Vocation — the Secret of Happiness

Roman Krznaric writes of the truly remarkable Marie Curie in “How to find Fulfilling Work“.

Born into a studious but impoverished family of Polish intellectuals in 1867, Marie Curie….was a gifted student. She dreamed of studying medicine….arriving in Paris in 1891, aged 24, she commenced her medical studies, and gradually found herself being drawn to doing research in chemistry and physics, an interest she had partly inherited from her father.

It was the beginning of an extraordinarily intensive life of scientific endeavour that would last over forty years. Curie normally worked twelve to fourteen hours a day, continuing at home until two in the morning after returning from the lab….Her brilliance and dedication were rewarded with a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903, and another in Chemistry in 1911. She became France’s first female university professor, and one of the world’s famous scientists.

Curie was absolutely committed to her career. She lived an almost monastic lifestyle in her early years in Paris, surviving on nothing but buttered bread and tea for weeks at a time, which left her anemic and regularly fainting from hunger. She shunned her growing fame, had no interest in material comforts, preferring to live in a virtually unfurnished home: status and money mattered little to her. When a relative offered to buy her a wedding dress, she insisted that “if you are going to be kind enough to give me one, please let it be practical and dark so that I can put it on afterwards to go to the laboratory.” Before her death in 1934, aged 67, she summed up her philosophy of work: “Life is not easy for any of us,” she said. “But what of that? We must have perseverance and above all confidence in ourselves. We must believe that we are gifted for something, and that this thing, at whatever cost, must be attained.”

In “Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation”, Parker J Palmer tells us that “Vocation does not come from a voice “out there” calling me to become something I am not. It comes from a voice “in here” calling me to be the person I was born to be.”

“Emerald Lake” — painting by Deepa Krishnan

Daniel Dennett, in a 2020 TED Talk titled “Dangerous memes”, points out that “The secret of happiness is: Find something more important than you are and dedicate your life to it.”

Matthieu Ricard  observes in “In Search of Wisdom” that “the definition of perseverance, one of the six “perfections” of Buddhism or paramita….is “the joy of doing good.” “Good” here is not simply a good action; it is something that inspires us deeply. It is joy in the form of effort.”

Peace 🙂

Every moment could be a New Beginning

Juan Mascaro ends the introduction to his translation of “The Bhagavad Gita” with words that are enshrined in my heart: “Every moment of our life can be the beginning of great things.”

As one reads Joy Harjo, the first Native American to be named the United States Poet Laureate, sing (in her poem “Praise the Rain”) “Praise beginnings….” , one hears her whisper between words that every moment is another opportunity to begin anew. 

The Irish poet-philosopher, John O’Donohue, writes in “Benedictus: A Book Of Blessings” that “our very life depends directly on continuous acts of beginning.” 

Photo by JOHN TOWNERon Unsplash

“There is nothing to fear in the act of beginning”, John joyfully goes on, because “the art of harvesting the secret riches of our lives is best achieved when we place profound trust in the act of beginning.”

In “In Search of Wisdom”, a solid-gold conversation between a  psychiatrist, philosopher, and monk, we read Alexandre Jollien observe that “every moment of life can become the occasion for liberation….”

Peace 🙂

The planet’s health is our health

In a piece published by Lion’s Roar on 1st December 2020, we read Thich Nhat Hanh:

We often forget that the planet we are living on has given us all the elements that make up our bodies. The water in our flesh, our bones, and all the microscopic cells inside our bodies all come from the earth and are part of the earth. The earth is not just the environment we live in. We are the earth and we are always carrying her within us.

In “Lost Woods: The Discovered Writing of Rachel Carson”, Rachel (who was one of the launching-forces of the modern environmental conscience) writes that life’s “living protoplasm is built of the same elements as air, water, and rock.” She goes on: “Our origins are of the earth” — part of “the natural universe”, part of “the whole stream of life.” We are not separate from Nature.

Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk, mystic, and scholar of comparative religion, sings in a poem titled “On Sweet Irrational Worship” (published in (“In the Dark Before Dawn: New Selected Poems of Thomas Merton”): “I am earth, earth….”

In a pure-gold OnBeing conversation on 16th September 2010, Joanna Macy, the ecologist and Buddhist scholar, tells Krista Tippett:

We’ve been treating the Earth as if it were a supply house and a sewer. We’ve been grabbing, extracting resources from it for our cars and our hair dryers and our bombs, and we’ve been pouring the waste into it until it’s overflowing.

But our Earth is not a supply house and a sewer. It is our larger body. We breathe it. We taste it. We are it.

Photo by Jacek Dylagon Unsplash

The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services’s 2019 Global Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services” points out the main forces that contribute to our assault on Nature are “underpinned by societal values and behaviours that include production and consumption patterns, human population dynamics and trends, trade, technological innovations and….governance.” 

Our very way of life is causing harm, and we appear to have forgotten (or are choosing to ignore) something obvious, yet profound.

The Head of the UN Environment Program, Inger Andersen reminds us  (in a UN First Person report published on 5th April 2020) — “the health of people and the health of planet are one and the same”.

Peace 🙂

The Battle inside

A story that is attributed to many sources (including the Cherokee Native Americans) tells of a man chatting with his grandson. “A fight is going on inside me,” he says to the boy.

““It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continues, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person too.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”

The old Cherokee simply replied: “The one you feed.””

In a Nautilus conversation on 14th October 2020, Steve Paulson tells the neuroscientist David Eagleman: “You write about a constant battle going on inside our brains between different sets of neurons, fighting over who gets control of certain parts of the brain.”

David replies:

There is a competition at all levels, all the way down to individual neurons. If you walk through a forest, it looks serene and beautiful. The same thing is happening there. All the trees and shrubs are competing for sunlight, so some shrubs grow low and broad, while others put all their energy into growing up tall and spreading out leaves to catch sunlight. That’s exactly what’s going on with neurons. When you look at neurotransmission, when one neuron spits out chemicals that send a signal to the next neuron, it comes from this aggressive background of neurons fighting against one another. If you take this perspective, it explains a lot.

In “Living with the Devil: A Meditation on Good and Evil”, Stephen Batchelor writes of Mara,  the Devil, which is really the evil wolf in us.

Stephen tell us insightfully that “Mara is Buddha’s devilish twin. Buddha needs to let go of Mara in order to be Buddha. And not just once as an episode in the heroic drama of enlightenment. As long as Buddha lives, he is constantly relinquishing Mara….The two are inseparable…..Mara….is really Gotama’s own conflicted humanity.”

Photo by Sam Syon Unsplash

Juan Mascaro writes of this in the introduction to his translation of the Bhagavad Gita. “We find in the Gita that there is going to be a great battle for the rule of a Kingdom; and how can we doubt that this is the Kingdom of Heaven, the kingdom of the soul? Are we going to allow the forces of light in us or the forces of darkness to win?”

In the introduction to his commentary Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (“Meditation as Spiritual Culmination — Yoga Aphorisms of Patanjali”), and explanations on Verse 1.12, Swami Sarvagatananda writes of the person who is always “mindful….in thought,  word and deed” — a person who examines the mind “thoroughly”, and becomes “aware of all….thoughts, tendencies, urges and modifications.” Such a person, Swamiji says, is a “yogi.” She/He is able to “stand up and say: “All the devils are in me — and all the gods are also in me….”

Juan exhorts us to cultivate the Yogi’s spirit. He encourages us to persevere with Faith in the good wolf within. “In the battle of the Bhagavad Gita there is a great symbol of hope: that he who has a good will and strives is never lost, and that in the battle for eternal life there can never be a defeat unless we run away from the battle.”

Peace 🙂

The vastness of it all

A Nautilus piece published on 25th November 2020 titled “A Supermassive Lens on the Constants of Nature” begins by telling us that the 2020 Physics Nobel winners have “established that the center of our own galaxy houses a supermassive black hole with the equivalent of 4 million suns packed into a relatively small space.” 4 million suns….!! 

