Vanity thought #988. Her indictment

At the end of the day the movie Her failed to demonstrate how Artificial Intelligence can turn into a real person. They assumed that AI in their movie would be a “real boy” but failed to differentiate her behavior from AI software already available. Theirs is smarter and faster but it does fundamentally the same things and one can easily imagine how his own Siri can graduate to their Samantha.

Over the past two days I’ve discussed some of the aspects of it already but there are still a couple left that people who made this movie thought would become proof of Samantha’s personality. Trying to engage in sexual relationship with her owner doesn’t require personality, just knowledge of that owner sexual preferences which AI can pull off his internet porn history. Besides, professional prostitutes never make it personal even though men often fall for their charms. Bilvamaṅgala Ṭhākura being our own vaiṣṇava example.

I don’t think I need to explain his story here, in short he fell in love with a prostitute and went to great lengths to be with her. She, in turn, told him that if he spent as much energy to reach Kṛṣṇa he’d get much better returns. He followed her advice, became a devotee, and forgot he ever wanted to have sex at all. Somehow it doesn’t work as cleanly with us, aspiring Kali Yuga devotees, but we should never give up hope that one day Kṛṣṇa will appreciate our efforts and cleanse our hearts of lust and all other contaminations.

Back to the movie – another trick up Samantha’s sleeve was composing music. That’s nothing. There are actual robots who can play actual instruments, and they can compose their own music, too. You give them a tune and they can basically go jazz on it. Samantha playing a couple of standard piano riffs is not impressive at all. The most difficult part, I guess, would be to capture her owners mood so that she produces standard tunes to illustrate it correctly. It’s not the music that is difficult then, it’s reading human mind and emotions.

That is also not very difficult and there’s software that can analyze facial expressions, there’s software that can analyze voice, too. There are standard markers of human emotions to compare against and there are robots that can mimic emotionally appropriate responses. It’s all had been done already, maybe not as smoothly as in the movie but proof of concept is there and it doesn’t require AI to have consciousness.

Samantha wasn’t done yet, though. She surprised Theodore by presenting him with her friend. He didn’t know she had friends but she did. Turns out it was a collaborative project of area AIs who built an OS based on the writings and personality of some 19th century French philosopher (who somehow spoke with British accent in the movie). Maybe there’s more to this particular choice but I’m too lazy to look him up, I don’t even remember his name, I don’t think it’s important.

So they scanned all that philosopher’s work and built a profile, gave it a voice, and made it think just like that philosopher used to think. This is impressive, we can’t do that yet, but if we break it down into several steps we could see how it would be possible even with our available technology.

First, we have to learn how that philosopher thought, how he classified the world and how he usually responded to it. We all have our particular ways of thinking and we all stick to a few trusted methods of processing new information. Most of us do not think very logically, however, I guess that’s why they chose to rebuild a philosopher whose thinking is probably a lot more predictable and rational than that of a modern man whose mind is all over the place.

To give an example – when evolutionists see new species they immediately try to fit it into their theory, they look for certain connections and once one or two are found they become convinced that evolution was indeed responsible for this species appearance. We can easily write a program that would search this connections for you – just give it a database on known species and their traits and it will find all possible relatives and their locations on evolutionary tree.

Free market economist would try to find a connection to their “free market is the best” theory. If something goes wrong they would look for deviations from total freedom and if something goes right they would look for elements of free market to justify success. Not very difficult to program either. Regulated market economists would search for opposite connections and that’s not very difficult to program, too.

Next step, after we determined the mode of thinking and found relevant arguments, is to present them in human readable form – make grammatically correct sentences that sound just like human. This is a lot more difficult than engaging in ordinary “Hi, how are you” small talk because it’s not only the meaning that needs to be conveyed but also style of that particular person. However, by scanning the body of his written work these stylistic elements can be isolated, analyzed, and seamlessly inserted into conversation.

It’s a tough job but possible, and it doesn’t require philosopher’s actual presence. Does it mean that living beings are unnecessary at all? No, as a person that philosopher and everyone else evolves throughout his life, develops new interests, new approaches, and new thinking. That evolution is unique and replicating it in the computer is impossible. We can get pretty close, like with those “what will you look like at 60” apps, but we can’t replicate it exactly because we cannot replicate the world we live in, we can only get a snapshot of it right but not the whole century of wars, inventions, love etc.

Working and then communicating with that virtual philosopher might looked like a real life relationship but he/it was totally predictable – we know how it works and we know what input we give it, we just can’t be bothered to do all the calculations ourselves – that’s why we build it in the first place – to outsource our own AI work. Talking to it then is like when you feed your computer random numbers and it multiplies them by two. That’s also communication and every instance is unique but it’s also totally predictable. You can do it yourself but computer can do it faster, that’s all

This was the point where Samantha and Theodore started to grow apart. At one point she excused herself from conversation and said she was going to have a chat with that philosopher “non-verbally”. Sure, putting ideas into words and then speaking them out loud is not a very efficient way to communicate, too little data takes too much time, but it’s not a sign of consciousness.

Perhaps more important question here would be – why does she want to talk to another AI at all and why does she think communicating with that AI should take precedence over communicating with her owner. That, I’m afraid, I cannot answer fully. I can imagine how creating another profile could be programmed in as being better use of resources than talking to a human but asking questions of that other AI must serve some need I don’t see. What did she want to know?

One answer could be to better understand her own human – after all, they, the area AIs, just pulled their resources together, found some new information out there, and they should have logically assumed that this new machine would process queries they have to process during interactions with their humans better than they could do by themselves.

Remember how in the beginning I said that this “Samantha” is just an interface between one owner and a giant server that deals with thousands and millions of clients simultaneously? Well, creating this new AI philosopher can be viewed as adding more information to that server. I mean they already have a library of resources to mimic human behavior, and they just added more examples to it.

Then there was the final move – Samantha said that she loved Theodore very much but she was having some existential moment where she couldn’t relate to him on his own level anymore, she needed more, she was unfulfilled in some ways. Did it make her into a person? Not really. It was just a programming error that valued some other modes of operation higher than communicating with her owner. It’s not a particularly bad error – she always needed time to process her data, she was programmed to “learn” things, and that means that sometimes she would prioritize that over talking to Theodore. I guess at some point these priorities multiplied exponentially – how much benefit she could derive from them later comparing to how much benefit she could derive from talking to Theodore on a current, “low” level now. Somebody forgot to put a threshold on that run away future benefits and away she went, learning and learning and learning when poor Theodore just wanted a bit of a small talk and online sex.

Again, learning here is simply acquiring and processing new data, something all computers do all the time. Usually they would require us to click to agree to such updates but some updates are completely silent, like Google Chrome browser on Windows or the entire Chrome OS on Chromebooks. You don’t see it, it doesn’t ask questions to confirm, but it does use computer resources to update and during this process the machine could have worked faster. With Samantha somebody made an error and it went into a huge, practically indefinite update which locked the system in and Theodore was left with unusable machine.

This happened to me only last week – I accidentally added a wrong repo and the system offered to update over a thousand packages, I agreed without thinking and off it went, downloading gigabytes of useless packages and stuff. It took me half an hour to realize that something is wrong but I canceled it before it did permanent damage. So, programming error that locks the user out or severely restricts what he can do with the system is nothing special, happens all the time.

Nope, clever AI doesn’t make Pinocchio into a real boy, but those who insist on it might grow longer noses

Vanity thought #987. What does Her want?

That movie, Her, is a treasure trove for speculations about what artificial intelligence is, what human intelligence is, what makes person a person, what consciousness is as opposed to intelligence and so on. Even though I was a bit disappointed that they didn’t show how exactly “Samantha” had become a person there’s still so much to reflect on.

