Mind the spiritual gap

Most of modern spirituality is the phenomenon of millions of sane people imitating the insane

Photo: iStockphoto
Photo: iStockphoto

Finally, after a long silence, he said, “I will tell you something.” One of two things would happen after that, he said. I would not understand it, or I would. If I did, I would be terrified. When that happened, he said, “Don’t panic.”

We were alone in his home. It was an isolated house at the end of a quiet lane. I was 17, he was probably a year older. I looked nervously behind me. I made a mental map of my run out of the house. I did not know though what I would be fleeing. Then he said what he wished to say.

Everything we saw and perceived with our senses was a lie, he said, reality was not what it appeared to be. There was something else going on. I had never heard this before (it was eight years before The Matrix). But he did not have to say a word more. In that instant I understood, and I was transformed. I was not terrified though, which worried me, but I knew I had not misunderstood him. My reality those days was not enjoyable and I was ecstatic to discover it was all a hoax, and that there was something else beneath the visible world. Life suddenly had meaning. And there seemed to be a reason why in the universe there was something instead of nothing. And there was, all of a sudden, the promise of the paranormal and it did not require God at all.

We spent days talking about the unity of all things and the possibility of seeing in our minds things that the eyes wouldn’t show, and about the cryptic clues to enlightenment contained in all the religions, Hinduism especially. And, why in the history of humans some people went off the grid for about a month and then returned as gods. I actually paced the floor to crack the meaning of life. We were not on drugs.

My friend then began talking about contracting leprosy because it would be easy for a leper to have no ego. He also said he understood the idea of hell as an infinitesimal point of immense heat in the mind. He began to isolate himself from the world and eventually refused to meet anyone. I was convinced he had figured a way to achieve moksha.

Many years later, I came to understand that he was schizophrenic. Why should that diminish his spiritual standing in my memory? But then what if the very things that I had once considered deeply philosophical in him were also the symptoms of mental illness? Does “I believe in a force” emerge from an ancient insanity?

Spirituality, today, has come to mean a sophisticated godless path to “explore the mind” even though nobody really explores the mind unless they have ingested substance or have lost control of their minds in a more organic way. The act of thinking is certainly a form of exploration but in very few. The subscribers of secular spirituality are among the smartest and most successful people on earth. Most of them had happy or normal childhoods, so they are not trained to be solitary for long hours. So they gather and do things in unison. Their guru says, “You are me and I am you,” which means nothing, as he himself knows, because his unusual costume alone is meant to convey that he is certainly not one of them. But they revere him. There is an emptiness in them caused by the rot of good life, economic stagnation and the unnatural requirements of morality created by high social stakes, but they wish to describe the emptiness in a more philosophical way.

In some people, the quest for meaning, the proclaimed ability to see the oneness of all things, the belief that they are cosmic, and their detours into trances have been documented as madness. Very often the insane are glorious, hence influential. Most of modern spirituality is the phenomenon of millions of sane people imitating the insane.

This form of imitation can lead to happiness just as religion appears to make most people happy. But the type of happiness that does not emerge from clarity will always be unsteady.

People are susceptible to exotic ideas because what they are fleeing from is boredom. They would be very annoyed if you asked them whether there is really such a thing as meditation. They would be annoyed because they apparently do it somehow without becoming anthills. If you ask them what exactly meditation is, it would appear that they are not very sure. “Clear your mind of all thoughts,” says someone, but then if the mind is empty, it is not the mind in the first place. “Absence of thought,” says someone. But is that even possible in a conscious person? “Meditation is trance,” says someone, but the fact is that neither the sane nor the insane can instruct their mind to go into a trance at will, from 8am to 8.30am. “Meditation is focus on a single thought,” says someone. What is “a single thought”? Such singularity does not exist. A thought is at once a composite of many thoughts. Also, how is a meditational focus different from reading a book or playing chess? Some claim any focus is meditation, some say that is not true. “Just observe your breath,” says someone. That, I accept, is the best definition of meditation. It is a very healthy but mild aerobic exercise. But nobody wants to call it that.

The philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti’s definition of meditation dismisses all the popular notions of his own fans. “Meditation is not a search, it’s not a seeking, a probing, an exploration. It is an explosion and discovery. It’s not the taming of the brain to conform nor is it a self-introspective analysis, it is certainly not the training in concentration…. It’s something that comes naturally, when all positive and negative assertions and accomplishments have been understood and drop away easily. It is the total emptiness of the brain.”

Such a state of mind that comes “naturally” is also known as madness. In Pupul Jayakar’s biography of the man, she reverently profiles a part of his life that would be unfamiliar to those who have only read his clear precise words. She reveals that at times he imagined great violence inside his body. After one such fit he passed out. When he woke up he asked her, referring to his own face, “Did you see that face? The Buddha was here, you are blessed.”

Millions read Krishnamurti to understand life. It is more useful to read him to understand his life. Over the years I have enjoyed entering the beautiful mind of this abnormal person. When I was younger, I used to be fooled by his questions. Like, “What is the mind?” I would be thrilled that such a titanic question was about to be answered in such a slim book. But he would never really answer the question. He would be cryptic. “What is truth?”, “what is thought?” He only asked deep questions, never answered them. He did state many wise things but they were answers to midget questions—about fear and religion and love.

The notion that the ideal way to live is in esoteric and abstract things occurring to us can, in reality, be detrimental to a person’s long-term well-being. How long can a person be happy in the search for meaning when such a quest is on the spectrum of neurosis? What if Truth is what it appears to be—life is an accident that has no meaning, and we must manufacture meanings so that we don’t kill ourselves out of boredom?

Manu Joseph is a journalist and a novelist, most recently of The Illicit Happiness Of Other People.

More From Livemint