Vanity thought #1617. False necessity of freedom

Yesterday I talked about how choice is only an illusion that appears under certain conditions. I don’t think I understand it myself in full yet so I’ll continue with the same subject. Today I want to look at choice in politics because in that area practically everybody already agrees that it’s an illusory concept, albeit from a different perspective.

In case you don’t follow – there’s an understanding that no matter who campaigns for presidency they all are going to do the same thing when elected to office. Sure, some policies will be different and some might affect millions of people but there are many other urgent problems facing society that are going to be dismissed or forgotten. It’s easy to understand why – modern politicians campaign on what excites, not what matters, and on what wins them the vote, everything else is secondary. They also tend to control the flow of public discussion so that vested interests behind them remain untouched.

This election cycle in the US has Bernie Sanders to campaign on this exact issue – politicians have become so beholden to big businesses that they refuse to address income inequality and a host of other related problems that affect lives of ordinary people. His opponent for Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton, happens to be exactly the archetype of what he is railing against. He energized large sections of the public so it doesn’t really matter if he fails this time, the ideas have been planted into the public consciousness and politicians will have to eventually address them.

This is not the kind of illusory choice I had in mind, however. Perhaps a better illustration would be China. Typical western position is that China needs democracy and freedom. They block Facebook and Twitter there, imagine that! They need opposition parties, they need genuine elections, they need openness. They can’t go forward without proper democratic institutions supporting their society. Chinese themselves don’t listen, however.

One of the most popular arguments against democratization of China is that they have proved that they can lift a billion people out of poverty without democracy. They can also point to India that can’t accomplish anything because all big projects get bogged down by legislation and litigation. Everybody has got rights to oppose everything until they personally get paid and they use these rights to the tilt. This democracy is an insatiable beast that devours country’s resources leaving Indians with third rate infrastructure and skinny cows walking the streets. They constantly squabble with each other and will never become a respectable country because of that.

There’s probably a lot of truth in this objection to democracy but what interests me from the perspective of choice is that Chinese aren’t interested in democracy in the first place, they just don’t know why they need it.

Their lives are filled with exciting stuff as it is. They have careers, they think about families, they think about buying houses and cars, they think about appearances, they think about their social life, they think about justice and fairness, they think about degradation of the society, they think about sacrifices for the nation, they think about all sorts of stuff. Democracy, however, just doesn’t occur to them. Why do they need it? They can’t find a place for it in their consciousness. They honestly don’t understand what all the fuss is about.

Those who decide to investigate quickly come to the conclusion outlined two paragraphs earlier – democracy is not worth it. Or they look at elections and general politics in supposedly developed countries and they can’t take it seriously. To them it doesn’t look anything like what is promoted by their democratically minded well-wishers. One of their well known apologists, forgot his name, once said that in Chinese system someone like Obama would probably rise to a level of a city boss, not higher, judging by his abilities. He meant to say that Chinese government pays attention to meritocracy and not to empty talking. Maybe he was a bit harsh on Obama but Trump or Cruz for president? Or another Clinton? Or even Sanders who even most Americans think is out of his depth, never mind his good intentions?

To these sharp and inquisitive Chinese democracy does not offer only freedom and choices as westerners tell them. They don’t even want choices, they are thinking in terms of what needs to be done and who is the most suitable person to do it. What’s there to choose? Once you know what you need and who is available it becomes a matter of matching people to jobs for the best outcome. If you still can’t decide it means that you lack understanding of the issue. “Choice” becomes a symptom of indecisiveness or outright ignorance.

When you approach issues from this perspective, when you realize that you can’t make a decision because of lack of knowledge, asking random people on the street looks simply stupid. If you need to ask someone then ask someone more knowledgeable than you.

Likewise, ordinary people know their abilities and limitations and do not bother offering suggestions to people far more experienced and knowledgeable then them. They also know that people do not make random choices but are guided by rationality and common human interests. They understand “corruption” because if they were in that same position they’d behave in the same way, too. Everybody got to look after himself and his family and all those dependent on him. Everybody has got some greed and lust and they don’t expect their leaders to be saintly but only good enough for their positions – thanks to the meritocracy system they believe exists in their country. Once that meritocracy is gone it will be a different story, however.

Some say that there’s no meritocracy there because you’ve got to embrace prescribed political ideology and so bright people who don’t pledge allegiance to communist bosses do not get promoted. Chinese answer to this is that if these people can’t get along with the party they aren’t very bright to begin with.

We think communism is about control but for Chinese communism is about looking after their country in the best way possible. Generally, there’s only one best way and anyone who thinks he can manage one and a half billion people better is delusional and is not taken seriously.

Once again, method of governing isn’t a matter of choice but a conscious, well thought of decision. One can propose alternatives, sure, but they should be working alternatives, not “we could fix this road if we had two party system”. The communist party isn’t going away and merits of two party systems are questionable anyway. There isn’t a single country in that part of the world where it works, not even Australia and Japan where no one bothers to remember names of their Prime Ministers anymore, they don’t stick around long enough to guess right next time someone asks you about it.

What I meant to say today is that in politics choice is an illusion brought out by ignorance. Those who know their stuff are not concerned for choices, they hardly ever encounter genuine dilemmas and they are not going to ask random people how to solve really complex problems. Democracy as it’s taught in schools offers them nothing worthwhile and they do not care for it.

No one is free from doing the right thing, from doing what needs to be done, it’s not a matter of choice or freedom but of knowledge and discipline.


Vanity thought #1528. Peace of mind

Last time I think I made a convincing case that our ordinary understanding of freedom is inadequate and misleading. At least I convinced myself, at least on some superficial level. What next then? Where does real freedom lies? Don’t say “spiritual world” – we are not there yet, we need to make steps in that direction, but which direction is that?

