By Eknath Easwaran
By Eknath Easwaran
One morning the paper brought me an interesting surprise. Facing each other on opposite pages were perfect illustrations of the two paths a human being can take in life: an upward path that leads to fulfillment, a downward path that leads to sorrow.
Nowhere are these paths delineated more clearly than in India’s best-known scripture, the Bhagavad Gita – what Mahatma Gandhi called his spiritual reference book. The Gita is not a book of commandments but a book of choices. It says to each of us, “Here are two ways of living. If you live for your own narrow pleasure and profit, that very way of life will eventually make you lonely, bitter, and unfulfilled. If you forget yourself in living for the welfare of all, in which your own welfare is included, you will be secure, loving, and loved.” The choice is left to us. Everyone responds to this approach, for it gives us freedom and responsibility.
On the left-hand page was an interview with a man full of advice on how to make the best of the economic, social, and ecological disaster that according to him is sure to come. From the opening sentence, I knew what path he represented and where it had to lead. Because of its very premise – how to get, not how to give – the path he has chosen cannot lead anywhere but down. It is not a question of whether the man himself is good or bad. He offers his advice with good intentions. But once you accept the idea that what is most important is to look out for yourself, the rest follows so naturally that we scarcely notice where it is taking us.
This expert looks at the clouds on the horizon and observes, “Pretty bad. We’re on the edge of disaster.” I agree – except that I would say we are not on the edge; we are in the disaster right now. “But,” he continues, “things are going to get a lot worse. The end is near.” There I disagree. True, if we go on the way we have been going, the end may very well be near. But he has forgotten that human beings have the precious capacity to choose, even to the point of changing direction completely.
When we forget this, we behave as if trends in history were rigid. Trends are made up of people like you and me, who are free to choose. If the end is near, we can make it recede. If enough of us draw on our deeper resources, make the right choices, the beginning is near – the beginning of a better, richer, more secure life, not just for us as individuals but for everyone.
This man is warning us that the lifestyle so many take for granted in the developed countries is about to come to an abrupt end. It simply isn’t sustainable. Most people will be taken by surprise when the bubble bursts, he warns, but we can maintain a reasonable amount of comfort for ourselves by following some simple steps.
He summarizes his message in what he calls the “three Gs” of self-preservation. The first of these is pretty basic: groceries. He forecasts severe food shortages in the near future as global food systems break down. He does not enter into social criticism; he simply says, “This is what is going to happen.” And his natural conclusion is “Buy up as much food as you can, at least a year’s supply, and store it in your attic or cellar.”
At first, this sounds eminently reasonable. It’s only common sense to be prepared for an emergency as best one can. But as I read on, I realized that this man isn’t simply talking about disaster preparedness. He is trying to hang on to a way of life that he himself calls unsustainable – in effect, by moving a large number of food items from the chain stores to his garage.
What about the alternatives? After all, most of us eat more than we really need – some of us to the point of jeopardizing our health. And we tend to eat too much of the wrong foods as well. Rather than wait till we are forced to abandon an excessive way of living, why not start eating only what we need of foods that don’t simply taste good but are good for the body? Not only would the health of the nation improve; we ourselves would feel better and enjoy life more.
Second, I would say, instead of going to the supermarket and stocking up on cans and packages of the same old stuff, why not start to cultivate local food sources? We can even grow some of our own food. It sounds impractical, but many people are learning to do this even in big cities – on rooftops, in small yards, and all sorts of other ingenious places – and I am told that this kind of hand cultivation raises more food per square foot of earth than any of the big commercial growers.
To me this is a most appealing solution. Instead of subtracting from the food supply, this adds to it. Instead of worsening the problem for others, this eases it. And there are many side benefits: the food tastes better, the family gets a chance to work together, children can participate, friends and neighbors can build communities by sharing plots of land, tools, labor, and experience.
Of course, this man reminds us, besides food, we need to hoard other necessities – everything we don’t want to do without, from automobile parts to deodorant. This too may sound reasonable. If you believe, for example, that life is not worth living unless you can drive hundreds of miles at the drop of a three-day holiday, you may well want to stockpile a modest assortment of spark plugs, oil filters, headlights, tires, fan belts, and fuses in addition to all that food. It might even be a good idea to buy a second vehicle from a junkyard and save it for spare parts. That garage is beginning to fill up . . .
