Life is a mix with ominous overtones in these uncertain times. Up till couple of years ago, it was a mix of weal and woe mingled with opportunities for progress. Alas, in the muddled state of now, life is an almost clueless groping around, besieged as the world is by the enigmatic nature of the mix, laden with dreadful events setting off regrets and angst in grim patterns, leaving many deeply regretful of missed opportunities, follies and foibles, and angsty of looming uncertainties. A few others are grateful for life’s blessings, without being regretful about failed ventures. Regret may appear to be a natural emotion to some, but to others it is equally facile not to grieve over past or present adversities. Regret can also be a negative emotion, dissipating mental and physical energies.
The only difference between regret and fearful anxiety is that the former is in the context of past and the latter in the context of future. Regret may be a disappointment with a particular action or outcome even when a person’s efforts are based on his or her best construal in each situation. Given that related problems can spiral out of control due to its unpredictable dimension, they do not justify a person’s undue concern over an unfavorable outcome. Fretting or regretting, therefore, is against the immanent and inviolable laws of the universe operationalized by Infinity. Regret differs from remorse, which is a feeling of penance for moral transgressions. It positions the transgressor on a corrective course. In the overall scheme of things, the rough edges of negative events can effectively smoothen if these are deemed for ultimate betterment. Learning from mistakes and moving on, in a spirit of no regrets and forward-looking optimism, must be the way to go.
The general belief depicts gods as creators; but it is we who create our gods. We sense our purest qualities but are unable to accept them as ‘ self.’ We initially view them outside us, and call these our gods. At a deeper level, it is the vision of Self. Our highest ideas of the Self that we are unable to claim within us, we project as gods. Seers, who were able to visualize these highest potentials, expounded them in forms and names. Accordingly in Eastern traditions, auspiciousness, god-speed, life force and formless infinity are portrayed as Shiva, abundance as Lakshmi, and wisdom as Saraswati. And to further enumerate these qualities or essences – as each is made up of innumerable facets, these were anthropomorphized – stories and mythologies were woven around them as personalizing or humanizing an abstract quality led to easier comprehension. The crux is that divine qualities are attainable to those who are able to realize the higher potential within.
Our purest visions of Self become our gods, so we project the source outside as our goal. The gods are not stagnant, but are expanding every moment through us, their extended selves. Perfection is a dynamic state of being and not end of the road as often held out to be. As our current self thus taps into our ever expanding gods or higher potential, there is always more to attain. We contribute to our god selves and vice versa, and so the cycle goes on, also leading to a continually refined perspective on Nature, with the realization that excessive consumption of natural resources is headed towards cataclysmic ends. The way to resolve the conflict between human values and technological needs is not by shunning technology like neo-Luddites, but by breaking down the barriers of dualistic thinking that prevent a real understanding of what technology is – not an exploitation of nature, but the fusion of nature and the human spirit into a new kind of creation that transcends both. The world is first improved in one’s own heart, head and hands, and then worked outwards from there. Nature is a part of the divine, it is its expression. Before the divine can be brought into people’s lives, they must bring nature into their lives, not otherwise. The reverence for Nature ultimately transforms itself into a prayer to the divine, into the realization of consciousness. What is consciousness? Consciousness is the One without a second; the Source of everything, totality of manifestation, and everything therein, is Consciousness Itself. All there is, is Consciousness, not aware of Itself in Its noumenal subjectivity, but perceived by Itself as phenomenal manifestation in Its objective expression. What we really and truly are, is Consciousness Itself, the formless Brahman.
