Vanity thought #1481. Be still and know I am God

On with the sermon by Rhesa Storms. Yesterday I left her with shared realization that modern progress is not delivering what has been promised. Instead of lots of leisure time we are now constantly working, even in our off hours because all the gadgetry keeps us in touch with our offices even on weekends and during vacations. Texting about a project at 9 PM on a workday has become totally normal.

Not only we have less time for leisure, we use it less productively, too. We just don’t know how to relax anymore. She was speaking about New Yorkers but this kind of culture is all-pervasive and it doesn’t spare anyone. Internet has brought us all under the same standard no matter where you live. Things need to be done fast everywhere in the world, but rest can’t be rushed like that. It takes its own sweet time and it doesn’t like scheduling.

Then she gets to another important point I’ve mentioned a couple of days ago – it’s not just the culture, or Kali yuga, that is constantly pushing us forward with no rest allowed, but our own fear of seeing ourselves for who we really are and not liking it.

It shouldn’t be a problem for devotees, as I explained earlier, but someone completely unaware of his real situation and his eternal connection with God this realization can come really heavy. Rhesa then tells a story of her friend who was forced to rest by circumstance and after a while, when she really started looking at herself and her life, she just broke down in tears. Personally, I didn’t find this story very impressive but the point still stands, which is we need to be really thankful to Kṛṣṇa for keeping us in touch with our inner self. Not so common for Christians, as it turned out.

What they do have is Sabbath and a commandment prescribing to keep it holy. It’s as if God knew that people of this age will be so busy with their lives they’ll forget life exists outside of work. Was this a big problem thousands years ago when the commandments were given to Moses? Perhaps it’s us finding a new meaning while Sabbath was something else for ancient Hebrews. They still can’t agree which day of the week it falls on so differences in interpretations shouldn’t be unusual.

In this sermon the focus is not on religious duties associated with Sabbath but with taking a rest from the rest of the week. Perhaps it used to be a day set aside for God while now they talk about setting a day aside for themselves. Modern times, modern Christianity, what can they do? They’d rather listen about importance of sitting down and staring at their own navel then getting up and going to church. Once again, we should be grateful that self-awareness is inbuilt in our practice that we don’t need a special day for it.

We, indeed, don’t have a Sabbath, we don’t have weekends, no Sundays, nothing. We have religious holidays but there’s nothing in Vedic culture that could be compared to a weekend. There’s ekādaśī but it comes only every other week and we do not consider it a day for rest, it’s a day when we can finally work more for Lord’s pleasure and less for our own, hence fasting and reducing daily routines in favor of chanting and reading. We are not rested at the end of ekādaśīs, rather the opposite, we are hungry and exhausted, but we know this tapasya is appreciated by the Lord so we don’t mind.

Rhesa sees Sabbath as the day of rest, the day when we should just stop, let our hands down, and just be. She says God desires us to take rest and become free from our own busyness, free to delight in God, in his creation, and in our relationships with each other. God says that rest is important to human lives so people have to do it regularly and ritually. Hmm, their Christian God is meant to serve us so nicely.

She then quotes some theologian who sees Sabbath as a rebellion against turning our lives into a commodity, that there’s this one day when we declare that we do not belong to this world but to God. Well, being with yourself and pleasing God are somehow interchanged here, too, but it’s a nice sentiment and I appreciate it very much. I guess turning rest into a counter-cultural and spiritual movement is just a trick to attract those in the audience who are especially attuned to words like “counter-culture” and “resistance”.

Then she gets to the most memorable part of the sermon – the Psalm 46.10: “Be still and know that I am God.”

She interprets it as an injunction to rest and, reading it this way, it is indeed beautiful. There’s no need for us to rush anywhere and try to accomplish anything – it all makes no sense in the presence of God and all our “achievements” pale in His glory. We need to trust Him and surrender our lives to Him explicitly, and let Him run the universe. It’s not our job to control the world, it’s not in our best interests, and it’s not in God’s interest either.

Sarva-dharmān parityajya – abandon all your worries about things you have to do, abandon all your duties and obligations, and simply surrender unto Me, says Kṛṣṇa. We all think that by keeping ourselves busy we making the world a better place, or making progress, or even making spiritual progress. We just can’t let it go and leave it to the Lord, we don’t have enough trust in Him and hope that our contributions will bring improvements. Nope, forget it all and surrender ONLY unto Me.