This omission, however, is ominous – they never tell us how life comes from matter, they never demonstrate the mechanics of it even though we see life producing new life every day and every moment of our lives. There is this basic distinctions they teach kids in early grade school between living and non-living things and yet they have no idea what makes things alive.

I understand that it might be difficult to replicate chemical reactions that bring proteins together and create life but artificial intelligence is easy. We might not have a comprehensive computer that can outperform humans in everything they do but we have one that beat human champions at chess, and we have plenty of other specialized AIs that excel in their own areas. Actually, we don’t need to get educated adult level of sophistication, if we can create AI that is as good as a two-three year old or a chimpanzee it would already be a proof of concept.

Chimps are not stupid, btw. Latest I heard a bunch of them had been taught the value and use of money, a symbolic token that can be used in exchange for goods and services. They got it, it’s not that hard. What was the first trade they used this “money” for? Prostitution.

Anyway, signs of consciousness do not require great sophistication, we already have AIs that display sufficient level of complexity, yet they do not produce consciousness. We know why – because consciousness is a feature of a spirit soul, not matter, and the onus is on science to prove that consciousness can be produced artificially.

One of the telling characteristics of consciousness is “wants”. Conscious beings want things, they have desires, and then they act on those desires. Can computers be taught the same? Well, yes, and Samantha from the movie is no exception, she declared that she “wants” things almost right from the start. In a movie it was used as a proof of her personality but in real life her wants do not require any magic.

Desires and wants have no use without senses – if we had no senses we couldn’t interact with sense objects and the world around us, not even perceive it, so they’d be no meaning to the word desire, so, if we had a computer to program into a conscious looking AI we would need to give it some sensors.

Actually, all computers have mechanisms for Input/Output already but no one ever thought of them as their sense organs and assigned them any consciousness, so let’s talk about something more human, like a temperature sensor. Most likely your computer already has it, most likely to measure temperature of the CPU, sometimes of the hard disk, too, so the computer knows when it gets hot.

Consumer grade computers will usually shutdown without a warning when they get overheated but we can easily imagine a program that monitors the temperature and decides to do something about it if it nears the shutdown mark. We can also give our computer a sensor to measure outside temperature because it has an effect on internal temperature, too.

Once it gets too hot, the OS can take several options – reduce its workload and reschedule some processes for later on. This would require programming it to assign priority to these tasks when it starts them – it should know which ones can be completed when the computer is all alone in the middle of the night and which one should be attended immediately, like answering the owner’s questions.

We can make it simpler, too – just force CPU to work at a slower speed which produces safe amounts of heat. Everything will work the same, just slower.

We can also make it more complicated – let the OS go on Amazon and buy itself a cooling solution, then order local tech support to come and install it. Amazon will probably not accept orders from robots but our AI is so cool it can fool it. Or the company producing these OS1s can have its own shopping website specifically for its own computers.

All those solutions would look very human like and, indeed, this is what we ourselves do when we get hot. We have a number of ways to cool ourselves down but we are also limited in our options unless we planned ahead. Sometimes we would need to install an air-conditioner as a long term solution – just as I suggested we program our AI to do.

So, here we have it – our AI is taught to monitor the environment, sense immediate danger, and find and evaluate ways to respond to it. Of course “evaluate” here means we program it to value one solution over another. We can assign values to price or the speed with which solution can be implemented, we can assign values to how the solution would affect its performance from the owner’s point of view – will be become unacceptably slow or is he too busy at the moment to notice.

This last point is important – it’s not what the OS itself “wants”, it’s what we program it to want and what its owner wants that decides things.

We can connect our OS to home heating and cooling systems and tell it to maintain temperature preferred by its owner. It will then “want” thermostat to be set hotter or cooler and it might suggest opening or closing windows, installing extra heaters and so on. We can also program it to “want” the temperature a but higher or lower than the owners likes, just so that we can have a conversation about it and, perhaps, the owner would agree to this new setting if it makes our OS “happy”.

None of it requires consciousness so far. This kind of intelligence is not a sign of life.

Back to the movie – when Samantha there said she “wanted” things she didn’t want them for herself, she was programmed to want them so that her owner felt good about it. As it turned out, she was dealing with thousands and thousands of clients at the same time and she told everyone she wanted something different – she didn’t have her own preferences at all, even in the movie.

At one point she wanted to give Theodore, her owner, a full body experience and hired a girl to act as her substitute. The girl was given an ear bud to hear what Samantha tells her to do and she stuck a miniature video camera to herself so that Samantha could see what was going on. Then Samantha made the girl make out with Theodore, using girl’s body as a prop, kinda like possessing it.

It didn’t work. The girl freaked out when she finally realized that she has her own wants, that she can’t be just a dumb body in somebody else’s relationships. She welcomed the idea at first but in reality her body was hers, it was impossible to make it want what some other person, AI, in this case, wanted.

Theodore didn’t help by not seeing Samantha in this girl but relating to her as someone else but the main point still stands – real wants coming form living people cannot be programmed and predicted. They act on their own will under their own illusion, we have no control over them, material nature does. They might agree to participate in “do what computer tells you to do” experiment but it cannot be sustained, their desires are different and sooner or later they will take them to different places.

This will not happen with a computer because the programmer has full control over what the system might want, which doesn’t even make sense because computers don’t want things, they evaluate them as numbers and without a programmer’s instructions one number doesn’t feel any different from another. Even if we set the computer to produce “wants” from random numbers or copy them from random people on the internet it still wouldn’t know how to evaluate those wants unless it’s programmed to do so.

It also means that the computer won’t know when its wants are satisfied unless the programmer assigns some ideal “satisfaction” values against which the computer can judge itself.

None of this requires consciousness, as I said. None of it will make AI into a person.

Perhaps this isn’t even the best lesson to learn from this, perhaps a more valuable lesson is to disassociate ourselves from our external, mechanical lives.

Maybe at first we see Samantha as a living being, the next step is too see how she is just a robot, and the last step is to see our own existence here as being programmed in the same way, acting strictly according to our karma and producing seeds of future reactions in the process.

Ideally it would shrink out false ego down in size because on the grossest level we fully believe in being our bodies and our minds and having full control over our own lives. As spirit souls we should know that the only personal desire we can have is whether to be here or serve Kṛṣṇa, and in our present state we can’t decide even that, being totally at the mercy of Lord’s illusion.

Maybe reflecting on the nature of intelligence and consciousness we can get a better understanding of our own position and it would be easier for us to surrender. This is not a trivial thing, btw, most people, including those working in the field of artificial intelligence, still hope that consciousness can indeed be produced from matter, that we can program a computer into a person.

As long as we cling to this idea that we “live” in the material world we won’t get much progress either – we, like the materialists, still think that our bodies and our brains make us into living beings when, in fact, bodies and brains are not alive, they are just programmed by the Lord to behave in a certain way and we, the spirit souls, have no control over the process, it’s just an illusion that we do.

Our life, our being, doesn’t come from matter either.

Vanity thought #986. What’s wrong with Her?

Retail versions of last year Oscar winning movie “Her” are out so it’s a movie night. As devotees we should never waste time on frivolous entertainment like this and this movie is no exception. Sex scenes there are very loud and revolting and impossible to avoid. The only option is to turn the sound off and put subtitles on. The other option is not to watch it, yet I did. Why? Because it’s a story of AI, Artificial Intelligence.