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter, Kṛṣṇa grants self-realization out of His sweet will and we can’t force Him. We might sit and wait, we might run, it doesn’t matter, Kṛṣṇa is not going to be convinced by externalities, we need to make a personal connection and a personal plea. How to make that personal connection? Kṛṣṇa is guarded very well against intruders like us. We can say it’s due to guru’s mercy but guru doesn’t act independently of Kṛṣṇa either. A material mind might see a possibility of a shortcut here – around our guru and directly to the source, but it’s foolish. Guru and Kṛṣṇa are non-different in this regard, we can’t get to one without passing through another, guru’s presence is a manifestation of Kṛṣṇa’s interest in us.

What can we do in the meantime? That’s the question on my mind today.

We can approach it from two sides. One is from the POV of a struggling soul trying to make his life better, another is from the POV of a devotee trying to perfect his sādhana. Personally, I constantly oscillate between these two. Most of my actions are selfish but occasionally I remind myself that I can do things for Kṛṣṇa, too, and not just special things like offering food but everything I do, everything can be connected with the Lord, I just don’t remember or don’t know how.

Whatever approach one takes it will make his life better, and the struggling soul approach can appeal to non-devotees, too. It’s not a direct path to Kṛṣṇa consciousness but almost everybody has to pass through these stages on the way and realize the futility of the material struggle even when one feels like he is finally winning. Winning not just the war for sense enjoyment but the war with one’s mind, too.

So, seeking freedom to act is no freedom at all, as I argued yesterday. It gives only hopes and just enough confirmation to keep us going, but in the end we can never be as free as we want, eventually this race will come to an end. We need to define freedom differently, if value it at all.

Normally, we feel like freedom is our innate desire, our inalienable right, we have the entire civilization built on this principle now, and it’s the only civilization most of us have ever known. It sounds convincing but our experience and knowledge of history is still limited. Other values commonly assumed are sex and drinking, for example, but they don’t mean anything to us as devotees, we are past that, just as we are past meat eating. People’s addiction to bacon is the same as their addiction to freedom. We can easily reject the first one but the second one still holds over us, just as sexual desire will always be present as long as we have these bodies.

We need to stop valuing freedom just as we stopped valuing steaks. The fact that everybody loves it is not a reason for us to go along. They are all miserable because of it and helpless to stop themselves – not a good role model for us to follow.

What we need instead is peace of mind, the concept that cuts across all religions and all cultures. It is nearly lost in the modern age but we do have plenty of self-proclaimed Buddhists and other new agey types who can be considered as our companions on this path, they just go about it in the wrong way.

What we need is not following our mind wherever it wants to go but keeping it in one place, happy and content and not giving us any trouble. In this state the desire for freedom (to act) melts away, it just stops being a question. In this state we realize that chasing freedom is slavery in itself.

Peace of mind gives us what the chase is supposed to give – happiness and content, the happily ever after where the thought of further improvement doesn’t even cross our minds. In our speak it’s sattva guṇa, not the end but a solid starting platform to strive for bhakti.

This is what the wannabe yogis don’t understand yet and maybe are not ready to appreciate – that there’s life beyond sattva and beyond “non-existence” and “unity with the Universe”. Envy gradually disappears on that stage so they’ll come to appreciate devotional service soon enough, converting them is not our biggest concern. Instead of arguing with them we should encourage them to follow their path, wait until humility develops, and then make our pitch, but that’s a different topic.

How do we attain this peace of mind? How do we bring our mind into this peaceful place? Well, it’s not literally a place, we should realize this first. Ordinary people think that peace of mind is a result of creating nice external arrangements, cushy and comfortable life with fast internet, cheap TV, healthy food, and unlimited amount of very satisfying sex, with your soul mate – for the romantic ones.

We should know better than that and tell people so, too. It won’t work. Peace of mind is a state of consciousness that should persist in all external conditions. We might never achieve this absolute ideal but we should try to achieve it at least in conditions imposed on us, whatever they are.

Some would object that it’s impossible, that we should try being in their shoes before offering suggestions. This might perplex us for a while – what if “their shoes” are indeed different and impossible to fix? We should remember, however, that this is a typical defense. They say the same thing when we tell them about meat eating or about the necessity to chant. “Not for me”, “I don’t have time for this”, “Maybe when I get my life in order but not now” – we all heard those. They are not real arguments.

First of all, Kṛṣṇa always helps. If we express a desire to follow His instructions the universe complies, or He wouldn’t be God. Secondly, the impression of “impossible” is the result of us being locked in into our desires. When we want something else the mind naturally finds the way to think of it as possible – it’s what it’s there for, to make impossible look possible, we just have to let it do its work. Just plant the desire and it will naturally grow.

So, these are the first steps – start wanting the peace of mind, look at the possibilities offered by the mind, observe the universe turning around and providing us with opportunities. It might not look like a solution to scientifically minded atheists but we know that’s how the world actually works – desire, thought, action, results. It works all the time.

It’s only a start, though, there’s still plenty of work ahead and bringing mind into a happy place will contradict a lot of our long held assumptions, and the old karma will catch up with us, too. Not to worry, though, it’s all has been seen before and there are solutions and fool-proof methods, but more on this later.

Vanity thought #1527. Free as a what?

We all want to be “free as a bird”, implying that birds, due to their ability to fly, enjoy degree of freedom unavailable to men. They can just up and leave at any moment and be miles away in minutes. We have airplanes to achieve the same but then you need to book tickets, pay for them, have your body scanned, shoes examined, wait for boarding – it’s not the same thing, never mind that you can’t change plane’s destination at will. Birds rule, right?

Another way to appreciate their freedom is that they have no social constraints whatsoever. Well, they might have some obligations to their families and mother birds are known to sacrifice their lives for their children but what we usually see is that they can leave bad company without any second thoughts. We get stuck in uncomfortable meetings, we get stuck with annoying neighbors and our own families aren’t always a pleasant bunch. We are social animals and societies live by rules, which we think is the opposite of freedom.

