The wisdom traditions of Asia, and particularly the Indian subcontinent, are originators of some of the most interesting, and varied, models of spiritual seeking. One such model is that of the sadhu, who is a free-spirited wanderer who has set off, penniless and homeless, on a quest. A sadhu can also be part of an organised monastic system, nested within a community that takes care of his needs, and provides guidance for serious spiritual practice.
The term ‘sadhu’ derives from sadhana, which refers to the practice of something with complete dedication and a single-pointed focus. Sadhana is used for spiritual practice, though it could be used for intense engagement of any kind, provided it is done with the intention of honing and deepening.
Embedded in the term ‘sadhu’ is another meaning, of renunciation, sannyas. Literally, sannyas means ‘laying down’, or ‘letting go’. It is an understanding the individual comes to – that the ties that bind him to home, family, community, and in a sense caste and creed too, need to be severed in order to become completely free to pursue the sadhana demanded on a spiritual quest.
The act of renunciation is the beginning of a spiritual adventure. The nest of family, home and community that we are born into provides us with a sense of identity, of who we are. These form our natural comfort zones, where we are accepted, held, taken care of. The spiritual quest must begin by learning to look within, understanding the identity that we have built about ourselves, and deconstructing it brick by brick.
The identity we think we are, which includes the body, mind and the ego-personality, is understood in spirituality as being a veil upon our true self. When we can realize that there is an aspect of us that underlies what we usually experience as our personality, which has to do with consciousness rather than the mind-body continuum, we begin to get a glimpse of what this true self might be. Though we might get it intellectually, to actually realise it requires a different practice and commitment, which for some might begin with the act of renunciation.
Sannyas is structured towards enabling us to unlearn whatever we have learnt in the course of our lives. It is wiping the slate clean and beginning afresh, this time with a radically different orientation. To engage in the spiritual quest requires us to begin taking off layers of our ego-personality, so to speak, like soiled clothes, to reveal our true nature in its pristine purity. The essential true nature does not become soiled with the content of one’s thoughts or personality. It is merely overlaid and hidden. To uncover it is the sadhu’s greatest challenge.
Eminent physicist Dr Fritjof Capra is best known in India for his landmark book, The Tao of Physics, published in 1975. In it, he explored emerging connections between quantum physics and ancient mysticism, famously using the metaphor of the dance of Shiva for the ceaseless motion of quantum particles.
His holistic understanding of life led Dr Capra to deep ecology, which is based on the view of the earth as a living entity, and seeks to evolve paradigms of sustainable living in accordance with ecological principles. He founded the Center for Ecoliteracy in Berkeley, California, which promotes ecology and systems thinking in primary and secondary education.
Apart from The Tao of Physics, Dr Capra is the author of The Turning Point (1982), Uncommon Wisdom (1988), The Web of Life (1996), The Hidden Connections (2002), and The Science of Leonardo.
Dr Capra revisited India in early 2008, after two decades. I spoke with him at the edge of a mustard field in full bloom, at Bija Vidyapeeth, a school for sustainable living run by the NGO Navdanya near Dehradun.
Thirty years after The Tao of Physics was published, do you think mainstream science is opening up to non-reductionist and non-linear ways of thinking?
The striking parallels between Eastern mystical traditions and the basic ideas of quantum physics and relativity theory had been noticed but had not been explored by scientists. I was the first physicist to do so. Among Western scientists, my book was often ridiculed. They realised I knew what I was talking about when it came to modern physics. But they didn’t buy the mysticism and thought that it should stay separate from science, that you couldn’t really compare the two.
This was based on an erroneous understanding of mystical traditions, of the very word ‘mysticism’. It is confused with ‘mysterious’, something that is nebulous and unclear. Scientists are eager to provide clarity and logical consistency in their theories, and to have them compared with something mysterious is offensive to them. Now, if you look at this from an actual knowledge of mysticism, you see that the knowledge the mystics strive for is actually associated with clarity. The word ‘enlightenment’ is from mystical traditions, and means an insight that provides clarity. There are metaphors such as ‘removing the veil of ignorance’, or ‘cutting through ignorance with a sword of clarity’. All these are metaphors of clarity, not of mysteriousness.
Now, 30 years later, the perception of physicists has opened up, they have become more tolerant, more philosophical. At the same time, the pursuit of a spiritual path, of practices that are Buddhist, or yogic, or Taoist, has spread enormously in the West. When I wrote The Tao of Physics, and was practising t’ai chi which I have all these years, I was part of a fringe group. Now this is accepted.
