At How Many Points Do You Touch Life?
The number of points at which you touch Life and the World is the measure of the wealth of your life.
People ask themselves, “Are my days rich? Do I have a rich life?” But what they should actually be asking is, “At how many points do I touch Life?” For the “richness” of a life is proportional to the extent to which this single life touches the totality of Life and the grander World in which it is immersed. To discover where we stand with respect to this question, we may break it up into a number of more manageable parts: “What is the field in which my life moves? How extended is it? Does it have rigid borders or is it open?”
Open! That’s the first concept of importance. For openness is the measure of our willingness to go beyond what we already know in order to touch Life at new points. Openness is also the acknowledgement of the fact that, irrespective of how wide and extended our present world is, it is still small, restricted, limited and limiting. Openness is an attitude we hold with respect to everything that envelops our being but we have yet to explore. It is the attitude of opening one’s arms to embrace the unfamiliar, the alien, the baffling.
But an openness, a willingness alone, often becomes passive. The world beyond our own does not meet us while we idly meditate on its unknown features and wait “for something to happen.” We need to make a voluntary movement towards it. And this is none other than active curiosity. It is this curiosity that moves us towards the new and unexplored. If openness is the willing attitude, curiosity is the willingness acted upon. It is movement and action towards those spheres of Life and the World that lie outside the sphere we already inhabit. Active curiosity moves us towards new sensations – sights, sounds, smells – new people, new countries, new ideas, new books, new music, new fields of endeavor. It is the power that expands and enlarges our world.
But still, curiosity alone is not enough – for it may remain on the surface. We may try listening to opera for the first time, and we may quickly decide it is unappealing or even unpleasant. Or we may try eating a durian or stinky tofu in Asia and immediately reject them because of the repulsive odor they emit. Similarly, we may reject a new idea because it is so alien to our mental world. The ears that have not been cultivated to “discover” the beauty inherent in opera; the nose that is not accustomed to discerning the deliciousness hidden underneath a seemingly repulsive smell; the mind that has not been trained to see the world from an utterly new angle, will soon resign from any effort at expansion and revert to the known and familiar.
However, if openness is the proper attitude for moving outward to meet the world at more points, and if active curiosity is the movement that makes it a possibility, there is a third element that turns it into reality: equality. This is the catalyst that allows us to truly touch the world at more points, without reverting back to the familiar. There is equality with respect to our perceptions and with respect to ideas. With respect to our perceptions, equality is the attitude and activity of forcing our senses to experience everything in its raw form without any interference from the analytical and judging functions of the mind. Quoting from my book:
“Yogis have been practicing equality towards all sensations for thousands of years. The idea is to capture the rasa, the substance, the existential quality of each and every sensation, without the mind immediately superimposing a judgement on it. All sensations are equal as sensations in as much as they are variations on an infinite spectrum of sensations…By forcing our mind to stand back, we may return to the primal mode of experiencing our world, like a newborn, who sees and feels everything with a freshness and intensity, unblemished by the clouding of mental judgements…It is not easy to smell a foul odor and not react in disgust, or make the characteristic involuntary grimace. Yet it is only by refraining from reacting in this way that one may experience the foul smell in an unmediated, direct manner.”
Capturing the rasa means that, suddenly, the foul smells in the countryside outside a remote village in India – where trash has been scattered around indiscriminately, since there are no garbage collection trucks – cease to be that “single disgusting odor” that you could not bear. You begin to discern a myriad shades of odors, each with a completely different “attack” on your sense of smell. Exploring these apparent attacks then, becomes an enjoyable game. Actually, one will soon discover that bad smells are much more interesting than good ones! For example, perfumes comprise aromas that are the result of a limited number of essential oils, such as jasmine, rose, and lavender, which are blended together. But bad odors are infinite, because there is an endless combination of “cocktails of stinkiness” that nature creates out of the disintegrating organic and inorganic matter of garbage! Exploring the rasa of the Indian countryside surrounding the remote village, you find yourself moving inside a newly discovered grande parfumerie of previously repulsive odors that have now become lovingly explorable by your nose, by virtue of the fact that they are novel and strange and interesting and belong to a universe of odors that you never knew existed.
Similarly, with respect to ideas, equality simply permits us to approach new ideas with a welcoming attitude: we seek as much value in the new ones as we already recognize in our own established ideas. Although not all ideas end up having an equal value for us, it is the approaching of all ideas with equality that will allow us an unbiased evaluation of their worth.
