For about 35 years my daily meditation practice was aimed at "going within." This was the teaching of the Indian guru I followed, Charan Singh.
The assumption was that there is an unchanging conscious essence within us that could be termed soul. By leaving aside both impressions of the outside world and mental images (thoughts, emotions, and such), what remained in closed-eye meditation would be revealed as Who We Truly Are.
Well, my ideas have changed.
I now realize that this was a highly limiting view of what spirituality and self-knowledge is all about. It was a notion founded in traditional Hinduism and Sikhism, which is merely one way of looking upon the nature of reality.
A book I'm reading, "The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life," presents a much different approach to living.
Often people speak glibly, and overly simplistically, of "Eastern philosophy" as if this was a monolithic thing. That's as crazy as looking upon "Western philosophy" as having a unified perspective.
Chinese philosophy is very different from Indian philosophy. Notions of soul, God, and higher realms of existence are largely absent in Chinese philosophy, while they play a large role in Indian philosophy.
So Chinese philosophers such as Lao Tzu, Confucius, Mencius, and Zhuangzi (who I'm used to calling Chuang Tzu) are much more down to earth than their Indian counterparts -- even Buddha, who was a pretty earthy guy.
Here's an entire section from the first chapter of The Path.
It seems to provide a good overview of the book's central themes. (I'm about halfway through reading it, so there could be some surprises ahead.) I also included some passages from a later chapter that follow the ellipsis.
Myth: The Truth of Who We Are Lies Within Us
The breakdown of old aristocratic religious institutions left the people of the Axial Age in search of new sources of truth and meaning. Similarly, in our own age, we feel we have broken free of older, confining ways of thinking and are looking for new sources of meaning.
Increasingly, we have been told to seek that higher truth within. The goal of a self-actualized person is now to find himself and to live his life "authentically," according to an inner truth.
The danger of this lies in believing that we will all know our "truth" when we see it, and then limiting our lives according to that truth. With all this investment in our self-definition, we risk building our future on a very narrow sense of who we are -- what we see as our strengths and weaknesses, our likes and dislikes.
Many Chinese thinkers might say that in doing this, we are looking at such a small part of who we are potentially. We're taking a limited number of our emotional dispositions during a certain time and place and allowing them to define us forever. By thinking of human nature as monolithic, we instantly limit our potential.
But many of the Chinese thinkers would argue that you are not and should not think of yourself as a single unified being.
Let's say that you think of yourself as someone with a temper; someone who gets angry easily. The thinkers we are about to encounter would argue that you should not say, "Well, that's just the way I am," and embrace yourself for who you are. As we will see, perhaps you aren't inherently an angry person.
Perhaps you simply slipped into ruts -- patterns of behavior -- that you allowed to define who you thought you were. The truth is that you have as much potential to be, say, gentle or forgiving as you do to be angry.
These philosophers would urge us to recognize that we are all complex and changing constantly. Every person has many different and often contradictory emotional dispositions, desires, and ways of responding to the world. Our emotional dispositions develop by looking outward, not inward.
They are not cultivated when you retreat from the world to meditate or go on a vacation. They are formed, in practice, through the things you do in your everyday life: the ways you interact with others and the activities you pursue.
In other words, we aren't just who we are: we can actively make ourselves into better people all the time. Of course, this is no simple task. It requires us to change our mind-set about our own agency and about how real change happens.
Nor is it a quick process: change comes incrementally, through perseverance. It comes from training ourselves to broaden our perspective so that we can grasp the complicated tangle of factors (the relationships we're in, the company we keep, the jobs we hold, and other life circumstances) that shape any given situation and slowly transform our interactions with everything around us.
This broad perspective enables us to behave in ways that gradually bring about true change.
While we have been told that true freedom comes from discovering who we are at our core, that "discovery" is precisely what has trapped so many of us in the Age of Complacency. We are the ones standing in our own way.
...Being active consists of creating optimal conditions and responding to whatever various situations arise. It means laying the ground in which change can grow. Think of yourself as a farmer, rather than thinking about who you are and arranging your goals around that. Your goal then becomes laying the ground for various interests and sides of yourself to grow organically.
Most of us have hobbies and interests we pursue on the weekend or in our free time. We often don't think of these things as relevant to figuring out what we want to do with our life.
And yet laying the ground means something as simple as scheduling time to take part in activities that speak to the different sides of yourself that you are interested in developing: joining a wine tasting class, learning how to paint in watercolor, or brushing up your high school French once a week in a language swap.
By proactively building room in your life for all sorts of possibilities, and then remaining open and responsive, you are akin to a farmer preparing his field so that his crops can flourish.
As you make room for interests, opportunities open up to you. You might learn that you love working with your hands, but would rather try woodworking than painting. Or you decide that French isn't for you, but you want to explore other cultures by offering to tutor immigrants at the public library instead, which could eventually lead to other things: new friends, a trip abroad, a change of career down the road.
By being responsive to how your interests change over time, you will not be locked in -- you will be more able to alter your life and your schedule to allow for growth.
Rather than going into all this thinking, I can be anything I want to be, the approach you're taking is I don't know yet what I can become.
You don't know where any of this might take you; it's not possible to know that now. But what you learn about yourself and what excites you won't be abstract; it will be very concrete knowledge born of practical experience. Over time you open up paths that you could not have imagined, out of which emerge options that you never would have seen before.
Over time, you actually become a different person.