How was your own interest in mysticism sparked?
I was influenced by the cultural movements of the 1960s, which were an expansion of consciousness in two directions – spiritual and social. There was a strong interest in Eastern religious traditions. My mother was a poet and gave me the poetry of the Beat poets of the 1950s to read. My brother sent me a copy of the Bhagavad Gita in the 1960s, before I read Zen and Alan Watts. Then there were the Beatles travelling to India and this whole trend of meditation and mysticism, and I was part of that.
But I always combined any kind of experience I had – meditative, with psychedelics, yoga, t’ai chi, Zen – with an intellectual approach, and tried to interpret and analyse them.
Since then, how have the Indic wisdom traditions impacted your work?
The kind of worldview that emerged from the sciences in the 20th century – a holistic or ecological worldview, as I now call it – is not reflected in the global industrial society, which is based on a mechanistic view of the world that is seriously unbalanced and unsustainable, and not this harmonious unity that we see in the paradigm that has emerged in science. However, there is an ideal vision in the spiritual traditions, which has been the guiding principle in work since the 1960s. I kept exploring it not only theoretically, but also experientially. I kept up my spiritual practice so I could check various aspects of it with actual practice.
I gradually became interested in ecology and began to expand my focus beyond physics to explore the paradigm shift in biology, healthcare, economics, ecology, psychology and so on, which all had to do with life. So I had to go beyond physics and my research interest shifted to the life sciences.
During the 1980s, I became an activist. The 1960s were a period of revolt, but without a coherent framework as an alternative. Then in the 1970s emerged two strong themes – the environmental movement, and feminism or women’s liberation, as it was called then. These movements created a new framework, and through my interest in ecology, I came to see ecological awareness and the deep ecological dimension of spiritual awareness as a Western equivalent of Eastern mysticism.
How was your spiritual practice helpful in checking the insights you arrived at as a scientist?
I can say that the main insights I have had in my work have not been arrived at rationally but have been intuitive insights, sometimes coming from a meditative practice. I then fleshed them out in a rational way and checked against data, and so on. I think I acquired the ability of getting into a state where the rational mind takes a step back and the intuitive mind takes over and puts things together.
One of the main discoveries of Complexity Theory in the last 20 years has been the dynamics of creativity. We see creativity now as a fundamental property of life at all levels. Creativity is the emergence of novelty. The dynamic is, for instance, I sit at my desk, try to solve a problem. The more I study the problem the more confused I get. I give up and go for a walk – do something to get away from it. While I am relaxed, suddenly everything clicks, I have an insight where everything comes together and a new idea emerges. This is now technically understood as a process of instability of a system or a crisis, and a spontaneous emergence of a new pattern of order at that point of instability.
There is a point of view that change is inevitable so why resist it? How would you respond to this keeping in mind the current ecological crisis we face?
One of the aspects of the new scientific understanding of life is the understanding of the planet as a whole, as a living system – the Gaia Theory. The planet is a collection of ecosystems, which combine to create a system that regulates and organises itself. In this biosphere, life has evolved for billions of years according to certain principles that maximise its potential for survival. These are the basic principles of ecology. Life evolved by forming networks, sharing resources, cycling matter continuously, using solar energy to drive ecological cycles, developing diversity to assure resilience, forming networks within networks, and so on. These principles of organisation have been tested over billions of years and are the ‘wisdom of nature’. Human endeavours of creating sustainable societies should be led by an understanding of how nature has done it for billions of years. This is what I call ‘ecological literacy’.
One of the things you learn when you become ecologically literate, is that in this very complex, non-linear system in which everything is interdependent and all matter moves in cycles, this complex web of life, no single variable can be maximised. They all have their optimal values. Maximising a single variable is the ecological understanding of stress. Permanent or long-term stress leads to collapse. The species that did not obey these rules, that evolved different ways of life, of maximising either their size, like dinosaurs, or other aspects, died out because it is not sustainable to do that. The species we see now are the success stories who knew how to optimise, and not maximise.
Very late in evolution came the human species that evolved a whole cognitive dimension leading to consciousness and culture, which also gave us the ability to abstract ourselves out of nature and see ourselves as separate. By disregarding the wisdom of nature, we have maximised our variables like population and consumption.
Humanity on earth is almost like a foreign organism because we have not respected the laws of ecology and evolution. When a larger organism has a foreign organism, it often has an immune system that will reject it. You can see our global crisis in those terms. So, yes, things are changing all the time and they have changed for billions of years. But within certain patterns of organisation which we disregard at our own peril.
