Life - World as Laboratory World as Self
by Rajni Bakshi
The Hancock Tower is one of the tallest skyscrapers in Chicago. Its top floor is maintained as a public gallery. People pay to go up there and gaze down from a level that comes naturally only to eagles. Some years ago I had an
opportunity to stand on that gallery leaning gingerly forward on its entirely glass wall. On a clear day you can find yourself towering over not only Chicago and its ocean-like Lake Michigan but the endless plains of mid-America.
However, for me, the grip of this view was soon broken by another feature of that gallery - a large video screen that was running a short film on a loop. The film was an invitation to examine distances at multiples of 10. Its opening scene showed the close-up of a man asleep. At a distance of 10 feet, we see that he is lying on grass. As the camera rises to a 100 feet we see that he is lying in a large public park. At a thousand feet the man is barely visible and the park appears dwarfed by the buildings and streets around it. At a hundred thousand feet even the city has vanished and we are gazing upon the earth through swirls of clouds and wind currents.
As this process of multiplying distance continues we see the entire earth, blue and gem-like, floating in dark space. Soon, even the earth fades to less than a speck as this visual journey of growing distance continues till we are flung beyond our solar system, even beyond the Milky Way. The journey finally comes to a halt in the vast glimmering stretches of deep space. This visual, presumably an amalgam of images now being recorded by incredibly powerful telescopes, was astounding. Against the backdrop of black nothingness was a dense mass of dull blobs of light.
The film then moved into reverse gear. At a faster speed, all the scenes flashed by till we were back in the park gazing upon that man relaxing on the grass. Now, said the somewhat sparse commentary in the film, let us undertake the same journey inside this man's body. So the telescopic journey was turned into a microscopic journey. It began with a visual of the man's hand at a distance of about 10 cm and then a visual of what lies beneath - layers of skin, network of veins, arteries, nerves, and so on. This journey, presumably using actual micro-biological photos and/or drawings, finally took us inside a single human cell. And there lay the stunning discovery. That image inside the single cell was astoundingly similar to that earlier visual of deep space - blobs of particles amid a backdrop of seeming nothingness.
For me this film was an amazingly accessible demonstration of how the macro-cosmos and micro-cosmos are akin, how we are but a speck in the universe and yet each cell in our body is like a universe.
Private and Public
The life process, or rather the journey we call 'life', has simultaneously an inner and outer dimension. There is the temporally and spatially bound 'I', whose only absolute certainty is a finite existence. There is the world, or stage, of this existence. Then there is eternity or the unknown, limitless, timeless expanse of the universe -infinity. Every living being simultaneously inhabits all three dimensions. Human beings are unique among sentient creatures for pondering, "Why am I here?", "Who am I?" These existential questions lie at the base of all human endeavours, whatever the level of self-awareness.
From the moment of birth, the needs, wants, compulsions of this 'I' quite involuntarily condition our view of the world. Witness the burgeoning attachment of the infant child towards whoever provides for his or her needs, regardless of whether it is the biological parent, adoptive parent or hired help. However, within the first few weeks the infant responds to much more than fulfillment of basic needs. It smiles, gurgles and reaches out towards all forms of amusement, stimulation and affection entirely unrelated to hunger or other physical comforts. Later, all of childhood is filled with the wonder of the mysterious, unfathomable ways in which the external world presents itself to us. I have vivid childhood memories of wondering if perhaps the blue sky is the inside of a huge ball in which this world and my life are encased.
In some ways this 'wonder' remains throughout life, however much data, details and sophisticated analysis we add on. Perhaps it is the nature and quality of this wonder that colors how we make our way through the world and determines how we balance the 'private' and the 'public'. That is, the tussle between the compulsions of our inner journey and the demands of external reality.
The question here is: why is this a tussle and what is its nature? What is the 'bondage' that we struggle with?
The roots of this tussle lie in a rather elementary paradox: 'I' want to enjoy this world and yet I also want freedom from it. There is one, a lower order of needs and wants related not only to bodily comfort and sensory pleasures but a sense of achievement and self-expression. These needs and wants must necessarily be played out on the world's stage. Then there is two, the higher need for freedom from circumstance. This is essentially an inner journey for which the world is at best a testing, training ground.
