Discovering The Essence of Life

Discovering The Essence of Life


A Crisis is an Invitation for Deeper Learning and Transformation

It is a rare phenomenon when human beings come together with a deep intention of exploring the truth and not out of narrow self-interests. Usually people come together out of mutual self-interest and utilitarian attitude and their cooperation continues till the self-interests of people involved are being met uninterruptedly. As soon as an interruption comes, people tend to disintegrate and conflicts set in. That is why activities which are based on narrow motives and superficial vision of life are limited, divisive, and ultimately become ground for conflicts and suffering. That is why it is so important to explore and discover a broader, larger vision of life, a comprehensive and harmonious way of living which is based on inquiring into truth and understanding oneself and life as a whole. Exploring and discovering such a holistic vision of life is what makes us truly human.

We may have different backgrounds, cultures, religions, languages and education, but prior to all these difference we are human beings. Differences will not lead to divisions if we do not forget the primary fact of being a human. We share the same consciousness and there is a deep common thread running through all of us. We can discover this common thread only when we do not give so much importance to the baggage of particular conditioning we may be carrying. There is nothing great about any conditioning – there is no inferior or superior conditioning – as all conditioning is limited and if I am not aware of the implications of living with a conditioning then I remain a prisoner of it. Freedom is at the core of quest for truth and awareness of what one is is the beginning of freedom..    

Let’s first examine what we are. It seems that we all are manifesting this collective human consciousness. Each one of us is a channel for that consciousness. If we watch what has been happening in this consciousness, as far as we can go back in human history, we find that it is dominated by search for security, pleasure, fear, conflict and suffering apart from a minority of people asking deeper questions about life and searching for truth, peace and unity. A small group of human beings always asked such fundamental question if there is anything beyond this mechanical and conflicting way of living.

Various teachers and sages have come to share the messages of love and peace on this planet. And in general, humans have had this wish of having peace, happiness and love in their communities. In spite of our longing for love and peace for such a long time, it has not been possible to actualize it. May be our wish was not as strong and total as our self-interests were? Isn’t it a great irony for human beings that we talk about peace and at the same time continue to prepare the ground for conflict by living a fragmentary-contradictory life with false and illusory beliefs and identities? How can there be real peace as long as we do not see the danger of living with illusions and with a narrow self-centred vision of life?

Human civilisation has been facing crises at so many levels for a long time -  whether political, cultural, religious, economical or environmental.  But the root of every crisis could be traced back to human psyche or consciousness. Crises keep manifesting in our daily life. But we somehow manage from one crisis to another. Any global or local crisis is only a mirror of our collective inner crises. When we blame what is happening in society or at the global level we usually forget that what we are seeing and condemning outside is only a magnified manifestation of what we are from inside.

A crisis or suffering is a result of our certain way of living – a way of living which is essentially based on unawareness, insensitivity, exploitation, self-centredness and not based on love. It is not that a crisis or a suffering presents itself abruptly, out of the blue. It was already present in a seed form in my relationships, in the manner I approach life in general and it was growing slowly. It was getting nourishment through my lack of attention and sensitivity. I was either neglecting it or trying to suppress it. In either case I was not interested in looking at it because I was too busy with my immediate problems and self-interests. I was not at all aware that this crisis was growing due to my inattention and narrow quick-fix attitude towards life. When the crisis becomes huge and explodes I wake up and start crying for help. The question is why do I wake up only when a crisis or suffering becomes huge and unmanageable? Why do I wait for the crisis to grow into a gigantic tree? Why don’t I wake up when it is in a seed form?

That is why it is so important to understand the source of all crises which lies inside each one of us. The way we live our daily life psychologically, directly contributes to the condition of our society. Perhaps this was the reason that all great teachers and visionaries – from the sages of ancient India to the Greek philosophers Socrates and Plato and to the twentieth century seers like J. Krishnamurti and Ramana Maharshi - they all have laid so much emphasis on self-knowledge, on knowing and understanding oneself deeply.  J. Krishnamurti writes in his famous book The First and Last Freedom: “To transform oneself, self-knowledge is essential; without knowing what you are, there is no basis for right thought, and without knowing yourself there cannot be transformation.”

Now the question is: how do I know and understand myself? Can I know myself only through thinking about myself? But thinking is always conditioned and limited. If I take it for granted and do not question what I think about myself and believe into it then am I not becoming a prisoner of my own thinking? If I think that I am not a good person in comparison to another person and continue to believe in it and live with a sense of guilt, am I not continuously hurting myself on the basis of some unquestioned illusions? Even if I believe in the opposite of it, am I not living with an image created by thought which can be hurt at any moment if it is contradicted by even a small incident? Why do I think about myself in the categories of good and bad? Is there another way of looking at myself which is not based on a conditioned measurement and belief-system?