Now, fortunately, the other side of human consciousness can come into play. We can use our consciousness to reconnect with the wisdom of nature. The Latin term for ‘reconnect’ is religare, the origin of the word ‘religion’, so religious awareness in its most profound sense is this reconnection with the wisdom of nature, which we can and must actualise.
This interview was first published in the May 2008 issue of Life Positive magazine.
There are so many misconceptions and misunderstandings prevalent about spirituality that I thought it necessary to explore what it actually is.
As I understand, and I am no guru, just a seeker on the path, spirituality is a way of seeing things radically differently from what we have been used to, from birth until now.
It is an uncovering of layers, a peeling away of blindfold upon blindfold, in order to begin seeing things as they actually are. To get as real as possible, which is why viewing spirituality as some sort of an exotic, other-worldly pursuit, is to completely miss the point.
Since the goal is an unconditioned knowing, of the big truth that underlies everything, if you wish, the process of getting there is not only seminal to the endeavour, it is its very heart. This is the reason why spirituality is often described as a path, a search, a seeking or a journey. Many who have walked this path have come to the conclusion that the path is the goal, the destination is implicit in the journeying, that we have reached when we realise that there is no reaching. Only walking.
The reason for this is, spirituality is about constant, unrelenting practice. Not the popular clich� of passive navel-gazing, but a deep commitment to and a persistent engagement in the task of clarifying one’s perception and purifying one’s being. Anyone who has ever tried to not retort with anger when provoked, or find compassion for anybody other than oneself or one’s loved ones, can imagine how mammoth a task it might be to completely root out all afflictive emotions and replace them entirely with positive and wholesome mental states.
Why is it so difficult, though? Most of us have heard often enough that we must be good, we mustn’t be mean, we mustn’t lie, we must help others. And yet, how many of us can truly say that all the choices we make are governed by selflessness, humility, compassion and love, especially if it involves people who are not our loved ones, and who might have even harmed us or harboured ill-feelings towards us?
Even if we think we are all of the above, good and kind that is, how many of us can truly say we are completely and absolutely happy, that we don’t need another thing or person or circumstance to make us feel complete and fulfilled? My hand will certainly not rise in response to this question!
So, one could say that spirituality and its practice is not just about “doing good”, it is also about being good, in the sense of being happy, balanced, peaceful and fulfilled. And to get there, we need to realise the reality of ourselves and of life. We’re back to the blindfolds. They need to come off.
What are these blindfolds I keep referring to? They are limited ways of seeing and relating that one might attribute to individual conditioning, the habit patterns we have developed over time, the memories, emotions, desires and revulsions that drive us for most of our lives. As a result, what is known as “original mind”, our basic nature, becomes clouded, and we live in ignorance of our own potential for clarity, goodness, joyousness.
Over the centuries, different wisdom traditions have shown different ways of taking off the blindfolds, perhaps to cater to the diverse needs and abilities of humankind. Some paths have made use of the energy of our emotionality, like the bhakti and Sufi traditions, some of the physical to refine mind and being, like the branches of yoga and tantra. Still others, like Buddhism, have focused on the mind and its cognitive and imaginative capabilities. And there are many more, all of which have acted as rafts to ferry us to new shores of knowing since times immemorial.
Whatever be their prime path of practice, most wisdom traditions emphasise recognising and eliminating the “ego”, for this might just be the tightest blindfold of all. It does not quite mean the dictionary meaning of ego as in “pride”. Rather, it refers to an erroneous perspective that identifies too tightly with our body-mind-personality, and blinkers us to the larger truth of who we are, like a frozen wave that believes it is independent of the ocean. It only needs the warmth of the sun for it to realise the truth that it is one with the ocean.
In the same way, we are all waves in an ocean of “interbeing”, to borrow an exquisite term from Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. Even as we create our worlds around ourselves, we remain inextricably interlinked to everyone and everything. The way we live, what we consume, how we behave, what we buy — every action affects the ocean of consciousness we inhabit with everybody else. This is why spiritual practice can never be about “I” alone.
As the wave merges back into the ocean, or at least realises it is not separate from it, it has found a way of being that is vast, open, free. All blindfolds are, finally, off.
The author has written Women Awakened: Stories of Contemporary Spirituality in India, Buddhism: On the Path to Nirvana and Dharamsala Diaries. She can be contacted at www.swatichopra.com.
I recently returned after three weeks in a small village in the Himalayas. It was so beautiful, and silent, save for natural sounds like birdsong, crickets chirping, the wind blowing through the deodars…