Is there a manual for living well?
“Take a simple idea, and take it seriously.”—Charlie Munger
Each morning, I sit in my chair in my bedroom listening to a lecture by a 83 year old philosopher, A. Parthasarathy, recorded in an ashram just outside of Mumbai, India. He is currently 94, but the lectures were first recorded about 10 years ago.
He lectures in front of about 100 people that live in the ashram, for about one hour at a time (the rest of the day spent writing, thinking, singing, enjoying the company of the ashram, or playing Cricket — in his 80s and 90s).
With modern technology, I’m able to tune-in to these lectures on my iPad each morning from the comfort of our bedroom chair.
The subject is Vedanta, a 5,000 year old philosophy that sits at the base of most Eastern philosophies (and you’d be correct to see the striking similarities between Vedanta and Stoicism or Vedanta and Christianity upon hearing it for the first time). And though it predates these philosophies, and trade routes very clearly brought ideas to new territories as much as they brought anything else, it’s not entirely clear to historians how different ideas and thinkers influenced each other. For a modern example of these cross-influences, Parthasarathy has had a lifelong mission to bring Vedanta to the world (and out of somewhat of a hibernation), but in Parthasarathy’s mission — within his ashram, and within his several books — he is just as likely to bring up Shakespeare or Thoreau or Jesus as he is likely to bring up a Vedantic teacher.
I first began reading his books about four years ago starting with “The Holocaust Of Attachment”, after attending a class at hotel I was staying at with my wife — the class, titled “Yoga For The Intellect”, was a lamp to my moth-like curiosity.
My aperture to even take notice of a class like this was opened by three prior influences in my life:
1. Year after year after year of intense, psychological and physical hardship of trying to build a business (entrepreneurs several years into their own professional gambles without backup plans or proof that it will work out will know what I mean; non-entrepreneurs will not know what I mean).
2. The intensity of running the equivalent of professional “triathlon” without prior training leading to a peace found in the philosophies from the East (arguably the first “psycho-therapies”), as articulated by the most articulate and erudite Western speaker on Eastern philosophy, Alan Watts — who himself had two primary influences in his “metaphysics” from Vedanta and Christianity. [I had listened to his lectures or read his books in the range of thousands of hours at this point over the years leading up to seeing this class on the hotel docket, wading into the shallow-end of the pool with his melodic and profound “philosophical stand-up routines” as he would call them, but not truly diving in deep.]
3. Lastly, and most foundationally, our father introducing me to meditation at the age of 8 and exposing me to Buddhism early in life — in addition to our staunch Catholic faith (an influence to both explicitly attend church and study scripture weekly without fail *and* to implicitly anchor our selves to something other than ourselves).
These experiences, among countless smaller and unconsciously larger ones, led to a sensitivity to an item on a hotel itinerary with the words “Yoga For The Intellect” to the point that within seconds of viewing those words, it was a foregone conclusion that I would use the free time on this vacation to attend the class the following day. There was some subtext on the itinerary, I’m sure, but it was those four words that encapsulated what I was looking for… my sedentary, exasperated, torn psychology —in between psychological triathlons— left my intellect immobile, exhausted, and bed-ridden. I say “in between triathlons” because after 5 years of pushing a boulder up a hill, we had just sold our company in a painful acquisition. It was during this “celebration” that I told myself two things — 1) I would never run another multi-year psychological triathlon again and 2) I would train my intellect and psychology so well that I could run multiple psychological triathlons at a time without care.
Strange combination of commitments, I know. One voice was ignorant, the other was enlightened in some way. One commitment sought safety, and yet the other sought preparation. One commitment sought the avoidance of unhappiness through inaction; the other commitment sought that same avoidance but through action. Let me be very clear that the first commitment was loud and the second was soft. But like the subtle stream in opposition to the hard stone, loud but singular is no match for soft and constant.
[Note: The paragraph above contains the first, second, and third hints towards an upgraded psychology.]
