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.


Ryan said...

I'm really enjoying reading these postings, as I'm eager to learn more about Hinduism. However, so far, there seems to be very little that differs from my understanding of Buddhism in terms of using patience and concentration to overcome short-term desires and find the desires of the true Self. I'm curious to see where the divergences are from Buddhism.

Also, is what you're covering here what you would consider to be the unifying features of Hinduism; the traits that all Hindus share?

Mike said...

Hey Ryan,

Part 3 is what you're waiting for then, because it's there that I highlight many of the differences between the two religions. It is very interesting to see how similar they are on the surface; and then to see how different some of their underlying philosophies really are. It reminds me a lot of my discussions with Jon regarding morality in which we discovered that Buddhism and Christianity came to nearly identical results in terms of importance placed on morality and a determination of what is moral versus immoral, and yet the bases underlying both religions are as dissimilar as possible.

Yes, I'd consider my discussions of Hinduism here to be my understanding of "basic Hinduism." Just like in Christianity or Buddhism, there are different sects that place their foci in different areas, but all Christians still believe that Jesus is God, and all Buddhists recognize the Four Noble Truths as operative in every aspect of life. That is basically what guided me in this explanation of Hinduism.

One added thing to consider: The idea for this essay came out of a discussion of Pantheism with Jon. So my plan the entire time was to highlight the differences between Buddhism, a non-pantheistic religion (though related to pantheism in several interesting ways), and Hinduism, which I thought was a pantheistic religion (but have since learned that is not entirely accurate). So there are, I am sure, other fundamental aspects of Hinduism that I do not cover here -- and of which I am likely ignorant. The aspects I covered here were meant to give a good grounding in the basics of Hinduism, but also pave the way for my subsequent comparison to Buddhism.