Spirituality and the jigsaw puzzle

What prompted me to wake up with the thought of looking for ‘Julian Baggini’ (I had forgotten his name)’s quote on optimism on Saturday morning on November 1, I cannot explain. But, it is true that I did. After some efforts, I located the quote I wanted to re-read:

What positive psychology gets right is that when we confront reality, we always have some control over how we then respond to it, and that a lot of misery is avoidable if we try to make the best rather than the worst of things. In practice, however, this sensible advice often degenerates into an excessive optimism, in which reality is whatever we think it to be. But you can’t make the best of a bad situation if you pretend it’s really just a good one in disguise.

This was part of his long review of four books that dealt with ‘Happiness’ written more than four years ago (15 January 2010).

That somehow led me to the review of a new book by a well-known atheist, Sam Harris, ‘Waking up: a guide to spirituality without religion’. I suppressed a smile on reading the title and read the review. The reviewer concludes his review with the observation that the book presents a fragment of the emerging picture of ‘post-Christian spirituality’. Excuse me?! Post-Christian spirituality?! It is pre-Christian and pre-Christ spirituality. Merely because some of these atheists are waking up to the limitations of their logical self and trying to transcend it (I do not know what they mean by ‘transcendence of the self’ nor am I sure if they know what they mean), does not mean that these ideas are post-Christ or post-Christian. That, in itself, is a suggestion that one is a long way from spirituality. The universe is not just made up of our limited conceptions and experiences.

There is another paragraph that should elicit a smile from some of the readers:

With his very particular definition of spirituality as “cutting through the illusion of the self”, it is unsurprising that Harris considers eastern religious traditions to be greatly superior to the monotheistic faiths of the west. Indeed, he argues that the difference “resembles that found between Eastern and Western medicine”, only “with the arrow of embarrassment pointing in the opposite direction.” Although he recognises the “global comedy” of westerners going east to pursue enlightenment while easterners are coming west in pursuit of jobs and education, he ultimately suggests that we join it. [Link]

It appears that Mr. Sam Harris even gets the direction of the ‘arrow of embarrassment’ wrong with respect to medicine just as he seems to have made a belated discovery of the spirituality of Eastern religious traditions.

Once you transcend self, once you ‘cut through the illusion of self”, where does one reach and where does one land?

The reviewer is correct to point out that “religious rituals might help us in myriad ways to find meaning and solace on life’s journey”. The secret to the value and utility of rituals in illuminating the path to spirituality and transcendence of self is balance. Otherwise, one can remain entranced in rituals. Of course, that could/might help the person  scale spiritual heights in subsequent births.

One does not know what Mr. Harris has written about reincarnations and karma in the book. Well, it does not really matter.

Transcendence of the self can mean that one finds meaning in serving others and living for others. But, in terms of spiritual evolution, it has to be transcendence of the ego. As written in an earlier blog post, that is not possible without a belief in a superior power. In page 87 of his lovely introduction to the Upanishads, ‘the Wisdom of the Rishis’, Shri. M writes:

In the beginning of sadhana, the attraction to the form is often necessary in order to be guided into the formless. This is a question of practical sadhana because one cannot jump to or fix one’s mind on the abstract reality , something in thin air, although ultimately is the formless that we seek. On the other hand, if on learns to gather one’s energies into one centre or one form, or one ideal, then at some point, one may reach a stage when one may drop the form. So a form, especially an attractive form, is necessary for one to be able to fix one’s mind on one point, and then, when one comes to a certain state, one may choose to discard it. It is like making an image out of clay. Clay has no shape as such. You put the clay into a mould and press it until the image sets, and then you break the mould for the image to emerge. (Page 87).

The very fact that I woke up with the thought that I should look for Julian Baggini – and I had no clue as to how the thought entered my head – is one immediate proof that we are not in control of our thoughts and decisions. Daniel Kahneman has written a tome, ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ demonstrating how little, if at all, control we have over our thoughts, actions, decisions and conclusions.

If that is too much to wade through, go through this lovely TED talk by Prof. Dan Ariely on how much (or, how little) we are in control of our decisions.

The moment atheists contemplate the existence of a higher power, they are at a loss to explain all the injustices and unfairness in this earth as though God is obliged only to dole out freebies to all of us. Therefore, they find that it is logical to posit that there is no God.

There are two counterarguments to that in ‘The Wisdom of the Rishis’ by Shri. M. I am in the middle of it and I find the book a great starting point for further explorations into the higher wisdom of the Upanishads:

When one prays, does one get blessings? Sometimes one does and sometimes one does not. It depends not only on how much one prays or what energy one puts into it; it also depends on the circumstances. Often we pray for things that we want, but they may not be the things we need for our evolution. There is a difference between what you want and what you need to evolve spiritually. Since the Supreme Being is concerned with your need to evolve rather than satisfy your want at that moment, sometimes prayers are not answered. (Page 98)

Then, there is another paragraph in page 105:

Let us say that there is a giant jigsaw puzzle; and the person who makes the jigsaw puzzle, the one who draws the picture and paints it and then cuts it up into little pieces – he knows what the ultimate figure looks like. Suppose the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle are taken apart and the different pieces lie here and there. I pick up one piece in isolation. I see that it does not even have a regular geometrical shape, and say, “This is meaningless. What is this?”. If I can put all the pieces together, then I see that there is some meaning to it. And the one who has made the jigsaw puzzle knows what it is.

Most of us – theists and atheists – are holding one piece – and trying to explain the puzzle of the creator. The problem is not only that we do not know but that we do not know that we do not know.

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