Monday, March 15, 2010

Interfaith Blog Event #8: Pantheism (Part 2)

Welcome to the 8th Interfaith Blog Event! In this event, we'll be discussing Pantheistic religions. Jon, from Jesusfollowers Journal, will be joining me in this event. He will be writing from a Protestant Christian perspective.

My essay will be posted in 3 parts, as I have to develop a lot of background information before I can begin discussing Hinduism. This post is Part 2. The other posts are linked below:

(Links will be provided as they become available)
[Jon's Essay]

(Part 2)

Encountering the Self

We still haven’t discussed how control of the mind, senses, emotions, and desires leads toward discovery of the Self. We have shown the importance of this control, that without it our vehicles run rampant anywhere they want. We have shown that in each moment, we can choose to follow either of two paths: the senses or the Self. But how does this lead us to discover the Self? The answer lies in CHOICE. Easwaran stated, “When the senses are trained, you can go anywhere and never lose your capacity to choose.” In order to know our True Self, we have to be able to see it, feel it, hear it. At each moment, our Self tries to make its choice known to our discriminating intellect, but without this control, our discriminating intellect will not hear it and will follow the senses along the path of Preya. When we start to hear the Self, we can start choosing Shreya. The more we choose Shreya, the more we get to know the Self. It’s like getting to know a new friend: you have to listen to her, learn what she enjoys, wants, and what is best for her. If you ignore her, you won’t learn anything about her. If you always choose things that she dislikes, she’ll stop making her opinions known.

The next obvious question is: How can this control be accomplished? The answer is twofold: concentration and slowing down. Everyone has had the experience of knowing they “should” do something, but then they find it exceedingly hard to actually do it (such as going to the gym to exercise, or not grabbing a bag of chips to eat while watching TV knowing that you’re not really hungry). Stop reading for a moment and think of an example in your own life where you knew you should do something, but you encountered strong resistance to doing it. Your example behavior should have occurred at least twice; in one of the instances, you succeeded in overruling your senses and doing the “right thing,” in the other instance, your senses won the day. Ideally, the surrounding circumstances should be as similar as possible between the two instances.

If you carefully compare your two examples, you’ll notice that your greatest enemy in the failed instance was “quick thinking” or “fast thought.” When you’re thinking, analyzing, and acting quickly, you don’t have the time to delve down and truly examine the options and differentiate Preya from Shreya; at this pace of activity, you’re just reacting based on your past experiences (which, as we’ve already seen, are usually based on your senses running your life). Hence, in your failed instance, you did not consciously slow down and give your discriminating intellect a chance to examine the choices.

However, just slowing down is not enough. Maybe in your failed example, you did slow down and deeply examine the options, but you chose Preya anyway. The second necessary ingredient is concentration. Without concentration, you’re incapable of burning through the smokescreen presented by your desires, your emotions, and your senses. The amazing thing that people don’t realize is that the level of concentration we are capable of is nothing less than miraculous! To give you an experience of the level of concentration we can attain, imagine a time when you were under the spell of a very strong primary need (such as you were starving because you hadn’t eaten in 18 hours, or you were parched, or were so angry you were “seeing red”). Imagine yourself back in that situation and try to relive the experience. Remember how all-encompassing that need was? Remember how that desire completely monopolized your thoughts, and that the only thing you could focus on was the need? Well, imagine if, while engrossed in the maelstrom of that need, you could simply turn your mind to a game of tic-tac-toe, and the need was out of your mind as easily as you can clap your hands. This capability represents just the very beginning of developing strong concentration. If you are incapable of this type of mental control (99% of us are), then your concentration skills are lacking.

Combining the tools of slowing down and concentration, a person becomes capable of ascertaining and choosing Shreya at every opportunity. Said another way, if you are missing either of these tools, you either won’t give yourself the time and space to see that your senses are leading you down the path of Preya, or you won’t have the mental wherewithal to see through these lies. Two very important things to note: (1) Every single person on this planet is capable of developing this miraculous level of concentration, without exception; and (2) Without this miraculous level of concentration, any understanding you have of your true Self will be false in some way.

We’re finally at a place where we can discuss the ultimate reason why all of these steps are necessary on the path. It’s self-evident, with just a little observation of our own lives, that we have a choice in every single moment between Preya and Shreya. It’s also self-evident that choosing Shreya at every opportunity is beneficial, while choosing Preya is detrimental. But are there any other benefits to these practices? Hinduism answers an emphatic, “Yes!”