I won’t recount what happened next (my podcast sits at the intersection of technology, creation, and philosophy, and weaves many of these broad concepts within it; and I have an episode dedicated to this very moment in my life). So instead of writing anymore about my experience, I will shine a light on a recent lecture Parthasarathy gave in Southern California below.
In the choice between action and inaction, in the decision to read and perhaps even study this below — in place of a pressing task you feel the pressure to complete — think of the olympic gold-medalist prioritizing the action of studying before stretching, stretching before training, training before playing. And the 10 minutes of reading this below, with a completeness of thought and precision in articulation that I have never before come across, like the discovery of a simple stretch that relieves the tension held in the entire body, perhaps it will be a yoga for your intellect.
How Does One Achieve Lasting Happiness?
Excerpted from a talk by Swami A. Parthasarathy
Tonight, we are going to discuss Vedanta, a word that you won’t find in the English dictionary. Vedanta is ancient wisdom, laid down thousands of years ago. It’s made up of two words—veda and anta—which mean, respectively, knowledge and end. So the word Vedanta simply means the end of knowledge, the culmination of knowledge. It is ancient, but it is relevant in modern life—in our day-to-day living.
Now when you purchase a machine—any gadget, really—you’re given a manual for how to operate it, whether it’s a shaver or a coffee pot. If you don’t have the manual, you are in trouble. Now, you have the subtlest of machines within you—and nobody has a clue what it is. And what’s more, this machine is operating you throughout your life. There is no reference to it in school or universities. Nowhere are you taught what it is, or how it operates in your life. Even the most intelligent people have no clue.
And therefore we get into all sorts of problems. And problems, problems, and more problems. For the last 60 years, I’ve been listening to only problems.
It’s interesting because a human being is a masterpiece of creation—but a human being has all the problems. Look at the animal world: No problems at all. And that is because all creatures are protected by nature. But humans…humans do what they like—exactly what they like. Have you found one zebra in the animal planet that is overweight or underweight? One impala? They all have the same weight. Because nature takes care of them.
But no two people are the same—some are underweight and some are overweight—because nature does not take care of humans. Why has this happened? Well, as I said, a human is a masterpiece, so nature has left it to us to handle our own lives. It’s exactly like when your son or daughter reaches the age of 18 and you hand over the finances and tell them to operate on their own. They are grown-up, they can handle their affairs. Similarly, nature leaves us to ourselves because we have been provided with an intellect.
We get to do what we want. But we sure have messed it up. Because here is the rub: There is nothing in the world that can disturb you except yourself. You are the architect of your fortune and the architect of your misfortune. You can entertain yourself, and you can also disturb yourself.
Vedanta deals with the subject of YOU, and your life.
How do you define your life?
Your life is a series of experiences. That’s your life. That’s my life. A stream of experiences, just as water flowing is a river. Your experiences flowing, one after another: That is life.
So what is an experience? It consists of two factors. You and the world. You alone cannot have an experience—for example, in deep sleep you don’t have an experience. The world is what you experience. So there is a subject/object relationship that brings about an experience. The subject is you. The object is the world.
When you contact the world, there is an experience. So ancient scientists went about beautifying the world and making it a better place for us all to live. I’ve seen the world evolve in the past 70 or 80 years—there’s been a phenomenal change, it’s really incredible. But as the world has been improved, human beings are not as happy or comfortable as they once were. It’s a paradox. Our ancestors were much happier. It’s a contradiction.
The world has been improved, but the individual has been neglected. We live in a beautiful world but are unable to make use of it properly. It’s like having excellent food, but no appetite.
What compels us to act?
We must continue contacting the world—action is the insignia of life, while inaction is death. You have to act. So the question is really, how do you act? The body performs the action. When I’m talking to you, it’s an action. When you are listening to me, you’re performing an action. But all that said, my body cannot come here and talk to you by itself. There is something other than the body that propels it and compels it to act. What is it? You are not taught this in school or university; you were not taught this by your parents when you were a child. No government takes up the subject. We are all left high and dry in the world without knowing that which enables us to act in the world. It’s like being blindfolded. So learn this today: You have two equipments, and one is the mind, and one is the intellect.
