Merchant of Venice, 1596 — “I wish your Ladiship all hearts content.”

 

Monday Morning Greetings 2019 #15 – The Power of Gratitude

April 15th, 2019

Gratitude is the basis of experiencing love.

 

As a spoiled child never experiences his parents’ love no matter how much they give him, a proud and entitled person will never fully appreciate the kindness and love of others.

 

Gratitude is the basis of relationships.

 

I have observed how sometimes an ungrateful spouse neglects a good relationship by failing to appreciate the kindness of their partner, even though lavished with generosity and care, only to later regret sabotaging what they had when the relationship broke by their own doing.

 

On the other hand, I have observed very grateful people seeing the good in their substantial connections, despite other’s weaknesses, feeling very secure and loved in this world.

 

Gratitude is therefore the basis of all good relationships in this world.

 

Gratitude grounds you in present.

 

I was walking here in Colombia to visit a bakery opened by one of our friends who I met on his pilgrimage to India two years ago. Although it was only fifteen minutes from our ashram I got lost, and it took me an inordinate amount of time to get there. When I begun my return to Shyam Ashram, I therefore felt tired and bored and strongly hankered to already be back home. As I was in the midst of preparing to write something about gratitude and was contemplating how gratitude grounds one in the present, I consciously started to base myself in the moment by appreciating nature around me, and the fact that I could turn inside my mind to dwell on this subject. I was amazed. My consciousness in gratitude immediately shifted from the future and my anxiety to the present, where my satisfaction laid. My walk then became unexpectedly pleasant.

 

“Now” is rarely the problem. Our problem is hankering (what I want in the future) and lamenting (what I lost in the past), but not gratitude (what I have and appreciate now).

 

In other words, for the humble and thoughtful, gratitude grounds one in the present, where humility and joy rests.

 

Gratitude forms your character.

 

Voltaire said, “That which you appreciate gradually comes to you.” One in a state of not only recognizes the good in others, but also develops those qualities. It is no wonder, therefore, that the word “appreciate” can mean both “to value something” and “the increase of value in something”. For example, when appreciating a teacher or an elder their knowledge substantially increases or appreciates in oneself.

Unfortunately, one who is envious and ungrateful — and the two are connected — misses many opportunities to appreciate and develop good character and wisdom.

 

 

Gratitude awakens the bliss of service.

 

Gratitude naturally awakens the service mind, for when we appreciate someone we develop a desire to serve them. As service and devotion is the basis of happiness, gratitude is also the basis of joy.

 

In a talk I heard by Vaiśeṣika dāsa, he added a very powerful insight that I think is relevant to this discussion. He described that the one switch that one can immediately flip to powerfully alter our anxiety and frustration is the conscious shift in identity to “I am a servant”. He then referenced Dale Carnegie in his book How to Stop Worrying and Start Living, who offered the supporting advice that a most powerful way to free one from anxiety in any situation is to immediately find someone to serve.

 

How important for a healthy psyche to awaken the service mind by the power of gratitude.

 

Gratitude as a state of perfection

 

My close friend Guṇagrāhī Mahārāja left this world in Vṛndāvana chanting the holy name of Krishna, a sign in our tradition of attaining perfection. A week before he left this world he went into a non-communicative internal or semi-conscious state. The last words out of his mouth before he seemingly went unconscious was a response to an audio message sent to him from Kaustubha, a person he personally brought to Krishna consciousness. Mahārāja was overwhelmed with appreciation when hearing the kind thoughts from someone he loved dearly. In response, in his last audible breath, patting his heart to softly to express affection, he mustered up the strength for a final heartfelt whisper: “Gratitude, gratitude, gratitude.”

 

I noted that the feelings and words left in Mahārāja after almost fifty years of dedicated service and years of purification from a painful disease were “Gratitude, gratitude, gratitude.” I heard his voice as the pure consciousness of the soul.

 

Gratitude as a state of being

 

Yes, certainly one can count their blessings, but what about all the suffering and frustration we face in this world? How can we be thankful for that? A person who understands the nature of God, or reality, lives always in a state of gratitude because they understand that whatever comes to one is for one.[1] Rumi stated it best:

 

“When God is digging a hole to throw you in, he is actually digging a ditch to quench your thirst.”

 

The Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam is full of stories, too long to recount here, where great saints live in a state of gratitude. They see the blessings of God even in the most trying of circumstances. Here is one of many examples:

 

When Vidura was insulted and banished from the kingdom by his evil nephew Duryodhana, he both recognized the cruelness of his nephew, but also saw God’s hand. He was thus grateful that he was being directed at this later stage in life to leave the intrigue of the palace and go on pilgrimage for his own purification. [2]

 

To feel grateful in every situation is not a feat of psychological gymnastics. A person of dharma who responds to each trial in life with humility gains a concrete gift of realization from each challenge worth the price of the difficulty faced and feels grateful even in the face of death. I bow down to the power of gratitude.

 

 


[1] I like the phrase describing karma as “not to me, but for me”. It comes from a discussion about karma I had with Lakṣmī Nṛsiṁha dāsa.

[2] Some other great examples are the instructions of Bhīṣmadeva (Bhag. 1.9) and Mahārāja Parīkṣit’s reaction to being cursed (Bhag. 1.19.4).

 

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