As I discussed yesterday, these are all illusions. Birds might appear free in some respects that are important to us but this understanding of freedom is fundamentally wrong in itself.

Take the first “advantage” – freedom of movement. We have some, we got cars that we can drive and legs we can walk on. Not as much as birds, of course, but pint is that this kind of freedom is relative. Only God, and maybe Nārada Muni, have absolute freedom of movement and we can never achieve that, no matter what animal body we wish to possess. What actually bothers us here is not the lack of absolute freedom but insufficient amount of relative one. We think that if we had just a little more we’d be happy.

This depends not on freedom of movement per se but on our perception of it, which is a function of the mind. It’s the mind that gets to decide whether we feel free or not so fixing this problem should be done in the mind. Extra legs or wings won’t solve it. At first the mind would be pleasantly surprised, of course, but managing the mind can be done in a variety of ways. Giving it what it wants is just one of them and probably not the best one in the long term.

Our ability to satisfy mind demands will always be limited and at the end of our lives we all will run out of options anyway. If we can’t train our mind it will one day become our greatest enemy. Other methods include reasoning with ourselves or directing the mind towards other things, or avoiding temptations, they all work to varying degree.

Fundamentally, though, negotiating with the mind is not freedom in any sense. It wants something and we can’t ignore it just as we can’t ignore the government, our bosses or our families. They all, including the mind, demand things and we have to oblige, there’s no principal difference between them.

We can predict what our wives will want, what our bosses will ask, what our governments will expect, and we can similarly predict how our mind will react to each particular situation. There really is no difference. Sometimes we might think that taking time off our duties elsewhere will give us freedom but then we’ll get trapped with our mind. It’s no different from running home from office to enjoy the company of our family or running from home to the office to forget our family problems. When we are “alone” we just swap them all for the company of our mind.

Sometimes these changes bring us relief, sometimes we walk into a perfect storm where everyone seems to be out to get us, but even when things are “normal” switching between our obligations in constant search of a relief doesn’t look like a long term solution and this escapism has its limits, too. Our stress will eventually catch up with us no matter where we run. It’s the stress that’s the problem, swapping our environments is only dealing with symptoms.

If we think about it a little we should realize that our work and family are products of our mind, too. We got these things because our minds wanted them. It took a lot of time and a lot of effort but these are the things that we wanted, they are not external, and so running away from them is running away from ourselves. It’s the same thing as getting ourselves busy to avoid facing inconvenient thoughts.

People have figured it out and invented shrinks to find the “root” of our problems and finally deal with the disease, not with symptoms, but how far do these roots go? For one thing, we still live in denial of our spiritual nature and on the material platform no solution is possible. Another thing is that the root of our problem is always our mind and its unreasonable and uncontrolled wants that do not commensurate with our karma. The mind always wants more than is allotted to us, that’s what keeps the world rolling, but it’s also the cause of frustration.

So, when we want freedom and we think that we’ll get it from the company of our minds we are being delusional. Sure, dreaming feels good in the beginning and it feels promising when one puts efforts in achieving one’s dreams but in the end it will always be frustration and a desperate need to dream of something else, because our mind never sleeps.

There’s also no such thing as freedom of mind, or, as we usually say, “freedom of thought”. The mind isn’t free to think whatever it wants, it reacts to the environment and feeds on memories, and we are not in control of those. It’s the environment that gets to decide what our mind will be thinking about. It’s Hollywood producers and marketers who plant ideas into our minds. It’s the media, it’s the government, it’s people on the internet – they control our thoughts, not us.

I remember reading Noam Chomsky a long long time ago, how he said that western freedom of speech is an illusion because they learned to control what you think first. When they control your thoughts they can let you say whatever you want, it will only advance their agenda. He was talking about politics but it’s true of our everyday lives as well. Our minds aren’t free.

Mind is a prison, sometimes it feels good, and it’s always around, it will never leave us, but it’s still a prison. We can accept it and declare that life in prison is actually good, and it’s a form of coping, but an intelligent man should try to find the way our of the prison and try to remember the taste of real freedom, which starts with freedom from one’s mind.

It’s a fascinating topic, isn’t it?

Vanity thought #1526. Mind games – quest for freedom

The other day I overheard a conversation on a topic of mobile phones and it made me pause and think. It was between nominally Buddhists, in a sense these people appreciate the Buddhist approach to dealing with mind, and I thought I could have said something Kṛṣṇa conscious without touching their sensitivities. As usual, I thought too slowly and missed my chance, and that’s why I’m typing it up here, where I have all the time in the world.

The argument was about watching a recorded movie on TV. I was brought up in an old fashioned way where I wouldn’t bother to stand up if a lady leaves the dinner table but would appreciate someone else doing so. You can’t just leave someone’s company without saying goodbyes and you can’t ignore someone’s leaving either.

Usually we think that with guys it would be easy but no, if someone goes to the bathroom or a kitchen you can always hit pause, you don’t want to miss a shared moment together, be it a game or a movie. I don’t think groups of women ever watch anything, they’d rather drink wine and chat, they can’t sit in silence, so I don’t know how it goes with them. Couples are expected to enjoy everything together so not hitting pause could be considered as very uncaring and a sign that relationship has no future. That’s the prelude, or rather how I expect the situation to develop.

In that case one of the partners desperately wanted to check something on her phone, just couldn’t keep her hands off of it. Hitting the pause every time someone wants to check their facebook feedsis obviously not an option and the other party was getting visibly frustrated. It’s not really a time together when the other person has one eye on his phone and barely listens. These days, however, it’s a norm, and I don’t know how people manage it. Are they that selfish? Do they not appreciate company anymore? So I was curious how it would end. The person with the phone offered an explanation.