When I look at myself and others only through the stories and images of past incidences, am I not then imprisoning myself within the thick wall of my stories and images? In this way, I am only living with opinions and judgements about myself and others which are usually based on my past experiences or hearsay or even a propaganda. Any conditioning whether religious, traditional, racial, cultural, economic or political is usually based on propaganda. It is said that if you keep repeating a lie or propaganda without doubting it, you will eventually come to believe it to be true. We may be doing the same thing about ourselves when we keep on repeating the same thoughts without questioning them.

A judgement may contain certain element of facts based on observation but I am denying the possibility of change if I am all the time clinging to what I believe and think. Can I hold my judgments, opinions and thoughts lightly and not so rigidly and leave space for breathing and questioning? Am I open to let go of my judgements and meet oneself and others afresh? If I am rigidly tied to my thoughts, images and judgements how can I think and observe freely? Am I not, then, living with the dead past all the time? Where is any freedom and joy in this way of living?

So the question is: is there a different way of living and knowing myself? What is self-knowledge? Is it an intellectual knowledge about the self? Is it collecting more and more information and thoughts about the self? Or, is it observing oneself from moment to moment anew? Since such an observation is not influenced by any past psychological baggage, it is a door way to true learning and freedom. The essence of any learning is freedom. Learning brings freedom and it is only in freedom that I learn! That is why true learning is the unlearning the false conditioning and illusions about oneself and this is the first step towards a real freedom and change.

Of course there is no freedom without responsibility: freedom and responsibility go together. My ability to respond to a situation or a challenge is responsibility.  My ability to respond shrinks when I am not free to think, to observe and to act on my own; when there is no clear perception and when I am guided by illusions and self-centredness. I can only be truly responsible when I am actually free. That is why there is a difference between duty and responsibility. Duty is done out of force and compulsion whereas responsibility comes out of freedom, love and compassion.

I can be truly responsible only when I know myself as I am in the present moment and not what I was in the past or what I should be in the future. In order to know myself in the present moment I have to watch myself and my thinking process clearly without any fixed opinions and judgments. Watching is an act of love and freedom and in love there is hardly any place for fixed opinions and judgements. In this watching I can discover how my thinking process is conditioned and how this thinking process itself creates a sense of ego or self. J. Krishnamurti says that it is thought that creates the thinker and it is an illusion to believe that thinker or the “I” is independent and is a creator of thoughts. It is an amazing discovery to find out that thinker or ego is only a creation of thoughts or images. If I see this truth then I stop giving undue importance to the ego.

Ego is not a fixed entity, it is a process and movement of thought. Thought is a reaction from the memories of the past held in brain cells. When thought is reacting psychologically to the present reality or to what is, then self or ego is born. Each reaction gives birth to the self. So an interesting question could be: is there any single entity called self or is it a movement of reactions which is born each time when thought reacts and therefore moves away from the reality or the fact? Can the ego exist if there are no reactions? Who am I in the absence of reactions?  

Brain needs a centre to function physically and thought helps in creating that centre which is quite useful for our physical survival. When thought tries to create a centre psychologically in the form of ego and seeks security in non-factual and illusory things then it becomes fragmentary and destructive.  Self-inquiry which is awareness from moment to moment helps in discerning when and where thought is actually helpful and creative and when it becomes counterproductive and even detrimental to our peaceful survival. Can thought stop and withdraw from creating a psychological centre unnecessarily, out of mechanical habit?               

The real freedom is when I am not dictated by my past stories and am not looking through the pigeon-hole of my conditioning. Freedom lies in my potential to look at things directly without any distortion or interpretation. Looking  is a great art and as listening is. In our education hardly any attention is given to learning these arts. Without exploring and learning the art of looking and listening we cannot learn the art of living a life which is whole, harmonious and based on love and compassion.   

Let’s explore these arts. What is listening and looking? Is listening the same as physical hearing? Is looking the same as recognition? Hearing sounds and words, recognizing things inside or outside and deriving meaning out of those stimuli are only a part of this vast space of listening and looking. Listening and looking go much deeper than hearing and recognizing. Listening and looking demands a quality of attention, love and sensitivity. It is to receive and perceive something with one’s whole being, with one’s heart, mind and all the senses. I pay attention to something only when I am actually interested in it, when I feel certain passion and love towards that thing. If I do not feel for the subject I am exploring, if there is no love for it, then I will need to force myself because energy does not flow naturally in the absence of true interest and love. This is the common experience that when there is deep communion or love, we effortlessly pay attention and energy is naturally available to move, to explore and delve deeper.

