It makes such eminent sense that I am surprised I never thought about it till yesterday, when I read about it in a book: that we can realize ourselves only in and through our relations—with ideas, beings, people, things and places. I might sit in a cave up in the mountains all alone pretending to meditate and trying to convince myself that I am exceptionally kind and compassionate, that my love embraces the whole of humankind and that I truly love God and all of God’s creatures. But the proof of the pudding, as the saying goes, is in the eating, and I can only realize how I truly am when I relate to someone other than myself, not in my mind but in the ‘real’ world, outside and beyond my cave. The way I actually relate to others, and not what I fondly imagine about myself in the safe comfort of my cave, expresses the way I really am. Accepting this fact is what self-realization is all about.
I perhaps wouldn’t have given this point much thought had Tinky not phoned me this morning and told me about a present she had bought for our common friend Shina. She was in a bookshop yesterday when she chanced upon an audio book, an autobiography of a blind man who is an eminently successful inspirational speaker. Shina is blind, too, and Tinky thought the audio book would make a wonderful New Year’s gift for her. “It was the only audio book in the whole shop!” Tinky told me excitedly. “And it was just the present I was looking for!”
Tinky bought the book and hurriedly sent it to Shina by express courier delivery, hoping that it would reach her on New Year’s Day.
Wasn’t that really sweet of her?
But when I put the phone down a while later, do you know how I felt? AWFUL! Not at what Tinky had done, of course, but about myself. And do you know why? Several weeks ago, I had learnt that the same audio book could be bought from a website, and at a substantial discount. I hopped onto the website to have a look. For a moment I thought of Shina. It would make a wonderful present for her, wouldn’t it? After all, she has little to cheer her up, and often she has little to do. She’d love to listen to the book and learn about how a visually-impaired woman like her has done amazing things with her life, wouldn’t she?
I was about to order the book when I stopped myself. “Three hundred rupees!” I thought. “That’s not a small sum. Why spend so much money? Maybe she won’t read the book at all, and then three hundred bucks will go swimming down the drain.”
At that moment I recalled that Shina had once told me that several years ago, when she could still see, she loved reading horror stories and detective novels. “I’m sure she won’t read this book, then,” I said to myself. “She might find it boring. I could use those three hundred rupees in a better way.”
*The conversation with Tinky earlier today set me reflecting on why I had chosen not to buy the book for Shina, something that I hadn’t bothered to think about all these days. In the process, I was confronted with a shocking revelation about myself: that behind the many excuses that I had marshalled not to buy the book for Shina there was just one factor: my love for my three hundred rupees outweighed my presumed love for Shina. Had that not been the case, would I have hesitated even for a moment to buy the book for her?
Reflecting further on my behaviour, I realised that I didn’t really care much for Shina, definitely not as much as I made myself to be, perhaps in order to be seen as a ‘do-gooder’ by others (and even by myself). There were clear limits to the things I would do for her. I wouldn’t mind helping her if I could, but only if it didn’t pinch me or my pocket. My ‘love’ (if it can at all be called that) for her, it struck me, was conditional and strictly limited. I would definitely not go ‘out of my way’ for her—and spending three hundred rupees on her was, I believed, going really ‘way out of my way’.
I let my mind wander further. It wasn’t just with Shina that I felt and behaved in this way, I began to realize. Why, it was exactly the same with every single person I knew! The more I thought about it the clearer it became to me that I really didn’t truly care about anyone—except for myself, of course. Behind all my plastic smiles and polite ‘hellos’, ‘hi there-s!’ and ‘God bless you-s!’ was a very different me, someone who really didn’t value other people much. While I wouldn’t want harm to befall anyone, I definitely wasn’t ‘excessively’ bothered about them. In contrast to the images I constantly sent out, and behind all my reading, talking and writing about love and compassion, religiousness and God, I was forced to accept, lay a very different reality: a deeply, almost obsessively, self-centred person, whose relationships with people were often instrumentalist and not motivated by genuine concern, love and respect. It was hardly surprising, then, that I had quickly turned down the suggestion that day to buy that book for Shina.
And do you know what makes all of this all the more awful? I treat myself to a new book every week, and almost all of these are on religion and spirituality and about being loving and compassionate to the whole of creation. Since the day I refused to buy that book for Shina I must have bought at least two dozen such books, spending I can’t recall how much money! It all seems such a dreadful waste now, when I think of it, don’t you agree? All that reading about goodness didn’t make a whiff of a difference to me as a person! It certainly didn’t transform me enough to want to spend three hundred rupees on a friend!
Had I not had that conversation with Tinky this morning I don’t think I would ever have realized all these startling things about myself. It led me to reflect on how I related to Shina, and, in turn, to every other person in my life, compelling me to face some bitter but basic truths about myself that I wouldn’t otherwise have dared to confront. Reflecting on my relationships with others, confronting the reality that lay concealed behind my carefully-cultivated ‘good’ social mannerisms and under the many heavy masks that I wore, I learnt many new things about myself. I definitely wasn’t the embodiment of religiousness and goodness that I made myself out to be—to others, and to myself, too.
It’s been a truly useful and necessary learning exercise in self-realization!
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