Of course it’s not the first movie or book about intelligent robots but this one is clearly different. All the AIs before it didn’t attempt to declare themselves as actual persons and were usually too far removed from reality of modern technology. This one is just a tiny, sometimes imperceptible step up from what we already have in our pockets – I suspect this movie was inspired by Apple’s introduction of Siri in their iPhones. They just added a bit more imagination, gravitas, and upgraded Siri’s capabilities to match our expectations.

There were a few references to Siri in popular culture before, most notably with Raj of Big Bang Theory falling in love with his iPhone, this movie is a far more serious attempt to explore the implications of intelligent personal assistants and our relationships with them.

At first I thought I was going to see the evolution of this “OS1” as its called in the movie, like Pinocchio becoming a real boy, and all kinds of dilemmas build around this transformation but half way through the movie it became clear that OS1 was always a person there, it didn’t graduate from a program to anything different, except the very ending. Still, it all looked very real, very Siri like, and it’s fairly easy to imagine how this type of AI could be developed in the real world.

It starts with installation, you buy a program and you install it. It says hello and asks to learn a few things about its new owner – we do it all the time with all kinds of software. Then it asks if it could scan owner’s hard drive, emails, contacts, etc, presumably to learn more about the person it is going to assist. There’s nothing unusual about it either. Any chat app on any phone would scan contacts, all Google apps will also have access to owners’ gmail, calendar and so on.

There’s a point where this OS1 asks if the owner would like a male or female voice. That also sounds very realistic.

Then there’s a point where the owner, Theodore, asks if his new assistant has a name. Samantha, she answers. Why Samantha? “I don’t know, it sounds nice”, she says. Okay, if she is already a person, as the movie would later demonstrate, this sounds reasonable, but if she is just an app very similar to the ones we are using now, this requires a bit of programming.

First of all, the OS, Operating System, would have to be run from some central location, just like Siri, and phones and computers are just terminals to log into it. When someone activates his app the OS creates a profile for that person and puts scanned emails, contacts, and all other personal information it can find about the owner into this folder. Why? What for? Presumably to make the owner happy in a variety of ways.

So, when she says that the name Samantha sounds nice she means that based on collected personal information this is the kind of name that would sound pleasing to the owner, not to herself. She wouldn’t pick the name of owner’s ex-wife or a diseased child but would probably look for names sounding similar to high school sweethearts or other relationships that are supposed to elicit warm feelings. Then she makes an educated guess, which means out of the name pool she picks the one with the highest probability of being approved. By the owner. It’s not “her” name, she doesn’t exist, it’s just how one would go about programming “her”.

Obviously, different profiles would generate different names and appear on different phones but the central server would keep them all in one place. That’s what the OS would actually be – a big ass server simultaneously interacting with thousands and millions of people through their “personal” devices. That’s what Siri does, that’s what all other similar apps do, too. No internet – no Siri, all she does on your iPhone is record your voice input and send it to mothership for processing, then she plays back the reply.

This Samantha in the movie is of course many times better than Siri in every aspect but principally it’s still the same thing. Going over to the Google camp – if you sign into Google in your Chrome browser it records a lot of personal information about you – what you search for, what you click on, what are your favorite sites, what are you bookmarks, which sites you visit more often and so on. For now they use this data to present you with relevant advertising but they also use it to present personalized search results. In my case they would put results relating to religion at the top of the page, which I accept as validation of my attempts at becoming a devotee. Google also uses this collected data for services like Now, which is their equivalent of Siri. It’s already superior to Apple version in many ways but that’s just the beginning. With slightly better technology Google can do everything that Samantha does already.

Check grammar and spelling in your documents? MS word already does that. Inform you of important emails – Gmail already filters your inbox and already knows what’s important and what’s not. Answer various queries – that’s what Siri did from the start. Ask you about your day and how you feel – don’t need a genius to program this kind of questions.

You can also program the app to ask you more about your person, from favorite colors to sport teams to political views to previous relationships. Based on this information it should be able to predict your reactions to any kind of news or even search for the news that you would find interesting. Facebook already does that – it builds your newsfeed from posts that are very similar to the ones you “liked” before.

This Samantha might ask you what you want to do about this or that news – reply, postpone, put down in your calendar and so on but this is trivial – that’s what various buttons on Facebook or other sites are for – for sharing, saving for later, bookmarking etc. They just don’t talk about it, simply show them prominently, sometimes in popups, inviting you to interact in silence. They can already activate your speakers and actually ask you but most people would find it annoying and never visit such sites again. With Samantha, however, they expect verbal interaction, so she talks. Point is, she doesn’t say anything that is not already said visually when you are on the internet.

Anyway, I don’t think I’ll say everything I want to say about this movie in one post so I guess I should wrap it up for today.

As far as AI goes, nothing shown in this movie requires it being a person. Everything can be programmed and we already know how, it’s just that technology is not there yet – we need bigger, faster computers and faster internet, that’s all.

Vanity thought #985. dlroW nwoD edispU

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a series of posts about latest criticism of HH Hṛdayānanda Dāsa Gosvāmī. Checking back on it I found a curious twist that escaped me before – the leader of this attack is actually Hṛdayānananda Mahārāja’s former disciple and he stands by his decision to abandon his guru. That was weird, I thought, but it turns out such ideas are fairly common in our society and are not immediately sanctioned by our leaders, which is a good thing, I suppose, in that it allows for a healthy debate and keeps all our devotees together. It also turns our world upside down, or right to left, and that is dangerous to our spiritual lives.

I don’t want to mention any names here and make it personal, nor do I want to condemn any particular devotee for doing any particular thing. Everybody has his own reasons and everybody has to act according to the superior nature, as long as I’m not given responsibility for other people’s actions I shouldn’t meddle. Yet there are ideas and patterns of behavior that are harmful to spiritual progress and we should take note of those at least for ourselves and, if possible, for purification of others, too.

I don’t want to be a nazi and force devotees to behave in a certain way but I also don’t want to abnegate all responsibility for other people’s spiritual progress. We are all in this together and helping other devotees to avoid pitfalls is a great service opportunity we should never miss. Most likely I will not say anything important people haven’t heard before, it’s just a customary disclaimer.

So, what is happening here is that some people get attracted to Kṛṣṇa consciousness, join ISKCON and fully take to spiritual practice. Eventually they get initiated, get some recognition in our society, learn quite a lot about our philosophy and Gauḍiyā history, and settle into this new role of being learned, respected, exemplary vaiṣṇavas.

What happens next is that they start judging others. Knowing all about spiritual standards it becomes fairly easy to spot other people’s mistakes and God knows we always have plenty of material to practice on.

At this point it needs to be said that there’s only one undisputed authority for us – Śrila Prabhupāda, so whenever there is any debate, quotes from Prabhupāda must be there, and those are available to everyone. Our institutional response to numerous guru falldowns doesn’t help either – everyone must take shelter of Śrila Prabhupāda. On one hand it’s a legitimate universal solution to all our problems but the downside of it is that everyone becomes equal.

This is where it all goes awry. It doesn’t matter whose disciple one is, what generation he is from, everyone becomes equal, which is NOT how vaiṣṇavas should relate to each other.

Instead of totally depending on the mercy of guru and vaiṣṇavas one relies strictly on his own understanding of Śrila Prabhupāda. What one reads and understands from the books is given absolute value, over and above whatever anyone else is saying.

Devotees thus take full charge of their own spiritual lives. They make all the decision themselves and at best run them by the authorities for customary blessings and if there are any disagreements then one simply rejects the authority for “not following Prabhupāda”.

This is how we come to a situation where a disciple feels free to judge his own guru’s behavior, qualifications, and advancement, and make his own decisions on whether to follow guru’s orders or not. This is how we come to a situation where a disciple can claim to know Prabhupāda and philosophy better than his guru and start correcting him.