“This has been a long day, I haven’t had a chance to catch up on the news and relax. Movie is a movie but this is time to sit back and have fun, there shouldn’t be any rules, we are not children to follow the rules, if I want to look at my phone I will do so, why do I have to follow the rule that movies must be watched together with undivided attention? Even if there’s such a rule, now is not the time to follow it, I’m too tired, I want some freedom now, not rules,” and so on in this vein.

That was an unexpected take on the situation for me – rules and freedom. It wasn’t a question of commitment to the relationship, it wasn’t a question of movie being not very interesting, though these two factors played a role, too, it was a question of following the rules and time to relax, the “me” time where no rules apply. Apparently the understanding is that everyone deserves a “me” time, which is different from the other time, and is free from obligations.

I didn’t know it was a thing in Buddhism but modern Buddhism is as flexible as Hinduism, I guess, all you need is your own justification and then freedom of religion takes over, people are free to believe whatever they want. From Kṛṣṇa conscious perspective, however, it’s not how we should deal with our mind.

We do need to control the mind, that much is clear, but we also know that mind doesn’t need to be forced against its will but rather given a proper engagement so that if can develop a better taste. Forcing the mind is a good tapasya but it’s tinged with jñāna, tinged with false renunciation. Mind is like a spring this way, you keep pushing it and it will snap or bounce back in full force at every small oversight in control. That’s why we do not recommend life long brahmacarya or unnecessary fasts and offer gṛhastha life and weakly feasts instead. For every desire there’s a Vedic way to connect it to Kṛṣṇa. This is ABC, really.

Still, we are not pure devotees and so we need to control our minds forcefully from time to time. We have plenty of rules, we follow some, can’t be bothered about others, but if we want to improve our sādhana we don’t normally have to think too much, we will never have a lack of rules to follow. It requires a little intelligence and guidance from our superiors but selecting rules is usually not a problem.

Should we allow for downtime, though? Should we allow for “me” time when we can relax and let our mind enjoy little pleasures like instagram? Sometimes it IS relaxing, it takes our mind off things we have to deal with the rest of the day. That’s why people like movies and TV and the internet and now their phones. Don’t we deserve this freedom for a few minutes, maybe an hour?

I don’t think so. What happens here is that “freedom” gets misunderstood. We think we are free when we can do whatever we want but this makes us slaves to our minds. Real freedom is when we get our mind under absolute control. There’s even “realer” freedom on the spiritual platform but let’s leave that aside for the moment. For us freedom means control the mind, not going along with it.

This is a fundamental point that most people aren’t even aware about. Real freedom is freedom from desires, not freedom to do whatever, because this “whatever” is not our choice but is forced on us by the environment and it brings binding results, some are good, some are bad, but we have to experience them all and get further addicted in the process.

This reminds me of a book on the nature of freedom I started a long time ago but never finished. It had a great premise but the first few chapters didn’t live up to my expectations, maybe it gets better later on. The point I was hoping to get elaborated there is this idea of freedom as absence of control, as relinquishing control. Choice is not freedom, it’s slavery, and not only because making choices is hard but because we have to follow our choices to the end. See how freedom to choose immediately becomes “have to follow”, and we thought rules is our problem.

No, rules should not affect us, they are external, and they do not bring karma to us but to whoever set the rules. Of course we share in the results, too, but they are still not binding, as explained in Bhagavad Gīta. If we follow the Vedic rules set out by Kṛṣṇa they will quickly lead to liberation and to pure bhakti, if we follow rules of the state they’ll earn us some legal recognition, if we follow rules of business it will bring money, if we follow rules of family life it will bring love, safety, and comfort. Rules bring results, and usually good ones, but, more importantly, they free us from attachments. They develop the taste for the underlying process instead, which for us is serving Kṛṣṇa and for karmīs it could be dedication to career or family.

What we do becomes unimportant and we relish in what we do it FOR instead. This leads to transcending not only the mind but the modes of nature, too, and from there it’s just as short way to pure devotion.

Following our own mind, on the contrary, develops attachments to externalities, to what and how, which we begin to like and dislike, and next time the mind puts up lots of conditions – it won’t do this, it would rather to that but only if that other thing is present, but not that another thing that it didn’t like last time. Caught up in this duality of love and hate we can’t even enjoy our “leisure” anymore because we get agitated by things other people said on the internet and we feel the need to put them straight. In the long run Facebook makes people miserable, it’s been proven statistically, even though it could be for different reasons.

I think I need to “sleep on it”, as they say, it’s a big subject and I didn’t even think of an appropriate Buddhist angle on it yet. I don’t think I have solid śāstric support for it either, but it rings true anyway.

Vanity thought #1452. Pseudochoice

We think that we are torn by choices and that we can make rational, guru and śāstra based decisions about our spiritual life. We can decide which service to take, whether to become preachers or pūjārīs, whether to marry or stay celibate, whether to stay loyal to ISKCON or seek spiritual advice elsewhere. One can open any book about Śrīla Prabhupāda’s life and find countless examples of such freedom where he as a guru gave this freedom to decide to his disciples, and he even occasionally allowed them to override his advice on these matters. Even atheists observe that making choices is the foundation of our lives, that our choices define us.

We also know that we are simply tossed around by waves raised by the modes of nature and possess only an illusion of free will. To that we say that only devotional service brings freedom and so devotees can make free choices while everybody else can’t.

Earlier this week I’ve argued that even the heads of our society, the sannyāsīs, are not as free to choose how to lead their devotional lives, that they are forced to accept roles of kings and renounce renunciation by the demands of our preaching mission. I won’t go as far as to cynically claim that they took the roles of leaders because that’s what they actually wanted, to rule and control, renunciation rhetoric notwithstanding. There could be some truth in this claim but we’d rather not think of our best devotees in such an unflattering way.

