Annus horribilis 2020? It appears as such from most events and manifestations thus far. As customary around this time of the year, there is the relief of ending (of horrible times) and the hope of a bright new year. The worst is getting over, or so is the expectation, and the new is around the corner. Most people are conditioned to participate in the recurring ritual at midnight of every 31st December accompanied by the countdown that wipes the slate clean for the all-new to set in. Alas, it is just another evanescent bubble far removed from truth. There will be a sure flip of date on the calendar but it makes no difference to Nature whether the calendar is Vikram Samvat, Roman, Gregorian or Lunar. Animals and birds are blissfully unaware of any change because there really is none and nothing is any different. The mountains stay as majestic, the rivers flow, the tides keep ebbing and flooding in and out; the stars maintain their celestial journey but here we earthlings are prancing about in a parody of some grotesque dance, singing lustily and tunelessly, though in muffled tones this time around, in keeping with the sombreness of 2020, also linked to the passing away of some highly regarded writers, musicians, environmentalists, political leaders and sportspersons. Problems and tragedies cannot be wished away by a mere shift in time. Solutions are, however, possible through paradigm shifts in mindsets by imbibing lessons of the passing year. Patience, empathy, minimalism, adaptability and sustainable living are the qualities needed to take us forward. Trying to ring in the new year without taking these attributes on board amounts to just another diddly squat, that’s it.
The fundamental human urge is invariably to become better than the present, and keep going further incrementally, if not in giant leaps. Essentially longing to expand limitlessly, in an endeavour to approach the infinite in instalments. The strained expression of human desire is described as ‘ambition’. Ambition is a fanciful idea of what one should become. Whereas ‘vision’ is a larger picture of what should happen to everything around oneself. If everyone moves from ambition to vision, then our collective genius will unlock itself to achieve seemingly impossible objectives. The words of David Bohm assume contextual relevance: “We are internally related to everything, not externally related….consciousness is an internal relationship to the whole, we take in the whole and we act towards the whole, and whatever we take in, determines basically what we are.”
Often blinded by orthodoxies and conditioning, we step on snakes, run into fire and allow needles to poke us. Snakes of attachments, fire of desires, and needles of jealousy and covetousness. They bite, burn and hurt. We call it suffering and we think that this is the way of life. We mistake our pain for our suffering. We have little control over the former but the latter is in our hands. We can take things in our stride or be tossed about in the tide. The choice is ours. Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional. Loss is unavoidable, grief is not. Death is certain. Life’s uncertainty, unpredictability, even irrationality make it worthwhile, a blessing. One can see its dimensions as appalling, boring and devious or as adventurous, beautiful and captivating. Up to us. Hearts filled with loving kindness, time enriched with noble actions, mind with good thoughts will eliminate suffering from life, like sadness from a heart that is content. Needles cannot prick one’s soul nor can fire burn it. And snakes, one may ask, what about the snakes of attachment? Well, an evolved person, at the spiritual heights of a Shiva, wraps them around his neck and yet remains unharmed.
Confined to home for most part of the year, we decided to move out to Kumarakom, a nearby lake resort, to enjoy the last weekend of December 2020. Uplifting it was, to spend time on the banks of the almost-sea like Vembanad lake and gratifying to lean on the bark of one or other of the many palm trees of its sylvan banks to absorb some of the equanimity and tranquillity that trees exude, as sentinels of wisdom, as it were, always unfazed, yet so giving, even as they soar skyward. Resting against the tree’s generous trunk is indeed very comforting. Probably this is what inspired sages to meditate beneath trees and attain enlightenment, facilitated in no small measure, perhaps, by the trees themselves. Both the Buddha and Mahavira are popularly depicted seated under a tree, radiating calm and wisdom, comforting all who came to them for succour. The concept is to just be in the forest, allowing the forest to caress and heal, as one opens up all the senses to receive its grace. Interestingly, scientists have found that spending time with trees boosts one’s immunity, via phytonicides – essential oils released by trees and plants to defend against insects, animals and decomposition – something we sorely need amidst contagions in no hurry to go away
With an abundance of coconut palm trees dominating its landscape, the resort is appropriately named ‘Whispering Palms’. It is a whisper that is audible in the pervading silence. Silence does not mean the absence of sound. It has a sound, a resonance, or, rather, it has many undetectable sounds creating a symphony perceivable at subtler levels. In the desert, the silence is composed of the whispered sigh of sand caressed by the invisible hand of the wind. In the forest, it is the gossipy chatter of breeze-ruffled leaves, the deep exhalation of giant trees; at the banks of Vembanad, it is the lake’s soothing babble and, in distant counterpoint, the lone call of a water fowl. To such sounds of silence are added the undertones of our own breathing, the rhythm of heart beat and the tidal pulse of blood coursing within us in tune with undulating waters of the lake. There is something called Brownian motion, so named after Robert Brown, a 19th C Scottish scientist, who first noted it as consisting of molecular interaction acting as a kind of background static, a faint buzz. The aria of birdsong and the scurry and scamper of squirrels added to the stillness of the surrounding, contributing to the sound of silence, a sound drowned in a raging tidal wave of cacophony as soon as one reverted to urban sprawls.