Whether the manifested universe exists or not, Consciousness is there as the subjective Absolute. Hence the appearance of the universe exists in infinite Consciousness, just as the notion of distance or emptiness exists in space. Consciousness cannot but be immanent in everything that appears to exist. Yet, no phenomenal manifestation can have any kind of relationship with Consciousness because a relationship can exist only between two entities. It is in this sense that Consciousness is transcendental to the manifested universe. What appears within Consciousness as its own reflection – the manifestation of the universe – is not separate or different from Consciousness. While the shadow, by itself, has no existence and is, therefore, unreal, the shadow is not different from the substance when seen together. Max Planck nails it precisely when he says that “I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness. We cannot get behind consciousness. Everything that we talk about, everything that we regard as existing, postulates consciousness”.
It is well known that the human brain has two sides, the left, consisting of the analytical and logical mind, and the right, representing one’s creative and artistic responses. It also delves deep into inner space and spirit. Modern education has aimed more at material and physical comfort with less emphasis on moral and spiritual well-being. As a result, societal development is lopsided; human mindset has turned materialistic, people have become self-centric rather than soul-centric. Wanton materialistic and sense-centric indulgence has led to spread of gross body consciousness, vices, vulgarity and crimes against vulnerable sections of society. True liberation can be attained through spiritual empowerment, which is key to all kinds of outer empowerments, whether socio-economic or political. It calls for consciousness training and transformation through awakening of one’s innate qualities and inner powers. In fact, spiritual qualities of peace, love, truth, cooperation, transparency and trustworthiness constitute the mother-power of salutary nurturing and transformation, of people and negativities. Happiness is everyone’s principal aim. Even countries have embraced the idea. The US constitution makes the ‘pursuit of happiness’ an inalienable right. In various forms, South Korea, Japan and Brazil also have happiness in their charters. Bhutan has a gross national happiness index. The UN celebrates World Happiness Day on 20th March every year.
But what exactly is happiness? Perhaps the best account of happiness is from Greek traditions. It falls into two broad buckets: one that focuses on pleasure, propagated by Epicurus; the other on virtue, advocated by Epictetus. Happiness can be defined in many ways. Hedonic happiness is achieved through experiences of pleasure and enjoyment, while eudaimonic happiness is achieved through pursuit of virtue, excellence and greater purpose. Both kinds of happiness contribute to overall wellness in different ways. Chasing one to the exclusion of the other, however, will not make for a complete life. It is up to each one to find the delicate balance of pleasure and virtue. Shawn Achor, whose TED talk on happiness is among the most viewed, has a simple premise. People think that happiness is a result of success. But neuroscience research shows that the reverse is actually true. His view is not about denial of problems, but a view about the power of human agency to overcome challenges. His research shows that career success is 25% predicted by IQ, the rest by a person’s optimism levels, social support and the ability to see stress as a challenge instead of as a threat. The bottom-line is that the external world can only predict 10% of people’s long-term happiness. The remaining 90% is determined by how the brain processes the world. Indeed, happiness comes from within.
Robert Biswas-Diener in his research, the AIM Model of Happiness, sifts out three factors: attention, interpretation and memory. What we pay attention to is what dominates our mind. So, to be happy, one should not underestimate the small, good things that happen every day. The world is a laboratory for interpretation, and objective responses will trump emotional ones in providing happiness. Memories are to be used as assets. Investing in experiences and savouring them can pay big dividends. Money’s contribution to happiness reaches the point of marginal returns quickly. Not having money reduces happiness, but having more money does not necessarily increase happiness. Social scientist Arthur C Brooks has three formulae for happiness. One, subjective well-being is a sum of genes, circumstances and habits. He focuses on habits since genetic dispositions are predetermined, and the effect of circumstances are transitory because of psychological homeostasis, an evolutionary trait that enables people to quickly get used to both good and bad circumstances.
For analyzing habits, Brooks provides another valuable equation: habits are a sum of faith, family, friends and work. Here, faith refers not to religion per se, but to a mental and emotional framework through which one can contemplate life’s deeper questions. The importance of friends and family is demonstrated in another classic study initiated at Harvard in 1938, which tracked the lives of 724 men. The first group comprised Harvard sophomores, and the second was a group of boys from one of Boston’s poorest neighbourhoods. The results were profound: more socially connected people were happier, with happiness not driven by numerical strength of connections but depth of relationships. The study showed that people who reported being the happiest in their 80s were those who were most satisfied with their relationships at 50.
Looking at work, Brooks finds the centrality of productive human endeavour in creating a sense of purpose leading to happiness. Brooks’ third equation: satisfaction is what you have divided by what you want. His emphasis is on the denominator, eerily similar to the Vedic philosophy of controlling one’s wants and stepping down from the hedonic treadmill. Being happy often means looking beyond imperfections and stepping on the escalators of gratitude, kindness and a smiling disposition that cultivates intention without attachment, focused more on intrinsic than extrinsic goals. Pertinent here is also Dale Carnegie’s idea of living in ‘day-tight compartments’ to complement long term ambitions. Our main business is not to see what lies dimly at a distance but to do what lies clearly at hand. Saddled with too many tasks, we become frozen in fear and move around in circles, like deer caught in front of vehicle headlights, as we try to think our way out of problems; we get into an anxiety mindset and find ourselves living in the future instead of doing the needed duly focused on the now. Anxiety sets in and suddenly, everything seems so much worse than it actually is. Living with this constant baseline level of anxiety is the reason why we struggle to achieve what we want to. The solution is mindfulness and living for the day as a habit. The concept of day-tight compartment is best explained using ship as an analogy; like large, long-voyaging vessels equipped with water-tight compartments efficiently serving multiple functions in accordance with the mariner’s command, our own voyage must navigate towards successful living by compartmentalizing each day to maximize it to its fullest potential before congruently flowing through to the next, maintaining a course that greatly reduces regret by obviating errors of omission and commission, and angst by trimming down room for negative outcomes.
Still unclear, the niggling thought may be, …but focused only on today, how do I work towards future goals? Dr William Osler, celebrated as the father of modern medicine, was a prolific achiever in his field; he accomplished the feat not by eschewing goals, but by redefining it across available timescales and utilizing each day to inch closer towards targets. By setting goals and utilizing each day-tight compartment to hyper-focus on every single task that speeds one closer to goals, a person transitions from a life of endless distraction and worry to one lived calmly, mindfully and productively.
And the future? Is it possible to know what tomorrow will bring? There are three known possibilities. The first thing is that tomorrow is going to be different from today. It is naive to think otherwise. The second is that tomorrow is not only going to be different from today, it is also bound to be different from what is expected. That is the very nature of life. And most importantly the third, a person makes his own tomorrow by what he does today. Through regular mulling over the course of action, the cosmic energy signals will keep becoming stronger pointing to the right path. Hence, instead of choosing to drift with worldly currents, the aspiration must be to catch higher tides of awareness to avoid getting mired in shallows of mechanical living.
Awareness. If we are constantly aware, life is always interesting, for everything inspires us. Awareness is not alertness. Alertness requires effort and has an element of stress. Awareness is stress-free alertness. When we are in this relaxed state, zeal and interest are spontaneous. From Interest arises memory and dedication. No task is to be executed mechanically. Even the mundane act of stirring a spoon of sugar into a cup of tea is to be practised with complete awareness as it always leads to a deep sense of joy and connect with the Source. “Lord, we are rivers running to Thy sea, / Our waves and ripples all derived from Thee, / A nothing we should have, a nothing be / Except for Thee” (Christina Rossetti). “Just as the flowing rivers disappear in the ocean casting off name and shape, even so the knower, freed from name and shape, attains to the divine person, higher than the high” (Mundaka Upanishad). Here, ‘the higher than the high’ is the unmanifested. The souls attain universality of spirit, a-visesatma-bhavam. Eckhart says, ‘And here one cannot speak about the soul any more, for she has lost her name yonder in the oneness of divine essence. There she is no more called soul; she is called immeasurable being’, attaining, according to Vedas, equality of nature and not identity of being.