But on the other hand, it might not be the end of the world to be frugal about how much we drive. Instead of an ordeal, it could be an opportunity. You don’t have to go to Disney World to enjoy yourself. Why not stay home? Enjoy your family; perhaps they haven’t seen much of you. Play with your children. Take them to the park or to the beach – and take the dogs too.
If you haven’t got a dog, you can always borrow a neighbor’s. When I go to the beach, I take as many friends and dogs as the car will hold. According to the tags on their collars, none of these dogs belongs to me. But in my eyes all of them are mine, just as every child is our own.
And why worry if the beach is not Nice or Acapulco? True, the signs may be readable; the policemen may be less than exotic. But I can assure you, it’s the very same beach. The sand is the same, the sun is the same, and the sunburn you get is the same too.
After all, it wasn’t that long ago that people managed to entertain themselves quite adequately without relying on automobiles. If we have forgotten how to do this, it is we who lose, by making ourselves dependent on a wasteful way of life.
A shortage of consumer goods need not be a crisis. It can help us focus on what matters. For decades we have been bombarded with propaganda to buy, buy, buy. The question of need is irrelevant. If you don’t need more, why should that keep you from buying more? You can always get something expensive for someone else. Spend money to show your love. If you don’t buy, you don’t love.
Any sensible person hearing this should object, “Where is the connection?” If you want to show your love, give your time, your attention, your sensitivity.
Give what is useful, I would say, but do not give impediments. More is not better – in fact, it is often worse. Many years ago, when I gave a talk on meditation at a retreat center in New Mexico, Christine and I were invited to stay at the home of a well-known celebrity. We brought only one small suitcase, yet when we opened the cavernous closet in our room, I couldn’t see how we were going to fit in so much as a shirt. Our hostess must have had a dress for every day of the season in that closet, and at least a hundred pairs of shoes. And that was the guest room! When I heard she was interested in spirituality but didn’t have time to meditate, I wanted to say,
“I’m not surprised. It must take her days just to polish all those shoes!” When we have many things, we cannot enjoy them; we can only serve them. When we reduce our possessions to a comfortable minimum, we find we have plenty of time for the things that make life worthwhile.
The man in this newspaper article, however, thought otherwise. He was determined to keep what he had. After urging us to stock up on groceries, he brought in the second G. “Buy gold” – coins, ingots, bricks, it doesn’t matter. Currency will be worthless in a disaster, he explains, but no matter what happens to the economy, we should always be able to get enough canned vegetables and spark plugs with a Krugerrand.
At this point I felt as if I had strayed into Alice’s Wonderland. But I read on, steeling myself for the inevitable last step, the third G: guns. Doesn’t Jesus say, “Where your treasure is, there your heart is also”? It’s not enough to stock up on the material necessities of life. We should prepare to defend it all – ourselves, our groceries, our gold, our automobile parts – against anyone who might want to take it away from us.
Without any wrong intentions, without any desire for animosity, that is where the path has to lead. “I don’t want war,” Bismarck is said to have protested. “I just want to get what I want.”
After this dismal article, I turned to the next page of the newspaper and read a wholly different story. The page was devoted to Mother Teresa of Calcutta and her work. My eye went first to a box with highlights from the speech she gave on receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, and I felt like I was emerging from darkness into the light of day. She began with the Prayer of Saint Francis, which has been the centerpiece of my method of meditation for almost half a century: “Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love . . .”
Eyewitness accounts of the Nobel ceremonies made it clear that it is not millionaires and military leaders whom the world loves, nor those who “sit in the seats of the mighty,” but those who give their lives to the nameless men, women, and children whom the Indian poet Tagore called “the lowest, the lowliest, and the lost.” When Mother Teresa arrived in Oslo, thousands of ordinary citizens turned out to welcome her in a torchlight procession and present her with what they called the “Poor People’s Nobel Prize”: some seventy thousand dollars, the sum of many small donations from little people like you and me.
It was their way of saying, “She lives for all of us.” When she received the Nobel Prize, she said, “I accept this in the name of the poor” – not merely in India but the poor everywhere, even in wealthy countries like the United States.
“By blood,” Mother Teresa says, “I am Albanian. By citizenship, an Indian. By faith, I am a Catholic nun. As to my calling, I belong to the world.” That’s not just rhetoric. When your sense of I and mine has been erased, you can work in Calcutta and be of comfort to people in the East End of London or New York City. Those whose hearts are flooded with love for all are present everywhere.
