Vanity thought #1606. More of the same

It’s weekend and I habitually paid more attention to the news than usual. The election season in the US is approaching its first primaries. They’ve been at it for almost a year and it’s still almost a year to go. In the UK the entire election is done in six weeks but Americans love to drag theirs out. Perhaps it’s because elections are a big business and so they need almost two years to milk their donors dry and spend all their money. Six weeks is a joke from the financial POV, there’s no profit in such short elections.

Elsewhere sanctions on Iran have been lifted while Saudis are stirring a regional crisis there, as if they don’t have enough on their hands with ISIS, Syria, and Yemen. There is a World Economic Forum in Davos where rich cats make lofty promises to the public but god knows what they agree among themselves. If you read zerohedge there are lots of theories on what’s going on behind the scenes, maybe not at Davos itself but in general. Russians sell their oil for cheap, their ruble crashed, and yet they are also buying gold while it’s cheap in the same dollars they sell their oil for. Essentially, they are trading oil for gold, which sounds like a clever long game but who knows if they can outlast the market. No major news there.

Terrorists attacks are everywhere – Indonesia, Burkina Faso, Pakistan, it’s becoming a new normal and fails to trigger worldwide outrage anymore. So far every reaction propagated in the media is to stand united against terrorism but this also means diving the world into us and them. The obvious result is that “we” talk to ourselves and “they” don’t listen anymore. Communications are broken and the only solution is violence.

In my local Saturday’s paper there was a nice juxtaposition of an editorial on the problem with greying population and a letter condemning Catholic opposition to condoms. I half thought of writing them a letter about it myself.

The editorial said all the right things backed up by global surveys and population projections. It wasn’t only about decline in birth rates but also about breaking down family traditions. Something like 60% of people think that supporting the elderly is a government’s job. 20% think that they should support themselves, and only less than 10% think that elderly should be supported but their children.

Just think about it for a second – only one in ten people thinks that it’s his duty to support his father and mother in their old age. Nine out of ten want to dump their parents. What is the world coming to? I don’t even want to look up the exact numbers, it could be even worse – these responsible 10% might be all from Africa or Asia with the West being closer to zero.

I also suppose they’ve asked mostly adults who are not retired themselves yet and who have their own children, those who are in between generations. Their attitude towards their parents is a payback and their attitude towards their children reflects modern values and their attitude to sex, which was the subject of the letter that caught my attention.

Widespread use of contraception is the main reason that changed sex from procreational activity into a recreational one. Raising responsible children who would carry on family legacy was people’s main goal in life and sex was only augmenting it. Now sex has taken the center stage and raising children has become almost like a hobby – if you have time and money go for it, by all means, but in this economy it’s just too expensive.

When sex itself is the goal children become bothersome and people can’t wait to offload them to college so that they can have time for themselves. No wonder those who were raised in such families are not going to support their parents in return, let the government do it or whoever.

The thing is, savings rates aren’t that high and while twenty-thirty years ago people could retire with their golden nest, these days they only have credit card debts. Obama is talking about unprecedented period of job creation but data shows that the only people who work more are the fifty year olds, and the jobs that are being created are part-time positions for those who need a second job, and they are mostly unskilled and low paid.

What will happen to these people when they can’t work anymore? The West hasn’t seen this kind of crisis yet, there’s no experience of dealing with it. Western economic miracle happened when birth rates were two three times higher than now, the societies were coasting on that success ever since but the party is clearly coming to an end. Good times are over and they are not going to return, there are no drivers for positive change while the challenges grow every day.

But back to contraception – the idea was to extract more pleasure from sex and people are convinced it worked but did it really? Are they sexually more satisfied then our ancestors? Do they have more sex than a hundred years ago? They surely have more sex with strangers but definitely less in marriages – mostly because they are not even married.

That’s the thing – when sex was a physical expression of a union between dedicated partners it only augmented their love. Now they stripped their relationships of deeper meaning and are left with simply tickling their bodily sensors. People who were in deep relationship feel that sex without love is empty and is not better, it’s of lower quality and it’s a poor substitute, it just doesn’t satisfy the soul.

And then they have porn that made even their sensors numb. Maybe it felt good in the beginning but after a while they can’t derive physical pleasure from it anymore and they compensate by quantity, and it reduces their chances of having deep, meaningful relationships with opposite sex even further.

So, I would argue that in the long run contraception has not improved sexual lives and it definitely destroyed the family institution. They didn’t think it through and went for the short term benefits and now it’s coming back for them big time. And that is strictly from the material point of view, there’s no question of any spiritual progress for these sex addicts at all.

Without spirituality they are becoming just like animals – slaves to their mind and senses with no clue that there’s a bigger world out there. Ironically, they call it “evolution”. Evolution towards what? They can’t even maintain their standards of sense gratification and both their food and their sex have become tasteless. Everything is “new and improved” but after several iterations it becomes worse than the original.