Of course our lives won’t stop there and we’ll have plenty of things to do under Kṛṣṇa’s guidance but we shouldn’t confuse working under His direction, which is pure bhakti, with our own efforts. At this point we are simply trying to attract His attention in hope that one day we’ll be purified enough to actually surrender and become His puppets. We still reserve the power of all decision making to ourselves, even our gurus can offer only suggestions and blessings, we still think we are free to implement their orders the way WE see fit.

“JUST STOP ALREADY and stay still, and know that I am God,” says the psalm, or at least in Rhesa’s interpretation, which, I checked, is not the most traditional one – others read the psalm differently. Apparently there was a battle against some invaders and in the morning people woke up to see the enemies defeated, and “be still” might be addressed to remaining resistance. It could also be addressed to the river flowing through Jerusalem rather than the people of the city, God knows.

As non-Christians we do not have to worry about conforming to their tradition and so we can read whatever meaning from this verse that suits us. I like to see this as an equivalent of sarva-dharmān parityajya and I don’t see any reason why I shouldn’t.

PS. Or we could read it differently, as if God was talking to these brats who just couldn’t comprehend their fortune and kept ignoring Him: “Sit still and remember that I am your God.” They just don’t get it, do they?


Vanity thought #1480. Theology of rest

Yesterday I mentioned a TED talk looking sermon delivered by a female pastor, Rhesa Storms, on spiritual importance of leisure and today I want to look at it in detail, not just for the content but also because of its unusual presentation.

Vimeo has lots of videos from that church and the format appears to be standard – sermons are delivered from the stage, there’s a band there, too, though they leave the stage during the actual sermon, and there’s a giant screen hanging above with powerpoint like bits of important information shown to accentuate the talking points. I checked their website, they say they have to do it this way to accommodate modern tastes and they have nothing against traditional churches, they just feel they can reach more people with their kind of presentation. Fair enough, it works, but I don’t know what could be missing.

We have the format for our Bhāgavatam class, for example, we can easily change it but we won’t dare to mess with the formula given by Śrīla Prabhupāda. Sitting on the floor for an hour is never going to be comfortable for westerners, there isn’t any visual stimulation, the musical number is rather short and after that people tend to drift away and doze off. Tons of ways to make improvements but we’d rather elevate ourselves to Bhāgavatam standards than lower the class to fit ours. We need to learn to sit and listen very attentively, and we need to ask pertinent questions afterwards. It worked for Mahārāja Parīkṣit, it worked for the sages of Naimiṣāraṇya, why fix something that isn’t broken?

There are attempts to “improve” our classes but they never stick. There are people bringing guitars and playing a chord or two every few minutes, there are people seeking constant engagement with the audience, asking questions or making the class into a conversation, there are classes with multimedia support, one can find everything, but, as I said, these newfangled methods never stick. I guess it’s because while they might be attractive to neophytes, devotees with experience and maturity find them tasteless and distracting, and, basically, reflections of the ego of the speaker, which should be ideally transparent.

I guess we can do all these things when we do outside programs, get them by hook or by crook, but temples are different, temple is where we have to make the effort to reach God, not demand God to accommodate our restlessness and lack of attention.

Speaking of restlessness – the sermon, right. Rhesa starts with begging permission to divide the audience into early birds and night owls. I guess people are too sensitive these days that you need to make sure they are not offended by being classified according to your wishes. She then accuses early birds of being smug and challenges their workaholic outlook on life. In New York, she quotes someone, if you are early to bed and early to rise then you never meet any prominent people, which, I guess, is true, but that’s obviously not why she decided to talk about leisure. It’s just a testament to the fact that our lives are being governed by genuine asuras.

She then turns to the definition of success and cites an example of Arianna Huffington of Huffington Post, which is the most successful online news publication in the world. I mean all big papers have websites but Huffington Post is a website without a paper. Building it from nothing was certainly a mammoth task and at one point Arianna was so exhausted that she fell face down in her office and broke he cheekbone. I don’t know how it could be possible but it happened. This is from her book about her success but at that point she realized that lying on the floor in a pool of her own blood meant she probably wasn’t as successful as she appeared. Doctors said she simply needed rest and it couldn’t be substituted by any medical treatment.