If freedom of our heads is doubtful, what is the freedom of our tails, the “hoi polloi” torn between urges to eat and steal glances at our female population? None whatsoever, rhetorically speaking. It’s all just karma and illusion.

Our managers are trained to engage us according to our nature, to put right people in the right places. Where is our freedom in that? We can only voice reactions to their decision, which are actually reactions of our minds. They don’t even need to be verbal as pleasure or disagreement can be expressed perfectly by bleating, grunting, or mooing. “Oh, he doesn’t like that,” the manager can see right away and give us some other engagement.

Of course we can also take initiative and offer suggestions about what we really want and what engagements agree with our nature, but is there freedom in that? We don’t get to decide what our nature is and what feels good to our minds. Sometimes we might not be very clear about what we want but that’s not freedom, it’s just confusion caused by contradictory urges, which we still can’t control.

Even when talking to our authorities we aren’t free in our expression, we must follow the protocol and there are limits to what we can admit in public, including things we don’t admit even to ourselves. Sometimes we are truly sincere but quite often both sides know that there are certain things better left unsaid no matter the sincerity, and most of the time it’s a negotiation, meaning one hopes to get a better value out of the agreement than the other side suspects, that both sides come with hidden motives they don’t disclose on purpose so as not to be taken advantage of.

Skillful negotiators know it very well – how to find a weak spot and gain leverage, whether it’s a secret one would make big concessions to keep or whether it’s an irresistible attachment he’d give an arm and a leg to maintain. Our ISKCON managers can be master manipulators this way, too.

The easiest way to control your men is by exposing them to women. Once they are sold on the prospect of interacting with females they’d take whatever position that would keep them closer to that alien species. When they come to complain about this or that later on you can always bring “but you wanted to be here” card and remind them that their women are still attainable. They’d do anything for that hope of association and would go away with “I suppose you are right, this service is what I really want” admission of defeat.

Who thinks these poor sods have any freedom? Let THEM think that, but the bosses know better.

Devotees who are already in relationships are a lost cause in terms of seeking freedom. They must work to maintain their families and children, money is an external object to them, they must get it from someone else and that someone will always dictate what needs to be done in exchange. Our “freedom” here is only to seek a more benevolent dictator but even then our choices and abilities to approach them are limited. Regardless, family is practically a life long commitment and commitment means loss of freedom even in the conventional sense. We must work, there’s no choice.

And then there’s this self-fulfillment cause. We must find ourselves and live to our full potential. Who told us we need that? Why do we accept this mantra unchallenged? People can offer an easy explanation why self-fulfillment is necessary – “you must find yourself because..” Wait a minute, as soon as “because” gets involved you have forfeited your freedom, your actions become conditional on whatever comes after that “because”.

At the end all this self-fulfillment business comes to seeking pleasure, it just feels better to live this way, and we are pleasure seeking entities by our constitution, it’s just what we do and there’s no freedom in that. We can’t deny our nature, we’ll always seek pleasure no matter what.

And so we will act to find that pleasure in all circumstances, as men we would seek women, as women we would seek men, and there’s a much greater gradation to how we want to control the world, whether we want to build stuff, control what other people think, or destroy stuff built by someone else that yet another else decides to be illegal. Some of this is available in ISKCON, some cravings can be successfully substituted, but if one has a calling to be a butcher or a fisherman then there’s nothing we can do about that.

Spiritually speaking, that’s not who we are, those are just false identities that have taken over our lives and dictate our wants and needs. We might fulfill them, we might not, spiritually speaking it makes no difference. Self-fulfillment is a long term project, what we haven’t finished in one life will be continued in the next, and we have such a variety of desires that some of them will remain unsatisfied.

In fact, we are caught in this endless, externally imposed dissatisfaction loop as there’s a big delay between forming the desire and it bringing karmic results. Quite often we don’t even want the fulfillment anymore when our karma finally fructifies. Well, that’s because we’ve already been overwhelmed by new desires that contradict our earlier ones and this brings us pain. “That’s not what I wanted” and “I never wanted that” are our go to excuses, which are simply our short memory and pathological lying to ourselves.

The whole thing stinks to high heaven and the message from our ācāryas, from Prahlāda Mahārāja to Bhagavad Gīta to Śrīla Prabhupāda, is simple – endeavoring for happiness in the material world is unnecessary, it will come on its own just as distress comes uninvited in due time. We don’t have to make any efforts to find it, it will find us. Intelligent people take to chanting of the holy name instead because this endeavor is the most profitable in every respect. It might not always feel this way in the beginning, but neither do decades of training to achieve success in any other field. It’s always a sacrifice, for everybody, we just have to pray to the Lord that He keeps us interested, keeps us going. In my experience He always delivers.

Vanity thought #1248. Rationality explained

Yesterday I got to yet another uncompromising assertion by Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī – spiritual realm is ready to be revealed to anyone who actually listens. We’ve heard this from Śrīla Prabhupāda, too, but I don’t remember it ever being presented without some sort of a disclaimer.

A typical example is that of a tree. We embrace a tree trunk and beg for māyā to let us go but the tree is not holding us and neither does māyā, we hold onto it ourselves. Despite our loud proclamations we still want to live in the illusion. The implication being that slipping out of māyā’s control is easy.

Well, it is not, and I don’t remember anyone practically demonstrating how it could be done. Some devotees would give inspirational speeches on the subject but when the push comes to shove, no one is really liberated, meaning everyone is still holding onto the illusion and not letting it go, no matter how many times they declare that it’s an extremely easy thing to do.