The mind consists of emotions. It is the seat of feeling, of likes and dislikes. You’ve been collecting likes and dislikes since childhood. The intellect, on the other hand, is for reasoning. You’ve just never bothered to deal with it.
There are three living species. Plant, Animal, and Human.
A plant has only a body; it has no mind and no intellect.
An animal has a body and a mind, but no intellect.
Only a human being has all three.
But human beings don’t know how to use their intellect. And you need your intellect for success and for peace, which we all want.
What is this intellect?
First, you must understand the difference between intellect and what you all know—what you all know is intelligence. Intelligence is knowledge.
Intelligence is just information you gain from your predecessors. You gain intelligence from external agencies like teachers and textbooks, from schools and universities. That knowledge and information provide you with intelligence. No amount of intelligence can make up the intellect. It is impossible. They are on two different wavelengths.
So you have intelligence and you’re making a living off of it. And you’re complacent. You have a good business. You have this, you have that. Let’s talk about that.
You have a pen. And you leave it behind today. Are you going to drive back and get it? Probably not, it’s just a pen.
Let’s say you leave your wristwatch here. You’re going to call the hotel and give a description and ask them to keep it safe so you can come and pick it up.
Let’s say you have your wristwatch and you go out to the parking lot and your car is missing. What is the loss of a car to you?
Let’s say the car is there, and you drive home and your new beautiful, fully paid-off home has burned to the ground. What is the loss of a house to you?
Let’s say you drive home and your friend calls you to tell you that your wife and two children have met with a fatal accident. What is the loss of family to you?
Draw the line from the loss of a pen to the loss of your family and then find out where you stand. No amount of intelligence is going to help you tackle that problem. If you are buckling after the loss of a wristwatch, or the loss of a car, and it is causing you sleepless nights, that’s a pretty bad state. No amount of intelligence is going to help you handle your affairs. You need an intellect to help you handle the faculties of the mind, for it is the mind that troubles you and destroys your peace. It is nothing else. You must know how to deal with your mind.
The only real value of intelligence is to help you make a living. You might go to medical school to gain the knowledge of medicine so that you can make a living. Same with engineering school, or law school. But all animals make a living without going to university.
Millions of doctors have passed through medical school, but one guy found out how to transplant a kidney, one guy found the cure for tuberculosis. How about that? Those people had intellect, besides intelligence.
So how do you develop the intellect?
You need to start developing your intellect at the age of 7, of 8, of 9. And these are the two most important points.
1. Never take anything for granted.
2. Question everything.
I can prove to you that you have taken everything for granted and that you don’t question. It’s called herd instinct. You follow the herd. You follow your predecessors. You go to primary and secondary school. I ask, “Why do you go to school?” You reply, “Everyone goes to school.” You brother, your sister, your mother, your father. I ask, “Why did you get a job?” You reply: “Because after school that is what everyone does.” And then you get married and have children.
Herd instinct. I’m not saying that going to school is wrong. Or that getting married and having children is wrong. But have you thought about why you have done these things?
Here are some words from Galileo:
I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.
What are you working for?
So once you provide yourself with intellect, what do you do? First of all have you have to fix an ideal in life: What are you doing? What do you want? Everybody in the world is running around with no time, just running and running. But what are you all working for?
Most of you are probably working for your husband or wife and children. You are working for your family—everything else is a blur. Your home is the boundary of your affection. But it should really just be the center of affection.
With the intellect, you have to fix an ideal. And an ideal requires working beyond yourself. You can work for your family, you can work for the community, you can work for the country, you can work for humanity…you can even work for all living creatures.
The higher the ideal, the greater the initiative to work. The problem is that people don’t have ideals or a higher focus and there is no initiative for them to come to work. They work instead through incentives. You jump from company to company because they provide better perks. The boss, herself, has no initiative to work.
