Bubbling on the stove of the contemporary spiritual quest is the perennial hot question: What to do about the world? As a spiritual dabbler or a dedicated practitioner, do I immediately shun the world of pleasures and pains, the dream, the mirage? Or do I automatically embrace everything in the world as divine—and then maybe grab all the goodies I can?
What about the Real World?
Let’s say you have just embarked on a spiritual path. You’re chanting your mantra daily, freeing yourself from self-negating addictions, and plunging deep into venerable spiritual texts. Meanwhile, your friends and family observe your newfound zest with curiosity. Slightly amused, they poke you fondly: “Well, little Buddha, what are you going to do about the real world?”
The truth is, you’re not so sure yourself. All you know is that you’re tired of slogging through life with no knowledge of who you are or why whatever is you appears in this world. An intuition of your nonmaterial identity coaxes you onward—you aspire for at least a preliminary experience of enlightenment. What’s more, your Internet research tells you that much of the crucial knowledge you need to know seems to thrive outside the cage of current science. Now, just ahead, looms the famous hurdle—how do I act spiritually within the matrix of materialism?
Humans: the Only Expendable Species
First, let’s take a second look at that sneaky stereotype “the real world.” By it what we truly mean is the pungent blend of economic, social, and sensual forces that mould us. The shrieks, grunts, squeals, and groans of the university and job marketplace envelope our consciousness, as we voluntarily shoulder a lifestyle of study, work, buy, consume, and die. Somehow, this volatile yet dreary manner of human affairs has been consecrated as the standard for evaluating our life.
When we consider the place of humans in this world strictly from the materialistic standpoint, we have no choice but to conclude we are a total disturbance. Better we all take a long hike from this planet—never to return.
This sad reality of our material relationship with the world is summed up by Harvard emeritus professor Edward O. Wilson, one of the most influential biologists of our time: “If all humanity disappeared, the rest of life would benefit enormously. The biosphere would literally breathe a sigh of relief, as forests regenerated and endangered species revived.”
Even if on our ecological best behaviour, still we are materially unnecessary in this world. Let any other species disappear—for example, ants. Then nature, Wilson says, would incur “major extinctions of other species and probably partial collapse of some ecosystems.”
Though the only expendable species in the ecosphere, we reign as habitat-wreckers par excellence. Humans having become weather makers, we have everything to fear. Weather patterns throughout the globe range from peculiar, at best, to extreme—in your face, crushing.
The Human Form: a Rare Gift from Nature
“Crime doesn’t pay” warn the old-time TV detective-dramas in the closing scene. The human war of terror devastating the Earth brings a punishing toll that’s not fully understood. We’ve stripped the forests, exhausted soils, emptied natural resources, and poisoned the land, water, and air with thousands of toxic chemicals. Why not lift our vision up from materialism—what’s the loss?
Better nature’s only disposable species seeks its reason for existence in the realm of spiritual science. The ancient yoga texts of India champion the human form, with its developed consciousness, as a rare gift from nature—specifically for the purpose of spiritual attainment. For example, the Srimad-Bhagavatam (11.9.29) states:
After innumerable births and deaths, we achieve the rare human form of life, which, though temporary, grants us the opportunity to attain the highest perfection. Therefore a sober human being should quickly endeavour for the ultimate perfection of life as long as the body, always subject to death, has not expired. After all, sensory gratification is available even in the lowest and most gross species of life, whereas Krishna consciousness is possible only for a human being.
The wealth of knowledge in the devotional yoga treasury, revered in India and now known throughout the world, explains:
The human body, which can award all benefit in life, is automatically obtained by the laws of nature, although it is a very rare achievement. This human body can be compared to a perfectly constructed boat having a genuine guru as the captain and the instructions of the Supreme as favorable winds impelling it on its course. Considering all these advantages, a human being who does not capitalise on the human body to cross the ocean of material existence must be considered the killer of his own soul.
The wisest sages and saints have always alerted us to the enormous human potential for spiritual development, latent in both the individual and civilisation. Ignoring that dormant spiritual promise, however, what’s left for us? Try the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement.
Vanish or Transform?
Popularly known as VHEMT, its planetary strategy certainly provokes thought. Determined to avoid a mad rush to global resource wars and starvation? Terrified by an impending mass die-off, when nature fully retaliates against human overload and abuse? VHEMT urges us to give real peace a chance: All humans unite to stop procreating. Halt the production of new babies now. Then watch nature rejoice. In three or four decades, the Earth speeds toward full recovery. By the end of this century, it’s splendidly human-free.
Timely yet ominous, VHEMT’s motto is also cordial: “May you live long and die out.” The movement’s founder, Les Knight, on websites in twenty languages, gently lays our weary species to rest: “The last humans could enjoy their final sunsets peacefully, knowing they have returned the planet as close as possible to the Garden of Eden.”