Despite a tiny and physically frail frame, Mother Teresa had the vitality of a twenty-year-old even in her twilight years. In fact, like Gandhi, the older she got, the more she tried to do – and the more she tried to do, the more deeply she drew on her inner resources of vitality, wisdom, and love – resources that lie within every one of us.
One touch in the Nobel Prize drama in Oslo I found especially appealing. Ordinarily, Nobel recipients are honored with a sumptuous banquet. Mother Teresa asked the committee, “Please cancel the banquet and give the money to me for the poor.”
It was a perfect gesture, which can inspire all of us on our much smaller stage. If your boyfriend offers to buy you something expensive, just tell him kindly, “Thank you, but there are people who are hungry. Would you send the money to someone who is helping them?” If he loves you, that kind of talk will not turn him away; it will make him fall even more deeply in love.
Another anecdote moved me because in Calcutta, the differences between Hindus and Muslims have been exploited for decades to the point of terrible violence.
“Some weeks back,” Mother Teresa related, “I heard there was a family who had not eaten for some days – a Hindu family – so I took some rice and I went to the family. Before I knew where I was, the mother of the family had divided the rice into two, and she took the other half to the next-door neighbors, who happened to be a Muslim family.
“Then I asked her, ‘How much will all of you have to share? There are ten of you with that bit of rice.’ The mother replied, ‘They have not eaten either.’ ”
What a contrast to “groceries, gold, and guns”!
Mother Teresa was not born a saint. Yet from the age of twelve, when most of us were preoccupied with school and friends, she wanted to lead the spiritual life – just like her beloved name-sake, little Thérèse of Lisieux. So, like Thérèse, she began with single-minded determination to make herself “an instrument of God’s peace.” In 1928, at the age of eighteen, Teresa joined a Catholic missionary order and was sent to India to teach at girls’ schools in Darjeeling and then Calcutta. The work was comfortable, but she was constantly reminded of the poor she saw in the slums nearby.
In 1946, when she was traveling by rail from the plains of India up to the Himalayas, she heard a command from deep within. “The message was quite clear,” she said later. “I was to leave the convent and help the poor whilst living among them. It was an order. I knew where I belonged, but I did not know how to get there.”
As a nun, Teresa did not have any resources with which to follow this command. She had no place to stay outside the convent, no food, no supporters. But that didn’t deter her. After a few months of medical training, she stepped out into the streets of Calcutta as alone and as poor as those she served and threw herself heart and soul into trying to help the children and the sick she met, one by one. From that small beginning grew a new Christian order that is now active around the world.
This kind of service is the very highest of human motivations. People sometimes object, “You don’t know human nature. Without incentives like profit or prestige, nobody will respond for very long.” That is a very shallow view of human nature. We can never give our best out of a selfish motive. If that seems contrary to reality, it is mostly because we so seldom see a higher alternative.
When Mother Teresa began her work, one of her first companions was a Bengali girl of nineteen. She saw how much Teresa had given up and how much she had to endure, how much she was giving and how people responded to her help, and she said, “I’ll follow wherever you go, suffer whatever you suffer.”
Today, thousands of men and women have responded like this to Mother Teresa’s call to what is highest in our nature: not the desire to get but the need to give, to love, to serve. To everyone she must have said, “There’s no salary. There may not even be enough to eat. Just more and more work, more and more sacrifice, more and more service.” And people replied,
“Mother, that is what we want.” In the terms with which the world usually measures, it sounds terribly arduous.
Yet all we have to do is look at this woman’s face, listen to her words or to those she has helped, to judge for ourselves whether she has chosen the way of sorrow or the way of joy.
To choose this path, we do not need to be saints. We do not need to measure ourselves against someone like Mother Teresa or work on her grand scale. We can begin on our own scale, right where we are. And it need not be one life-altering decision. These two paths, the self-centered and the selfless, open to us constantly, in a thousand little choices throughout the day. Any time we choose to give rather than get, we have taken a step on the path of true fulfillment.
Wherever we are, whatever our place in life, we can all fulfill our boundless capacity for love. The choice is up to us.
This article is from the Summer 2020 Blue Mountain Journal titled “Wisdom and Compassion in a Global Crisis.”