Like receiving an appreciative mail such as this one, which is self-explanatory: ‘Last week’s article brought fond memories of my childhood flooding back and I felt quite nostalgic, reminiscing about the simple things that gave me so much happiness. It never ceases to amaze me how much joy there is in the simple pleasures of life and after having chased and attained professional and material fulfillment, I must say that I quite despise luxury and the material world though I enjoy material comforts! Can you explain that paradox?
What are your thoughts on this subject?’
My article last week made several references to episodes in my childhood and college days which I remembered with a certain nostalgia. I commented that life is about memories, which provide a sense of continuity and give meaning to our lives, and that is why we like to evoke them, both individual and collective memories. They constitute our personal and common stories – and that’s why also we like to gather round and listen to a good story. After all, doesn’t that begin early in our lives, with bedtime stories that we were told as children, as we basked in the warm lap of mum or dad? When in our turn we become parents isn’t that one of the greatest of the ‘simple pleasures’ that we cherish doing – and later reminisce about?
I shall share my thoughts on the ‘paradox’ alluded to by my correspondent who I hope will not mind my divulging some of his profile, because it is the clue to the ‘answer’ he seeks from me, and I hope that by the end of this article I will have been able to do so if only partially. In fact he is a doctor who left the country many years ago to specialize in cardiology and then settled with his family in Canada where he is practising as an interventional cardiologist.
We had met briefly at the Jeetoo Hospital some time before he left. I had no recollection of our meeting, though his name was familiar to me. I told him so when he did me the honour – and simple but immense pleasure – of calling on me at the beginning of this year during his short holiday to the island. I always look forward to meeting younger members of the profession, to learn about some of the latest advances in their respective fields, and on request guide others about potential specializations. This friend had corresponded with me before the visit, which is how I came to know about his being abroad. I learnt from his first mail that he was a regular reader of Mauritius Times and my articles – which is always very heart-warming and encouraging to learn whenever someone tells me so (and it happens quite frequently) -, and at that time was also following the series of articles I had written on Hinduism that were being published under the ‘Tree of Knowledge’ feature.
I think the operative words in his response are ‘having chased and attained’: that’s what practically all of us do when we are in the thick, and throes, of choosing and then preparing ourselves for a career. Along the way most of us enter family life, and coping with work and family, especially if there are children, is both struggle and exhilaration – in that order! More so in our profession of medicine, with long and often unrealistic hours of on-call and on-duty commitments which become even heavier during the specialization years.
It’s only much later, well past mid-career, that one is able to breathe a bit as it were, and find some more time for family. Which is never enough, when we look back – and yet never even give it a thought when we are doing the running about. To complicate matters, nowhere in the world has the medical profession, alas, been able to find the formula that would allow women doctors in particular more breathing time to attend to children and family – and that is the real paradox, because we ourselves as doctors make the recommendation to others!
As he writes further down in his mail, every year my friend takes time off to go and do voluntary work in a country in the developing world. This is ‘material’ work, but it is the altruistic dimension that transcends the ‘material fulfillment’ aspect and that gives one real joy: professionally, there is nothing that compares in satisfaction and real pleasure to putting the smile back on patients’ faces by relieving their pain and suffering. Like it or not, we have to work in the world of matter as this example shows, and therefore there is no need to ‘despise’ the material world as such.
As the adage goes, charity begins at home, and if as a person I am not comfortable in my life, that will inevitably affect my work. From this it follows that one must first be sufficiently materially secure from the point of view of career and family, in terms of finance and assets, to then be able to share with others, and to properly take care of our patients in this very demanding profession. Even one’s time is a material resource. So enjoying a degree of material well-being is indeed a pre-condition of reaching out to others. But I would not go as far as the saying that one must be a good capitalist in order to be a good socialist or communist, which is not necessarily true if we look around at our world of capitalism – but we must acknowledge the genuine philanthropists among those who are moneyed.
The core issue is of course where we draw the line between material comfort, which is legitimate and desirable, and luxury; between our needs and our greed, in the words of Mahatma Gandhi. And in this world where the riding paradigm is ‘more, better, faster’, admittedly this is not an easy thing to do, especially if one has the means to indulge in luxury. How do we then resolve this conundrum?
What life has taught me so far is that the starting point is a genuine understanding of ourselves as human beings, what it is that differentiates us from animals which act more through instinct and reflex (granted that there are animals that show intelligence). Because our mind is more developed – the buddhi aspect – we are able to discriminate between dharma and adharma, roughly translated as right and wrong, and therefore we possess the capacity to take dharmic decisions in respect of our material needs, starting with those of the physical body. (Reference the article on ‘Dharma’ in the Hinduism series)
The next level of understanding is that our essential nature is not the physical body-mind-sense complex but the imperishable, immutable atman. As we apprehend that knowledge through the mind, it follows that we must have a serene mind, undisturbed by material attractions – which luxuries represent. Therefore, even if at some stage we have enjoyed them, it does not mean that we have to become enslaved by them. We must cultivate the necessary detachment, and participation in satsangs – sessions of spiritual learning in the company of the wise – is the best way to do so.
Besides, there are so many examples in the contemporary world of several prominent public figures and stars who wallowed in luxury, but for lack of a mastery over themselves ended their lives tragically. Think of the famous singers Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, or of the dictators who were brutally toppled. These may be extreme examples, but they powerfully illustrate the point about luxury. On the other hand, there are other equally well-to-do people who do live in luxury but have their heads firmly on their shoulders, and are able to pursue both their personal goals as well as serve humanity selflessly.
We can also be guided by the sayings and the examples of accomplished people. I think it was Teillhard de Chardin who said that we are not primarily human beings having a soul, rather, we are spiritual beings in a human body – isn’t that a nobler, more elevated perspective of who we truly are? It exactly reflects the Hindu view of the human being as an essentially non-material, a self-aware and fully conscious, complete and blissful being. If we have that vision of ourselves and take to the path of discovering and then living it out, we will automatically lead a life of plain living and high thinking, in which case the question of shunning luxury does not even arise. Our needs reduce to the minimum as our minds become occupied with the higher pursuit of Self-knowledge.
Food is our primary material, subsistence requirement. Several years ago during the Q & A session after his talk on ten raga-dvesa (likes-dislikes) verses from the Bhagavad Gita, I remember asking Pujya Swami Suddhananda whether it was necessary to abstain from eating non-vegetarian food before coming to listen to him. His answer was: I prefer that you eat whatever you feel like so that when you sit here your stomach is full and you can concentrate on what I am saying rather than pining for your favourite meat! But he added that, once you take to the path, effortlessly you find yourself avoiding such foods that excite the passions (rajasic and tamasic) and opting for sattvic foods that do not cause agitations in the mind.
I hope that I have been able to shed some light on the queries posed – but the quest continues. Om.
* Published in print edition on 5 September 2014