Well, thanks for the offer to voluntarily vanish, but no thanks. Generally we feel that other species should run the extinction gauntlet—not us humans, the pride of the planet. Nevertheless, our determination to survive may propel us through dire straits to an effective spiritual approach—an authentic cure for the greed, materialism, economic injustice, and environmental madness so darkening the present and future. While striving to correct the thinly disguised chaos within us, can we also significantly improve the world around us? Throughout human history, the major proponents of transformation are considered to generally occupy two camps: the this-worlders and the other-worlders, with blends in between.
The other-worlders, eyes on the prize of heaven beyond, are known to accept earthly habitation as just a training school for the celestial hereafter. Withdrawing from the temporal affairs of this temporary world, they concentrate on their own internal development. Like mystic yogis in the Himalayas, the desert fathers of early Christianity, or some monks and nuns of today, the other-worlders seclude themselves from the din of daily life. Impressed that all things will pass, disenchanted by the despair and evil encasing humanity, they may also pray and meditate for the wellbeing of all, as they prepare for paradise—whether nirvana, heaven, the Oneness, or the Great Unknown.
The this-worlders, however, live to embrace Planet Earth en toto— all the joys and sorrows. Often avowed activists, humanitarians, and environmentalists, they plant their feet as well as their vision firmly on the ground—right here and now.
Aching to change the surrounding world economically, politically, and ecologically, they may resent the other-world perspective as a nuisance—or worse, a barrier. Why co-opt the amazing transformative potential of humanity, energy so desperately needed for global renovation, and then dreamily dissipate it into the clouds?
The common conviction is that human vigour and aspiration, when focused at least almost exclusively upon terra firma, would bring a better life to billions of unfortunate human beings.
Resolving the Divide
Resolving the divide, uniting the inner and the outer, the here and the hereafter, is a challenge the yoga classic Bhagavad-gita meets with consummate majesty. Known as the Gita, for short, it is the standard authoritative text for the complete yoga ladder, presenting both this-world yoga and other-world yoga interlinked.
Certainly withdrawing from the world has its place and value. Periodically, every intelligently managed lifestyle needs a personal retreat, to recharge the batteries. Yet, our times bring an intense global awareness of social, economic, and ecological crises. Without our turning a blind eye to these pressing issues of the day, can we acquire both freedom from the world and dynamic engagement in it? The Gita invites us to drink at the fount of sacred activism: the precise spiritual technology for truly being in the world while not of the world.
In Chapter 6, for example, “The Yoga of Meditation,” Krishna, the source of all yoga power, instructs: “The perfect yogi, by comparison to his own self, sees the true equality of all beings, in both their happiness and their distress.” (Bhagavad-gita 6.32)
No doubt, some yogis may opt for isolation, focusing upon their own elevation. But another type thirsts for benefitting all. The activist yogis, with spiritual strength from the inner world, scan the outer world—noting its grip of impermanent happiness and distress. Striving for more than just their own perfect meditation, these sacred activists reach out to change all dimensions of the planetary experience. Knowing with compassion the futile struggles of mundane existence, these masters of devotion yoga, bhakti, aim for the complete welfare of all creatures. Such fully balanced yogis observe the spiritual equality of all living entities, despite nature’s parade of diverse biological and psychological costumes.
Still worried about your role as a budding spiritualist locked into the real world? The graduate study to the Gita, the delightfully encyclopaedic Srimad-Bhagavatam, thoroughly analyses the illusions that smother human society. The text explains that the daytime of the materially overwhelmed person means complicated, often high-tech versions of basic Neanderthal pursuits. Hunting and gathering, we muscle and connive our way through the forest of education and employment. Darkness falls; we seek release.
We pin our hopes for redemption on a nocturnal brew of television, intoxication, and sex. The warm blanket of sleep grants us a temporary reprieve. But too soon day breaks; the cycle of intense struggle renews.
Why do we take what is so tedious, so deadening, so self-destructive and anoint it as the real world? How did we succumb to such low expectations of human potential?
The lifestyle of the genuine spiritual practitioner will triumph. Gradually the awareness will dawn that our highest spiritual aspirations and expressions are the day-to-day essence of true human life. A host of Krishna-conscious adepts can testify how bhakti-yoga reorders a person’s lifestyle and relationships so that the spiritual energies flowing from the Supreme Soul, Krishna, assume their rightful pride of place.
This spiritual transformation culminates with entrance into divine vision and connectivity. In the Bhagavad-gita, Krishna Himself describes the real world in this way:
A true yogi observes Me in all beings and also sees every being in Me. Indeed, the self-realised person sees Me, the same Supreme Lord, everywhere. For one who sees Me everywhere and sees everything in Me, I am never lost, nor is he ever lost to Me.