I just realized that I haven’t mentioned Kṛṣṇa today at all. Well, personally, He has nothing to do with this Kali Yuga world and these people are drifting further and further away from Him and His service. I wish I could preach to them but I’m stuck on convincing myself that we are right and they are wrong. There was another disturbing development in this regard but I’ll talk about it tomorrow.

Vanity thought #1029. Nayanam galad ashru jaraya

Not sure about Sanskrit here, I was trying to play on śikṣāṣṭaka verse and make it into “tears due to old age”. Big topic that I rarely think about, in a sense that I never come to any conclusion regarding what I am going to do about impeding old age. Two recent news articles caught my attention, though. I’m not any closer to finding a solution but there’s something to ponder about anyway.

First of all, the fast. Yesterday I observed nirjala ekādaśī and I ended up with a headache. I even took aspirin to relieve it but it still didn’t clear it out. I’m not a doctor but I think it’s related to fasting. When body can’t draw energy from food it turns to supplies stored in fat and other tissues. Actually it starts with depleting blood of glucose but again, I’m not a doctor so this explanation might be a little off.

Problem with burning stored fat is that it might contain toxins which weren’t cleared by the liver before being deposited. When these toxins get back into the blood stream, headache is one of the symptoms. Or it could be related to sugar levels in the blood, too. Either way, after about a day of fasting, headache comes.

Last time when I fasted for a week it was truly horrible but went away on it’s own after the most intensive phase of detoxing was over, in about three or four days. One day fast isn’t enough, though, so the headache stays until body gets to digesting new food and old toxins wash out. Maybe I should fast more often so that there are no toxins in my body anywhere but that wouldn’t be fasting, it would be detoxing, and there’s nothing spiritual about it.

Fast is good for controlling one’s mind and senses, detox is meant for improving one’s health. The two can be easily combined, of course, but personal health should never be a reason for any spiritual endeavor, it’s an attitude that would destroy everything.

The point is – health problems are always here, lurking just one step away from the usual track. No eating for one day – sickness comes. No water, too much exercise or any other exertion, too little sleep, too much sleep, too hot, too cold – if anything goes off balance even slightly, body responds with pain.

We can learn to deal with it, tolerate it, take remedial measures, whatever. Old age, however, can’t be noticed as easily. Pain we can experience from the moment of birth, old age can’t be experienced until we actually become old.

When I was in my twenties one elderly devotee surprised me that he would to anything to feel ten years younger. I didn’t get it, one, it was so decidedly undevotional, and two, I couldn’t understand the need. It’s like sex – when you are ten you don’t feel any inconvenience from not getting any but when you are thirty it becomes a real problem. So is the old age – it needs to be lived through to know what it is and how it affects our lives. For now I can only try to learn from old people and try to prepare myself. Prepare to what exactly? That is a question I saw some very surprising answers in the news.

First was an article promoting an upcoming British documentary about elderly prostitutes. Women who are already great-grandmothers selling their bodies, working as escorts etc. The oldest one they found is eighty five years old. From promotional articles (promoting the documentary, not prostitution) it appears that they are all into it to satisfy their sex drive. Somehow or other they still need this kind of relationship with men, maybe not always physical, but mentally they can’t be by themselves. One said that men much younger than her call her because of pleasure of her companionship, they just want to talk, which is still a form of subtle sex and, apparently, is as addictive as physical manifestation.

Second was an article about prostitution among elderly Koreans. That sounded much much worse because the link was accompanied by a very depressing quote: “I’m hungry, I don’t need respect, I don’t need honor, I just want three meals a day.”

Unlike Britain and other countries in Europe (there’s a documentary about Amsterdam’s oldest hookers, too) Korean women do not get state pension, they are entirely on their own, abandoned by their children and forgotten by society.

The worst part of it is that Korea is supposed be a country with Asian values where old people must be treated with honor and respect no matter what. They supposed to be supported by the families, just like in India. Westernization of Korea put an end to this, however. Pursuing careers and success make old people into an unnecessary burden and if one has to choose between traditional values and personal comfort, old people go out of the window, or, hopefully, the door.

Modern lifestyle requires a different preparation for the old age, reliance on family is out, savings are in. If one has been diligently saving up and building a nest he can have a fairly comfortable retirement, maybe even in warmer climates. If one neglected this kind of financial advice, he is on his own, children are of no help. At best they’ll pay for keeping you in a retirement home.

What should we, as devotees, do about our impeding old age? ISKCON as an organization has a lot of issues in this regard but I don’t want to discuss them here, I’m talking about our own, personal preparations. What should we do?

