Friday, 11 April 2014

Unconscious Competence

Sometimes it seems so hard to change. The ‘lower nature’ returns to haunt us, we easily slip back into bad habits, and annoying desires (which we thought were dead and buried) somehow re-appear. It’s frustrating and disappointing when one falls short of the spiritual ideals they seek. They know where they want to be, but it seems a far and distant reality. Will I ever come to the standard of purity I earnestly seek? Are these descriptions of the perfect character simply utopian ideals? How do I progress to perfection?

Lucky for us, the Bhagavad-gita is a book of supreme optimism. Even when faced with the disappointment of failure, there is still reason to take heart and smile. How so? At the lowest stage of ‘unconscious incompetence’, one's deficient character, destructive desires and wayward habits aren’t even a cause of concern. Only when one progresses to the stage of ‘conscious incompetence’, however, do they become aware of their defects and consciously feel the need to improve. That’s quite a jump indeed. Even if one’s behaviour hasn’t changed, the change of values is itself a great sign of progress.

Yet that should eventually mature into a change of character. From the stage of ‘conscious incompetence’, one next embraces the platform of ‘conscious competence’. Here, one makes a concerted effort to act in the proper way; often mechanically and forcibly, one trains themselves in a way of living that mirrors their aspiration. Even though it may feel mechanical and artificial, one is learning to be natural. Finally, in deep spiritual maturity, the proper behaviour and attitude becomes manifest from within, and one lives their ideals spontaneously, effortlessly and joyously. This perfected stage is known as ‘unconscious competence’.

Friday, 21 March 2014

Flying Solo

It’s a brave and bold step to strive for purity in a world of degradation, to embrace simplicity amongst rampant materialism, and to cultivate selflessness in an atmosphere surcharged with exploitation. Anyone who cuts against the grain will face temptation, doubt, ridicule and moments of weakness. Without the encouragement, support and good advice of spiritual friends how can one continue? We can’t do it alone.

Yet the Bhagavad-gita repeatedly highlights the transitory nature of life: the body changes, fortunes change, people change, and ultimately, relationships change. Individuals, even spiritualists, come in and out of our lives. Thus, while drawing inspiration from others, we must learn to stand on our own two feet. Camaraderie is essential, but there is a simultaneous need for self-sufficiency – even if everyone disappears, one must have the tenacity to continue. This deep conviction and individual strength is an essential element of spiritual success, which actually allows us to contribute more when we do come together in spiritual circles.

Etymologically, the word ‘guru’ means ‘heavy.’ The great saint Bhaktisiddhanta gives an interesting illumination: spiritual preceptors are so heavy that they cannot be budged from their spiritual resolve. Come what may, hell or high water, challenges and changes, their determination remains steadfast and unaffected. Our individual connection with God must become substantial and meaningful, strong enough to carry us through this turbulent world. Then, the inevitable chaos of life becomes simply background noise in our resolute internal journey towards purity.

With the kind help of the saintly, always feeling grateful for and dependent on their good wishes, we must learn to fly our own plane.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Top Gear

You may (or may not) be surprised to know that our monks don’t have the best track record with vehicles. We seem to be in and out of the mechanics every couple of weeks. As I patiently waited for a tyre change on Monday, I began thinking of how a spiritual movement is just like a car.

Spiritual Inspiration (fuel) – just as cars need juice, the impetus for a movement comes from vibrancy of spirituality. Only when members are feeling inspired, nourished and happy, can the movement push forward and impact the world. To give life, we ourselves have to be alive.

Organisation & Structure (machinery) – if the mechanics are suspect, the car will constantly start and stop; lots of frustration and very little progress. Similarly, a movement can only stride forward when proper systems are in place to focus, channel and sustain the momentum. Even spirit needs to be managed.

Culture & Ethos (steering) – cars need navigation through the urban landscape. Inattentive steering will damage the car, injure the passengers and wreak havoc for everyone else. In the same way, only when a movement is grounded in the culture of respect, and human dealings are conducted in a saintly manner, can we pass through conflicts, issues and obstacles and without inflicting permanent damage.

Good cars with able drivers can’t move without fuel.
Mechanically suspect cars will invariably breakdown.
Bad drivers crash even the best cars.
Fuel, machinery and steering: all three are essential to reach the top gear.

