Why do we always want to know what others are up to? Why do we constantly check for posts on social media, follow people, and “friend” people on Facebook and Instagram?
We crave real connection. From day one, as a newborn, we seek relationships with others. But if we are all looking for connection, why do we come into this world with nothing and leave this world with nothing?
Well, perhaps that’s not completely true.
Inner Reality Matters Most
We all experience both an inner and outer life. While modern society is more interested in what happens on the outside, a whole lot more is going on inside us. We each experience a rich internal environment in which our views and perceptions of the world are formed.
Our childhood is a crucial time for forming our internal reality, because certain beliefs about others, our environment, and ourselves are first created. Therapist Judith Beck explains that people’s “most central or core beliefs are understandings that are so fundamental and deep that they often do not articulate them, even to themselves.” Interestingly, these influences begin before we are even born.
When we begin life in the womb, genetics dictate how we are put together, and this is a blueprint for how we develop.
During pregnancy, what our mother is exposed to further influences our development. Research demonstrates that good nutrition affects the growing fetus positively. Unfortunately, arguments, stress, and exposure to violence impact negatively.
Once born, the first three years of life are the most critical for how our brain develops—these early years set the scene for how we will view and interact with our world. As we age, pathways in our brain that connect an emotional state with a pattern of behaviour can develop into automatic habits. For example, if you smoke when you are feeling stressed, it is more likely that you will automatically reach for a cigarette when you are experiencing stress.
Genetics, our early environment, and experience all have an immense effect on the meaning we attribute to things. By the time we have traversed the teenage years and transitioned into adulthood, we have some pretty established ways of thinking, behaving, and relating to others.
Our inner reality affects our outer experiences, yet the modern lifestyle, fascinated with external, superficial needs, is disconnected from the demands of this internal reality. Underestimating the importance of a healthy internal environment can make us vulnerable to depression, an epidemic estimated to affect an astounding 350 million people globally. The World Mental Health Survey, conducted in seventeen countries, found that on average, about one in twenty people reported having an episode of depression in the previous year.
Millennials, who have grown up in the internet age, have an inner reality that is defined by social media and the entertainment industry, which portray images of happy, upbeat, attractive people enjoying life in extravagant ways. Companies make billions of dollars exploiting social media’s influence on our self-image and desire to look like someone in an Instagrammed selfie.
Despite all this external campaigning for a better digital version of ourselves, the realities of day-to-day existence demonstrate something different. Fractured relationships, loneliness, lack of connection, disrupted communities, financial restrictions, study and career pressures, long commutes to work—accompanied by the constant chatter of our buzzing minds—unsettle even the most pragmatic people.
Social researcher Hugh Macky comments, “The price of modern life is depression and loneliness,” and, “Nothing sears the soul more achingly than the sense that we are alone.” How do we bridge the gap between how life “should” be and how life actually is?
We might try to get drunk or high, or shop till we drop, to deal with depression, anxiety, or the frustration caused by these day-to-day realities. We may consider changing our career, partner, or neighbourhood. We may travel, get a pet, try mindfulness, hypnotherapy, cognitive therapy, yoga, or exercise. Certainly, some of these techniques are effective in alleviating mental distress, to an extent. But are we simply seeking external solutions to an internal issue? Have we taken the time to attend to our inner environmental needs?
Missing the Self, Missing the Point
While some techniques can assist us with clearing our thoughts and becoming more aware of our internal processes, such practices don’t address our innate need for genuine connection.
Statistics suggest that many people use mental health services to access a friendly, confidential person in whom to confide. Because of a breakdown in local communities, family structures, decreased contact with or lack of extended family, and the reduced quality of friendships, at times we can feel that we have no one to talk to.
We inherently seek a sense of community, relationships with like-minded souls, and at the deepest level—a reconnection with the Supreme Spiritual Source of all.
In the preface to the spiritual encyclopedia of ancient wisdom, Srimad Bhagavatam, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada notes:
“Human society, at the present moment, is not in the darkness of oblivion. It has made rapid progress in the fields of material comforts, education, and economic development throughout the entire world. But there is a pinprick somewhere in the social body at large, and therefore, there are large-scale quarrels, even over less important issues. There is need of a clue as to how humanity can become one in peace, friendship, and prosperity with a common cause. Srimad Bhagavatam will fill this need, for it is a cultural presentation for the respiritualization of the entire human society.”
As the pushings of modern life barely allow time for thought, depression and anxiety are symptomatic of a deeper, spiritual need. A lack of spiritual connection is at the root of why we neglect to address our internal environment. The analogy of a bird in a golden cage portrays this neglect: We spend so much time caring for the cage—admiring its beauty, how the sunlight reflects on it, polishing it —that we pay no attention to the poor bird inside. Similarly, we are so obsessed with our external selves, our mental chatter, and our social and financial obligations, that we often lose touch with the essence of ourselves—the enduring, nonmaterial self beyond our temporary body and mind.
As Abraham Maslow stated when he established “self-actualisation” at the top rung of his hierarchy of human needs: “The self only finds its actualisation in giving itself to some higher goal outside oneself, in altruism and spirituality.”
How to Reconnect
A truly magnanimous personality, Srila Prabhupada selflessly endured many hardships to bring this knowledge of spirituality to the Western world. Witnessing a society that takes great pride in technological sophistication, Prabhupada could see through this veneer to the disconnected souls within.
To address this core spiritual need, Srila Prabhupada introduced the chanting of the Hare Krishna mantra (Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare), a call to the Supreme Source of everything—Krishna. The mantra can be chanted through the ancient spiritual practices of group mantra meditation performed with music (kirtan), and personal mantra meditation (japa).
Connection through mantra meditation provides a shared experience of tangible spiritual realisation. Chanting the Hare Krishna mantra meets the need for genuine connection to something bigger than the sum total of our thoughts, worries, and temporary anxieties. In this way, you can gradually revive a deep connection to the Supreme.
Such meditation practice is applicable for those in any condition of life, with any array of early childhood experiences, or any number of “mind chatter” complaints or issues.
Srila Prabhupada once quipped, “Chant and be happy.” There are many layers to this instruction. On the most superficial level, the repetition of the mantra is said to be soothing for the mind. But as we progress, there is so much more to be experienced, more than simply the alleviation of mental distress. Sages of old assure us that we will experience true bliss and spiritual enlightenment as a direct result of dedicated mantra meditation. In the modern context, thousands of people worldwide relay stories of positive life changes from attempting even a little mantra meditation. Transcending material concepts such as race, religion, gender, and socio-economic status, the Hare Krishna mantra connects people all over the world.
It’s not quite true that we come into this world with nothing. Neither is it true that we leave the world with nothing. True, we will depart this world with no external belongings, but we will still be experiencing our inner lives—our thoughts, feelings, and perceptions. At this final stage, any efforts we made towards our self-actualisation will prove to be our real wealth. Why? Because death is the ultimate equaliser: Immune to material considerations, our internal state will be our acute reality. If, at the time of death, our internal reality is connected to Krishna, the Ultimate Reality, then we can regain what is rightfully ours: a life free from limiting material conditions.