The problem of bondage has broadly two dimensions. The first is that the 'I' struggles with, or against, all the many limitations presented to it by circumstance such as limits of our abilities, material resources, opportunities, and so on. The struggle to overcome these limitations, or narrow the gap between my life's desires and their physical fulfillment possible in the world, is in many cases sufficient to fill a lifetime.
The second, far more profound and excruciating experience of bondage arises from the need to go beyond circumstances, instead of being a slave to circumstance. This sense of bondage is rooted in the awareness of (and panic about) my finite, perhaps utterly insignificant, existence in the infinitude of the cosmos.
At this point a brief self-introduction and statement of purpose seems to be in order.
Struggle for Balance
For most of the last 25 years I have worked as a journalist on two assumptions. One, it is a ringside view to virtually the entire gamut of contemporary events and trends, thus it is a lively way of observing and understanding human nature. And two, more importantly, journalism is an important field in the battle of ideas and thus can be a vital instrument in the struggle for building a more humane and just world. Over the years writing has become part of a larger endeavour which is to explore how lines of communication, and even dialog, can be established across lines of apparent conflict.
The fundamental premise of this endeavour is that there can be no positive social change without internal individual change. That is, you have to be the change you wish to see in the world. The private 'I' has to be what it wishes the public realm, the world, to be.
In response to the question outlined above I will attempt to deal with just two aspects of bondage here. One, there is a tension between one's 'public' role and duty as a social activist and the need for meditative withdrawal, for solitude. Two, there is the constant struggle to narrow the gap between the qualities one seeks to cultivate and the actual 'self' that interacts with the world. It is fair to warn the reader that this is an articulation of puzzles and questions for I am short of answers and know primarily that I do not know.
The earliest memories of locating my 'self' in the world are crowded by the awareness of enormous privilege bestowed upon me. In a world where so many people are deprived of so many essentials, I am endowed with much more than the basics of a comfortable life. This is the starting point of most social activists. The search for purpose in life is molded by the possibility that perhaps one has been endowed with so much extra so that one may undertake to change things for the better.
This line of reasoning can also be boosted by a nagging sense of disenchantment with conventional success - top marks in college or a high-flying job. The answer to this disenchantment seems to lie in striving for some larger, higher goal. So you seek to link yourself to a dream that is beyond your individual life and extends to the world. An engagement in making revolution or even moderate social change can, for some people, permanently meet the need for giving their life a purpose in this world.
Others soon find that this is not enough. For them the phenomenal world is inherently lacking as a source of fulfillment or even sustenance. This experience inevitably gives rise to an awareness of the limits of the intellect. The essence of my own life, and thus the larger reality of which even this vast world is only a part, appears to be beyond the cognitive and analytical machinery of the intellect.
At this point some people can be drawn fully into the contemplative life - with a neatly defined area of work in the world to ensure livelihood. Yet others feel compelled to both engage in the pursuit of justice through social activism and also nurture the inner quest. 'Engaged Buddhism' is a powerful example of the latter, where both monks and lay people are engaged in simultaneously the contemplative life and social action.
However much one may have reasoned out the balance between action in the world and the inner contemplative quest of one's life - a lingering sense of bondage persists. This has to do with a conflict that we generate for ourselves, that is, I cannot bring myself to withdraw from social action and yet I weary of all its hurly-burly and hassles and long for a simpler life which has more space for solitude.
Most of us muddle along on this path attempting constantly to strike a balance between engagement and withdrawal. Perhaps the greatest aid to this process, also the biggest challenge, is the realization that without this world as testing ground I have no way of gauging my inner quest. That is, the world presents itself as a laboratory in which I am invited to perfect myself through a ceaseless process of trial and error.
This brings us to the second aspect of the question we are exploring, that is the constant struggle to narrow the gap between the qualities one seeks to cultivate and the actual 'self' that interacts with the world. There are two aspects of this struggle that I will focus on here. One is the effort to be transparent, that is, the same on the inside and outside, so that the private and public persona are one. Two, is the effort to seek within one's self those qualities which are in consonance with the ideals one 'believes in' - such as the capacity for true listening.
