The Heart of Freedom, part 3: What We Give Back

If we want to be healthy and blessed with long life we must become like Jupiter—generous, joyful, and wise. Generosity is about overcoming our habituated self-centeredness, our sense of limitation, of fear of the future, of not having or being enough. […] In this we imitate the Masters we wish to be like, and in doing so, fulfill the function of Assumption of the Godform, not as an image, but as a real, living, breathing act.

~ Mark Stavish, Child of the Sun: Psychic & Physical Rejuvenation in Alchemy and Qabalah

Just as there are some who enter the spiritual Path wondering, “What’s in it for me?,” there are always those who wonder, too, “How do I use this to save the world?” I’m not going to sugarcoat this point, because it deserves being made forcefully and forthrightly: You don’t. It is not your job to save the world (and from what?), but it is your job to be available to the people of the world and to be of benefit to them.

Śri Ramana Maharshi was fond of using parables from everyday life to illustrate the subtler points of sādhana, of those practices which clear the obstacles between ourselves and wakefulness. One that he employed on many recorded occasions concerned our responsibilities to the world as they relate to our spiritual practice: Two men board a train at the same station and are headed to the same station in another town. One of these men holds his bags for the entire trip, worrying over them and straining to ensure that they reach his destination with him. The other man sets his bags down in the appropriate holding compartment and leisurely watches the landscape go by as the train speeds along.

It is sometimes easy to misunderstand Ramana’s teachings, seeing as how most of us in the modern West lack the context of a Hindu upbringing with its attendant (at least passing) knowledge of the need for preparatory religious practices and philosophical study to understand and properly apply many of the sādhanas discussed so casually in his terse discourses. That being so, it may seem as if the parable is telling us to forego our responsibilities, relaxing and pretending that they aren’t there at all. In fact, he has given us a sophisticated diagnosis of our problem and prescribed a treatment for it all in one tight package.

We have a tendency to want, on some level, to carry our baggage endlessly. We almost revel in our emotional problems, showing them forth as what makes us unique and special, demanding that they be accommodated and sheltered rather than plucking them out by the root. In any case, we fret over them, and fretting just makes them bigger and heavier—if not actually, then at least in our perception. If, however, we set them down and allow the process of our spiritual practice to move us along, everything that we need to reach the end with us will come along for the ride. In short, it is all too easy to put our effort into the wrong thing out of fear and anxiety, but that only increases the fear and anxiety.

Tooth-gritting heroics rarely do much long-term good. Muscle-flexing can create a bit of breathing space, but as soon as your arms tire out, you’ll find yourself quickly surrounded. Gnosis is not about what you learn as much as what you unlearn, what you clear away so that Reality can shine forth. Very often, then, it means knowing when you can help and when you cannot, when effort will be useful and when it will be wasteful. In the Yogi-sampradāyas of Patānjali, of the Siddhas, and the Nāthas, we recognize five kleshas, five afflictions which, like knots, bind us up. All five of them are obstacles here.

Ego, attraction, and repulsion are the middle three afflictions. Ego, in this context, is not merely the sense of “I am”, but the ongoing process of mistakenly identifying yourself with all manner of things which are not really you at all. Whenever someone asks what you do, and you immediately respond with, “I am a lawyer,” or “I am a construction worker,” or any similar formula, you are displaying ego in this sense. The same is true, though, if you say “I am a Catholic,” or “I am a Hindu,” or “I am a Republican,” or, well, you get the idea. These identities can be useful if we consciously wear them as the costumes they are, but we usually wear them in such a way that we forget who is wearing the costume and think that only the costume itself is the real person. This leads inexorably to attraction and repulsion, by which we say that one thing is good and another bad, one thing clean and another dirty, according to the expectations of the costume-identity rather than the individual wearing the costume. Now is not the time to get into the depths of nondualism, wherein nothing is inherently unclean (aghora), but it is enough to say that we might instead focus on the usefulness of a thing and forget about questions of inherent goodness. Might a thing be applied skillfully by us in order to enable our own awakening and the awakening of others? If so, we may call it provisionally useful and move on. If not—whether by the nature of the thing or by our own lack of skill—we may safely leave it aside for someone else to handle.

We might say that the final two kleshas, the first and the last in the usual order, are both root and fruit of the three above. Ignorance is the primal klesha, the one which gives rise to the other four, but ignorance is also reinforced by them. The final klesha is “clinging to life”, which may also be stated as “fear of death”. Clinging to life is the fruit of the preceding four, but it is also firm and strong enough to support them, thus bolstering their power. Ignorance contains the other four kleshas in seed form, as potential diseases, while clinging to life contains them as a plant must contain the genetic information which guides its growth and the nutrients which fuel it. (The observant may see a direct connection to the five elements in this discussion. Useful experiments may be performed along these lines, and I am writing a book about exactly this line of work.)

Now, here’s the kicker: The stronger the influence of any klesha upon me, the worse I will be at being of help to anybody else in any absolute, lasting sense. This is precisely why we cannot seem to shake our most fundamental problems in human society. We are always acting from within the kleshas. Look, for example, at how technology is increasingly concerned with “curing” death. You have Google and other firms dealing with artificial intelligence who have explicitly set for themselves the goal of digitizing “human consciousness” so that, after a person’s death, their personality can still be around in the form of a computer program. Within medicine, researchers are feverishly predicting the inevitability of bodily longevity by way of all manner of pills, injectables, and genome treatments. Rather than dealing with quality of life, the concern has shifted to quantity, as if a long life were inherently better or more meaningful than a short one packed with artistry. “Curing death” is of less inherent value than effective cancer treatments; when a person is dead, the quantity of their life is no longer a concern, while the quality of their life has enduring impact (whether or not one accepts survival of consciousness), but cancer reduces both quality and quantity of life. This is a very fundamental shift in focus deserving of our attention, but it also serves as an example of how the kleshas flavor our every pursuit.

Spiritual practice is no different in this way from any other human engagement. It is so common for egotism or greed (attraction) to drive our spirituality that whole books have been written about this topic alone—for instance, Chӧgyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s book Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism. In Western alchemy, the term “puffer” has been applied to those who were more concerned with the gold which came out of the transmutation than with the transmutation itself. And then there are the megachurches, the Vatican’s thrones of gold, and the Prosperity Gospel salespeople… The list could continue endlessly, wrapping itself around the world just as it weaves its way throughout human culture in every geographical point through which it passes. The point is this:

Not everyone is destined to create a global organization which impacts the lives of thousands or millions through charity. Most of us will do far better in improving ourselves, awakening ourselves, so that we will do more good in our immediate community. Even if we could start those global organizations, they usually become corrupt very quickly once legally incorporated and flowing with funding. Movements become denatured or defunct once their founder retires or dies. You can’t save anyone else if you can’t save yourself. This is neither cold pragmatism nor bitter cynicism. When goodness flows, it flows through an individual, not through a legal abstraction or a mob. Whether or not the movement of goodness seems “fair” to you, it flows like water, and like water it needs to be pressurized through the plumbing of a single human being if it is to have enough force to accomplish anything. One of the main functions of spiritual practice is to first clean out one’s own plumbing and learn to properly maintaining it so that when the pressure does flow, we don’t suffer a blowout. The takeaway from all of this is to work on yourself, do what you can do within your own community—however you define that, though the more local the better—and don’t fret over what you can’t control. If the world is to get any healthier, that is how it will happen.