Rhesa then wants the audience to empathize with the admission “I don’t remember the last time I wasn’t tired.” It resonates deeply with the New Yorkers, I would imagine, and this takes her to the heart of her sermon – importance of rest. She cites various statistics about Americans being the most overworked people on the planet and how badly it reflects on their health. People in other countries smoke and, put butter on their bread and drink wine with every meal but who gets with the highest rate of heart disease? The Americans, of course. I think by now it’s common knowledge but her question is – if people know about the importance of rest, why don’t they do it more?

She answers that it’s the surrounding culture that forces us to value work and equate rest with laziness. In other words – Kali yuga, she got that right. We need to isolate ourselves from this outside influence, and that’s why we have temples and we chant our rounds, that’s why we keep four regs and stay off the TV. Rhesa gives an example of a successful businessman who, in a TV interview, was asked “How do you accomplish all that?” and he answered “I sleep only four hours a day.” That’s how we are all led to believe that success and rest are incompatible and we start to look at people who sleep more and work less as lazy. See how it isn’t only sex or violence that can corrupt us when we watch TV but regular, decent by any other measure programs, too.

Rhesa then makes another important point (predicted in Bhāgavatam about Kali yuga, btw) – we are culturally taught to measure success by outward signes – job, house, cars and vacations we can afford, in short – money. Giving up personal comforts to earn big bucks then seen as an acceptable trade-off – rest for money. She then piles another nice one – if we read predictions about the 21st century made only some fifty years ago we find that our greatest problem would be too much spare time and deciding what to do with it. It clearly isn’t.

Fifty years ago it was perfectly possible to have only one income in the family, have a stay-at-home wife, all the amenities suitable for that age, raise kids and pay for their college, and save for the retirement. You can’t do that on two incomes now, and lots of people are forced to work two or even three jobs. Whatever the “progress” has delivered to the mankind, spare time isn’t it. Somehow all this science and technology hasn’t made our lives easier but only forced us to work more and more for the privilege to read news on iPhones while on the toilet.

I remember reading one such article where the “average” man would have all his work done in four hours, thanks to his personal computer, and then booked skiing holiday in Switzerland online because he had just returned from Spain last week and his tan was still perfect. All of this has come through, expect for the four hour workday part, which means you’ll never get the time to fly to neither Spain nor Swiss Alps, nor, probably, the money. But the possibility is there, there are lots of Internet jobs that would let you rake in the money if you just click on this ad, or, in any case, you just have to work a bit more, push yourself a bit harder, and success will be yours.

Fools, literally the asses, donkeys with carrots dangling at the end of their sticks. And they call this “progress” and “civilization”. Well, somehow even Christians get it, and there’s more to come from that sermon, but I need to take my rest, too.

Vanity thought #1479. At rest

Ironically, one dictionary meaning of being at rest is death. We need to give up our lives to finally find the truth of our existence, our purpose. This approach, finding rest, might sound non-devotional because we know the living entity cannot stop his desires so life will always go on, but it needs to be put in proper context – the context of Kali yuga.

I assume that we all have some sort of svabhava, as Kṛṣṇa was speaking in Bhagavad Gītā, but the difficulty is in finding out what it is. We have too many distractions, to many external impositions on our minds, which drown out that existential urge to do something in this world we call svabhava. In a way, even our svabhava is only a false ego but we shouldn’t forget that we came to the world with a purpose, we had this purpose in mind before false ego tried to accommodate it, so trying to rule over the world IS our svabhava. We have to learn to deal with it, convince ourselves that it’s against our best interests, purify our consciousness, and return to eternally blissful service of the Lord.

Having said that, we haven’t come here to become barbers, metal workers, or farmers, so when Kṛṣṇa talked about svabhava He must have meant the goal of our current incarnation. This particular goal is a fulfillment of a desire that is not principally different from the desire to become a fire fighter after watching a TV ad but it was certainly important enough to determine the nature of our body. It might turn out that it was a collection of several desires but so what? Whatever determines the nature of our incarnation imposes certain dharmas and we have to follow these dharmic rules regardless.

So, by being at rest I mean not the cessation of all the desires but giving the opportunity to the most deep seated ones to finally come out and manifest themselves. Basically, it would mean establishing priorities in our lives and not wasting time on the fluff.