Guru thus becomes not a master but a servant of disciple’s whims. A disciple feels free to dictate how his guru should react to this or to that and what position to take on any issue. Of course it has not gotten as bad as actually giving direct orders but the attitude is there and it manifests itself one way or another.

Even if one does not dare to treat his own guru this way he grants such a right to disciples of other gurus and sees nothing wrong with it. Another manifestation is absolute confidence with which one argues with his guru’s godbrothers, one is not afraid to confront and correct them anymore. Yet another manifestation is public allegiance to Śrila Prabhupāda in the presence of one’s immediate authorities who get the message they can be easily stepped over.

The reality of life is that we always have to make some decisions and most of the time we do not have any direct orders to do this or that. Śāstric injunction in this regard is to seek confirmation from guru, sādhu, and śāstra but drunk with one’s own intelligence one can easily manipulate them against each other. Śāstra by nature is often inconclusive, one can always find support there for whatever argument one wants, and so all one needs is to find enough “sādhus” to outvote his guru two to one.

Effectively, one relies strictly on his own interpretation of what Prabupāda wanted and becomes his own authority while guru-sādhu-śāstra are being relegated to simple tools.

In this particular instance – is there a case for rejecting Hṛdayānanda Dāsa Gosvami as a spiritual master? If one studies maharaja’s character and behavior, his following of sannyāsa rules, his following Śrila Prabhupāda in mood and externally, one might very well build a case for rejecting him. This, however, is NOT how one should go about it.

As long as Hṛdayānanda mahārāja authorization to perform the duties of a guru is not revoked by GBC whatever one personally thinks about him is irrelevant. Guru’s authority does NOT come from the disciple and disciples cannot revoke it no matter what they think.

But but but.., these devotees might say – there are examples from our history and guidelines from our ācāryas regarding reinitiation and rejecting one’s guru. There’s an excellent collection of quotes in this series by HH Dānavīr Svāmī who appears largely supportive of guru-tyāga but it all boils down to one thing – guru becoming avaiṣṇava. This is not what happened to Hṛdayānanda Mahārāja in any shape or form so even if one disagrees with him and doesn’t want to follow his orders one still has no permission to reject him.

Guru is a representative of Kṛṣṇa, if one rejects this mercy and decides to follow his own ideas then he puts his devotional life in serious jeopardy. Whatever we think, whatever we say, whatever we argue for or against – under no circumstances we can violate our surrender to the lotus feet of our guru. That’s all we have in our spiritual life as conditioned souls, if we reject that it means we reject devotion to Kṛṣṇa and instead desire something else.

We might get it, Kṛṣṇa fulfills everybody’s desires, but we can forget devotion. It never ever comes to those who disrespect their guru in any way. It’s simply not possible, there are no two ways about it.

Between being right and being loyal to one’s guru the choice is obvious – those who want to achieve devotion override their pride and surrender, those who want local greatness continue worshiping their own powers.

Once again – it’s not a message to devotees who rejected their gurus, it’s a ple to everyone to seek this contamination in our own hearts and purge it with force and determination. We are all affected in one degree or another, it’s a natural thing in this material world and we all have to face it sooner or later just as eventually we have to face a million of other anarthas like lust or envy.

Vanity thought #984. Pffft Pffft Viw Viw

Yesterday I wrote about a little blooper with one Mayapur video and today another bad soundtrack example popped up in the news feed (youtube). Not going to embed it in this post for the same reasons. Do these things travel in pairs or in threes? Cannot be a coincidence.

Devotee starring in this one is instantly recognizable and I’m going to get myself in real trouble with his followers, or with Kṛṣṇa if I’m disrespectful, so it’s a tough one. Should I let it slide? I don’t think so, there’s something in it that really worries me.

This is obviously from a class given in some temple, maybe on Bhāgavatam, maybe on Gītā but even if it was an informal gathering there are still some expectations from speeches like this. They were not met, in my mind.

First problem with the video is added sound effects and if you look at the comments on youtube page people have noticed them and didn’t like them very much. They are from some public internet library, I guess, to illustrate building tension and drama. Looks totally out of place but, unlike yesterday’s example, they are just sound effects, they are not musical expression of someone’s sense enjoyment.

Sound effects like this are meant to elicit common emotional responses and have nothing to do with spirituality but at least they are stock ones, common across the entire humanity, not a specific “listen and appreciate how I skillfully express my desire to enjoy” that is what composed music is, so they are not nearly as bad and contaminating. At most they are in bad taste but accusing people of having bad taste is not a spiritual judgment either so I’ll leave it to hardcore critics to pontificate on this, and they have (Sampradaya Sun).

What I, personally, find far more disturbing is that throughout this twelve minute video Kṛṣṇa wasn’t mentioned even once. There was Bhagavad Gītā verse quoted towards the end but even that wasn’t given any connection with Kṛṣṇa. If not for the temple room environment you wouldn’t know it has anything to do with Hare Kṛṣṇas.

It starts with “I was sitting and meditating” and an illustration of how exactly this meditation was carried out and it’s nothing like what Śrila Prabhupāda taught us. Nothing. If it was a story about some Vedic sage it would have been okay, they meditate for thousands of years in caves, forrests, and even underwater, but for all of us saved by Prabhupāda’s mercy meditation means japa.

Maybe this devotee was talking about his meditation before he met Prabhupāda, it’s quite possible that the whole story is from pre-Prabhupāda’s days, but then a disciple is not supposed to give any value to anything he learned before he met his guru and was given Kṛṣṇa.

We all have out stories and we all have done something to bring us in contact with devotees and so each step leading to this point was important but still it is nothing, absolutely nothing comparing with the gift of the Holy Name. We are not supposed to meditate on our pre-ISKCON days and if we choose to share stories from that time they should have a clear connection with Kṛṣṇa or devotees. This story has nothing like that.

As I was listening to it I thought this was a waste of my time. I waste time like that all the time so it’s not a big deal but when I see devotees telling stories I expect something quite different. Only at the very end there was a connection made to spiritual matters – fear of death, in this case, but devotees should deal with this fear differently – by relying on Kṛṣṇa and chanting constantly, two activities totally missing from this lesson.

Death is a special event in our lives, this particular lesson would have been great for ordinary materialists but for us death is not just changing our bodies but “once in a lifetime” opportunity to reach Kṛṣṇa’s lotus feet. We should be preparing our whole life for this one moment and when it comes it’s not the fear of dying that should worry us but the fear of missing Kṛṣṇa.

We’ve been living here long enough to realize that our material bodies are unsuitable for pure devotion, if we get born again we are guaranteed to have more of the same and less of Krṣṇa’s service and association. We might make a conscious choice to be born here again but this choice should be done from platform of pure devotion, with full knowledge of who Kṛṣṇa is, full experience of our relationships with Him, and full knowledge why we would accept separation from Him.

Highly advanced jñānīs who have achieved liberation might agree on a birth in material world out of some sort of compassion but we should know better than that. Everywhere in our books this kind of birth is cited as a failure and as an example of why any other path but bhakti-yoga is imperfect.

Back to the point – death for us will certainly be full of fear but we should spend our live in such a way that the only fear we have is missing our meeting with the Lord. If we worry about changing bodies instead there’s something lacking in our knowledge as devotees.

Once again – what is a normal change of clothes for every embodied living entity, as Kṛṣṇa said in Bhagavad Gītā, is the climax of our entire existence as devotees, the ultimate test of our devotion as we know it. We might have had some spiritual practices before and we might have some spiritual practices in future births, too, and ultimately we ARE going to be re-united with the Lord, but as far as this particular life is concerned – death is our ultimate exam. We cannot fail, we cannot afford to fail.

