The Rich Vegetarian

An Examined Life

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Tag: freedom

Most Burdensome of All

I have a friend who keeps his car stocked with water, fruit and snacks, so he can hand them out to homeless people on his way to work. One day, he gave a bottle of water to a homeless man. The guy looked at him askance, as if asking, c’mon, this is all you can give me? He took the water and walked away.

As he related the incident, my friend laughed. “You cannot expect gratitude even from a homeless man.”

My friend is a wise and compassionate guy, and I like to think he was half-joking when he said what he did.

It is truly burdensome to believe that you (or I) did a good deed, performed an act of kindness. There is a kind of oppressive weight to the idea and thought of it. In fact, I find it highly patronizing.

Service is a pure (perhaps the purest) form of self-expression. Millions of people perform acts of service on a daily basis without likely even being aware of it. They act on a whim, in a moment of complete spontaneity, responding to a need from someone somewhere. It takes an instant, the act is done, and everyone is off to their respective places.

It leaves everyone free: giver, receiver, bystanders.

I cringe a little when I hear well-meaning parents and teachers encouraging kids to think about “others,” “do something for others,” and so on.

So long as you think that you are doing something for others, you are going to be bound to the act, harbor a sense of expectation, even anticipate gratitude. I’d really like to walk away from it, be free of the typical trappings that come with “doing a good deed.”

Perhaps this comes across as fake modesty but it’s a little more than that.

It stems from a simple desire for freedom. To be released from expectation (of gratitude or whatever), to be free of the burdensome notion “I am helping another,” to be free of this terribly grand picture of self.

Love and Neutrality

Love isn’t generally associated with neutrality.

Love is associated with all sorts of positive experiences — joy, cheer, generosity, good wishes, hugs, support. Neutrality seems very cold in contrast. Like a noble gas or a non-reactive element. We want the people we love to respond to us. We don’t want them to be cold or aloof. Or so we understood what it means to be neutral.

When we love someone, we are pretty much in their business openly. When we cannot stand someone, we are in their business too. In our heads, that is. We cannot stop thinking about them. But when we love someone, it is well understood (and expected) that we are connected to them in many ways. This includes providing them with physical/mental/emotional support, wishing them the best, giving them the gift of time and presence, being available to them. Or so the popular understanding of love goes.

Love isn’t meant to be neutral or empty. It is meant to be filled with positive vibes and generosity and blessings.

There is no space in love. We keep wanting to close the space, end the distance. Sometimes, it is impossible to close the distance physically, so we do it mentally. And we project our best hopes and wishes on to the people we love. Isn’t that expected? How else do we love the people we do, if not by wishing them the best? “May you live long, prosper, be healthy.” And so on.

Of course, we also claim that we want space in our loving relationships. Space is a neutral element. Yes, we appreciate space but we don’t much care for its neutral nature.

If we are to stay neutral, what is the differentiation between us and a stranger? None, or so we think.

Imagine a parent remaining neutral towards their offspring. It is impossible! We are so emotionally close to them; there can be no space in question. And if that space exists, it isn’t empty. It is filled with hopes, dreams, and expectations.

All these positive vibes begin to exert subtle control on the loved ones in question. It hovers over their lives like a cloud. Not a grey, ominous one necessarily. Maybe a white, fluffy one. But it persists. It follows them around. And of course, we shrug it off, thank it even. We are happy to be the beneficiaries, the receivers of such largesse. We are grateful for the support, the encouragement. We regard these as the hallmarks of true love and support. When we don’t see them, we think that love has passed. That it no longer exists.

We could never recognize true neutrality for the immense freedom it provides. Indeed, we are incapable of appreciating the gift of neutrality. We crave connection, and we think neutrality is its opposite.

I remember a talk by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar titled “Guru Shishya Sambandh,” translated as “Guru Disciple Relationship.” In it, he explains that the relationship between a Guru and disciple is like none other. It cannot even be called a relationship because it lacks all markers of typical relationships. He issues a gentle warning, do not make this into a relationship like the others. Because that is the perfect trap to fall into, leading to unmet expectations and drama.

Of course, we like to put a spin on this relationship as well. We imagine that the Guru wants the best for us, s/he wants us to grow and progress and move forward.

What if we came to realize that the Guru has an attitude of complete neutrality towards us? That s/he wants neither the best nor the worst for us, not happiness or sorrow or health or wealth or sickness, whatever. That s/he simply lets us be. That s/he isn’t really looking out for our so-called improvement, progress, whatever.

Our tender hearts would be broken. We’d feel let down, all hopes dashed. “You are the one I trusted completely, I thought you’d take care of me.” How can the Master be neutral?

I wonder if we can even begin to comprehend the immense freedom granted to us by neutrality. Freedom to be (or not) whoever or whatever. Freedom from love and projection, support and bonding, ties and expectations.

Really, do we even want such freedom? Ahh, I think not.

We like to be supported. We want blessings from loved ones. We rely on their best wishes and positive projections, laden as they may be with subtle expectations. We cherish those connections. We cannot bear to hurt the ones who love us. We don’t want freedom. In fact, I doubt we can handle it.

Express, Excess

I thought long and hard before opening a Twitter account, then finally took the plunge. Now I have two of them. It is incredibly easy to get into the trap of followers and fans when you join the popular social networks. I think that that entirely takes away the joy of sharing and connecting. In the beginning, I was indifferent to the number game, and then I got hooked. Thankfully, it didn't last long, and now I am back to my usual carefree (uncaring of the numbers) self, free to share and express what I think fit.

Ours has become a culture of expression, over expression really,  and excessively so. "I am tired, I walked so much ALL DAY!," "That b*#%#^% took away my brother's kids," "All sloshed…," "It is raining," "My cat peed," and so on. I wonder if these folks tweet every thought that passes through. That would be an impossible task but they do a good job, nonetheless. On and on, these devoted Twitterers keep at it, day in and day out. This is supposed to be a space of conversation but if all that we are doing is exchanging "It is raining" with "I am drunk," I wonder what kind of a conversation is happening. More importantly, do I want to be part of it?

Let me clarify, there is a lot of good stuff happening on Twitter. Interesting links, engaging ideas, warm and fuzzy conversations, brilliant connections – they are all there. A lot of it is also noise, plain noise. People broadcasting their random thoughts to no one in particular. Or to anyone who's listening.

A lot of times, I am tempted to tell people to shut up. Be quiet, please. Bah, who am I to do that? It is a free space. That, I think, is part of the problem. Don't get me wrong; I am all for free speech. But I think 'free speech' has been understood wrongly by many people. We tend to equate freedom with a 'I-will-do/say-damn-well-what-I-wish' attitude and not 'How do I use this freedom usefully?'

Take Pinterest. An infinite wall with infinite pictures hanging on it. You browse a webpage, like an image, tack a pin. Like another image, tack another pin. Thus the wall grows larger, the number of pictures keep expanding. It is an inspiration board, they say. If you have 3500+ pictures tacked on your wall, which ones do you look at? How does your browser window even accommodate these pictures? Of course, you got to keep scrolling down.

Reading, talking, tweeting, posting, pinning…. Phew. It is a whole lot of excess, don't you think?

Over the years, I have started to express less of what I think. Thousands of thoughts rush through this mind daily, some useful and meaningful, the others are pure drivel. Actually, that isn't true entirely. Meditation and yoga have transformed this mind. There are fewer thoughts and they are more directed, stronger in intention and powerful. And that's what gives birth to a post of this kind, or some other good writing. That's the kind that deserves expression and a presence for posterity on the walls of the Internet. Not "OMG. Is that sunshine?" or "The house smells like whiskey."