So you really work for perks and weekends and vacations. Thank God It’s Friday. TGIF. It’s even come to India, can you believe that?
You don’t want to work, the CEO doesn’t want to work, the manager doesn’t want to work…nobody wants to work! If you don’t find rest in action, you will never find it. You are trying to find rest by getting away from action.
But before we get to that, you are all looking for success and peace. You need the intellect for both.
What defines success?
So what is success? Success is an effect. Success belongs to the future. And what’s the cause? The cause for success is the right action. If the action is perfect, there’s success. If the action is imperfect, there’s failure.
The perfect action boils down to three C’s:
So what is concentration? I ask this question all over the world. I always get this answer: Focus! So what is focus? It’s concentration! So nobody really knows what concentration is. They go about in circles.
Think about it. It is directing the mind in one direction, toward one point. The human mind has the tendency to slip into the worries of the past or the anxieties of the future. Everybody’s mind, including mine. Concentration is keeping the mind on the present job and not allowing it to slip. This can only be achieved through the intellect—you must have a powerful intellect to keep the mind in its place.
Similarly, you have to be consistent. If Tiger Woods plays golf for one month, baseball for a second month, and football for a third month, you can probably beat him! You have to be consistent with what you are doing—all your actions must flow in one direction. Only the intellect can keep you on the direction you’ve set.
And the third is the spirit of cooperation. If you don’t have intellect, you have a superiority or an inferiority complex. We are all spokes in the wheel of life and nobody is important, and nobody is unimportant. Who is more important? The person who removes trash from your house, or the person who sits in the White House? For a week or more you can probably do without the person who sits in the White House, but not the person who removes trash from your house. To understand that we are all spokes in the wheel of life is to understand the spirit of cooperation.
If you practice all three C’s, you’ve prepared the cause of the effect of success. Here is an example.
There was a forgery case in India in the ’30s. The lawyer defending it spoke for six hours. The other lawyer? He dozed in the courtroom. The defense lawyer was speaking eloquently and documenting things and the judge kept waiting for the other lawyer to interrupt and contradict him. So the judge asks him if he has anything to complain about and he hasn’t even been listening. He says, “No objection.” The defense lawyer sits down, and the judge turns to the other lawyer and asks him if he has anything now to say.
And he says: “My lord, look at the document against the light.” So he puts it against the light. “Do you see the watermark? This paper was manufactured in 1932. And the document is dated 1930.” Is this man Einstein? How did he manage to do that? He handed over the two samples and walked out of the courtroom. That is the power of the intellect.
You need the intellect to program concentration, consistency, and cooperation. And you also need it for your peace of mind. Every one of you can give a seminar on what disturbs your peace of mind. And it will all be external factors.
What disturbs your peace of mind?
No external factors can disturb you except yourself. You make yourself, you mark yourself. The world cannot disturb you.
Rule #1: If you operate on likes and dislikes, you will face the consequences thereof.
A man picks up a cigarette and finds so much pleasure in it; another guy can’t stand smoking. A man goes to a lawyer to divorce his wife, and he finds great pleasure in getting rid of her; another guy is desperately waiting to marry the same lady.
This happens everywhere: The lady produces joy to one, sorrow to another. Therefore, it is not in the object or in the being—it is in how you relate to it. It’s your mind that wreaks havoc on your peace, not the external world. It is a mistake to believe that joy or sorrow is in the external world.
The mind is replete with likes and dislikes. So when you’re operating at the level of the mind, you do what you like, and you avoid what you don’t like. And when you’re dependent on your likes and dislikes, it’s miserable. For example, an Indian comes to the United States and he only likes rice and dal, but you give him pasta. What is this pasta? Meanwhile, the pasta-lover doesn’t like rice. If you operate on likes and dislikes, you’re dependent on the world. The world is in a flux of change. It can’t cater to your likes all the time. Therefore, you will be frustrated. If you only like summer, you will enjoy three months and suffer for nine. When you operate on likes and dislikes, you operate on the mind. But when you operate on the intellect, you choose the right course of action.