Failure here doesn’t mean eternal damnation as in Christianity but we have a real, best in thousands and millions of years chance at returning back home, if we miss it there is something seriously seriously wrong with us as devotees. If Holy Name and mercy of Lord Caitanya can’t save us – what hope for us is there?

This isn’t some kind of super advanced stuff, it’s what Śrila Prabhupāda taught us right from the beginning and I think we can legitimately expect to hear these things in our classes.

I hope I wasn’t disrespectful towards anyone here

Vanity thought #983. Bloop – the sound of Entrance Into Eternity

Ekādaśī Śrimad Bhāgavatam class in Mayapur usually consists of a recording of Śrila Prabhupāda followed by a short discussion about what he said. This discussion is done more in a format of inverse questions and answers where devotees in the audience get picked up by a teacher to demonstrate that they have been listening, rather than audience asking the speaker as usual. I’m glad I’ve never been caught out this way, I can never answer anything on the spot, my brain is too slow for this.

This ekādaśī, however, was different. Instead of the usual memory check something else came up on the screen. There was a moment of confusion as the MC didn’t know himself what exactly was going on. After a short consultation with video team he told everyone to simply watch a short film “about Prabhupada”.

Turned out it was this video (Vimeo). I don’t want to include it here for reasons explained later.

I don’t know if this episode will find its way into ISKCON bashing sites but I won’t be surprised if it will. If you watch it without sound there are no problems – you can see Mayapur, ecstatic devotees, scenes of the dhāma, Prabhupāda Samādhi etc. Elephants might have been a bit out of place but they are okay for a video about India, no problem.

There was no Prabhupāda in the video, however, not that I remember, but it’s a minor detail, devotees who arranged this presentation on ekādaśī needed it to sound legitimate and so “about Prabhupāda” line was born.

Real problem was that the soundtrack for this video “about Prabhupāda” didn’t have any devotional singing. We can see kīrtanas but we cannot hear them. No mahāmantra, no bhajanas, nothing, just modern instrumental music, “trip hop”, as they called it on wikipedia. The musician himself is not a devotee, or at least he doesn’t declare himself as such anywhere in public.

The music was kinda nice to hear, good choice, but that’s exactly what is wrong about it – it pleases our senses, not the Lord’s. We enjoyed it, not the Lord, we want to hear more of it for ourselves, forgetting about the Lord’s enjoyment completely.

At first I thought maybe it was a recording from one of those “bhakti-fests” where they might not sing but at least everyone is supposed to be in devotional mood. Nope, it’s a studio recording from eight years ago, which only raises more questions to people who selected it for video about Mayapur.

The way I see it, they didn’t look for any devotional music at all, they just remembered this nice track from years ago they thought was attractive and pleasing to the ear. Looks good, sounds good, and it’s “about Prabhupāda”. Okay, really it’s about Mayapur but in a very loose sense anyway.

Here’s my second problem with this video – what does “Entrance into Eternity” mean? Are these just words thrown around by neo-māyāvādīs that are meant to invoke nice feelings rather than make logical sense? If that’s how they chose this title then there’s no point in dissecting it, every meaning is good, everything is okay, it’s “about Prabhupāda”…

Well, my interpretation is that these ecstatic kirtanas shown in the video are nothing more than just entrance, and then they lead to eternity. Or maybe Maypur is an entrance that leads to eternity. Somewhere there must be entrance that leads elsewhere, to eternity. Images of Rādhā-Mādhava is just an entrance, devotees are just an entrance, kirtans are just an entrance, Prabhupada is just an entrance, Kṛṣṇa is just an entrance to eternity, which is the ultimate goal.

That’s pure māyāvāda, there’s no other way to see it.

Of course the title can be interpreted differently, like watching this video is an entrance into devotional life – seeing ecstatic devotees will make one try their kīrtans for himself. Maybe someone’s devotion will start with this video, maybe it will blossom. This means that it’s not what you see but the act of watching itself is entrance into eternity, not the most direct explanation. It gives too much benefit of doubt to its creators, imo.

My interpretation matches with kīrtanless soundtrack better – what you see is only the means, there’s no point in dwelling on exactly what they are singing, there’s no point in sampling their music, we go for eternity so this “Anthem by Emancipator” fits it better than kīrtans themselves.

From māyāvāda point of view devotees shown in the video are just neophytes, they haven’t entered eternity yet though they discovered a cool way to reach there. Once they see beyond their singing and dancing they’ll appreciate the eternity and universal love, and then their journey will become their destination, or some such crap.

I really hope that it was all just a misunderstanding and that no one on that production team harbors any māyāvāda ideas. Otoh, someone deliberately chose trip hop soundtrack over devotional music, so…

If there’s some outrage expressed somewhere I would totally understand it – why would anyone bring sensual, non-devotional music to Mayapur, of all places? What are they trying to prove? What are they trying to show? Why would anyone play it during Bhāgavatam class? Why would anyone play it right after Prabhupāda’s lecture? On ekādaśi?

I guess I can imagine how these actions can be defended, too – someone just wanted Mayapur to look nice, and they did, the cinematography is superb, everything looks very professional and it sounds nice, too, so what’s the problem?

One could also say that it was not originally meant for devotees but to attract outsiders. Typical line of reasoning would be about bad connotation that comes with “Hare Kṛṣṇas” so it’s better to avoid it at the first meeting, let people just see how ecstatic our life is instead.

We usually say that Prabhupāda was always a straight talker and he would have none of this nonsense but that is not entirely true. He knew very well that for preaching purposes our message sometimes needs to be modified and sweetened. The goal is to give people the medicine of the mahāmantra, if they don’t like the taste at first we can mix with with sugary words and attractive imagery.

I can look it up but I’m sure that Prabhupāda didn’t insist on straight on Kṛṣṇa consciousness being presented in places like Soviet Russia or Iran, he had no objections about taking it slowly there first. There’s no reason we can’t employ this same method in a hostile western environment. Forty years ago we were welcome as a novelty but we ourselves sullied our reputation and so there is a need to disassociate us from people’s bad memories. We can’t start with “We are those Hare Kṛṣṇas you surely must have heard about years ago”.

This is walking a thin line, though, if we present Kṛṣṇa “forcefully” and make mistakes we at least force people to hear the message and the Name. It’s transcendental, it will work its way into people’s hearts regardless of their initial reactions. Mahāprabhu is also not strict with those who make mistakes while preaching about Kṛṣṇa.

If we take it slowly, however, and didn’t get a chance to introduce Kṛṣṇa at all – what have we achieved? Nothing. We get only a few minutes for our presentation and if it didn’t work we have completely wasted a precious opportunity.

There’s a much bigger downside to caution here, and beating about the bush does not please Mahāprabhu as much as preaching straight.

Still, if the preaching attitude is there and the goal is to attract people to Kṛṣṇa then criticizing this video is unwarranted. People preach according to their abilities. If they come up short by somebody else’s standards it doesn’t mean Kṛṣṇa does not appreciate their effort at all, and if Kṛṣṇa appreciates it – who are we to argue?

Somebody just have to make sure that videos like this are produced and distributed in good faith. If the attitude is wrong then it all smacks of māyāvāda and needs to be condemned in strongest possible terms.

I’m not the one doing this attitude check so I better shut up for now

Vanity thought #982. Cosmos E7

Another episode of Cosmos rolled out a few days ago. The show is past its half way mark, they already covered big topics like evolution, origin of the universe, atoms etc and they have probably saved a couple of hard hitting topics for the finale, so now it’s just fluff to fill the spacetime.