In Hinduism, we are seen as having two selves: (1) Ego, and (2) Atman, or our True Self. Returning to the chariot analogy, the passenger in the chariot that I referred to as our Self is our True Self, the Atman. The Ego is a product of the mind (hence it lives in the reins). We usually interpret our self to be the Ego, but in reality, the Ego is simply a tool of the True Self that the Discriminating Intellect needs to learn to use to make proper use of the senses. We can start to see our Atman trying to lead the way once we develop our concentration to these amazing levels, giving our discriminating intellect total control over the reins of our mind, emotions, and desires, and, hence, over the horses that are our senses.

There is, though, another benefit to these levels of concentration that we have developed. When we apply these miraculous levels of concentration toward looking directly at the True Self in meditation, we notice that the Self is but one reflection of Brahman, “The unchanging, infinite, immanent, and transcendent reality which is the Divine Ground of all matter, energy, time, space, being, and everything beyond in this Universe” [Wikipedia: Brahman]. Hence, through our concentration in meditation, we observe that the Self, Atman, is identical to Brahman. This realization is the essence of Awakening in Hinduism. [1]

Hindus call this Awakening moksha, the complete freedom from the conditioning of time, space, and circumstance. According to Easwaran, “Those rare few who discover the Self see the same Self in every other creature. In this sense, life is a kind of cosmic condominium with billions of apartments, each with a different name on the door yet each with the same occupant. This is not mere metaphor. If you knock on twelve doors in a real condominium, the people who greet you are not twelve separate people. They are all the same Self, casting twelve different [ego]-shadows. Only because of our physical orientation do we believe that because these shadows are separate, the inner person must be different too.” (pg. 183-4)

(Part 3 will be posted in the next few weeks)

[1] Interestingly, the nature of Brahman is described as transpersonal, personal, and impersonal by different philosophical schools; hence my statement at the very beginning of this essay that Hinduism is less a monolithic religion than a system of varied beliefs and practices based around similar world views and understandings of the universe.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Interfaith Blog Event #8: Pantheism

Welcome to the 8th Interfaith Blog Event! In this event, we'll be discussing Pantheistic religions. Jon, from Jesusfollowers Journal, will be joining me in this event. He will be writing from a Protestant Christian perspective.

My essay will be posted in 3 parts, as I have to develop a lot of background information before I can begin discussing Hinduism. This post is Part 1. The other posts are linked below:

[Part 1] [Part 2] [Part 3]

(Links will be provided as they become available)
[Jon's Essay]

First, I would like to note that while I am very well versed in Buddhism, I am very newly introduced to Hindu spirituality. Therefore, for the purposes of this essay, I am relying on Essence of the Upanishads by Eknath Easwaran. Any mis-statements about Hinduism I make in this essay are solely my fault, and I welcome corrections from those with greater experience in the topic.

Second, in my research for this essay, I have learned that Hindu spirituality encompasses a vast array of different beliefs and practices (for example, while some Hindus are pantheistic in their understanding of the universe, others are monotheistic and still others are polytheistic). Therefore, my treatment in this essay may embrace slightly different viewpoints throughout, and is not meant to be a complete--or even adequate--treatment of the religious spectrum of Hinduism.


Hindu spirituality is incredibly old and is less a monolithic religion than a system of varied beliefs and practices based around similar world views and understandings of the universe in which we live (something one could call “Indian Spirituality,” which is, incidentally, part of the subtitle of Easwaran’s work). This Indian Spirituality also forms the basis for Buddhism, a religion that both shares much with, and yet differs in very fundamental ways from, Hinduism. In this essay, I hope to present the reader with a comparison of the many similarities between these two great Indian religions, as well as clearly identify where they diverge.

The Chariot Analogy

In his work, Easwaran presents a beautiful and enlightening analogy that clearly describes the basis of Indian Spirituality. Traveling the roads of life are numerous horse-drawn chariots. Just like in a satellite view of a major metropolis like San Francisco, roads snake in all different directions, full of chariots. These chariots represent the vehicle we’re all given, the body, which helps transport us through life. Every chariot needs a driver, which represents the Discriminating Intellect or Judgment. The Discriminating Intellect holds the reins—the Mind, Emotions, and Desires—which are attached to the horses: the Five Senses. Our chariot is transporting a very specific passenger along these roads of life: the Self, the very nature of each of us.

Let’s dissect this analogy to gain a better understanding of the Hindu view of our purpose in life. The first observation to glean from this analogy, as well as probably the most important, is that we are not our bodies, we are not our minds, we are not our discriminating intellects, nor are we our five senses. All of these things are just the means by which Self moves through life. That being said, let’s describe how the vehicle functions for 98% of us.

