Purposeful Pauper [Free Verse]

a discard pile of lifelines
- money & pseudo-money
- technologies & redundancies

some donated,
some burnt,
some left 
to be found 
by the
willing & the grateful

he walked with
a cloak,
a staff,
a satchel,
& a bowl

he walked
it hurt
kept walking 
his prided died

then took
what was given
lived without
what wasn't

everything beyond
became a burden

while finding
the means of
became the sum
of all endeavors

the terror-bliss barrier
took time to break down,
but when it did...

how free he was 

BOOK REVIEW: Two Saints by Arun Shourie

Two Saints: Speculations Around and About Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Ramana MaharishiTwo Saints: Speculations Around and About Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Ramana Maharishi by Arun Shourie
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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I suspect this book is extremely controversial for many, though it echoes many of my own views. The central premise of the book is that there is a middle ground position between: a.) true believers who insist that gurus and god-men hold superpowers and can perform miracles, and b.) rational skeptics who hold that god-men are inherently frauds and their followers are necessarily either shills or dunces.

What is this middle way? First of all, it denies the existence of the supernatural and rejects the premise that certain men and women — through great virtue or intense practice — can circumvent the laws of physics. (Which isn’t to suggest that great virtue and intense practice can’t have profound impacts on a person and the community in which he or she resides.) Secondly, on the other hand, it acknowledges that scientific findings (or at least feasible hypotheses) on matters such as out-of-body experiences (OBE,) hypnotic trances states, hallucinations, epileptic seizures, the placebo effect, and near-death experiences (NDE) can offer insight into how rational, intelligent, and good-natured individuals might develop a belief in the supernatural. There is a third premise that is implicit throughout Shourie’s discussion of the life and works of these two great teachers (also which I share), which is that a lack of superpowers in no way detracts from what these two great gurus achieved.

As the subtitle suggests, the author is merely speculating as there is no way to put these ideas to the test, given these individuals are long deceased and (unlike, say, the Dalai Lama) would be unlikely to show an interest in such explorations even if they were alive. However, Shourie seeks to systematically demonstrate connections between the events described by the holy men and their followers and what scientific papers have described with respect to studies of unusual phenomena like OBE, NDE, and hallucinations. (e.g. it’s long been known that with an electrode applied to the right place on the brain a neuroscientist can induce an OBE in anyone. The widespread accounts of this feeling /experience that one is rising out of one’s body, often by respectable individuals of impeccable character, is one of the reasons for believing there must be an immaterial soul that is merely carted about by the body.)

The titular two saints that Shourie makes the centerpiece of his inquiry are the Bengali bhakti yogi Sri Ramakrishna and the jnana yogi from Tamil Nadu, Sri Ramana Maharshi. [For those unfamiliar with the terms “Bhakti Yogi” and “Jnana Yogi,” the former are those whose practice emphasize devotion and worship while the latter are those whose practice emphasize self-inquiry and study. The third leg of the stool being “Karma Yogis,” who focus upon selfless acts is the core of their pursuit of spirituality.] These two teachers were both born in the 19th century, though Sri Ramana lived through the first half of the 20th century. Besides being widely adored and seen as holy men of the highest order, they also serve as a kind of bridge between the ancient sages who lived out simple lives of spirituality in destitution and the modern gurus who often have vast commercial enterprises ranging from hair-care products to samosa mix all run from ashrams that are similar to academic universities in scope and grandeur. Some might argue that Ramakrishna and Ramana were the last of their kind in terms of being internationally sought after as teachers while not running an international commercial enterprise. Another way of looking at it is that they are modern enough that the events of their lives are highly documented, but not so modern as to have the taint modernity upon them.

The book is organized over sixteen chapters, and is annotated in the manner of scholarly works. The early chapters delve deeply into the life events of these two men, and in particular events that are used as evidence of their miraculousness. Through the middle, the author looks at how events in these individual’s life correspond to findings in studies of subjects such as the placebo effect (ch. 10,) hallucinations (ch. 7, e.g. given sleep or nutritional deprivation,) and hypnotic suggestion (ch. 9.) Over the course of the book, the chapters begin to look more generally at questions that science is still debating, but which are pertinent to spirituality – e.g. what is the nature of the self (ch. 12), what is consciousness? (ch. 13), and what does it mean for something to be real (ch. 15.) The final chapter pays homage to these two saints.

I found this book to be highly thought-provoking and well-researched. Shourie is respectful of the two teachers, while at the same time insisting that it’s not necessary for them to be super-powered for them to be worthy of emulation, respect, and study. I’d highly recommend this book for anyone interested in the questions of mystical experience and the scientific insights that can be offered into it.

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BOOK REVIEW: A Search in Secret India by Paul Brunton

A Search in Secret IndiaA Search in Secret India by Paul Brunton

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

A Search in Secret India is a travelogue by Paul Brunton as he wondered through India in search of sages. In the process, he found a number of masters of body, mind, and both. However, he finds these individuals as rare nuggets in a sea of frauds.

Brunton states up front that he won’t waste time with any of the blatant frauds or suspected frauds, but he does devote space to a number of the more impressive ones. Impressive either by way of a large following or artfulness of technique. He also finds individuals he doesn’t know what to make of. These individuals appear to have impressive otherworldly skills, but skills that he can neither reconcile with known scientific understanding nor uncover as hoaxes despite his best skeptical inquiry. Given Occam’s Razor, he seems to be left suspecting that these are masters of illusion, but he maintains skepticism of his skepticism. A prime example of this is a Yogi who seems to be able to conjure any scent upon request.

Brunton also runs across individuals who are able to do amazing things that are inconsistent with his knowledge of the world, but which his exhaustive investigations leave little room to dispute. For example, there is one yogi who can completely cease his respiration for a seemingly impossible length of time, and who resumed breathing not with a gasp but with a slow, calm series of breaths.

As suggested above, this book is really an attempt to analyze India’s spirituality through the lens of Western logical and scientific approaches. The author is a Brit and the book was first published in the 1930’s. His worldview is consistent with that status. While Brunton would like to master his own mind, he is unwilling to let himself be duped.

There is another side to this juxtaposition of East and West. The yogis and gurus with which Brunton comes into contact often have trouble grasping the Western mindset (there is one notable exception.) What these wise-men have difficulty understanding is why a people, like the British, devote so much time to mastering the external world (and with a great measure of success it must be added), but put so little effort into mastering or understanding the self. Most of the gurus appreciate that a Brit is taking an interest in the spiritual and yogic ways of India, but with their own skepticism. They find Westerners materially rich, but bankrupt of the mind. They find the Brits strong, but lacking the supple power that yoga introduces.

After completing his travels, it seems the book is set to draw to an end. However, Brunton realizes that while there were a number of skilled individuals that he came across in his travels,there is one that stands out as someone he should not miss an opportunity to learn more from. Therefore, instead of getting on a steamer back to England, he returns to South India to a man called the Maharishee in order to find out if the guru will take him as a student. The last couple chapters describe his time under the Maharishee’s tutelage as well as under one of the guru’s most advanced students. The Maharishee is a sage the likes of which Brunton has not seen in all his travels. The guru has the humility to say that he cannot teach Brunton anything, but instead can only show him some things that he learned on his own journey.

If there is a lesson for those who would like to follow in Brunton’s footsteps, it seems to be that there is an inverse relationship between how easy a guru is to find(/how eager a guru is to talk to one) and the level of skill of that teacher. In almost all cases, Brunton had to take great initiative and steer off the beaten path to find the true masters. On the other hand, most of the individuals who were easily found, and eager to talk, were just con men.

I recommend this book for those interested in development of the mind and body.

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