Equality has the sound and hue of something neutral, but it is actually a great destroyer! It destroys all labels, all past conditioning, all limiting mental vessels. Suddenly, opera is something that has beauty and I must search hard to find it; durian is a great fruit (after all, millions of Asians adore it), and I need to discover why this is so; and Buddhist “compassion” may not be very different from Christian “love,” if I approach the concept from another angle.
Equality also destroys all of our irrational identifications: Why are we attached to the same football team since our childhood? Or the same political party, the same automobile brand or fashion designer? Why do we only watch one genre of movies or only American movies? Or listen to one type of music? As soon as equality begins to destroy all of our life’s “historical identifications,” all of the “loves we have grown accustomed to,” we find ourselves in a much grander world of new possibilities and innumerable surprises: We start supporting another team, join the new football club and make new friends who wear different shirts; we exchange our car for a bicycle and start going to work via the forest, discovering amazing new flowers on the way; we begin listening to Chinese music, watching Japanese movies, eating Mexican food. Consequently, our life begins to touch Life and the World at points we never knew existed – or if we knew, we had never touched! We discover that next to our own little familiar universe – this little world with its own specific sensations and mental pleasures, its own terms and names, aims and desires, loves and repulsions – there lie innumerable other parallel human universes that other people inhabit, but also other fields and spheres of Life and the World that remain to be discovered by us.
Openness, curiosity, and equality refer to our relationship with Life and the World, and how we go about touching them at many new points. But where do we stand with respect to our capacity to do so? What the figurative term “touching the world” actually means is embracing many more aspects and elements of Life and the World – truly making them part of our own world; not simply touching them while keeping ourselves at a distance, as if they still remain part of some other world. Embracing is integrating that other world into our existing world. It is only when the “other” becomes “ours” that we truly begin to touch the world at new points and enrich our life. For this to happen, our instruments must acquire the ability to truly grasp the new. It is not just a matter of magnitude, i.e., of the number of points at which we touch the world, but of the quality of our touching too – how deeply we can delve into these new points. This brings us to two very important qualities that every person, as the subject of experience, must work on in order to expand his or her capacity to do so: the cultivation of one’s instruments and the cultivation of one’s willpower.
The cultivation of our instruments refers to how equipped we are to understand, appreciate, explore, and finally embrace the world that lies beyond our own. Our senses have to be trained and cultivated in order to become refined. What we discern with our eyes, ears, and nose depends on how well we have trained them. The trained ear knows that there are hidden harmonies and melodies in many musical masterpieces and learns to discern them more easily than the untrained one. The trained nose of the wine-tester can distinguish tens of aromas in a sip of wine, which the average person cannot. Yet what distinguishes the cultivated from the uncultivated instrument is simply the effort and time spent to cultivate it. The whole field of Raja Yoga has developed ways to keep cultivating not only one’s perception, but also one’s attention and mental concentration. Cultivating one’s instruments is actually not something mysterious to be found only in Yoga or other practices. We have been doing it throughout our upbringing, in school, and during our early adulthood. Yet, at some point exactly there – in early adulthood! – many stopped working on this cultivation, thinking there was nothing more to cultivate. But this could not be further from the truth. Irrespective of how cultivated or refined our senses and mind are, their ability to expand is limitless. Although, as Kant showed, our senses and mental instruments delineate the limits of our grasping of the world, these limits may still be considered limitless as long as we expand the ability and sensitivity of the instruments! Each time we expand their ability they can contain more of the world within them, even if that newly contained and expanded world is still limited.
Finally, we have the cultivation of our willpower, which, in the present context, is none other than our conscious effort to touch the world at as many points as we can. In order to achieve this, there has to be both an exertion as well as a persistence to keep trying to expand our world and our life’s-field. The operatic soprano voice with its strong vibrato will sound unnatural to somebody used to listening only to pop music, just as the long and windy sentences of Proust may seem impossible to follow for one used to reading light novels. Yet, with effort and multiple attempts at grasping what one originally has failed to grasp, one is finally rewarded with many new worlds to explore and enjoy. Just as with most of our valuable gains in life, touching both Life and the World at many points requires effort and real work. However, no other work is more fulfilling than that which expands our world and our being.
Moving outwards to touch Life and the World at many points, embracing fields and spheres of Life and the World that lie outside our present life, but also cultivating our instruments and exerting our willpower so that we may constantly expand our ability to do so, all of these create a life with no limits, a life richer than anything we have ever imagined.