Some devotees are honest in this regard and so they present disclaimers. We can’t let it go because of this or because of that. We have history, we have habits, we have material bodies, we commit offenses, we need to purify our consciousness through engagement, devotees are not renunciates so instead of seeking liberation we can happily engage in service from the position of our false ego, real devotees do not care for the liberation, they spit on it. Tons of excuses why we are still attached to the illusions and tons of reasons why we should continue in this vein.

I don’t think Śrīla Prabhupāda meant it this way. He asked people to serve the Lord, chant the Holy Names, and that was already above liberation. Later he saw that ISKCON devotees weren’t as transcendental as he hoped and asked us to deal with problems at hand first. That’s why we need the varṇāśrama, for example – according to the famous conversation where he says that chanting is not possible for an ordinary man and asks “Who will chant? Who’ll chant?” He then continues lamenting how people cannot take to Kṛṣṇa consciousness without undergoing varṇāśrama training first.

Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī left no room for compromises, though, and presented the subject as a matter of fact – what one needs to do to attain the spiritual realm and how one must go about it. I believe if we analyze his proposed method we’ll find no room for compromise, too, except that we’ll have to discount our own prospects of success, which aren’t very bright, just as Śrīla Prabhupāda observed in that conversation.

So, the failure to attain spiritual realm is only due deliberate withholding of our attention, as was quoted yesterday. Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta continues:

    It is in ones power to correct this error of method when it is pointed out by the sadhu. In proportion as the receptive attentive hearing is perfected, the true import of the words of the sadhu manifests itself to the soul of the hearer. It is necessary to offer this form of service by way of the preliminary on the threshold of the realm of the divinity by all those who really want to enter there.

Actually, there’s room for compromise here – he talks about degrees of receptive hearing corresponding to degrees of realization. He discounts this stage as only preliminary, though. That’s what we should do to get to the threshold – try to develop receptive hearing, and not just develop, we need to perfect it. How?

    The pilgrim is required to give up his preference for pseudo-knowledge if he is to be benefited by his pilgrimage of the divine realm under the guidance of the sadhu who has a natural and exclusive attachment for the real truth. The guidance of the sadhu is necessary for enabling him to lend his full attention to his words by discarding all explicit or latent partiality for untruth.

Highlighted words tell us what we need to do. We need to give up all pseudo-knowledge and all our interests in pursuing it, both explicit and latent. Explicit interests are easy to see in others but probably not very easy to notice in ourselves. There’s also the need to understand what this pseudo-knowledge is. It’s not just the materialistic philosophy, we can deny and defeat it with full conviction, pseudo-knowledge goes much deeper than that.

We don’t need philosophy or big brains to know that eating would satisfy our hunger or sex would satisfy our lust, but that is a pseudo-knowledge. Love, family, relationships, entertainment, jokes, work, kids – extracting hope and satisfaction from any of those things is pseudo-knowledge. We know it by heart and we act on it without thinking. Our instinct of self-preservation is pseudo-knowledge, too. We can talk big words but the real test is very simple – do we instinctively reach for food? Do we instinctively try to protect ourselves from danger? These are acts based on pseudo-knowledge and, unlike Kṛṣṇa consciousness, this pseudo-knowledge is actually realized. It’s what Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta called “latent partiality for the untruth”. It needs to go.

    The function of the cognitive faculty is to be relieved from the consequences of its willful and perpetual attraction towards untruth.

We should use our intelligence to free ourselves from this latent attraction. It means we should identify our weaknesses and convince ourselves that they are not worth hanging on to. This is easy to understand – anartha-nivṛtti, right? Another point we should take away from this sentence is that this anartha-nivṛtti is declared the purpose of having the brain. This is the only thing it is useful for, as will be explained later, along with answering concerns about our freedom:

    Guidance for such an end is not any curtailment of ones freedom of rational choice. The rational faculty is only then true to itself when it submits to be guided by a competent person in the quest of the truth which is located beyond his reach.

Atheists, and most educated modern people, for that matter, would immediately object to the stated need to follow a guru. They cherish their freedom too much to become someone’s intellectual slave. They say it’s irrational, that people who act on faith, both in God and in their guru, are irrational. Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta answers both of these questions.

No, following the sādhu does not deprive one of his freedom and it is not irrational. Rationality is true to itself only when it is used for discovering the Absolute Truth and so it is practiced only when one submits to the sādhu. Contrary to what atheists assume, search for the Absolute Truth is rational, everything else is not.

    Neither the end nor the method indicated above proposes any form of mechanical subordination to an external agency which is being always enforced without any protest on the part of the conditioned soul by his material environment.

Submitting oneself to the words of the guru is not the same as mechanical subordination to an “external agency”. Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta is telling us here that people are always forced to do that, forced to follow dictates of the material nature but they don’t even notice it and therefore never protest.

What people call “rationality” is simply following the prevailing ways of thinking and applying them to externally imposed fund of knowledge. We aren’t free to think any differently from how we’ve been taught. Westerners are very proud of being “open minded” and “free thinking” but actually we are not, our mode of thinking is totally predictable. We cannot think like Chinese, we would always think like westerners. Or we can train ourselves to think like Chinese and see the world from their POV but that would still be mechanical subordination to the forces of nature because even the choice to train to think like a Chinese would be forced on us and then rationalized. When we rationalize our choices we, in effect, strip ourselves of the free will – we ought to choose this or that because…

There’s no freedom here, only following the laws of nature. Learn to think in a certain way, see the input, process it, and produce an output. It’s not freedom, it’s subordination to the material energy, and it’s an irrational choice for anyone aware of the existence of the Absolute Truth.

    Unless we are prepared to adopt the only rational course that is open to us, the attainment of the knowledge of the absolute truth in the form of willing submission for receiving Him from His agents we really abdicate our rational function by preferring to follow the irrational alternative.