How to be at rest? It’s much much easier for devotees because of our sādhana and because of our chanting. Two hours a day of emptying one’s mind ought to establish the baseline for anyone so that we can easily classify whatever emerges in our heads and hearts as important, less important, and irresistible. We don’t even have to act on those emerging desires but let the holy name do its magic and decouple our consciousness from them. Once we see them as external to our existence it becomes a lot easier to tolerate or ignore them. One who doesn’t even realize that he is not his sexual urges, for example, has no hope whatsoever, he must follow them because he honestly thinks “That’s who I am.”

When Kṛṣṇa was speaking to Arjuna people still had enough sattva in their lives to know their svabhava without any special techniques, no one was confused about their nature, at least not the characters mentioned in our books or in Mahābhārata. It became a problem only a relatively short time ago, when people got caught up in frantic pace of the modern life. With the internet on our phones we’ve become hopeless and really need to disengage ourselves to find out what was it we wanted that brought us here.

Someone might get the impression that as soon as we learn to meditate and discover our inner self life would suddenly become beautiful and full of meaning. They might be hugely disappointed. Modern people hide themselves under mountains of data and cat videos on purpose – they know that the truth about their real life is ugly and they can’t stand it, it drives them to despair. They’d rather check that other tweet and like that other instagram photo.

I’ve seen it first hand – when forced to discuss serious, uncomfortable matters some people instinctively open games on their phones and start moving blocks or shells or sweets on the screen hoping that no one asks them to speak. They know the reality of their lives is ugly and they are helpless in the face of it, so they might as well spend their time playing games, it hurts a lot less. I’m not even sure I can blame them for that, it’s just another self-defense mechanism.

The point is that being at rest can be very discomforting for a lot of people and they would totally freak out if they are forced to face their inner self. The soul might be beautiful but our incarnations in this world aren’t, that is the fact of life.

Again, for devotees it’s easier to accept their imperfections because we know we are deeply fallen and the only source of purity in our lives is God. Others might see purity in science or in the universe or in some undefined higher reality but there are people who have absolutely nothing and so the image of their ugly selves is all they will see at first. With some practice they will hopefully start searching for shelter and find it somewhere.

Spare half an hour of your life and watch this sermon by a young female pastor from some New York church. It looks like a TED talk and powerpoint quotes on the screen remind me of a business presentation but it’s an actual sermon, that’s how they do it there nowadays. See for yourself what they have to deal with there.

Come to think of it, that sermon deserves its own post, today I just want to say “Those poor Christians, trapped in New York, of all places…” I hope we don’t ever put ourselves in a similar situation, it’s spiritually unhealthy.

Just see how much difference daily sādhana, chanting, reading books etc can bring to our lives. As devotees we should be constantly “at rest”, compared to these people. It’s just like gopīs who always thought of Kṛṣṇa no matter what they did externally – washing, cleaning, churning butter, taking care of their families and husbands – their consciousness just wasn’t present in this world. Our consciousness is still here and not with Kṛṣṇa but if we follow with our program of simple living and high thinking we should clearly know our place in this world and our goals, both immediate and long term, and say to those New York dwelling Christians: “Dude, just give it up already. Enough. It will never work. You can’t have your cake and eat it, too.” Perhaps some of us will realize that this also applies to our own lives, so no reason to be proud.

Anyway, when distractions are removed and the knowledge is finally there, our consciousness becomes steady and we will be well on our way back to Kṛṣṇa.

Vanity thought #1477. Work or leisure?

In modern culture people are defined by their work. First question after one learns someone’s name is about their occupation. Even if a person is very successful and doesn’t need to work for a living anymore, we still want to know how he achieved that success. If someone simply inherited his fortune we feel unsatisfied in our inquiry, we want to know what that person has accomplished himself, what he wants to do with his own life, even if unsuccessfully.

Any job will do, we can learn to respect even managing a drug cartel, appreciating the skill while being totally aghast at methods and effects on society. A billionaire scion can afford to fail in many of his endeavors but we need to know that he tried at least something, and then we’ll use that something to define his nature from now on. Here we have a sign of controversy, though – he might not express himself through something we would call “work”. Drinking, gambling, and whoring might be his main and only interests but we don’t accept them as his nature, we need something else. Philanthropy would do but only if it’s seen as a serious effort, not signing checks away to charities he doesn’t even bother to read the names of. Painting or even taking photos would probably do, too, as long as it’s not an endless stream of selfies but a quest to discover beauty and inner meaning in the world.

