I met a young professional working in the city a few days ago. As I explained my journey into the monastic order an intense expression began to manifest on his face. It was almost as if he was psychoanalysing me! He eventually asked me: “You had such great opportunities – why did you take to the life of a monk? Was it frustration, a bad experience in the world or some lacking in your relationships? What was missing?” He was very tactful of course, carefully avoiding any condescending tone, but his genuine puzzlement was clear.
The word he used was interesting – frustration. Frustration arises when you don’t achieve what you want, but there is enough of a glimpse to keep you going. The Vedic scriptures often use this word to describe the world we live in. In our attempts for real, lasting, deep happiness we are often frustrated.
To categorically claim there is no pleasure in this world would be far-fetched and unreasonable. A holiday to the sunny, peaceful, exotic island we always dreamed of, the job promotion we worked so hard for, recognition for our achievements and appreciation from others; all such things undoubtedly bring pleasure to our lives. At the same time, however, the inevitable suffering and pain of this world is undeniable. Whether it’s a health crisis, financial crisis, relationship crisis or career crisis, something always disturbs our emotional equilibrium.
How should we react to the duality of this world; the happiness and distress that seem to go hand in hand? Most people simply accept the rough with the smooth. Yes, there is suffering in this world, and there’s not much we can do about it. Just knuckle down, work hard and have enough free time in your life to do the things you really like. Take out life insurance, build up a healthy savings account, and just hope that too many bad things don’t come your way.
Others, however, refuse to accept suffering as an inevitable reality. “My nature is to be happy, but distress is forced upon me” the person thinks. “Why is that? Why should I face suffering even though I don’t want it? Is there some problem with my fundamental principles of life? Is it possible to exist free of this pain?” These are the people who pursue the spiritual path. They question whether the root of suffering is something more than simply nature’s arrangement. So I guess I did take to spirituality because I was frustrated. Frustrated with accepting unnatural conditions of life, and determined to at least explore if there is a practical path to a more wholesome and happy life.
Imagine a man who drops his keys in a dark street. He walks 100 metres down the road and under the bright street lamp frantically starts looking for them. An onlooker observes the scene and questions the man as to why he is looking here and not down the road where he actually dropped the keys. “There is no light over there” the man replies. Quite illogical! Similarly in our frantic search for happiness and pleasure, we often default to the path which seems to bring instant enjoyment, the path that everyone else seems to be taking, the path which is most accessible. But maybe deep satisfaction is to be found somewhere else, somewhere different from the well illuminated path of material prosperity.
Materialism, according to the Bhagavad-gita does not simply mean the greedy desire for more money, more possessions, more fame and so on. It is a path based on the conception that if we adjust things external to us, then we will find happiness. Maybe we are looking for the right thing, but in the wrong place. Maybe true happiness lies within – a simple statement with an extremely profound purport.