Available in increments, as the spiritual aspirant progresses, this attraction for the Supreme Source of Pleasure reshapes our life. Gradually we perceive that the world is a combination of material and spiritual energies emanating from Krishna, the ultimate fount. Krishna’s energies are not ours to plunder or exploit, nor to discard or negate.
Since everything, whether matter or spirit, is the energy of the Supreme, therefore we necessarily must strive to hear from the Supreme how to cope. A fundamental principle of existence is that we cannot concoct our own style of interactions with those energies. Look at the earth, the sky, the water. The deepening ecological crisis reveals that—unaided by
knowledge from Krishna—we are just too arrogant and tiny to handle material nature. Next, honestly look inside. Peer at our own mind. We don’t even know our self, what to speak of understanding how to handle our self. Therefore how can we ecologically deal with nature?
Insignificant Humans Wreak Significant Damage
Your grandchildren could see half the species of plants and animals on this planet either gone or on their way out. Scientists estimate that by the end of this century, if the human impact on nature continues at the present rate, then the 50 percent curtain will fall. The most conservative estimates of the current extinction rate say it’s one hundred times beyond what happened on Earth before humans are said to have appeared. In the immediate decades ahead, the extinction pace, driven by climate change, is expected to worsen a thousand times or more. Naturally, the global repercussions of this human handiwork are frightening.
Beyond a doubt humans have demonstrated a destructive power that expands without limit, altering the biological, chemical, and other natural aspects of the planet on a geological scale. Nevertheless, from the Earth’s point of view, our actual biomass is almost microscopic. Edward O. Wilson gives us a thought-experiment to highlight this strange paradox. Although we are the first species in the known history of life to become a geophysical force, nevertheless it is mathematically possible to round up all the offenders—the homo sapiens—stack us like sardines into a space measuring just one cubic mile, and then tuck away all of us in some lonely section of the Grand Canyon.
Humanity, what to do? From the remote antiquity of spiritual India, the texts known as the Upanishads call: “Only a miserly person lives and dies like the cats and dogs—that is, never using the human potential to solve the puzzle of how to live, never grasping the science of selfrealisation.” But since cats and dogs have become our best friends, we may feel no loss in living like them. As for death, it happens, right? Just as taxes do.
Two and a half thousand years ago, the classic Greek philosopher Socrates declared, “the unexamined life is not worth living.” But the attempt at civilisation that dominates the world today is confident it has proven Socrates wrong. Commandeering the best intelligence, contemporary human society enforces the grand solution: make money and indulge your senses on a global scale—lasting peace and prosperity will somehow follow.
Half a century ago, the famed Nobel laureate thinker Albert Camus concluded, “There is only one truly serious philosophical issue: suicide— why not?” Be brave, put yourself on the spot, he urged. Is there any point at all to existence? Admit the absurdity, and then you can decide for yourself whether your life in the biosphere is worth living.
My home-base, New Zealand, is rated sometimes by the UN as the most ecologically conscious nation in the world. Surrounded by some of the most magnificent nature on earth, 1 in 6 New Zealanders think of committing suicide annually, 1 in 18 make a plan for it, and 1 in 22 actually attempt. Because people hesitate to admit such behavior, the statistics are considered lower than the reality. “It’s too peaceful here, too virgin and serene—our minds drive us crazy,” especially many small-town and rural youth complain. “There’s only one thing to live for we can get stoned, completely wasted, in the most awesome natural beauty.” Suicide is the leading cause of death for ages 12 to 25.
Welcome to the Real World
Whether to deny life or affirm it, bhakti-yoga, the timeless science of supra-mundane devotion, teaches us that we cannot decide—based solely upon our own, limited intelligence. In the same way, justification to either reject or affirm the world also lies beyond our tiny faculties. Since we, as bodies of matter and souls of spirit, are energies of the Supreme, therefore our human existence has an in-built prerequisite. For sane management of both the energies that compose us and the energies that surround us, we must take lessons from the Supreme Reality, Krishna.
A surgeon’s knife in the hand of a medical expert can accomplish great good, but that same tool in the hands of a murderer will unleash horror. A genuine spiritual practitioner seeks to neither reject the body nor indulge it; to neither coldly spurn the things of this world nor passionately embrace them. Rather than neglecting the world, the Krishna devotee engages with this world from the depths of an enlightened compassion far beyond what the mundane mind can grasp.
The goal of authentic yoga and meditation is to take guidance from the Source of all energies, the Ultimate Proprietor, how to deftly use even the temporary material body and the temporary material world as springboards to spiritual freedom and global shift. Welcome to the real world. Bhakti-yoga, Krishna consciousness, is the perfection of the Information Age.