In one of my previous articles – Have We Got a Complete Map of Life? I talked about how each one of us, mostly unconsciously, views the world through a map of ideas. These maps are not consciously constructed by us but we unwittingly imbibe them through our education system and dominant culture. The problem, as I discussed in that article, is that these maps may not give a complete view of life. In this article, I shall discuss how these maps condition us and the difficulty in knowing them.
- We Are Born Into A World With A Map
- The Difficulty of Knowing the Maps: Turning the Mind Within
- Maps Consist of Gross and Subtle Ideas
- Ideas Govern Actions Thus the Need to Examine Them
- Doing Good for Society Without Examining Our Map/Minds and Ideas
We Are Born Into A World With a Map?
When a child is born, he/she is not born into an empty tabula rasa, but into a world of givens – ideas of culture, class, religion, and zeitgeist of the times. The child, throughout the growing years, is going to absorb all this lock, stock and barrel. The overwhelming majority plods through life with these maps of ideas formed in childhood; a few question some of its elements; the rare one, goes so deep into inquiry so as to question the entire map. It is nothing short of a revelation when one finds out that a.) one was viewing the world from a map b.) the map one was using did not have the whole picture in it. Something very essential was missing.
“Our task as thinking human beings should be to look at the world and see it whole. One way of looking at the world as a whole is by means of a map, that is to say, some sort of a plan or outline that shows where the various things are to be found – not all things, of course, for that would make the map as big as the world, but the things that are most prominent, most important for orientation: outstanding landmarks, as it were, which you cannot miss or which, if you do miss them, leave you in total perplexity. The most important part of any inquiry or exploration is its beginning. As has often been pointed out, if a false or superficial beginning has been made, one may employ the most rigorous methods during the later stages of investigation but they will never retrieve the whole. A map or guidebook, let this be understood as clearly as possible, does not ‘solve’ problems and does not ‘explain’ mysteries; it merely helps to identify them.”
But the mere identification of all landmarks of life in a map of ideas is a paradigm shift, one that can redefine human culture. However, before we talk about making a complete map of life, we need to first understand the very existence of maps in our minds and why they are so difficult to access in our minds.
The Difficulty of Knowing the Maps: Turning the Mind Within
If we observe the process of our mind’s evolution since childhoood, we see that we are born with extroverted minds: our senses pull our minds outwards. Our modern culture, education and society further exaggerate this tendency by making our whole life subservient to the pursuit of material objects. Our education teaches a whole lot about the outer world of matter but remains resoundingly silent about knowing our own selves: our thoughts, feelings, emotions and ideas. Consequently, we stumble through our lives and relationships with a big vacuum: material success is the only peak indicated by our maps, materialism is the only meaning given to life, and it underpins all our life’s activities.
Yet, for some of us, by what the ancients called the ‘law of karma’, a spanner is thrown in the works, and the mind turns inwards. While for most of us moderns this comes as a disruption, a chaotic yanking out from the warm soup of life one was immersed in, a severing of the umbilical chord; for the ancients, this was very much in their maps. In the Yogasutras of Patanjali, this process is called pratyahara – the withdrawing of mind from the senses and turning inwards upon itself. Pratyahara is poised right in the middle of the eight stepped map of life of Patanjali. It’s not yet the ascent to the peak. In fact, from here onwards the ascent to the peak begins. Prior to this, all the worldly activities, in which we moderns pass our entire lives, is seen just as a preparation to scale the peak of existence. Dhyana, Dharana and Samadhi, the three further steps in Patanjali Yoga, are nothing but an intense journey into the labyrinths of mind. I am just taking Patanjali’s Yogasutras as a representative sample of ancient maps of life because of its lucidity. I followed one such ancient map myself called Advaita Vedanta. It too has a similar term called “upariti”, which means withdrawal of the mind from senses and concentrating within to study it.
