Friday, April 3, 2015

My favourite five principles of spirituality

Spirituality is a domain full of wisdom – both ancient and new age. A treatise like Bhagvad Gita alone offers 700 verses. How do you decide what to believe? Well, I have adopted a simple approach. I don’t believe in anything no matter how old the scripture or how well-known the spiritual teacher. I treat every so-called spiritual principle that interests me as a hypothesis or an assumption. And then I ask a question: Can I test this myself in a low-cost manner? Following this approach, I have come to appreciate a few spiritual principles more than others. Here are my favourite five. While some of these may be ancient, I have mentioned the source through which the principle reached me:

1.      Worry pretends to be necessary1: If you are like me or my wife, you will have ample of opportunities to test this principle. Worry means to keep running a bunch of “what if” scenarios repetitively in the head. Some worries are short term – Will I reach for the meeting on time? Will I send the proposal by tomorrow as promised? Will our son cycle safely to school & back? Some worries are long term – Will I continue to get work? Will I save enough for the old age? Will I be able to take care of my parents when they need it most? On the one hand, my experience suggests that worry has helped me in the past to achieve the goals. And when I didn’t worry enough, things haven’t gone too well. Nick put it well when he asked Eckhart Tolle, “If I don’t worry about things, how will I pay my bills?”2

On the other hand, there is a strong case questioning the role of worry in achieving goals. It is put forward as follows: There are only three things one can do in any situation: (1) change the situation (2) remove yourself from the situation; or (3) accept the situation. Each option may involve a different action as the next step and worry isn’t one of the useful actions. Worry doesn’t help me cut through the traffic jam, nor does it help me prepare the proposal sooner. Different actions do. And that is where the focus should be.

One question that I and my wife have found useful in case of worry is to ask oneself: “Do I have a problem right now? Not tomorrow or five minutes from now, but right now?”3Anyway, I found this principle relatively easy to get started with experimentation. Try it out for yourself.

2.      Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional4: I have yet to find a way that will guarantee pain-free life. Looks like tooth-ache, knee-pain, back-pain, head-ache etc. are bound to show up once in a while. Some may become buddies as I grow older.  Apart from physical pain, there are times when I experience thought induced pain. A thought springs up telling a story as to how I was treated unfairly, say by a customer. And that causes emotional pain. In short, there is nothing in the experience or a claim from science that says pain can be eliminated.

Suffering is a repetitive thought pattern that sucks up energy in building resistance to the pain. Some of my commonly experienced stories are – “How could he treat me like that?” or “Why is this happening to me?” etc. This inner resistance creates a multiplier effect and that perpetuates the pain. I have narrated my experience at a silent meditation retreat (Vipassana) where I could see this pain-multiplier effect. And when the resistance gets dropped or reduced, overall intensity of pain reduces. It is amazing to experience it yourself and then try it out every time pain shows up. It may not work every time, but it is a great experiment.

3.      Whatever you fight, you strengthen, what you resist, persists5: “Fighting for your right” is worshipped all over the world. Be it the bloody wars or non-violent fights of Gandhi, Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr. fighting for the right cause is a virtue many of us admire. Babasaheb Ambedkar’s “Educate, unite and fight” slogan has inspired generations. Hence, a principle like “Whatever you fight, you strengthen” is non-intuitive.

One way to experiment with this principle is to try to disprove it. Offer resistance to someone’s idea or behaviour. It could be your spouse or a teenage son or daughter or your boss or team member and see if that idea or behaviour gets dropped due to your resistance. Now, see what happens when you offer no resistance and see what happens. Since this principle is non-intuitive, you will need a lot of experimentation to check its validity.

4.      How you do what you do is more important than what you do6: On a daily basis, I interact with various people - Milkman, garbage collector, car wash person, watchman, newspaper delivery boy etc. On the face of it, it looks as though my work – say of innovation consulting is more value creating than their jobs. This creates an impression that what I do is more important than what they do. This principle questions this assumption. It says – what I do is less important. What matters is – how I do what I do. For example, if Hanmantha washes cars with utmost attention and care, then he is doing a great service to the society no matter how much it contributes to India’s GDP.

We all can see this principle in our day-to-day activity as well. I sometimes open a door as though it is merely a means to get into another room; wash dishes or fold clothes as though it is an activity to get over with so that more important things can be catered to. This principle questions the underlying assumption behind this approach. It says that how you do your activities whether it is opening a door or planning your project matters more than the activity itself. This principle has significant implications for everything we do.

5.      My primary responsibility is my own state of consciousness7: World around me seems to be full of injustice, inequality and problems like poverty and corruption. I have family responsibilities – son’s education, aging parents etc. I run a consulting business. What is my primary responsibility? I find this principle useful and non-intuitive. It says that none the things I mentioned is my primary responsibility. In fact, my primary responsibility doesn’t lie in the outer world at all. My primary responsibility is my own state of consciousness. This is perhaps the most non-intuitive principle.

One way to go about doing my work is to not worry about how much anxiety or stress it causes to me and people around me. Focus on the goal and run after it as fast as possible. Assume that stress is a natural side-effect of becoming successful. You have to sacrifice something for gaining something etc.

An alternate way of doing the same thing is to first pay attention to your own state of consciousness. If life feels stressful, then first investigate the thoughts that perpetuate the stress. Question the validity of the thoughts etc. Always give more priority to this internal observation than external tasks even if the task involves helping millions of poor people.

1.      “worry pretends to be necessary” – I heard this in Eckhart’s interview with Oprah on the book “A New Earth” chapter 3 at 55:50.
2.      Nick’s question to Eckhart on how worry helps him pay bills is in Eckhart’s interview with Oprah on the book “A New Earth” chapter 8 at 44:44.
3.      “Do you have a problem right now?” – Practicing a Power of Now, by Eckhart Tolle, page 40.
4.      “Pain is inevitable…” - This principle was pointed to me by my friend Zunder Lekshmanan. Subsequently, I found a nice article with the same title by Dan Mager.
5.      “Whatever you fight,…” – A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle, page 75.
6.      “How you do what you do…” – Eckhart’s interview at Stanford University by Dr. James Doty titled “Conversations on compassion” by  1:16:37.
7.      “My primary responsibility…” This quote is from Eckhart in response to a question from Melissa, Crab Orchard, West Virginia about her worry related to her sister who is addicted to drugs, interview with Oprah Winfrey, A New Earth, chapter 3 at 51:50.

I would like to thank my wife Gauri for her review and useful suggestions.


  1. I love the thought of pain.The greatest trouble in meeting expectations with pain is not the pain itself; it is the manner by which we react to it.With mindfulness,you can figure out how to perceive how your mental reactions to affliction capacity and how you can abstain from being so gotten in them.Have a great day.

    @Sylvia Powell.

  2. Spirituality is an expansive concept with a place for many frames of reference. It is the science that teaches us the art of connecting ourselves with something bigger than us, and it generally is in the search for a meaning of one's life. root chakra meditation