Before discussing the challenge this presents, here is a passage that has inspired me, informed my search and speaks volumes about the two points mentioned above:
"He had great charm. He was a remarkable natural phenomenon, quiet and insidiously overwhelming. Intellectual contact with him was a delight because he opened his mind and allowed one to see how the machine works. He did not attempt to express his ideas in finished form. He thought aloud; he revealed each step in his thinking. You heard not only words but also his thoughts. You could therefore follow him as he moved to a conclusion. This prevented him from talking like a propagandist; he talked like a friend. He was interested in an exchange of views, but much more in the establishment of a personal relationship."
here are no prizes for knowing, or guessing, that the person described here is Mahatma Gandhi. The passage is taken from the chapter 'My Week With Gandhi' in Louis Fischer's The Life of Mahatma Gandhi (Harper and Row, 1983). Gandhi's entire life gave new depth and richness to the perennial equation between private and public. The two realms were seamlessly welded in this one life, with a bold openness that even his devoted admirers often found embarrassing.
The truth which Gandhi lived did not first come to me from reading about his life, though readings later reaffirmed these ideals. Early in my working life, when I was struggling to combine journalism with political activism, I learnt this vital principle from my friend and colleague Vijay Pratap, who was by then already a seasoned political activist. Why, asked Vijay, should there be any gap between our personal and public position on anything. For it takes enormous amounts of intellectual and psychic energy to manage such a gap. While being the same on the inside and outside not only saves energy but builds enduring strength. However, knowing the merit of this principle and living by it are two different things altogether. The sheer attempt to approximate this ideal is a lifelong endeavor.
One is constantly falling short in numerous ways - even without intending any active deception. Why does this happen? Partly this is a consequence of the fact that the self is simultaneously drawn by and attracted to multiple sources of stimulation - the endless stream of possibilities that float by it in this world. Out of this multitude of urges the private 'self' forges a contained, qualified pattern of response and action which is manifested as the public 'self'. There is a lifelong process of cultivating a creative harmony within so that there is less and less friction between the spontaneous urges and the more reasoned public manifestations.
Since our private self is constantly a work-in-progress it inevitably finds itself caught in painful contradictions between intention and reality. I may reflect endlessly upon the beauty of true listening and make every effort to cultivate this quality and yet find myself, seemingly involuntarily, turning a conversation into a sermon or worse still, a harangue. The resulting frustration and anger against myself also feels like a kind of bondage.
Now the question here is: to what extent should I accept that my spontaneous response in a certain situation is to verbally-intellectually brow-beat the 'other', that is, accept that this is just how I am. And to what extent should I struggle to cultivate certain qualities which don't come spontaneously to me?
This question itself is a kind of decoy. Perhaps the real issue is the relationship between the 'I' and the 'other' - that multitude of others which makes up the world. And here we hit one of our most painful contradictions. Both intuitively and through reasoned conviction I may feel the oneness of all creation, or at least be firm in the knowledge that all sentient beings seek happiness just like me. But this knowledge does not always help in everyday life where a plethora of other sentient beings can sometimes make my life difficult through their acts of omission or commission.
This condition was most starkly manifest in a conversation with a veteran political activist who had been practising Vipassana meditation for many years. We agreed that in essence there are no 'enemies'. At one level there is no fundamental difference between the most committed humanitarian activist and a ruthless corporate chief bent upon earning profits by any possible means. But, said the activist, in the thick of battle I cannot afford to act on this conviction - I have to see the corporate chief as the 'enemy'.
In our everyday life, conflict often seems more real than apparent, thus that activist is just being faithful to that reality. We assume that it takes a Jesus Christ to see no enemy, where even the executioner appears as a being in need of love and forgiveness. Let us, for the moment, agree that the bliss of universal love, in its purest form, is restricted to saints and mystics. But aren't we all free to work towards rough approximations of it? Isn't this just what Gandhi's life demonstrates? This is particularly so when you look beyond the epic scale on which it is usually presented and focus instead on the everyday life of Gandhi as an ordinary man who knew that life consists of the details of life.
Perhaps being immersed in those details is one way of retaining the unbounded wonder in which the world first presents itself to us. For the range and depth of that wonder appears to be the key to the work-in-progress of life and its place in the world. Events like that unusual short film which took us from deep space to the inside of a human cell dramatically reinforce that wonder. They jolt the private 'I' into ever relocating itself in the world and beyond.
This article first appeared in the Journal of Indian Council of Philosophical Research, Special Issue Life-Worlds, March 2002. Published here with permission of the author.
Rajni Bakshi is a Mumbai-based writer and journalist. From 1999 to 2001 she wrote the Creative Quest column for The Hindu Sunday magazine. She is also the author of Bapu Kuti: Journeys in Rediscovery of Gandhi (Penguin, 1998).
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