Irrational alternative here is trying to find happiness in the material world while rational function is seeking the Absolute Truth. Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta concludes the paragraph with the following:

    We are of course free to go astray. We are also free to maintain that such irrational course is rational. But such sophistry will not enable us to avoid the logical consequences of such a procedure in the shape of losing sight of the truth altogether.

Basically, he says that we are not free to invent our own truth. If we decide to pursue our own course of action and call it rational, the truth will never reveal itself to us. There are lots of people, many among devotees, too, who convince themselves that they are doing the right thing. However, convincing oneself and even creating a following will not have any actual, spiritual effect. It won’t take us closer to the truth and it might force us to lose sight of the truth altogether.

The only rational choice is to submit to the authority of the sādhu, all other paths are misleading and go against our real self-interest, they only feed our pride and ego.

Article Source – navigate to p 34.

Vanity thought #474. Retreat

Some Sundays are better and some are worse. Today is one of those days where I look at my life and wonder where it is going. Just yesterday I thought about exercising my freedom but today I’m afraid this might not be the right way to go.

In Bhagavad Gita Krishna talks about everyone acting according to their svabhava, their nature, and that was what I meant by exercising freedom – finding svabhava, but in the midst of Sunday family outing I don’t know what my svabhava is and what is svabhava of my body. There are so many things it wants and craves for it would be impractical to test them all.

There’s also a threat to developing humility – if I seriously consider myself advanced enough to decide what service I can do all on my own I’m probably losing it.

Furthermore, if I decide that my svabhava can be sacrificed for the mission of Lord Chaitanya and simply ignore it as something unavoidable then it would also mean giving myself a lot of credit again, even if for a good cause.

Pity, it actually sounds like a good idea – yes, we all have to act according to our own nature and so we should manage it properly, but why should we bother about it if we want to become devotees of Lord Chaitanya? What is it so important we can do with ourselves comparing to what we can do for the Lord?

Why should we care what happens to us at all? Shouldn’t it disappear from our radar as we put interests of guru and Krishna first?

Some people are very critical of our fallen gurus, laying all the blame on their immaturity and extracting important lessons for the rest of us. I don’t see the point in that – what those people did was to sacrifice their own spiritual comfort and their own spiritual progress in order to spread Krishna consciousness.

Some people say that we should save ourselves first and only then think of helping other people, therefore those devotees shouldn’t have taken sannyasa so early in life. I tend to think that those early days gurus didn’t worry about their own wellbeing, they just wanted to go out and save other people by telling them about Krishna. In this situation Krishna personally takes care about their spiritual safety. The fact that they have apparently deviated from the devotional path doesn’t mean anything, their bodies must live according to the laws of nature and laws of karma, Krishna is interested in the state of their souls. He knows perfectly well what goes on in their hearts while we haven’t got a clue.

So, perhaps foregoing interests of our own svabhava is not such a bad thing to do, freedom can wait, there are millions of people who need spiritual knowledge and mercy of devotees, maybe we should think about them first. That would be acting in the interests of Krsihna, there’s nothing better than doing that.

Oh, Sundays are so confusing.

Vanity thought #473. Need to be free

On the heels of yesterday’s blog I now tend to think that I need to be free. How to reconcile this with the basic principle of no freedom in the material world, only illusion? Let me try.

We are stuck down here because of our materialistic aspirations, because we want to manipulate the matter and feel in charge, feel the power to control it, feel like we are little gods ourselves.

To a degree it’s true, for we are parts and parcels of Krishna with our minute powers and minute independence. We can’t force the matter to follow our orders and we are way too small even on the scale of one country, let alone the entire planet, which is one of the smallest ones in this universe, which, comparing to the whole material world, is as insignificant as one little mustard seed in the sack of seeds.

Still, we have our minute powers and we have our minute field of influence and, by Krishna’s grace, we actually can move the matter around according to our desires, even if they are heavily influenced by the modes of nature.

This hankering to control the world around us will not go away simply because we stop trying for while, it is an expression of our innermost will, it can’t be suppressed forever. If we manage to refrain from doing what we were born here to do we might feel that we are ready to engage in devotional service but I’m afraid it’s just monkey’s business. It’s exactly what Arjuna proposed to Krishna in the beginning of Bhagavad Gita and it was rejected out of hand.

Not willing to give up we might turn to the mission of our guru and Lord Chaitanya, thinking that it’s a legitimate solution to “I don’t want to fight” dilemma but I’m afraid it is not.

Yes, being externally engaged in doing what our guru and Lord Chaitanya wants us to do is supremely beneficial but it is only vaidhi bhakti, it’s temporary and by itself it won’t take us to the next level.

To be on the next level we’ll have to engage our own desires in service to the Lord. Doing what other people want us to do will hopefully have an influence on what we want ourselves, and we can keep doing it for a while but one day the moment must come when we say “I want to do this for my guru and for Lord Chaitanya, I hope they accept it.”

If they do accept our offering, if we manage to catch their mano-bhishta and propose something that is pleasing them, then we will really succeed in our lives. If not, then we should probably go back to vaidhi bhakti until the next try.

I wonder if it’s possible to “breakout” on the first try at all. I suppose for the vast majority of us it would take many many attempts. Look at Srila Prabhupada, for example – he spent more than a decade trying this and that – Back to Godhead, League of Devotees, translating first Canto of Bhagavatam when there were no readers and so on.

Perhaps every time he came up with a new idea Lord Chaitanya said “No, that’s not it, but keep trying.” Then, eventually, it all came together and Prabhupada left for America.

I once heard that successful millionaires on average have eighteen false starts first.

So, my point being is that eventually we must take what we want to do and we must try to do it for Krishna. That’s what is clearly recommended in Bhagavad Gita anyway.

To find what we want we must have some freedom, we must look into our hearts and search for the anchors that keep us bound to this world. What is it that we want that keeps us here? What is it that feels our bodies with enthusiasm?