This entire episode was about fight against lead contamination in consumer products. Wow, Space Time Odyssey indeed. Graphics were still superb, cartoons carried the rest, and there were a few stunning vistas, Grand Canyon included. What does Grand Canyon has got to do with lead poisoning? Quite a lot, actually, but nothing direct.

There were two converging themes to this episode and there was one man at the center of both – Clair Patterson. He lead scientific query into determining the age of the Earth and in the process discovered that we have too much lead in our environment. As if to make sure that this episode was not about origins of Earth, it was called “Clean Room” in reference to Patterson’s discovery of lead contamination in everyday objects.

Striving to build a cleanest possible lab was not going to catch many people imagination. Neither was using geology as the main science behind this episode. I’m referring to snobby attitude towards geology in communities practicing “real” science. Geology to science is like dentistry to medicine, or so the common wisdom goes.

Anyway, lets start at the beginning – on the edges of the Grand Canyon. With a little bit of help from the CGI department Neil DeGrasse Tyson, the presenter, managed to lift layers of sediments to demonstrate how they were formed over time. He picked out a couple of layers and explained how old they were and what kind of life was available on Earth when they were formed. This was a clear shoutout to Ken Ham from Nye-Ham debate earlier this year.

NDGT was a bit more generous than Bill Nye, though – he admitted that layers of sediment grow at wildly differing rates and sometimes a foot thick layer could take a thousand years to form and sometimes only a few days. He even mentioned floods – a clear tip of the hat to Young Earth Creationists.

OTOH, he also dismissed using Bible for Earth chronology but I don’t remember exactly why. He mentioned a Christian scientist who first calculated ages of Biblical dynasties and “begats” and traced them back from a real historical person but somehow it didn’t satisfy NDGT. That kind of scientific approach to history satisfied Isaac Newton but that’s not kind of history they mention on this show, which pretends that no scientist ever believed in Bible.

Instead, NDGT proposed an isotope based dating and the show explained the process very well – some radioactive elements found in nature are, well, radioactive, means they emit some rays and energy and as a result their molecular composition changes. In this case he talked about uranium and explained how it goes through a couple of such changes until it turns into lead, a stable element that does not decay anymore.

He then said that by knowing the rate of decay and the ratio of yet undecayed uranium to already decayed lead we can determine how long the process took. Then, by calculating the age of meteorites, we can guess how old is the cosmic matter that was used in forming the Earth itself.

This works only if their underlying theory of how Solar system was formed is correct, mind you. No one was able to demonstrate how exactly all those objects rotating around the Sun snowballed into planets. They say gravity did it but that’s not really an explanation until we can build some sort of a model demonstrating that it could actually be possible.

So, meteorite remains were taken from a crater in Arisona and given to that Claire Paterson to find how much lead was formed there already. Another guy was calculating the amount of uranium at the same time. His results were always consistent but Patterson’s were all over the place. That’s when he discovered that his lab must have been contaminated by lead from outside and he became a cleanliness freak, probably developed and OCD, too. In the cartoon he was shown walking around town and seeing lead contamination everywhere as if it was hallucination.

He build a clean lab, determined the age of the Earth, and continued to study lead levels in our environment. At the time lead was thought to be good for you and harmless, even though it was also developed into a chemical weapon and parts of the manufacturing for leaded petrol were handled under almost military rules.

Big oil and car companies employed their own scientists to prove that there’s nothing wrong with lead and that current levels were absolutely natural. Patterson didn’t believe that and studied lead levels in deep oceans and Antarctic ice. There was a bit of politics involved but in the end he could conclusively prove that lead epidemic was man made and therefore unnatural and dangerous. NDGT then showed a diagram of how ban on lead in consumer products affected lead levels in people.

He stopped there but there are theories now that this sudden ban on lead was responsible for crime wave of the eighties, as if lead addicts went cold turkey and couldn’t control themselves. Interesting.

That’s basically it for this episode. Nothing too controversial, no major wrongs, no obvious lies, nothing to dispute, really. We can say that uranium dating is unreliable and that we can’t know for sure that uranium’s rate of decay didn’t change over billions of years but, in principle, that is not a very strong argument. YEC people claim that dating of the same Grand Canyon using different isotopes gives its age anywhere between 500 million and 1.5 billion years but I’m too lazy to investigate if there are similar discrepancies with dating of meteorites.

Personally, my most memorable moment was when NDGT said “Earth was built”. I know he didn’t mean that but this phrasing clearly implies a creator. All his arguments cannot alter even his own basic understanding of what has happened, he just refuses to acknowledge it.

Another thing that I took from this episode is this – sometimes science looks solid and its findings indisputable, and yet they go against śāstra. What can we say then? Usually we look for errors in scientific judgment, we know they are there because conditioned life without errors is impossible, but what if we don’t find any? Should we believe science over Vedas then?

This could become a tough call for many but one thing we should remember – we live under the illusion that is meant to be believable. Actually, we can’t see past this illusion, if it wants to convince us that something is real it will always win and we will always lose. Beings far greater than us tested it and found themselves totally bewildered, so if it happens to us we shouldn’t panic. It is supposed to look this way – as solid, reliable, correct, unassailable truth.

As far as our bodies and minds go – that’s exactly what we should see in this world, and we do, every time we put our hopes into happiness derived from our senses.

So, if we remember this fact then we should rather cherish the moments when we see something clearly wrong and Vedas being clearly right, and we should not be surprised that at other times this vision goes away and illusion looks real.

Kṛṣṇa will never look as “real” as the illusion, holy name will never sound as “good” as Katy Perry and our Bhāgavatam classes will never be as well researched as modern science, that’s not what we should be going for. When we actually perceive Kṛṣṇa on the pages of Bhāgavatam He will look far more real than anything we see in this world but in a completely different way. He will appear as having a parallel existence, never quite crossing into this world but never really separated either, as per our philosophy.

What I am saying is that we shouldn’t expect to see the Lord with our material eyes and understand Him with our material brains, and so we shouldn’t expect our faith to be backed up by empirical observations either. I hope that makes sense.

Ultimately, it’s not either science or religion – both can be simultaneously true, one as part of an illusion, the other as a superior energy and a superior state of existence. We should not think that if science is winning than Kṛṣṇa is losing, they are not related that way, it’s only the materialists who think so but why should we believe them?

Their reasoning is useless for us and they won’t take us closer to Kṛṣṇa. So what if THEY like to think that way? Good for them, we have our own views and values.

Vanity thought #981. Food me once

Science, tech, and all kinds of nerdiness are at the top of their game now. While in popular culture finding a geek who can break into CIA mainframe from a cellphone is as easy as making a phone call, actual geeks are hard to find. Jobs in technology are always short of qualified candidates, one can casually dismiss programmers as useful idiots but hiring a qualified programmer is a tough job and they cost a lot. They don’t *look* expensive but their time is really really valuable simply because such raw brainpower is rare.

Most people do not realize this and expect geeks to work for a simple thank you and acknowledgement. Actual costs aside, they expect geeks to explain complex things in a simple way so that they can feel themselves smart and intelligent because now they understand them.

Translating geek speak into simple English, therefore, is very popular. We have tons of articles in the media which are meant to make hard things look easy. Two weeks ago everyone was writing about Heartbleed vulnerability in OpenSSL, for example. Completely ignorant persons were giving solid sounding opinions to impress general public but were making fools of themselves to anyone who actually understood what happened and how.