Michael Strauss, Professor & Chair of the Astrophysics Department at Princeton University makes the “distinction”, in “Welcome to the Universe: An Astrophysical Tour”, “between the universe as a whole, and the observable universe, the part we can see today.” The “boundary of the present-day observable universe”, he writes, is at a distance of “45 billion light-years from us.” And “beyond the edge of the observable universe, there is much more universe out there, indeed, an infinite amount, if we are to believe our current measurements of the geometry of the observable universe and our cosmological models.” 

In “The Power of Myth”, Joseph Campbell narrates a story about Indra. “….it happened….that a great monster had enclosed all the waters of the earth, so there was a terrible drought, and the world was in a very bad condition. It took Indra quite a while to realize that he had a box of thunderbolts and that all he had to do was to drop a thunderbolt on the monster and blow him up. When he did that, the waters flowed, and the world was refreshed, and Indra said, “What a great boy am I.”

Indra then goes on to the top of the the “central mountain of the world” and commissions the “carpenter of the gods” to build him the grandest of palaces – a palace like none anywhere. Each time Indra comes to inspect the progress, he instructs the carpenter with more and more ideas on making the palace bigger and more spectacular. The carpenter, in frustration, approaches Brahma for help – Brahma, in turn, seeks out the “sleeping Vishnu” who “just makes a gesture and says something like, “Listen, fly, something is going to happen.”

“Next morning, at the gate of the palace that is being built there appears a beautiful blue-black boy” who tells Indra “I have been told that you are building a palace as no Indra before you ever built.”

And Indra says, “Indras before me, young man – what are you talking about?”

The boy says, “Indras before you. I have seen them come and go. Just think, Vishnu sleeps in the cosmic ocean and the lotus of the universe grows from his navel. On the lotus sits Brahma, the creator. Brahma opens his eyes, and world comes into being, governed by an Indra. Brahma closes his eyes, and world goes out of being. The life of a Brahma is four hundred and thirty-two thousand years. When he dies, the lotus goes back, and another lotus is formed, and another Brahma.””

The boy’s next words tell us that thousands and thousands of years ago, human beings sensed the vastness they were part of. “Then think of the galaxies beyond galaxies in infinite space, each a lotus, with a Brahma sitting on it, opening his eyes and closing his eyes. And Indras? There may be wise men in your court who would volunteer to count the drops of water in the oceans of the world or the grains of sand on the beaches, but no one would” be able to count the number of  Indras.

As the boy continues to talk, an “army of ants” passes by, and the boy laughs. Indra asks, “Why do you laugh?”

“The boy answers, “Don’t ask unless you are willing to be hurt.”

Indra says, “I ask. Teach….”

And so the boy points to the ants and says, “Former Indras all. Through many lifetimes they rise from the lowest conditions to the highest illumination. And then they drop their thunderbolt on a monster and think, ‘What a good boy am I!’ And down they go again.”

Carl Sagan writes in “Contact”: “For small creatures such as we, the vastness is bearable only through love.”

Peace 🙂

Generosity must become like breathing

In an OnBeing conversation on 26th February 2013, with Krista Tippett, Father Gregory Boyle (whose life has been a message of hope for many many young people) makes the astonishing observation that

I’ve learned everything of value, really, in the last 25 years, from precisely the people who you think are on the receiving end of my gifts and talent and wisdom….

Seneca begins a Letter (“Moral letters to Lucilius” translated by Richard M. Gummere) that was probably written a year or two before he passed on in 65 AD: “You complain that you have met with an ungrateful person.” As he elaborates on this, he writes that “the wise man….enjoys the giving more than the recipient enjoys the receiving.” And why is this so? Seneca answers: “There is not a man who, when he has benefited his neighbour, has not benefited himself….”