Friday, 14 February 2014

Free Speech

We live in an overcommunicated world. Good etiquette insists we reply to all text messages within 10 minutes, be mindful of the mountain of emails building up in our inbox, and unfailingly return all ‘missed calls’ on our phones. Don’t forget to regularly post something witty on Facebook, follow your best friends on twitter and utilise all the free airtime minutes on your contract! It is, after all, good to talk. But what is the net result of this web of exchange? Does it bring a greater sense of relationship and community? Is it a case of more connected, but further apart?

Silence, it’s said, is the art of conversation. We often struggle with a quiet moment. When it does arise, most will instinctively grab their phone in a drastic attempt to engage their mind. To see someone sitting and doing absolutely nothing is rare! Even more unusual is to be with another person and not say anything. It feels awkward and uneasy. Yet silence is imperative – it forces us to understand, assimilate, reflect and think deeply about what is actually going on. Often times, however, in order to frantically fill those redundant moments we often end up generating substandard content to share with the world: meaningless, speculative and shoddy communication.

Don’t get me wrong, there is definitely room for chitchat, niceties, and light-hearted exchange between humans. It would be unnatural to jump to the other extreme of strictly regulating our every word. The Bhagavad-gita, however, offers the over-arching model to guide speech. Words, Krishna recommends, should be truthful, pleasing and beneficial. How much of our written and verbal communication would make it through this filter? Along with freedom of speech, it may be worthwhile to remind people of their longstanding right to freedom of thought.

“Wise men speak because they have something to say; fools because they have to say something” (Plato)

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Dancing God

Nowadays you have to use the word “God” with great caution - it can conjure up all kinds of images. Some think of God as a strict and unforgiving judge; the old man who sits on a grand throne and hurls down thunderbolts every time someone deviates. Others consider Him a crutch for the weak; an imaginary being who brings peace, hope and comfort, but has little to do with objective reality. Some think of God as a mythological tool of the power hungry elite, used to keep the masses in line and maintain the status quo. For many, God is simply the cosmic order-supplier; a convenient port of call in times of need and want.

The Vedic canon paints a slightly different picture. Their extraordinary revelation is not only that God exists, but that He is bursting with colour, character and bliss. God is “Raso vai sah”  – the very embodiment of affectionate relationships, loving relish, and transcendental sweetness.

"I would only believe in a God that knows how to dance" - Fredrick Nietszche

Sri Krishna, the Supreme personality, eternally resides in the spiritual world. That realm is known as Vaikuntha, the place of no anxiety, the place where every step is a dance, every word a song, and where all relationships are infused with selfless love. In that abode the spontaneous and natural relationships with Krishna transcend ritual, formality and reverence; fully satisfying the heart’s yearning. Song and dance, two of the most intense forms of emotional expression, are very much a part of the daily schedule.

Maybe Nietszche was searching for Krishna, the enchanting flute-player who dances with the cowherd maidens in the moonlight. Maybe we all are.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Private Eye

Although it’s a popular notion that some people lead a double-life, I’m tending towards three. We have a public life: what we do when anyone and everyone can see us. We have a personal life: interactions and relationships with our close circle of friends. And finally we have a private life: behaviours behind closed doors when nobody else is watching. Community, camaraderie, and a strong inner life are essential components in the achievement of anything. Our spirituality is also nourished and developed in these three arenas.

Imagine we played a movie showing our public, personal and private life side-by-side. Would everything match up? Would it look like the same person? Maybe not. Some may call it hypocrisy, duplicity and pretence, but there could be more to the story. Often times it’s not deliberate or devious, but simply the result of human weakness. Social pressures, the weight of expectation and the fear of judgement can force us to present an image which is not entirely accurate. The external fa├žade helps to deal with the internal lacking. To find somebody who embodies complete purity and integrity on all three levels is rare. Yet that spiritual consistency is our cherished goal. It’s a struggle, but we have to look for perfect alignment in all aspects of our life.