Should we follow the modern paradigm and save money for retirement? Or should we follow some vague Vedic way and rely on our children and community support? Or should we rely on Kṛṣṇa and do not take any personal responsibility for our maintenance in the old age?

The example of Korean prostitutes really freaks me out. It shows that really, really bad things can happen even in relatively prosperous and traditional countries. It shows that we can’t rely on our personal karma if we are not ready to face it no matter what.

Of course we can’t escape our karma either and so if we are destined to live on the streets and eat from dumpsters there’s nothing we can do about it, but if we live on the conditional platform and act as if we can influence our future then it is our responsibility to prepare ourselves for whatever comes next.

I would say this – if we spent our entire lives plugged into a modern society, working hard and doing all the other things responsible members are supposed to do, like paying for insurance and the like, then saving money for retirement is part of that lifestyle, too, part of our responsibilities.

If we do not save for the future it means we are spending money on something else, and I’m pretty sure it’s not on maintaining the temples and feeding vaiṣṇavas, at least not in the same amounts we need to save for retirement.

That’s just one part where we do not follow the rules and regulations according to our material position. The other part is where we expect to change our lifestyle to the Vedic/spiritual one when we get old but we have no training and no “Vedic” karma to carry us through.

We don’t have extended families where we can always find a place to sleep and some food, we don’t have required levels of renunciation so that we do not worry about personal comfort, we can’t take sannyāsa either, we won’t survive the Vedic way even if it guaranteed us minimum maintenance.

Think about it – varṇāśrama is supposed to train people all their lives and they are supposed to spend twenty five years as vānaprasthas before they are ready to take sannyāsa. That’s seventy five years of preparation, we don’t have any at all and we think that once we turn sixty five it would all come to us naturally? Not going to happen.

Saving for “retirement”, vānaprastha, is also one of varṇāśrama duties, so if we don’t do it while following modern, materialistic rules, what are we going to fall back on when we are old?

Another option is to leave it all to Kṛṣṇa, that’s not even sannyāsa, it’s downright paramahaṃsa. We can’t imitate it if we are spiritually not there. It’s one of the ways where instead of being aloof and renounced we’ll end up prostituting ourselves or seeking prostitutes’ company.

However bad situation for Korean women is, men aren’t much better. They still have their sex drive and they first approach these old women not for sex but for intravenous injections of some equivalent of Viagra. That is truly sad, it’s just like alcoholism, something they have no control of and it’s too late to learn it.

Up until now I had “it will turn out okay” attitude to old age but looking at these examples I’m starting to think that it might be much, much worse than I expect. Once again, I see no immediate solutions in sight, our experience of old age very much depends on our current practices, so whatever we sow today, we will reap.

They say that chanting solves all the problems in the world and for now it’s my only go to answer to everything, even though I don’t see how it could possibly work out on the material plane when it comes to old age. Hopefully, chanting will lead to Kṛṣṇa giving me some intelligence in this matter.

Vanity thought #759. The story of my life

Actually, anyone’s life, for that matter. Earlier this week a video made rounds of the internet that shows a girl aging into a grandmother, compressed into under five minutes.

What makes this video special is the extraordinary skill of the videographers. “Make me older” apps have been around on our phones for years already, fun to play with but very unnatural. This video, however, does not rely only on common signs of aging, like dropping eyelids, they photographed girl’s entire family and made her face age in the same manner as faces of her aunts and grandmothers do.

The result looks astonishingly real and, as it’s a “time lapse” of sorts, it shows aging happening in little, unnoticeable steps, it’s seamless. On the internet they introduce with “have a little patience” warning, so imperceptible those changes are, yet you can clearly see the girl aging.

Now, with technical details out of the way, what made me notice this video is that girl’s eyes never stop exuding hope and expectations. She looks out at the world with curiosity and innocence, and that’s pretty much how the rest of us live our lives, too.

We might get older and wiser but we still carry this sense of entitlement that the world is supposed to be pleasing and entertaining and our problems are just temporary aberrations. We fully, unquestionably expect the world to be good. This feeling never goes away, or suicides would be accepted as a norm rather than as psychological disorders that need treatment.

When I see this life compressed into four and a half minutes I see a waste. People should know better than expecting pleasant surprises from material energy, and it’s easy to make a case for surrendering to the Lord when your life is so short, but our lives are stretched over so many decades that the sense of urgency is simply not there. It’s present in this video but it’s absent from the real world, it shouldn’t be missing.

If we knew we only had four minutes to live it would be difficult for us to snap out of our routines and concentrate on Krishna, but on the plus side we would have to maintain this concentration for only four minutes. When we can reasonably expect to live for another four decades, however, the intensity and determination kind of goes away and becomes very hard to maintain even for devotees.

I don’t know the answer for that, but this video is one eerie, if not outright creepy reminder of how short and insignificant our lives really are. We just have time for a couple of blinks and one look around and it’s over.

