Ennui and the Search for Meaning

According to Newton’s first law of motion, an object at rest, or in motion, remains so unless an external force is applied. This ‘law of inertia’ can sometimes afflict us in the form of a human condition, rendering us unable and unwilling to head into challenges, begin something new, or even engage fully with ourselves and our lives. Nothing that we say or do seems to have much meaning, and we can easily get stuck in a vicious cycle where we do not do anything for lack of motivation resulting in inertia, which in turn leads to further inability to act and engage.

Another word, of French origin, used to describe such a state of stasis is ennui. Ennui is closer in meaning to boredom than inertia, though they might appear to be interrelated issues. Inertia indicates an unwillingness to act. It is a kind of passivity in which we remain stuck in the ruts that have come to define the physical, emotional and spiritual content of our lives. Ennui is boredom that might be experienced due to an absence of appropriate stimulation.

Today, so many of us exist in an environment of hyper-stimulation. Easy access to the internet, social media platforms, mobile phones and tablets mean that we can be “connected” all the time. We consequently experience another kind of ennui, that of over-stimulation. All kinds of stimuli exist at a click or a swipe, and yet, it is still meaningless because it does not have the power to draw us out and make us experience something beyond ourselves, if we are not open to it. Ennui often leads to inertia. If nothing has any meaning, why bother?

From a spiritual perspective, cultivation of gratitude and reorienting one’s motivation might come in handy when we are trapped in an ennui-fuelled inertia. His Holiness the Dalai Lama suggests that, “Every day, think as you wake up, today I am fortunate to be alive, I have a precious human life, I am not going to waste it.” Just this very thought has the potential to immediately change our perspective towards ourselves. If life is precious, we will regard it as an opportunity, a blessing, and focus on all the things that are going well in it as opposed to all that which is not.

After shaking off the torpor of ennui, we need to get out of the inertia of meaninglessness as well. According to the Dalai Lama, we must think, “I am going to use all my energies to develop myself, to expand my heart out to others; to achieve enlightenment for the benefit of all beings.” While enlightenment might be far from our minds, by getting out of our restricted personal bubble and contemplating a goal that is bigger than us will help reorient and revive our internal energies. This could in fact become the “force” that must act on a body to end its state of inertia, as per Newtonian law.

Seekers of Truth

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.

My Life as a Seeker

Sanghamitta's stupa

If there is some transformation, and it is genuine, from deep within, it will affect every aspect of one’s being. For me, one of the ways this has manifested is through awareness of the interconnectedness of life and its innate sacredness. This has led to an attempt to live consciously, gently, kindly.

I try and be attuned to how my actions impact the earth, the physical and emotional environment around me, people I come in contact with, and the residues and impressions they leave on my own heart and mind. For I find if I hurt another, the greatest wound is inflicted on my own being. When I am able to forego a reaction born out of anger or jealousy or other afflictive emotions, the greatest good is done to me.

Living consciously has come to mean eschewing habits that harm the earth and all forms of life on it. Vegetarianism, conserving water and electricity, ‘need-based buying’ rather than ‘greed-based shopping’, wearing natural, handmade fabrics, limiting the use of plastics and other such products that pollute land and water, and opting for organic produce when possible, are some ways in which I attempt to translate high-minded spiritual ideals into lived experience.

For me, the path has a strong ethical aspect. Ethics as in not moral injunctions or religious strictures, but values that help one actualise insights gained on the meditation cushion once one gets off it. I see ethics as tools that engage spiritual understanding with the mess and chaos of the world, that bring the wisdom and compassion of self-realisation to bear on the injustice and inhumanity we are faced with in samsara.

Ethics form the ties that bind our inner, spiritual selves with our outer, in-the-world selves. I see them as inseparable, and through the connective tissue of ethics, the former can inform the thoughts and actions of the latter. For instance, I see the gap that exists between beautiful expositions of the Divine as universal oneness, and the simultaneous existence of a social system that denies basic human rights to a section of its own population, as being ethically untenable. As also the hypocrisy of worshipping the Divine Feminine in temples, and the widespread practice of female foeticide and infanticide, and the general devaluing of women. These arise from a gap between worship and practice, between the spiritual and the worldly, philosophy and reality.

Connecting with the innate oneness of life has enabled me to see the need for strengthening the connection between spirituality and its expression in the world, through a re-imagining of ethics based on a spiritual understanding of life as opposed to a materialistic one. It has become difficult for me to turn away from issues that I might have earlier categorised as social, political or environmental problems. In short, not mine to bother about.

Now, in my work as a writer, I am increasingly focusing on ethical, conscious, compassionate ways of dealing with so-called worldly issues. Can we find something in the nature-worship and earth reverence of old and indigenous cultures to counter climate change? How can the values of aparigraha (non-possession) and limiting one’s wants and desires function as an antidote to the greed of consumerism? How can dana, giving, and seva, selfless service, draw us out of our urban selfishness? Is there a way of translating worship of the Divine Feminine into greater respect for living, ‘real’ women? Could the slogan vasudhaiva kutumbakam (the world is one family) carry a solution to war and genocide? Could compassion and non-harming be credible responses to oppression?

In asking these questions, I must also look within myself for answers. I must try to live them, walk my talk. And that I find the greatest challenge, and growth experience, of my life as a seeker.