Strengthening the spirituality in our private life may help; the inside-out approach is what we see in the lives of great saints. Slipping away into solitary surroundings, with nobody to impress and nothing to achieve, these great personalities would focus on making a deep spiritual connection. Their living quarters were temporary arrangements like the hollow of a tree, a clearing under a thorny thicket, or an underground cave. Here they would slide into spiritual fixation and have their deepest exchanges with God, often continuing for hours on end. Their spiritual practice wasn’t casual or ritualistic. It wasn’t simply a discipline – it was full of emotion and feeling. An earnest call from the core of the heart. The spiritual conviction generated pervaded every iota of their being. It effortlessly oozed into every aspect of their life. They were illuminated from within, and were thus exemplary in thought, word and action. Truly amazing.

Friday, 27 December 2013

Great Escape

Nothing can compare to lessons ‘on the road’. After spending nearly 250 hours over the last month speaking to random people from multifarious walks of life, I’ve gained some new insights and reconfirmed several old ones. A few days ago I asked everyone I met what they do to relax. The top 3 answers: 1) Sleep 2) Entertainment (TV, movies, video games) 3) Intoxication. It’s interesting that all three activities are essentially an attempt to disconnect oneself from ‘real life’. After we’ve seen, done, tried and bought it all, we usually end up wanting to escape it. Although most return to play the same game again, a rare few decide to ‘retire’ and seek something higher. According to the Bhagavad-gita, however, this desire to ‘escape’ the world is entirely natural.

“If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.”  – C.S Lewis

The Vedic scriptures offer a variety of enchanting accounts describing the nature of the metaphysical world. In that realm, every step is a dance, every word is a song, every action is motivated by pure love, and the atmosphere is infused with ever-increasing transcendental happiness. Sounds good. Maybe too good. Ethereal concepts formulated to distract us from the aches and pains of the ‘real’ world? Fairytale accounts fit for those living in cloud-cuckoo-land? Could there be reality beyond what we see around us?

Instead of dismissing our deepest and innermost desires as childish, naive and unrealistic, it may be worth exploring where such universal longings come from. Why is the yearning for immortality and unimpeded happiness common to every entity in the universe? Maybe such desires reveal something about our higher nature and self. Maybe such desires are a constant reminder to seek further and go deeper.

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Quietly Confident

I’m all set for a one-month break from computers, meetings and management (even monks can’t escape these things!). Taking full advantage of the festive season, we’ll travel the country sharing spiritual wisdom in the form of thousands of books; ancient writings which are ‘food for thought’ in a fast-paced world. Our approximate route: London – Norwich – Hull – Sheffield – Lincoln - Chesterfield- Stafford - Nottingham - Derby – Mansfield - Leicester - London (and a lot of smaller towns in between!). Last week I dropped off the books for our team in various locations. The sight of nearly four thousand books piled high to the ceiling was slightly bewildering! Would it be possible to stand in a bustling town-centre, stop people at random, and inspire the otherwise-engaged shoppers to seriously contemplate higher truths? Have we ambitiously over-ordered our stock? Will people really be interested? Where do we get the confidence to undertake such a task?

The modern self-development gurus teach us that confidence comes from within. You have to “believe in yourself”. If you are sure, others will be sure – your consciousness creates the reality. They tell us to be optimistic about our abilities, to pride ourselves in our strengths, and to have the conviction that anything is possible if we try hard enough. This ‘material confidence’ may work in a limited scope for a short time. Such confidence, however, which is rooted in self-assurance, will gradually deflate. We eventually realise that we’re not what we pumped ourselves up to be. In his prime, Muhammed Ali would proudly assert: “I am the greatest”. Later in life he realised his folly, declaring that he was in actuality the greatest fool for attempting to usurp the Supreme position.

Real confidence comes from humility. We realise our inherent limitations, but gain firm conviction from knowing that the all-powerful will of providence is on our side. With such transcendental back-up, anything is possible. One who is ‘quietly confident’, their surety grounded in humility and dependence, can achieve unimaginable things in this world. Pride, complacency and hopelessness are not found in their dictionary. Seeing themselves as merely instruments, their job is to just “get out of the way” and let the divine magic manifest. I’m trying to learn the art of being a ‘quietly confident’ ambassador of goodwill. By accessing the wisdom of Bhagavad-gita, people can flourish on all levels: physically, emotionally, socially and most importantly, spiritually. This is welfare work with a difference. I hope I’ll play a small part in connecting people to this spiritual powerhouse.


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