What are maps made up of? “All philosophers – and others – have always paid a great deal of attention to ideas seen as the result of thought and observation; but in modern times all too little attention has been paid to the study of the ideas which form the very instruments by which thought and observation proceed. On the basis of experience and conscious thought, small ideas may easily be dislodged, but when it comes to bigger, more universal, or more subtle ideas it may not be so easy to change them. Indeed, it is often difficult to become aware of them, as they are the instruments and not the results of our thinking – just as you can see what is outside you, but cannot easily see that with which you see, the eye itself. And even when one has become aware of them it is often impossible to judge them on the basis of ordinary experience.” In fact, there is a sense of incredulity when tacit universal ideas are first discovered. And slowly, there is a growing sense of alienation and aloneness in one’s being as no one around seems to be afflicted by this strange suspicion that something very vital is missing in one’s life.
I had this experience while I was in the third year of my college. All throughout my childhood, I had been reading a wide variety of books ranging from science, management, psychology and philosophy. So my thought was already less congealed and conditioned by my society, education and culture as it was the case for others. I have written in detail about this in my article My journey to becoming a writer. In the untrammelled atmosphere of college, my reading deepened, and along with it: reflection and contemplation. Since reading, reflection and contemplation is all about challenging set ideas and discovering new ideas, the river of my thoughts started flooding the banks created by my childhood conditioning. In fact the power of reading, reflection and contemplation (shravana, manana and nidhidhyasana) is so powerful that they are the sole practices recommended for the path of Jnan Yoga of Advaita Vedanta – the highest path of non-duality in the world.
Ultimately, a powerful question emerged in my mind. What is the purpose of life? If everything has to end in death, what is the purpose of all our striving and achievements? On the surface, this sounds like a simple question but if it takes roots it is going to destroy the entire fabric of meaning that has been constructed by society. Our modern maps do not have any answer to this question. And for years (17 yrs precisely) I stayed with this question, sometimes agonizingly, sometimes in spaces of clarity and freedom, which I discovered, as this question set ablaze the whole map of life I had inherited. Fortunately, or unfortunately, I had no option but to burn my whole map, without knowing of any other map. This is where the teachings of J Krishnamurti came in. His proposition was the same: burn the maps without creating a new one. I didn’t know it then as I know so well today: the ancient maps of life had the answer to my question.
What was it that was getting burnt in all these years?
Maps Consist of Gross and Subtle Ideas
Modern psychology talks of the conscious and unconscious mind. The unconscious, as the very term implies, is something that is not something conscious to us, at least not without a critical examination. The unconscious is a storehouse of ideas, some of them weak and superficial, which can be easily seen, discussed and debated. But there are deeper ideas, which are called vasanas in Indian philosophy. These ideas, latent in the unconscious, fructify as our predispositions, judgements and prejudices in our conscious. Till we do not turn our minds inward, we are acting totally unawares, in their vice-like grip.
“We often notice the existence of more or less fixed ideas in other people’s minds – ideas with· which they think without being aware of doing so. We then call them prejudices, which is logically quite correct because they have merely seeped into the mind and are in no way the result of a judgment. But the word prejudice is generally applied to ideas that are patently erroneous and recognisable as such by anyone except the prejudiced man.”
The above was an example of just the gross ideas to which we can apply catgories of right and wrong. However, the subtler universal ideas are hardly detected because there is no label of ‘right and wrong’ or ‘good or bad’ that can be ascribed to them. One such subtle idea is materialism : the idea that there is nothing more to life than destructible matter.
“Most of the ideas with which we think are not of that kind at all. To some of them, like those incorporated in words and grammar, the notions of truth or error cannot even be applied; others are quite definitely not prejudices but the result of judgment; others again are tacit assumptions or presuppositions which may be very difficult to recognise.”
Jnana Yoga/Yoga of Knowledge, which I mentioned earlier as the method of Advaita Vedanta is nothing but unearthing all ideas, not only the gross ones but the subtle one’s as well which we never, ever suspected to be miscreants leading to of our suffering
Ideas Govern Actions Thus the Need to Examine Them
Our modern culture places a premium on action. It is better to act rather than doing no action at all. A person who is not acting is considered lazy. In our utilitarian modern map, man is a unit of productivity in the giant industrial machine. Too much of action is a disbalance, which the ancient Indians denoted by the word rajas. In the hierarchy of modes of mind created by them, sattva was the highest. Sattva stands for a balance between action and inaction. But the capitalists certainly don’t want people to become sattvic – balanced and peaceful. Consequently, they have devised a system of ideas, ideals and values that enshrines competition and success. Cornering all the resources for themselves, they can have the minions working round the clock for them; producing goods that destroy the health of humans and the planet. A sham democracy, hand in glove with capitalism, sells the dream to the masses of how one can work hard and grow rich.
These set of ideas, ideals and values invented by them is infused into the very DNA of society. All it’s organization and institutions, right from – schools, colleges, universities, politics, economics, science, religion, environmentalists and social workers spew capitalism consciously as well as unconsciously from their pulpits. The set of ideas which oppose capitalism – socialism and communism – seen deeply, bear the same limitation: all of them are materialistic, and therefore do not have a complete map of life.
“I say, therefore, that we think with or through ideas and that what we call thinking is generally the application of pre-existing ideas to a given situation or set of facts. When we think about, say, the political situation we apply to that situation our political ideas, more or less systematically, and attempt to make that situation ‘intelligible’ to ourselves by means of these ideas. Similarly everywhere else. Some of the ideas are ideas of value, that is to say, we evaluate the situation in the light of our value-ideas. The way in which we experience and interpret the world obviously depends very much indeed on the kind of ideas that fill our minds. If they are mainly small, weak, superficial, and incoherent, life will appear insipid, uninteresting, petty and chaotic.”
So before thinking about action, we need to go into the source of all our actions – ideas. We can’t do this if we are perpetually putting our nose to the grindstone of action. We need to draw back, go into our minds and see the ideas, ideals and values that form our map for action. Unless we do this, we are all perpetrators of mindless action and conflict in the world. We are unwitting minions of a global capitalistic order. Even in our revolt (like communism and socialism or all isms), we shall continue to be in the thraldrom of ideas (materialism), which shall perpetuate the same misery and suffering.
Doing Good for Society Without Examining Our Map/Minds and Ideas
The problem gets quite serious when we come to a set of ideas in our mind relating to “doing good for society”. Without examining our minds, in our penchant for action, we get bewitched by the idea that we know what is good for society and we push our ideas with all our might. Did we not see what happened with communism? No, it was not the failure in the implementation of the idea, as some may be inclined to say. It was the failure of the map of communism and socialism. In fact, all ‘isms’ shall share the same failure because all isms are maps of some portions of thought. Thought, according to the ancients, is also matter and functions dualistically. Each thought/idea/ideals/value system is going to have the opposite thought/idea/ideal/value. There is no holistic solution in the field of duality: in the field of matter. There must be something beyond matter, which are modern maps are totally bereft of; we are missing out on the holistic solution, even when we think we are acting to solve the world problems. We need a different and more complete map of life.
This is going too far, too fast. However, the human mind has the premonition of something beyond matter. In unprepared minds, this hits as emptiness, nothingness, meaninglessness or depression. “It is difficult to bear the resultant feeling of emptiness, and the vacuum of our minds may only too easily be filled by some big, fantastic notion – political or otherwise – which suddenly seems to illumine everything and to give meaning and purpose to our existence. It needs no emphasis that herein lies one of the great dangers of our time.” Not only do these ideas fill one’s life with meaning but also the pleasure of social approval. After all, one is not just sitting and doing nothing: one is working to change the system. A person who sits and just examines his/her mind is useless: an irresponsible person, who cares just for himself/herself as the world is aflame with problems.
In fact, most of the activities of people involved in education, social work, politics, environmental work are nothing but an escape from this emptiness and sense of uselessness. I have myself worked as an educator and a social worker for two decades. Since I was into self-inquiry right from the beginning, I was not escaping emptiness by doing these things but I came across many who were doing so. I was just working out a way of earning my livelihood without being part of a capitalist system. However, it would not be totally honest of me to say that the bug of uselessness and “being a saviour” did not bite me. It did, but my self-inquiry cured it successfully. And for that, I had to pass through the gates of emptiness, loneliness, nothingness and meaninglessness. For these are the gates one HAS to pass through to discover something beyond matter and duality: to something which is missing in our modern maps.
* paragraphs in quotes are from E. F. Schumacher – A Guide for the Perplexed