In general it’s all about sex in gross and subtle forms, of course, but since we find ourselves in one particular incarnation we should look for some specifics.

I’m afraid if we don’t engage our own desires in service to Krishna we won’t be able to purify them and so will have to be born again, because sooner or later they will come through. Ignoring them would be considered phalgu vairagya, false renunciation, but I’m repeating myself here.

Anyway, I think we must be free to decide what we want, we can take suggestions but the ultimate choice must be ours. I don’t think it’s guru’s role to tell us what to do either, I think we should learn from him how to engage ourselves in his service but the actual work we must do ourselves.

I think this is what we have to do with our independence – not sacrifice it for the eternal slavery of guru and Krishna but willingly, from our hearts, offer our existence to them and hopefully be accepted.

If we do it intelligently then we’ll also look for the best place to fit in – not by trying to reach Krishna directly but by serving his servants, that would teach us humility as well.

Now, even if all the above is correct, it doesn’t necessarily mean that we should simply stick to whatever it is we are doing and not search for opportunities outside of our comfort zone. Srila Prabhupada didn’t become the best pharmacist for Krishna, he did that job for decades but his actual calling was in preaching in a foreign language to foreign people. This kind of breakthrough is unpredictable, means that we should always keep searching.

Maybe we have some unique talent, maybe not, but I think we can’t afford to miss it so “Oh, I don’t have any special talents so I’ll just keep chanting and reading and coming to the temple once a week” is a dangerous attitude to develop.

To sum it up – yes, I feel I’ve lost the purpose since the end of Kartika but I also feel I must engage my newly found freedom to write about anything I want in writing about something that is pleasing to Krishna and his devotees if they happen to read it.

This post is filled with “I think” and all other kinds of uncertainties but this is my attempt, this is what I think is right, and this is my offer to Krishna. If I got it wrong I’ll try again next time and in the meantime stick to posting only what is authorized by guru and senior vaishnavas and fully backed up by shastra.

In the end, however, I must come to the point where I say what I think and my guru entirely approves. Then I could hope that it’s my desires that are being purified by service, and that it’s my service that is being accepted and passed along up the parampara.

Vanity thought #472. Freedom – a curse or a blessing?

Can’t make my mind about that one.

On one hand we should abhor being free from the orders of guru and Krishna. We look at people with purely material aspirations and they strive for freedom above anything else. They want to be free to become whatever they want, they want to be different from anyone else, they don’t want to follow anybody else’s paths. They are clearly delusional as there’s no freedom in this world one way or another.

They can’t be free form the modes of material nature that will force them to suffer or enjoy their karma, and according to the influence of these gunas they will create new karma for the next life and beyond. When they say they are “free” they are just following wherever their karma is taking them, going with the flow. The only difference is that they like what they experience and don’t want to raise waves.

If the going gets tough they start flipping their hands and making all kinds of noise but it has no influence on their freedom whatsoever, they just experience the negative reactions of going with the same flow.

What they actually mean by freedom is the situation where their world lives according to their desires. They get warm when they want it, they get people to cheer them on and, basically, their dreams come true.

This is not just freedom – this is desire to control the world. It creates reactions. A working iPhone might give one a sense of freedom but it comes at the cost of hard labor by people who sometimes would rather kill themselves for the insurance pay off than continue working in their hellish conditions. As long as they don’t make much noise iPhone owners feel freedom – they forced other people to work for them and they tuned out their complains. Eventually it will come around, of course.

It’s not freedom, it’s just temporary ignorance of bliss.

On a larger scale the US and other “advanced” countries are indebted many times over and will never ever repay their debts. They just keep borrowing and borrowing and borrowing and until they are forced to pay back spending all this money feels good, of course. They might feel they can escape their creditors forever but their real creditor is the law of karma and it always collects.

So, why would a devotee want similar freedom for himself? Wouldn’t it be delusional?

On the other hand we are born in this world with our contaminated consciousness and we purify it by engaging ourselves in service of guru and Krishna. We can’t simply stop desiring things, we need to purify our desires, put them to good work.

This is the advantage of human form of life – we actually CAN purify our desires by taking full responsibility for them and by dedicating them to the service of Krishna. It would be a waste of human life to sit and do nothing, our responsibility in these bodies is to do something, anything. Otherwise we’d be no better than trees and stones.

From this pov we must find something to do, our time here is rather short, if we don’t get to purify our desires now then god knows when we’ll get the next chance.

Sometimes we are happy to do whatever our guru tells us but most often we are on our own, we have “freedom”, and so it’s our responsibility to fully engage in pursuing whatever our dreams are while at the same time dedicating it all to Krishna.

It is much harder thing to do than just while our time away, chanting and reading books, and let our dormant desires to fester within our hearts until they remind us about themselves at the time of death.

Chanting and similar types of bhajan are for the pure, liberated souls with crystal clear hearts. If we are not on that level yet then we better roll up our sleeves and get to work – putting our hidden desires to good use in service of guru, Krishna, and vaishnavas.

It doesn’t mean we have to engage ourselves in ordinary karmic work, not at all, it means we should see active service to the mission of Lord Chaitanya as non-different from nirjana-bhajana. The only difference is the parts of bodies engaged in service – we get to use arms, legs, our charming faces, our sharp minds and everything else.

Even if we achieve the platform of absolute purity and become ready to chant twenty four hours a day we would still think that without active service the rest of our perfectly functioning bodies is going to waste, not being used for th pleasure of the Lord. In our sampradaya this is unacceptable. Not with examples of ghostha-anandies from Bhaktivinoda Thakura down to our current spiritual masters.

So, “freedom” is clearly a curse, it’s an illusion, but at the same time it’s our only chance at purifying our own desires, too.

This post is getting long and there’s still more to it, perhaps I’ll continue some other day.