For a more profound effect it would be nice to continue the story of this girl as she gets reborn and lives through yet another life in five minutes, and then another and then another, all the time carrying this naive look of innocence in her eyes. It’s actually this feeling of hope that is our greatest enemy here – unless it goes away we will never be able to surrender to Krishna.

This hope is not only addictive, it’s also contagious – spend some time with people who hope for a better life and your interest in Krishna will visibly, almost palpably go away. It’s impossible to maintain it in the company of materialists so we should avoid them as much as we can. We can build immunity only in the company of devotees and this immunity would only be temporary, just enough to shield us when we venture outside on short expeditions but certainly not enough to withstand another forty years.

What we can learn from this video is how temporary our bodies actually are, and that’s why it strikes chord with so many ordinary viewers – it opens their eyes to impermanence of our situation.

As devotees we should also learn the futility of normal, human aspirations, which, in the words of Prahlada Maharaj, are “chewing of the chewed”, and that’s a nice note to end this post on.

Vanity thought #705. Little princes(s)

A couple of days ago I had a chance to observe an old man who struggles to keep himself afloat in the world that is gradually slipping away. He is not some kind of general who dreams of his old battles and need to wear a uniform to validate his glory days, he’s just an ordinary man.

There are two sides to his behavior. On one hand he has nothing to do with his life and so he waits until something comes along, he wants to be ready. So he diligently shaves, puts on his clean clothes, combs his hair, checks that there’s money in his wallet and his bank books are in their drawers, sorts his medicines, and so he is ready to face any contingency. That takes most of his day.

His mind is not what it used to be and it’s difficult for him to keep track of things, so by the time he checks his medicine cabinet he forgets where he left his wallet, and he is also convinced someone always moves his stack of clean clothes.

Anyway, this aspect of his behavior is about readiness and maybe we all share this trait when we have nothing much to do. Maybe we wait for a job opportunity, maybe we wait for a new woman in our lives, and also when we wait for orders of our guru.

Another aspect of his behavior is validating his identity. All these things – clean face, hairstyle, wallet in the pocket, money in the bank, they all form an essential part of his persona. If something goes amiss he feels the need to fix it right away. When he says things like “I want to do …” he means the devilishly handsome guy with a bit of a spare change whose wishes needs to be fulfilled. Sometimes he pees in his pants but he never notices it or never admits it to himself, that’s not who he thinks he is.

Unfortunately for him he established this image of a family patriarch that no one dares to break. People around him assure him that he has no jobs to do, that all his needs will be taken care of, but no one dares to say that what he should be preparing for is his death, and for that his immaculate hair is of no use. Well, most people aren’t very comfortable with the idea of preparing for death anyway so it’s no surprise, and just another damning evidence of modern civilization failing its citizens.

We, as devotees, sort of know what to do. We are preparing ourselves to enter the kingdom of God, to be with Krishna. Our readiness includes learning to remember Him at all times and memorizing prayers and chants. Our personal identity is also formed about being with Krishna. We try to shape ourselves as servants of our guru and vaishnavas.

So, when I looked at that man I thought that I should use his example to prepare myself for old age and death in the correct way, and I noticed that I’ve been thinking about it a lot in the past couple of weeks.

The reality of old age and death, however, might be completely different from what I imagine now. Maybe all my preparations is like a little girl trying on a ten dollar princess dress and imagining her wedding. However useful that game might be later on in life, it has very little to do with the pressure of choosing a real wedding dress and making a real commitment as a grown woman.

Maybe that’s how guru and Krishna see me – as a little princess, cute but clueless. To this I can say – it might be a long road to perfection but I have to start somewhere with something. And thanks for calling me cute.

The other aspect is a bit more worrying – we all try to keep our place in the world, try to make sense of it and try to understand it, “measure” it, so to speak. We might be preparing to enter the kingdom of God but as long as we have this attitude of control we won’t enter it as devotees. Well, not as Vrindavana devotees.

We want to be little princes with Krishna being the king. We agree to admit His superiority but we are more like kings of vassal states agreeing to pay tributes to the emperor to preserve our little domains rather than seeking to become His servants.

This “little prince” attitude is very hard to eradicate, it pops up everywhere, in all our thoughts and all our actions, and I don’t know where even to start with it. Maybe women with their trusting nature have it easier but I want to know and learn everything for myself. I want to know how remote control works, I want to know how the mind of that old man works, I want to know how death works, I want to predict everything and with high accuracy, too. I’m not prepared to live in a world where I’m not in control and where I don’t make sense of things I see.

I can probably outgrow my “little princess” syndrome but I don’t know how to deal with “little prince” yet.

Well, chanting makes everything perfect, they say, so I don’t lose hope yet.