In an essay published in the July 1896 edition of “Prabuddha Bharata”, we read Swami Vivekananda: “No beggar ever owed a single cent to us, we owe everything to him, because he has allowed us to exercise our power of pity and charity on him.”

the bibliophile — Sunset, Coimbatore, India

In a 18th December 2018 Lions Roar compilation titled “Joyful Giving”, the Zen Teacher who founded (and runs) one of the largest centers in the USA that helps abused children,  Jan Chozen Bays, writes:

We are not self-made. We are made of the raw ingredients of sunlight, soil, and water, shaped into the flesh of plants and animals, shaped into our life. Our life is one big gift, given by countless beings.

She goes on to observe that “When we truly see this”, our life becomes an answer to the question “How can I repay the many beings who are continually giving to me?”, and we realize that generosity, in our lives, must become like breathing.

Peace 🙂

“Compassion — a radical necessity”

On 4th March 1950, Albert Einstein wrote to a gentleman (translation quoted in “Finding Peace in Life and Death: A Synopsis of Reality Versus the Human Mind” by Patrick Baxter) who had requested him to help comfort his daughter – after her sister had passed away.   In the letter, we read Einstein on the relationship between compassion and liberation.

A human being is a part of the whole, called by us “Universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us.

Einstein goes on: “Our task must me to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all….the striving for such achievement is in itself a part of….liberation and a foundation for inner security.” 

About two thousand years before this letter, in the Vivekachudamani (Verse 82, translated by Swami Ranganathananda in “The Message of the Vivekachudamani”), we read the sage Adi Sankara tell us that if we have “a craving for liberation”, one of the “the nectar-like virtues” we must cultivate is “compassion“.

The Buddhist Teacher, Joan Halifax takes this a bit deeper than liberation in a talk delivered at the Wisdom 2.0 Conference on 1st March 2015. She says the “images of aggression, violence, of suffering” that we “are flooded” with clearly tell us that “Compassion is a….radical necessity.”

In an essay titled “Good Leadership is an Act of Kindness” published in the 1st November 2020 issue of “Harvard Business Review: Working Knowledge”, Boris Groysberg (Professor at Harvard Business School) and Susan Seligson advise Business Leaders that we are confronted with times where “the manager’s toolkit must expand in ways we haven’t seen before.” The most important addition to the toolkit, they say, is “kindness”. They write: “Even if gestures of….compassion were not woven into business as usual before the pandemic, they are essential now and going forward.”

Peace 🙂

“The sun will rise for you….”

A poem written in the 1860s by the remarkable Emily Dickinson reminds us of what resides in our skulls.

The Brain—is wider than the Sky—

For—put them side by side—

The one the other will contain

With ease—and You—beside—

The Brain is deeper than the sea—

For—hold them—Blue to Blue—

The one the other will absorb….

In a conversation with Nautilus on 14th October 2020, the neuroscientist David Eagleman says: “Every moment of your life, your brain is rewiring. You’ve got 86 billion neurons and a fraction of a quadrillion connections between them. These vast seas of connections are constantly changing their strength, and they’re unconnecting and reconnecting elsewhere. It’s why you are a slightly different person than you were a week ago or a year ago.”

This rewiring, the psychologist Rick Hanson, Fellow at the University of California (Berkeley) tells us, is something we can participate in.

In “Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom”, Rick writes: “Every day, ordinary activities….contain dozens of opportunities to change your brain from the inside-out. You really do have the power, which is a wonderful thing in a world full of forces beyond your control.”

Photo by Jasper Boeron Unsplash

Pointing out the roles of consistent intention and perseverance (in the rewiring), Rick tells us: “A single raindrop doesn’t have much effect, but if you have enough raindrops….you can carve a Grand Canyon.”

Swami Vivekananda ends a letter (“The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda”) written on 29th September 1894 with a message encouraging us in this effort to change ourselves for the better: “….we must struggle all our lives….Have patience and work. Save yourself by yourself.” Elsewhere he exhorts us to “struggle on in patience, and the sun will rise for you.”

Peace 🙂