See, what is pleasant to you in the beginning is not so in the end. Junk food is pleasant in the beginning, but not so much in the end. You don’t like exercise, and you avoid it, but it becomes a problem later. What you like is detrimental; what you don’t like is beneficial. This is not to say that you shouldn’t do what you like—I’m only asking that you examine whether it is proper.
One Indian man heard my lecture and he went home and he looked at his wife. She said, “Why are you looking at me like that?” And he said: “I was liking you very much, but Swamiji said that I should throw out my likes and so I’m going to throw out my likes.”
Crazy! I didn’t say that! For heaven’s sake, don’t throw your partner away! All I said is to examine your likes and dislikes. If you don’t like exercise, you can’t just throw it away. If you like junk food, and you eat it all the time, there are consequences.
Rule #2: Know the mind has a tendency to ramble.
When I’m talking to you, it’s impossible to follow everything I say, even though you might want to follow. The mind rambles. It’s natural. It rambles into worries of the past, and anxieties for the future. That tires you. Action doesn’t tire you. Action can never tire you.
Therefore, you are making the biggest blunder by getting away from action for weekends and rest. In my entire life, I’ve never taken a vacation. Every day is vacation. At the Institution, students are in a three-year course. They’re up at 4am and we go until 9pm, 365 days a year. There are no breaks for weekends or vacations. Come and examine the students—nobody wants a break.
If you don’t find rest in action, you will never rest by getting out of action. In fact, you’re working for weekend and vacations. But if you don’t know how to control your mind and act in the present, you will always feel tired.
Do you want proof? Examine your own children. Your children are never tired and are continually happy. They are bristling with activity. Because of the simple fact that children have no worries of the past and anxieties for the future, they’re happy. But you all have the worries of the past and anxieties for the future, and it tires and fatigues you. So you need rest constantly. It’s as simple as that.
Rule #3: Uncontrolled desires create havoc.
Without desires, you can’t live. You can’t survive. So what do you do with desire? You have to monitor and control your desires, because when unmonitored, desire becomes lust, greed, and avarice.
That’s what happened in 2008—the greed mounted to the point where there was a crash, and crash after crash. But if you control your desires, it becomes an aim, an ambition, or aspiration, and that is alright. You have to watch your desires before they mount to greed.
Rule #4: Preferential attachment is deadly.
What you pass off as love is nothing but preferential attachment. And preferential attachment is deadly.
When there is love, I serve you.
When there is attachment, I look for your service; what can I get out of you?
The husband says: This is my right, I married you.
The wife says: This is my right, I married you.
It’s more a life based on rights than on duties. It’s because of preferential attachment. It’s passed off as love.
Love + Selfishness = Attachment
Attachment – Selfishness = Love
Get that straight.
I’m not against love, I’m against this deadly thing called attachment.
The home should be the center, not the boundary of your affection/love. It becomes the boundary when you can’t see anything or anyone beyond it.
When you change yourself, you change the world
You cannot change the world without changing yourself. Everyone has the ambition of changing everything except for themselves.
All the great prophets, they changed themselves, then changed the world. If you change yourself, you change the world. If you want to change your children, you need to lead by example.
There is an inscription on the tomb of an Anglican Bishop in England:
When I was young and free and my imagination had no limits, I dreamed of changing the world. As I grew older and wiser, I discovered the world would not change, so I shortened my sights somewhat and decided to change only my country.
But it, too, seemed immovable.
As I grew into my twilight years, in one last desperate attempt, I settled for changing only my family, those closest to me, but alas, they would have none of it.
And now as I lie on my deathbed, I suddenly realize: If I had only changed myself first, then by example I would have changed my family.
From their inspiration and encouragement, I would then have been able to better my country and, who knows, I may have even changed the world.
If you want to change the world, you must change yourself first. To do that, don’t take anything for granted and question everything. If you do that, the world will change around you.