‘In dark night live those for whom
The world without alone is real; in night
Darker still, for whom the world within
Alone is real. The first leads to a life
Of action, the second to a life of meditation.
But those who combine action with meditation
Cross the sea of death through action
And enter into immortality
Through the practice of meditation.
So have we heard from the wise.’
– Isha Upanishad
There is part of me that would quite happily live in a cave in the Himalayas. Few things in life are more blissful to me than disconnecting from the realities and pressures of modern society and spending my time in contemplation of the Self. Late last year, I was really inspired by reading Tenzin Palmo’s ‘Cave in the Snow’, a wonderful book about a young British woman who became a Buddhist nun and later spent twelve years living in splendid seclusion in a small cave in the Himalayas. There are other such books which bring forth a similar yearning in me to leave everything behind to spend the rest of my life in meditation and devotion.
But somehow I feel that this isn’t the sole purpose of my life this time around. True, the ultimate purpose of life is self-realization, and meditation is a big part of realizing our true nature. Yet, whenever we see a realized Master who walks this Earth, it is likely that we see them engaged in alleviating the suffering of others. With the merging of the Self, compassion for the condition of mankind springs forth. Saints like Swami Satyananda Saraswati, Amma, Mother Meera or Prem Baba are great examples of realized souls who are engaged in work that helps to elevate the lives and consciousness of others.
Of course, meditation is important work, too. Some yogis sit in caves for their entire lives, for it is only in seclusion that spiritual heights can be attained. These renunciates merged in meditation develop cosmic awareness and become generators of cosmic radiation which they send out to different parts of the Universe. But this leads us again to the same point: whether in seclusion or not, meditation always leads to compassion for the condition of mankind and thus to action to alleviate suffering, whether this action is visible or not. Swami Satyananda Saraswati summed it up perfectly with ‘I have certainly become aware of the purpose of my life – I have a definite twofold mission. The first is to become a means of alleviating the deep-rooted suffering of humankind, and the second is to be one with the highest existent reality.’
Now, I am not a realized Master but this philosophy of karma yoga really makes sense to me. What good is realization if we become indifferent to the pain of others in our bliss? I am touched by the words of Sri Prem Baba who said that ‘I have noticed that spiritual seekers are often fascinated with the search for enlightenment as their sole purpose, to the point where they forget that enlightenment means becoming love itself. Often stubbornly focusing on the discipline involved in practicing their sadhana with the one goal of becoming enlightened, they become blind to the plight of the person sitting next to them. Sometimes their neighbour is needing a bit of attention, perhaps just eye contact and a smile. Maybe we need to re-define the goal: if enlightenment means realizing our true nature – which is love and light – it’s a sign that we are nowhere near our goal when we behave with disrespect or indifference.’
And indifferent is something I hope I never become. Yes, we are bombarded from all sides with pictures and stories of war, catastrophes, starvation and crime. It’s easy and sometimes even necessary to shut down to not get overwhelmed by all the negativity in the world. But at the same time, if I feel unease because the world is imbalanced then I also feel it’s my responsibility as a human being to contribute to rectifying that imbalance. We’re all here for a purpose, and I believe in these times of change, it’s more important than ever to become a channel of light. The outer disharmony in the world only reflects our inner disharmony, which we can redress internally through meditation. And through our internal work, our outer actions become more wholesome and compassionate, which will create more harmony in the outer world.
Whatever the spiritual reasons for our current situation may be, it simply doesn’t feel right to me that there are people in the world that are starving to death while we are throwing away tonnes of food in the West every day; that there are girls who aren’t allowed to go to school on the basis of their gender; that women are being sold and trafficked as prostitutes for the financial gain of others; that indigenous tribes in the Amazon have their lands and livelihoods polluted and taken away because of mining and cattle-ranching. Mahatma Gandhi put it aptly when he stated that ‘there is enough in the world for everyone’s need; there is not enough for everyone’s greed.’
I’ve often wondered what we as individuals can do on a grassroots level about this inequality in the world. It’s not everyone’s dharma to become an activist and set up a NGO, but how can we do something to re-dress the balance?
One thought that recently came to me is this: how would it be if every single one of us in the West (or anyone who is reasonably well off) decided to help empower one person who is less fortunate? A type of partnership between two individuals in which the one who is more empowered helps empower another less fortunate person. