Over the past six weeks or so, I’ve adopted Hindu practices to understand more about myself. I took a few minutes every morning to pay my respects to the Hindu god, Ganesh, I suffered through 90 minute hot yoga sessions, and I read important Hindu scriptures, including the Bhagavad Gita and selections from the Upanishads.
I hoped to find some wisdom, some secrets to understanding the Self that are superior to the psychometric based personality tests we’ve become addicted to in modernity. I hoped that what I would find could be concretely applied to my life now, and help me understand what my place is in the world.
In this wrap-up post, I describe a few of the major lessons I learned that center around the idea that there is more to the self than a personality and desires and aversions. There is a Self that is connected to something infinitely greater and profound that, if we can understand it, can help us get past the feeling that we don’t fit in, the feeling that we would be better off if we had different jobs, relationships, social status, etc.
Here’s what I’ve learned:
You are more than just your senses
I attended eight Bikram yoga sessions, for a total of 12 hours of sweating and stretching in a 104 degree room. My first class was extremely difficult, and my last class was a little less difficult.
If you pay attention, you’ll notice a consistence sequence of events that occur when you are physically uncomfortable.
First, there is anxiety and anticipation. You know that the pain is coming, and your brain is telling you to avoid it.
Next, you will feel the physical discomfort, which will then lead to mental anguish. Your thoughts will mostly be variations of “OMG WHY DID I EVER SIGN UP FOR THIS STUPID STUPID CLASS! THIS IS THE LAST TIME I AM DOING THIS.”
Finally, when the physical discomfort ends, you will feel good about participating in something so difficult. You will think “Ah, that wasn’t so bad. In fact, I actually like it!”
This process is surprisingly consistent across a wide range of difficult physical activities.
The thing is, once you realize that it is a pattern, you realize that this pattern is separate from You. You, are not just a machine or computer that processes physical stimuli in a predictable and repeatable pattern. You are something more than that, as proven by the fact that you can monitor your reactions. You notice that pain goes away, but You stick around.
When the senses contact sense objects, a person experiences cold or heat, pleasure or pain. These experiences are fleeting; they come and go. Bear them patiently, Arjuna. Those who are unaffected by these changes, who are the same in pleasure and pain, are truly wise and fit for immortality. Assert your strength and realize this! – The Gita
It’s important to understand that you are not your sensory experiences because if you don’t, you will forever be a slave to them.
You are more than your personality
The most popular personality test at the moment is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. The test categorizes people into one of 16 different personality types based on self-reported assessments of how they react and think in various situations.
For example, I am an INTJ. INTJs are “scientists” or “system-builders” that like to develop complex solutions to interesting problems. They love rationality and reason, and aren’t adept at understanding relationship dynamics.
INTJ is fairly accurate for me, and it was mind blowing when I first learned that I was an INTJ, as it described so many of my likes and dislikes.
However, this knowledge hasn’t been as useful as I would have liked. It can accurately predict how I will react in a typical situation, but it doesn’t give me the deeper understanding of who I am and what my place in the world should be. In fact, the Myers-Briggs personality test separates you from the world. It says that you should or should not do something based on your personality, that you should probably only associate with people with compatible personalities, and avoid or take on various types of works based on your preferences.
Hinduism acknowledges different temperaments and personalities in the form of “tendencies” called gunas.
According to Sankhya, everything in the world of mind and matter is an expression of all three gunas, with one guna always predominant. This becomes particularly interesting in describing personality as a field of forces. The rajasic person is full of energy; the tamasic person is sluggish, indifferent, insensitive; the sattvic person, calm, resourceful, compassionate, and selfless. Yet all three are always present at some level of awareness, and their proportions change: their interplay is the dynamics of personality. – Eknath Easwaran (commentary on The Gita)
However, Hindu philosophy teaches that the gunas are not the true Self. Indeed, the only way to find the true Self is to transcend the gunas.
All actions are performed by the gunas of prakriti. Deluded by identification with the ego, a person thinks, “I am the doer.” But the illumined man or woman understands the domain of the gunas and is not attached. Such people know that the gunas interact with each other; they do not claim to be the doer. – The Gita
And why should we care to transcend the gunas and find the true Self?
Whoever realizes the true nature of Purusha, prakriti, and the gunas, whatever path he or she may follow, is not born separate again…
In contrast to the MBTI, which separates and categorizes people, Hinduism teaches that the ultimate goal should be to understand the Self is not separate from others, that indeed, everyone is connected to an ultimate, permanent reality called Brahman.
This sounds completely abstract and useless for those of us who are less concerned with philosophy and more concerned with the practicalities of day-to-day living.
But how many of our problems are due to us seeing ourselves as separate from others? At work, we may attribute our misery to our boss or irritating co-workers. In our personal lives, we find ourselves agitated by conflict with our friends, significant others, or family? If we believe our personality is the true self, we can never feel a true connection with others, and we can never understand our place in the world.
Man so defined [as a separate ego] and so experienced is, of course, incapable of pleasure and contentment, let alone creative power. Hoaxed into the illusion of being an independent, responsible source of actions, he cannot understand why what he does never comes up to what he should do, for a society which has defined him as separate cannot persuade him to behave as if he really belonged. Thus he feels chronic guilt and makes the most heroic efforts to placate his conscience. – Allan Watts
This abstract philosophical perspective on the Self then, is not some trivial concern only to be pursued by hippies and people without practical obligations, it is our top priority!
One of the paths to transcending the self (with a small s) to find the true Self (with a big S) it to perform Bhakti yoga, or devotional service to God.
Yet hazardous and slow is the path to the Unrevealed, difficult for physical creatures to tread. But they for whom I am the supreme goal, who do all work renouncing self for me and meditate on me with single-hearted devotion, these I will swiftly rescue from the fragment’s cycle of birth and death, for their consciousness has entered into me.
Still your mind in me, still your intellect in me, and without doubt you will be united with me forever. – The Gita
During my Hinduism month, I spent a few minutes every morning performing a puja, or prayer, to Ganesh that consisted of a ritualistic offering of food, water, fragrance (incense), etc. At the end of each Puja, I would spend a few moments petitioning Ganesh for the strength to embody a particular virtue. On some days, it was endurance or strength (for particularly long or stressful workdays), and on others it was compassion or love.
Of course, I don’t think that an elephant-headed god exists and would help me, but I found simply by focusing on the imagery and the request, I would try to be more virtuous throughout the day. I would try to transcend the baser self, and act as if Ganesh were truly helping me.
I never succeeded in completely transcending the gunas, however, I did occasionally get the feeling that the world is some sort of game, and that while I was connected to it, I should not take it seriously. When I felt it was a game, it was easier to be more energetic or become more compassionate to others. Work becomes less burdensome because it is temporal, and ultimately, insignificant. Irritating people become less irritating because you understand that they too, are a part of this game, and that you are connected to them, and that the game itself doesn’t matter.
The surprising thing about this feeling is that it didn’t feel like something profound or serious, it felt more like…giddiness, like I just heard some cosmic joke.
This feeling can’t be attained simply by understanding your personality, rather, it requires that you tap into something deeper, something that leaves you connected, and yet, detached from the material world in which you live in.
You exist only in relation to others
It is generally accepted in Western culture and religions that every individual is a unique, sovereign self. Every person has a personal relationship with God and every person has free will and can determine the course their lives will take.
As such, it’s no wonder we view ourselves as unique and different from others. I am Dale and he is Tom and she is Julie and we all lead separate and different lives.
This is true enough, in the sense that this is how we generally experience the world, but the effect is we think we can exist independently of each other, which is false.
For example, when you meet someone new and they ask you what you do for a living. You will say that you are a consultant, a marketing specialist, a program manager, etc. You have now separated yourself from everyone who is a not a consultant, a marketing specialist, or a program manager.
And, if you are like all humans and are vulnerable to pride or envy, you will naturally compare yourself to others, again, as if you were a separate entity. Yes, you are a consultant, and you feel superior to someone who is a secretary, or inferior to someone who is a successful entrepreneur. You place yourself in some sort of hierarchy that affects the way you live your life and causes you endless anxiety (at least, when you are not succeeding in moving up the hierarchy).
But all this anxiety is due to the false sense that you are somehow separate from everything and everyone else. The truth is, you can’t exist without others. Hierarchy and status depend on the existence of others. It makes no sense to think that your life would all of a sudden be better if you moved up the hierarchy or your annoyingly successful friend from high school suffered some misfortune.
Does it really take any considerable time or effort just to understand that you depend on enemies and outsiders to define yourself, and that without some opposition you would be lost? To see this is to acquire, almost instantly, the virtue of humor, and humor and self-righteousness are mutually exclusive. – Allan Watts
During my Hinduism month I was scolded by our HR rep for a stupid reason. I stewed over the incident for a while and thought about how overly sensitive most HR reps are and how they should really take dumb corporate policies less seriously.
The whole thing was so irritating I thought about quitting immediately and letting everyone know was that it was because of this particular HR rep.
The reason it was so irritating is because I viewed the HR rep as someone really separate from myself, but in truth, I need her to fuel my own identity. I have a natural disdain for most corporate policies and rules, and in truth, I like to think of myself as somewhat of a rebel, at least in spirit. Without the HR rep, I lose this part of my identity.
Once I acknowledged this fact, it was easier to view our relationship as a game, one that shouldn’t be taken seriously.
“It comes, then, to this: that to be ‘viable,’ livable, or merely practical, life must be lived as a game – and the ‘must’ here expresses a condition, not a commandment. It must be lived in the spirit of play rather than work, and the conflicts which it involves must be carried on in the realization that no species, or party to a game, can survive without its natural antagonists, its beloved enemies, its indispensable opponents. For to ‘love your enemies’ is to love them as enemies; it is not necessarily a clever device for winning them over to your own side. “ – Allan Watts
In the Gita, Arjuna is deeply troubled by the fact that he will have to kill his family. Krishna counsels him with the knowledge that there is no such thing as “slayer” or “slain”
One believes he is the slayer, another believes he is the slain. Both are ignorant; there is neither slayer nor slain. You were never born; you will never die. You have never changed; you can never change. Unborn, eternal, immutable, immemorial, you do not die when the body dies. Realizing that which is indestructible, eternal, unborn, and unchanging, how can you slay or cause another to slay?
What Krishna is saying is that material world is not the ultimate reality, that the roles we play while we are “alive” are simply that, roles. Thus we should play the roles we are assigned, and not become overly attached to them.
I’ll do my best to resist the HR rep whenever possible, and she will do whatever she can to make sure I don’t offend her sensibilities of appropriate corporate behavior, but in the end, the results won’t mater. I can’t exist without her, and she without me.
Consider these words from the Brihadarankyaka Upanishad:
“When there is separateness, one sees another, smells another, tastes another, speaks to another, hears another, touches another, thinks of another, knows another.
But when there is unity, one without a second, that is the world of Brahman. This is the supreme goal of life, the supreme treasure, the supreme joy. Those who do not seek this supreme goal live on but a fraction of this joy.”
Separateness can only take us so far, it is only when we can recognize that we don’t exist apart from others can we ever find joy.
My month of Hinduism leads me to believe that much of our anxiety is caused by a false sense of identity. The modern concept of identity is superficial, and leads us to the false belief the world is separate from us and that is something to manipulated, to be bent to our will.
And when we take our (false) identity too seriously, we become miserable. We believe that other people are the cause of our misery, or that it’s our particular set of circumstances that lead us to wholly unsatisfactory lives.
Thus, I think we should stop defining ourselves by things like personality tests or our jobs or hobbies or interests or disinterests.
Sure, understanding those aspects of ourselves can be useful, but if we place too much importance on them, we risk not fully appreciating our lives the way they are right now.
Only when we can transcend separateness, can we ever find some sort of peace. Only when we transcend it, and realize “I” doesn’t exist without others, can we enjoy our lives.
Of course, this is not something that can be achieved in the course of a one-month experiment. It requires a complete shift in the way we view ourselves and others. However, here’s what I found helpful:
- Bikram Yoga – This was useful as it revealed how much our mental states are determined by our physical states. Bikram Yoga is an excellent environment to practice observing your minds reactions. You may be able to substitute another physically difficult activity to achieve the same effect, but I find that running or weight lifting are overly goal focused, which leads to distraction. When you’re trying to run X miles or do Y number of reps, you are not focusing on your mind. In Bikram Yoga, you are trying to simply move into a position and stay still, which is less distracting.
- Morning prayers – I purchased a small Ganesh figurine and some incense and set up a shrine to which I did a ritual morning puja, or prayer. The practice was a pleasant start to my day that often lead me to contemplate deeper virtues. The incense was particularly conducive to putting you into the correct contemplative mindset. I now light incense frequently. There is a set procedure for prayer, which I learned from Hinduism for Dummies, but I skipped a few of the steps out of convenience. Still a worthwhile exercise.
- Reading – Reading Hindu philosophical texts had the most impact during this month. For a good overview of Hinduism, I picked up Hinduism for Dummies, I read selections from the Upanishads and the entire Bhagavad Gita. I also read Alan Watt’s book The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are which is not Hindu per se but draws on a lot of Eastern and Hindu ideas. I would start with Hinduism for Dummies, followed by the Gita, and then Allan Watt’s book. You can put off the Upanishads as many of the concepts are covered in the Gita, which I think is a much easier read overall.
Hinduism contains profound and advanced ideas about what the “true self” really is. It acknowledges the role of temperament, which seem to be the focus of modern personality assessments, but forces you to assess yourself on a deeper level. It teaches that you are more than your senses or your ego or your temperament. It teaches that you are connected to others in a way that transcends the material world, the world of the senses. And most importantly, it teaches you how to use this knowledge to live a good and meaningful life, a life filled with respect for the sanctity of others and detachment from your material circumstances.
Once we understand the nature of the true Self, we can feel comfortable with who we are and what we do and where we’re going.
“The Self is hidden in the lotus of the heart. Those who see themselves in all creatures go day by day into the world of Brahman hidden in the heart. Established in peace, they rise above body consciousness to the supreme light of the Self. Immortal, free from fear, this Self is Brahman, called the True. Beyond the mortal and the immortal, he binds both worlds together. Those who know this live day after day in heaven in this very life.” – The Upanishads