That last one is not a job but a hobby, a leisure activity, and there are plenty of those to occupy even the penniless among us, but can we use hobbies to define our nature? Usually no, but there are voices that demand recognition of leisure as a legitimate if not a primary indication of our true character. There are arguments that, historically, work wasn’t that important until very recently.

There are two ways to approach this question. First, work is something we are forced to do to maintain ourselves. We don’t have to like it but we must be willing to make sacrifices and modern culture demands giving all we can in order to get maximum monetary rewards. In this sense work is not something we want to do with our lives but it’s something we are prepared to tolerate the most, so it must say something about our nature even if we pretend to hate it. We hate all the other things even more, so work is special.

The other view is that it’s only leisure that truly defines us and our nature but this view is very rare these days. Leisure is seen as luxury for the rich or idleness of the lazy. We all must have some rest so leisure is seen as a counterweight to work in our work/life balance. Note how it’s “work/life”, meaning that work and life are opposites, and so if you want to define life you shouldn’t be looking at work.

Modern asuric culture puts everything upside down and so it takes us a while to appreciate the notion that taking money for the work we don’t like is ugly. I wanted to compare it to prostitution but lots of prostitutes seem to enjoy what they are doing and consciously avoid unpleasant clients. There are people who half-jokingly refer to their work as selling their souls but there aren’t many who would see it as a serious problem that needs immediate attention. Everyone’s doing it so it must be okay, they conclude at the end of their tirades.

The ideal of work was probably best captured by Ayn Rand and in her vision it was driven by desire of self-fulfillment, not rewards. Her heroes were making the world a better place because they could and wanted to, not because they were paid to do so. I think everybody agrees that if they could do that and not worry about money it would have been perfect, unfortunately this kind of self-expression has become a rare luxury these days.

It’s heroes like Rand’s that gave birth to a term “workaholic” around the same time, in the middle of the 20th century. Industrialism finally reached the stage when people found freedom through work, even if we blame Nazis for daring to put this slogan on the entrance to Auschwitz. Somehow, if we survive in our cubicles and don’t die like Nazi prisoners it makes it alright and we should be thankful to our managers.

However, even if we do agree on Rand’s ideal we should remember that it’s shifted in time comparing to our present situation. In order to find such a field where we would be happy to apply ourselves without concern for rewards we need to be free from slavery of work for money first. Maybe not literally free but at least mentally free so that we have time to contemplate our true inspirations, and that’s where leisure comes back with force.

Etymology of the word itself shows that it once meant “opportunity to do something”, and it is also related to “license”, which means the same thing. That’s for the Latin origin of the term, if we turn to Greece then Greek word for leisure became skola in Latin and then school in English – a time for learning and preparation to do something with your life. It’s not how we usually understand leisure these days, but, perhaps, it’s only our ignorance speaking.

We just have to learn to do it right – the leisure, and then it will all fall into place because then we will see our real svabhava, as was discussed yesterday. Then our svadharma will become apparent, too, and then we can apply Kṛṣṇa’s injunction to do that and not worry about anything else, including failure.

The modern work that we have to do for a living, even if we come to like it, will not be seen as following Kṛṣṇa’s advice then. I mean when we apply for a job we want to “fill the position” – somebody else’s position, somebody’s else interest and requirement, not ours. It’s the corporation that needs a warm body in that chair, it would be us doing someone else’s work and fulfilling someone else’s aspirations. Succeeding in that would still be worse, from the spiritual progress point of view, then failing in our own leisure. I’ll quote that verse again (BG 18.47):

    It is better to engage in one’s own occupation, even though one may perform it imperfectly, than to accept another’s occupation and perform it perfectly. Duties prescribed according to one’s nature are never affected by sinful reactions.

Yeah, sure, we’ll get paid, but we’ll accrue sinful reactions, too, and problem with sins is that they deprive us of our taste for devotional service, which happens right away, long before manifestation of the unpleasant physical reactions. Therefore determining our svabhava and then our prescribed duties is very important for our spiritual progress, it’s not just a question of organizing a proper varṇāśrama. We can wait for varṇāśrama, we don’t really have a choice there, but we can’t put our spiritual progress on hold, we must do something about it now and that means figuring out our svabhava right away.

Next question is how to do this “leisure” thing right.