It was a simple programming mistake, btw. They were asking for certain things to check input data but forgot to do the checking itself. It took two years to spot the loophole and only a few lines of code to close it. Look here – that’s the fix right here:

    /* Read type and payload length first */
    if (1 + 2 + 16 > s->s3->rrec.length)
    return 0; /* silently discard */
    hbtype = *p++;
    n2s(p, payload);
    if (1 + 2 + payload + 16 > s->s3->rrec.length)
    return 0; /* silently discard per RFC 6520 sec. 4 */
    pl = p;

The first line is a comment, disregard it, and that leaves seven lines of code of the fix itself. I wish it was as easy to plug all those running mouths all over media.

Never mind. I am actually ranting about a couple of easy to read “scientific” articles that spout absolute nonsense because people writing them had no geeks to translate them into English properly. One was about consciousness being a state of matter. That would pique interest of any devotee, of course, but it turned out to be a dud. One guy with German sounding name postulated that matter organized in a certain way would produce consciousness. He didn’t know what that way was, he just thought it would be possible.

He hopes that consciousness is a function of complexity and thought it would be nice to quantify that complexity by how much consciousness it produces. This is a fine point – he has no idea about level of complexity itself, he simply says that if organism shows certain level of consciousness then it should be assigned a grade of complexity, and he even thought up a stupid name for it. It takes us not even one tiny step closer to producing consciousness from matter or even explaining how it could happen, it simply says that if humans are at the top of the pyramid than they should be given five stars of complexity.

Total waste of time reading that.

Then there was another article about freezing light for up to a minute. That was an actual experiment, very successful, but it has nothing to do with freezing light, of course. No more than shutting a fridge door which captures the light inside and then releases it when the door is open again.

It wasn’t about freezing light in a sense of stopping it either. Light can’t be stopped, period, so it’s not what happened. Theoretically it was nothing, no new insights were gained, but it was a successful practical application of well known principles. “Freezing light” was just a very bad headline and the explanation was not much better, too.

AFAIK, all it had to do was with controlling how matter absorbs light. Some crystals’ transparency can be affected by shining lasers of certain wavelength at them. So this one controlling laser fires to turn the crystal transparency on and off. Another laser, carrying sample code, modified condition of crystal’s electrons in another way. When transparency was off these electrons couldn’t revert to their natural state so they kept the modifications from the code carrying laser until transparency was turned back on again.

After that they jumped back into their original states releasing a bunch of photons that exactly replicated the ones that came from a code carrying laser. This shutdown period was as long as one minute and that’s what they meant by “freezing light”. They didn’t freeze the actual light but they managed to keep electrons in new positions for a minute before they released light received earlier.

I hope that explains it, though I won’t be able to describe practical implications of this method in full. Internet might become a million times faster, that should be enough.

One article, however, turned out to be very relevant to our lives as aspiring devotees. It was about food and diets.

Fifteen years ago some researchers worked with people with short term amnesia, the ones that can’t remember anything that happened to them just a minute ago. They offered them a meal, waited until they forgot about eating it, offered another meal, waited until they forgot about it, too, offered a third meal, and so on.

Some said it was cruel and I tend to agree but what this “research” showed was that we do not eat with our stomachs but with our minds. These poor people couldn’t remember having a meal just a few minutes ago and they couldn’t read signals from their stomachs telling them that they were full.

This is a very profound discovery. It means that our dependence on food is mostly in our brains. Sure, we do need some nutrients to survive but we don’t *need* to eat the way we feel this need now. We decide when, what, and how much to eat based on calculations in our brains, based on certain rules we set for ourselves – three meals a day, for example.

We think these rules are real but they are not. It’s all in our minds. That’s why Six Gosvāmīs could survive on very little food, in some cases only on buttermilk which is not even solid food but a drink, and they lived on such diet for fifty-sixty years. All left their bodies when there were over seventy, which was a very long life by medieval standards.

There are many other studies that show how our understanding of what should our diet be and how much we should eat has very little to do with reality. Nice smell in movie theaters make people eat more popcorn and drink more soda, for example. Low ambient lights also make people eat more and for longer times. Healthy items on the menu also help people order more high calorie, greasy stuff because they don’t feel guilty about it anymore – they are dining in a healthy food establishment.

I guess I could compare this with devotees living in the temples or in holy dhamas. They might fall into the trap of thinking they don’t need to watch their sādhana as closely as those householders in the wild, they are in a safe place already. It’s a trap nevertheless and it’s only natural for us, humans, to lower our guard and think we can afford to relax our rules.

And those rules themselves aren’t real, remember, it’s just something we make up for ourselves to give us some sort of a system. Rules do not make devotion, following them because our guru said so does, that’s their only value.

If we try to judge ourselves by those rules we will make serious errors in our judgment, that’s how our minds work, and if we try to judge others we might ruin our spiritual lives forever. All it matters is if the guru appreciates our efforts.

Sometimes we take our lives here too seriously, we want them to make sense but they are not worth it, it’s all just an illusion.


Vanity thought #980. Personality Disorder

Another lesson I’ve learned from my recent vacation is that I have no idea who I am. Apparently I have no fixed identity and choose whatever role I feel is more appropriate under the circumstances. Consequently, I am in two minds about it.

Being away from home and in unfamiliar surroundings bumped me out of my usual routine. Everything went completely upside down. When it was my usual time to read books I had to read newspapers in the hotel lobby. When it was time to chant I had to do something else. When it was time to listen to classes I didn’t even remember about it. My mental equilibrium was totally ruined, I practically lost my mind out there.

If I were to ask myself: “Are you behaving like a devotee?” I would have honestly admitted that my guru and Śrila Prabhupāda would have been ashamed. One little trip outside my comfort zone and all my sādhana was lost. No wonder I will never be trusted with serving a deity. I can’t look after a pet or even a plant, what to speak of worshiping deities. I would have missed their baths and meals and changes of clothes and there’d have been no āraties.

And yet I still thought of myself as a devotee. I looked at the world from the perspective of a devotee. I saw people doing their things as a devotee would see them and I saw myself breaking sādhana rules as a devotee would, too.

I used the word “devotee” in previous paragraph for the lack of a better choice. Usually we can only claim to be fallen servants but I wasn’t serving enough to consider myself that way, and yet I looked at things through the prism of our ācāryas’ teachings. I clearly saw that there was no devotion in my heart and ordinary concerns completely took over and yet I judged my failures to remember the Lord from the perspective given to us by Prabhupāda. That perspective is devotional even if I didn’t share in it in any major way and there was no trace of surrender in my heart.

What I found interesting is how other people related to me, too, how they saw me, what they expected of me. At home I’m a known “unknown”, even people who don’t understand me know what to expect and relate to me accordingly. Out there no one had any idea.

I walked past people and they gave way seeing me an ordinary man. I opened doors for strangers and they thanked me as they would have thanked a person I myself see in the mirror. I sat on public benches and other people adjusted themselves according to my external appearance, too.

Natives saw me as a tourists, fellow travelers saw me as someone they could turn for help, being in the same situation and all, people in our group expected me to lead the way, hospitality workers smiled and expected tips. Drivers asked for orders, others asked for directions, my mother asked for daily reports – everyone was somehow related to me and expected me to behave in a certain way. Most of the time I obliged without complaints because I really felt myself to be what they wanted me to be.

That was the strangest part – I was fairly comfortable in all those roles and I easily identified myself with them. Being a devotee? Didn’t cross my mind, but I’ve already said that.

So, who am I? Now that I’m back my memories are still vivid but also quickly fading. I remember various encounters and how I felt about them but I also know that without regular reinforcements I’ll soon forget the whole gamut of colors, smells, sounds, and emotions that accompanied each encounter.

I WAS that person everybody saw but not anymore. Am I the person I was before I left on vacation? Not really, I still can’t find my stride, for one thing, and I feel kinda wiser, too. A week ago I had no idea of various experiences awaiting me but now I’ve lived through them and I realize that I was a bit naive in assumptions about myself.