It’s a little past noon, and you haven’t eaten since 7:30 this morning. Your Self indicates, “I’m hungry.” Immediately your horses (senses) start rearing, itching to pull you to the nearest diner where you can get bacon, eggs, and buttered toast. Your driver (discriminating intellect), through years of disuse, doesn’t even examine the health implications of the meal the senses want. The horses bolt, carrying the vehicle toward the diner for the breakfast that will satisfy them. For some of us, the discriminating intellect may kick in briefly, noting the health implications of the meal the senses suggested, and may even decide that that’s not a good option. But again through years of disuse, the discriminating intellect has no control over the reins (mind, emotions, desires), and so is unable to override the sense’s decision, and you end up eating the unhealthy meal anyway.

Try applying this same analytical tool to your own life and your own particular circumstances. Maybe you know that you should exercise more, that you’d feel better and be more effective at everything you do. But exercise is unpleasant in the short-term, and your senses don’t like unpleasant things—this is their nature. The problem here is that while your discriminating intellect may understand all the long-term benefits of exercise, if it doesn’t have control of the reins (mind, emotions, desires), you won’t be able to control where your horses take you, and that place will not be the gym. Maybe you really want to go to the gym, but your mind keeps coming up with excuses, other things you “just have to do.” Maybe your mind unconsciously sabotages your plan of going to the gym by causing “accidents” such as spilling something on your shirt (hence you just have to wash this now before it stains). Maybe you can logically bring yourself to the decision to go work out, but you just can’t muster the energy to get yourself off the couch; the inertia is just too great.

Here’s one more example, just to show how this lack of control penetrates everything we do. You’re cleaning your house, vacuuming and dusting. You don’t enjoy cleaning, but you’ve put it off long enough and so you know you have to do it, despite its unpleasantness. But while you’re working, your mind is off thinking of the next things you’re going to do, daydreaming of the things you could be doing. Because you’re not paying close attention to your current task, you accidentally knock a collectible you own to the ground, breaking it. In this example, your senses are going to try to do what is in their nature, chase after pleasurable experiences and avoid unpleasant experiences. If you haven’t trained them to obey the discriminating intellect, then you won’t have the ability to stop them when they start to follow their nature. The same goes for your emotions and desires. Because of this lack of training, you can’t hold your attention on your current task and you break the object.

Even while reading this essay, your mind has probably wandered to something else; or maybe you shifted in your chair. Think about it: what is a shifting of your position? It’s your body’s response to an unpleasant sensation; you are getting uncomfortable and your body shifts. This process happens so frequently that while you may remember shifting position now, you probably did it unconsciously at the time. And you’ll do so again before the end of this essay.

The next obvious question becomes: So what? The answer is that without training your discriminating intellect to use the tools of the mind, emotions, and desires to control the senses, you’re basically living a lie. Everything you think, everything you do, everything you believe, will be based on chasing immediate pleasantness and avoiding short-term unpleasantness. The problem is that your Self is a very quiet individual. He or she is completely drowned out by the overpowering nature of the senses. So if you lack control over the senses and your mind and emotions, then you are completely unable to hear your Self with any regularity. The only way to discover your True Self is to gain that perfect control over your mind, emotions, desires, and senses, using your discriminating intellect. Please note the converse implications of this: as long as you lack this control, any understanding you have of your True Self is false in some way.

How does this control allow you to recognize your true Self? At every single moment in life, we have a choice of actions, thoughts, emotions, and desires. All of these choices will follow one of two paths, called Preya and Shreya. Preya describes a choice that pleases our senses; it is pleasant immediately and usually tickles the ego. The problem is that it is often not beneficial in the long term. Shreya has no reference to pleasing/displeasing. It is simply what benefits us in the long term. Sometimes Shreya choices are very pleasing right away, but most of the time Shreya choices cannot compete in the short term with Preya choices. But beyond the immediate present, the benefit and pleasantness of Shreya will catapult it past Preya every time.

I hope the connection of these two paths to the chariot analogy is clear. For people who have no control over their senses, their vehicle will choose Preya every time, even though their Self will want them to choose Shreya every time. These paths don’t exist only in monumental moments, they occur during every individual millisecond of your life. You go to the movies and you want popcorn, but you’re not actually hungry. What do you choose, Preya or Shreya? Let’s say you choose to order the popcorn. Do you drench it in butter and salt (Preya), or do you forego both (Shreya)? Maybe you opt to use just a little butter and salt. Do you eat the entire bag, or do you stop when you start to feel full? Try applying Preya/Shreya to you own life; you’ll see their truth is self-evident.