Another important thing is that true listening and looking happens when the mind is silent. At the same time when we are actually in the deep moment of listening, looking and attention then also mind becomes naturally silent. An agitated mind is unable to look and listen properly. A chattering mind is unable to pay attention as it is automatically or habitually reacting from its past background. A mind that is not listening and looking becomes reactive and therefore insensitive and mechanical. There is a qualitative difference between reaction and response. A noisy mind is a reactive mind whereas a still mind is a responsive mind. A quiet mind is able to listen and watch with full energy and therefore respond to any challenge or problem with greater intelligence of life.  

It is interesting to note that the root meaning of the word "school" in Greek is "leisure". A school is an open space for learning and deep learning happens only when the mind is in a state of leisure. A competing mind is a restless and anxious mind. It will waste a lot of energy in the violent process of competition. Though it may become sharp and clever in memorising things and solving technical problems immediately and winning the race, it will lose its natural sensitivity and the capacity to live with wholeness, joy and love. Competition and rivalry are destructive to real creativity and establishing a peaceful and happy environment. Out of ruthless competition and exploitation we may succeed materialistically and technologically but our hearts will become dry and empty of true joy and love in the process.

I feel that all psychological suffering or crisis is essentially caused by the unobserved and therefore unquestioned false thoughts, beliefs and illusions held in the mind. Lack of clear perception is the root cause of suffering and fear. The first step towards transformation is to be aware of these illusions and false ideas about oneself. When we become aware of any illusion it loses power to dominate our psyche and therefor our life.

Self-inquiry is a movement of learning about oneself through deep listening, looking, awareness and questioning what is false and illusory. Self-inquiry helps us to discern what is essential and what is non-essential. Mistaking non-essential as essential and giving all importance to it and craving for it, struggling for it, is the root cause of misery, suffering and crisis. Through self-inquiry or direct observation we can really discern what is essential and what is non-essential in our life. No one else, no outside authority, is going to decide for me what is non-essential in my life except my own deep, honest and sincere observation. Asking a question and not immediately answering it with one’s intellectual knowledge, and staying with that question with silent watchfulness, is perhaps the only inner guide or teacher. I can drop a question into the consciousness and let that question work. For example, I may ask such a question: “Am I running after fame and recognition? Am I chasing future imaginary goals? Do they really exist? Do I really need them..?” Who would I be if I am not seeking anything except very basic essential needs?  

So can I be aware when I am chasing imaginary future goals? There is a great insight when Nisargadatta Maharaj  - a non-dual teacher of 20th century and author of “I Am That”- says: “When I do not want what I don’t need, all my needs are fulfilled.” The crux of all the problems and sufferings in my life is that I keep desiring those things which I may not be actually needing and they may not have any real existence apart from my imagination. This is a miracle of self-inquiry that the moment we see the false as false, the illusion as illusion, it drops or loses its power to dominate our lives.

The mind is usually occupied and hypnotized by dreaming about the past, present and future. Can I ever pause and ask: am I a prisoner of stories and illusory cravings created by thought? Can I stop believing in these stories that thoughts keep telling me? Who am I in the absence of these stories and my identification with them? The quality of my being and existence undergoes a deep change when I no longer believe in and identify with any story, propaganda or myth. When I begin to wake up through self-inquiry I may realize that the dream or nightmare – which is a creation of unobserved and unquestioned illusions held in my mind - is over and one’s being is filled with immense wonder, joy and love of the whole existence.

This is true that we are going through an unprecedented global crisis of recent times. The ever growing uncertainty seems to have become a new normal now and the fact of impermanence is becoming obvious in our daily life. This has a great implication from the point of view of learning and transformation since every crisis or suffering is a great teacher – provided one is open to listening to the teacher. I would say that a world-teacher has come in the form of a global crisis in 21st century. It is a great opportunity for a deeper learning and inward cleansing and healing for our collective existence on this beautiful planet. Any crisis could be turned into an invitation for an inward journey and transformation. This is also a rare breathing and healing time for our beautiful Earth. As we are part of earth/nature, nature always finds a way to bring its own healing. Whenever the great noise of all the inessential and exploitative activities of the human race come to a pause, it is an unburdening and healing experience for the human consciousness as well as for the earth. This  is a time to breathe, to sit back and rest deeply, to surrender to "what is" and to allow an inward-healing to take place. Of course, this may also be a time for the surfacing of our usually suppressed inner turmoil and upheaval. Even though it may be painful it is an unavoidable creative and transformative process. One may feel a real need to share or open-up our hearts and minds with complete trust and unconditional listening without any fear of judgment. Deep, unconditional listening and communion emerging out of true love and trust is a natural way of healing and transformation

©Mukesh Gupta, August 2020



School For Self Inquiry