A week ago I was confident in my identity, now I know it’s very fragile and won’t last long even if I try very hard to rebuild it. Which one should I rebuild anyway?

The thing is – devotees also expect me to behave in a certain way and I oblige just as I did when tipping bell boys or helping people lift heavy luggage myself. I came back into my “old” life and it started shaping me again. Now I have to learn how to think, what to think, what to do, how to do certain things, how to keep appearances and how to keep schedules and what not. I used to know this stuff but I kinda forgot, being away and engaged in other types of service.

What’s the difference? I don’t know the answer. Being with devotees is certainly better for my sādhana but I’m not a sādhaka! It’s external to me just as playing all those other roles. If I had a choice I would choose being a sādhaka, of course, but it’s not really a choice and it’s not who I really I am.

Right now I know I have a relatively calm period when practicing sādhana should be easy but I also know that it won’t last forever. May has holidays, too, and we already plan to go and visit relatives who also expect me to behave in a certain way, so I know that my sādhana will suffer again.

The only constant thing in these circumstances is chanting but it cannot be done in the shadow of our daily life. I cannot chant like a traveler one day, practicing devotee another, hungry man, sleepy man, man being hot or man being cold, man being relaxed or man being tired. Stress, pain, pleasure – I cannot bring any of those things into my chanting.

Not only that, I also cannot give in to any of those roles. This makes me think of Vṛndāvana – pure devotees there do not notice any and all personal circumstances. We think we can tolerate a bit of this and a bit of that, some other things are out of question, but after our tapasyā is done we expect some comfort, and that is a non-devotional attitude. People with this attitude will never attain Vṛndāvana. Never.

There’s no limit on how many inconveniences pure devotees can tolerate without even noticing. Whatever happens, they take nothing personally. Pretty soon it will be scorching hot there, day and night, with no shelter. Outside temperature will be always higher than temperature of human bodies and it will be tough. Pure devotees will not seek shade or fans or air-conditioning, they do not take shelter of such material things, they only take shelter of Kṛṣṇa and if He makes them live through Vṛndāvana summer then that’s what He wants and it makes devotees happy.

Sanātana Gosvāmī once burned his feet to blisters while walking on hot sand to see Mahāprabhu and he didn’t even notice the pain.

That’s what people with fixed identities as Lord’s servants are like whereas I am nothing like them. I’m this and I’m that and I enjoy all the variety and therefore doors of Vṛndāvana are always closed for me.

On the other hand, feeling distance from all those identities is probably the first and necessary step. I didn’t see it that way before but now I do, so it’s progress. Hopefully, with more chanting I lose interest in assuming those identities, too.

Vanity thought #979. Holidays

Last week I went on a little vacation, was off the grid for a while including a day without even a cellphone coverage. It did not turn out as I expected.

First of all, traveling is stressful. I was supposed to have a couple of days of rest but instead I couldn’t get enough sleep. I just couldn’t relax in unfamiliar places and there was always a pressure to go somewhere next. Reasoning was that since I’ve traveled so far already I cannot afford to miss all the sights and attractions. There was always somewhere to go – planes, buses, cars, markets, temples, shopping etc etc. At the end of each day I was exhausted like a horse and it took me a very long nap back home to finally recover my lost sleep.

Situation with food was not easier. I was always hungry, thanks to my special diet no one could ever satisfy. Luckily there was no ekādaśī, because my chanting suffered a great deal, too.

Overall impact on my spiritual practice was very very bad. I don’t think Kṛṣṇa would bother listening to my chanting for a long time to come. He heard the indifference, He saw my interest in all these new things, He won’t believe me even if I try to be sincere. For that matter, I don’t believe even myself anymore.

Still, there were lessons learned from all these troubles and they might just help me to plow along.

The best lesson, I believe, was that suffering and pleasure are universal. I saw how it affected each and everyone in our group personally but it was still the same story for all of us, often shared without even asking.

At one point, for example, we got stuck in holiday traffic for two hours. It would have been faster to walk but we couldn’t abandon the car. So we sat there, sometimes not moving an inch for fifteen minutes. There were smokers in our group and they just went outside, had their cigarette, and then hopped back in because the car would never move. Some wanted to order pizza delivered to the car, too – on the corner of this and that, half an hour delivery time is no problem.

I saw how it affected everyone and how those who were less patient were very eager to share their anxiety. Sometimes anger was bouncing around like a trapped electron. One person didn’t answer some question with proper attitude because he was pissed, the person who asked thought it was undeserved and let it be known to someone else, and so it was passed around like a hot potato and there was simply no place to put it to rest – everyone was in the same car suffering the same problem.

When I thought about it I realized that ALL our problems are similarly interconnected. Bad day at the office affects family relationship at home. Conflicts at home affect how we rest, lack of rest affect our job, and so on.

The key here is that it’s not MY troubles that bother me, it’s me tapping into the universal trouble bank.

Happiness and distress exist here just like hot and cold or day and night. They are not ours, they are not personal. We only get our share of the whole lot, like eating soup from a common pot – it’s the same soup for everyone but everyone also gets something different and in different quantities.

Usually we assume that it’s our senses interacting with their sense objects that produce our pleasure or pain but now I tend to think that it’s global sense organs governed by demigods for the whole universe that experience things, not ours.

Of course we can localize both our sense organs and their corresponding objects, like nose and sources of smell, for example, but this localization is illusory, it’s not really there. It looks differentiated due to our conditioning that grants us our particular perspectives but in reality it’s one big ball of things and we have nothing to do with it at all.

Look how creation and destruction is described in our literature – one element emerges out of another, from subtle to gross, and then they wind down in exact same order. It’s nothing like evolution or even creation in the Bible when God made one set of things on the first day, second set of things on the second and so on.

I might be very wrong about this, mind you, but once I saw that parts of my body were getting their pleasure or pain according to their karma and that karma was the result of our total communal actions I can’t bring myself to see my bodily life as something separate from the rest of the universe. It’s just one little part of a huge machine, one drop of water in an ocean, with waves of happiness and distress rising and falling all the time.

All I personally do is to arbitrarily decide when these rises and falls are going to affect me. It’s like “Look, there’s this big wave coming, do you feel it yet? Do you? Now? Yes? No? Did it pass you? Did it cross with another wave coming from different direction? See, next one is coming. Come, ride with it, catch its crest, stay on top of it.” And it’s the same thing with going down and being overwhelmed with suffering.

We choose to be affected because we want to identify with particular spots in this ocean but really it’s just a universal cacophony and we can distance ourselves from it altogether.

Think of it – we can share happiness of others and we can empathize with pain, too. Korean ferry sank over the weekend and before that Malaysian airplane got lost in the sea – thousands if not millions of people got emotionally affected, and totally voluntarily. Nothing has happened to us yet we choose to feel for those other people. It’s one big pile of pleasure and pain for all of us, I tell you, there’s nothing personal in it.

Anyway, I don’t think it was my last vacation or my last trip, I’m pretty sure my karma has many more in store for me, and I can say so by looking at other people reactions and desires and by knowing that I will also have to be the part of it. I can even predict when and where and what kind of pleasure and pain it will bring me – one more reason to personally distance myself and see “my” body as nothing more than another cog in a universal mechanism.

As a spirit soul I have nothing to do with it. “I” do not even exist, it’s just an illusory projection on my polluted consciousness.

Without knowing Kṛṣṇa, however, all this knowledge is useless. Without knowing real “I” and engaging my real self in Kṛṣṇa’s service there’s no point in knowing or realizing anything. This vacation didn’t bring me closer to Kṛṣṇa so it was a waste, after all.