Life, surrounded by nature, can be awesome, instilling the feeling that we are a part of something greater than ourselves. Awe is triggered by wonder. Virginia Sturm, professor of neurology, University of California says, “It is such a simple thing to look around for small wonders while you exercise and there is no downside”. The good news is that awe can be cultivated in our daily lives. Consciously watching out for small wonders around us and invoking a spiritual perspective can inspire feelings of awe, a simple way to overcome worry and improve overall health. Looking at everything with fresh, childlike eyes can make us adept at discovering and amplifying awe.
The world is full of magical things, waiting for our senses to grow sharper. One may undertake awe excursions in nature and pay attention to everything around. Experiencing awe makes us more generous towards others, enhances creativity and moves us to do things for the greater good. It is found to increase feelings of connectedness, engender positivity and decrease attachment to materialism. According to Polish philosopher Henryk Skolimowski, “The first act of awe, when man was struck by the beauty or wonder of Nature, was the first spiritual experience”.
Epicurus of Samos was a major philosopher during the Hellenistic period, who influenced many later thinkers like Karl Marx, Kant and Nietzsche. He founded The Garden, a place where his teachings were put into practice. Contrary to the then prevailing Greek culture, his radical equality enabled women and slaves to join his school. The misunderstanding of his philosophy which persists till today is that it is rampantly hedonistic and self-indulgently pleasure-seeking, exhorting people to “eat, drink and be merry, / for tomorrow we may die”. In reality, his philosophy uses pleasure as the highest good, that which is valued for its own sake and not for the sake of anything else. He pointed out that one’s actions need to be directed towards attaining ataraxia, that is, deep calm and tranquillity. Ataraxia implies abstaining from unnecessary desires and remaining content with simple things and pursuing virtuous habits. Epicurus clarified all of the virtues as ultimately forms of prudence, and seeing what is in one’s best interest. The absence of prudence is when indulgence is equated with pleasure – such as excessive indulgence that ultimately offsets the initial pleasure and leads to pain. The key concern should be the weighing of pros and cons, of long and short term satisfaction as in the shreyas and preyas of the Upanishads, driving home the message of minimalism, empathy and sustainability.
A new year never fails to urge us to get on those weighing scales and make a solemn, earnest resolution to shed excess weight. Jog regularly, eat right, exercise, are all on the to-do list at least for a couple of weeks until it all gets forgotten in the hurly burly of life. But what of the weight, the burden, we have been heaping on planet Earth? Do we have any thoughts on shedding those mega pounds before we paint ourselves into a corner? According to scientists researching human impact on Earth, the mass of all human-created things including built-up infrastructure, vehicles and all manner of manufactured goods, now “exceeds the weight of all living things on the planet”. Not only that, using a combination of computational and experimental synthetic biology tools and satellite imagery, systems biologist Ron Milo of the Weizmann Institute of Science and his team in Israel approximate that “the amount of new material added every week equals the total weight of Earth’s nearly eight billion people”. And we thought it is only our homes that are overflowing with stuff. So, not only do we need to declutter our individual homes, we also must set about decluttering our collective abode, planet Earth!
Urban ecologist Timon McPhearson says that these study results ought to convince anyone that humans are indeed dominating the planet and not in pleasant ways. Since we are wielding such a huge influence on the planet, this age is being referred to as the Anthropocene Age. “Buildings and other infrastructure weigh more than the world’s trees and shrubs, and the mass of plastic is double that of all animals”, reports Science magazine.
While material transgressions have palpable outcomes, aberrations caused by extreme positions in thought and action may take time to reveal themselves. Buddha strongly advised the Middle Path that avoids both extreme asceticism and worldly overindulgence. Confucius pointed out that excess and deficiency are in fact one and the same thing, both straying away from the ideal of moderation. The Greeks promoted the Golden Mean, a philosophy that cautioned against both excess and deficiency. Al-Ghazali declared, “What is wanted is a balance between extravagance and miserliness through moderation, with the goal of distance between both extremes. As Krishna points out in the Gita, while overeating is gluttony, the one who refuses to eat is an egoist. The one who chooses moderation, a person of equanimity, finds the right balance. The Vedic culture had the required elasticity to embrace varied and newer dimensions into which our society grew in the march of time. The ideas enshrined in the Upanishads couched as discussions held by sages and their disciples in the forests along the banks of the Ganga, the way of life and the eternal values promoted therein, inspired in people an association with the mountains, trees, the silence and spirit of renunciation.
The Gita offers a practical handbook of instructions on how best to organise our ways of thinking, feeling and acting in everyday life and draw from ourselves a larger gush of productivity to enrich the external life around us and to emblazon the subjective life within us, unfolding a way of life whereby one is enabled to be socially more productive and individually more balanced and tranquil, pursuing life at peace with oneself. It has the right prescription for our sufferings – in the marketplace, in the squalor of slums or the luxury of drawing rooms, in the commune and the barracks. It serves us where we are; whoever we may be, whatever may be our challenges, irrespective of time and place, regardless of caste and creed. The more vigorous the wordly life, the greater the number and intensity of problems. Where there are no problems, there the life has decayed, and the community is dead. Life is a problem only at the realization of not knowing how to meet its challenges, despairing under the phobia of problems. Merely designating 2020 as annus horribilis and wishing it away as one of those horrible years without drawing the right lessons may be akin to a traveller shutting eyes to valuable signboards at her own peril. It must be treated as an year of learning and awareness going, hopefully, into making 2021 as annus mirabilis, a wonderful year.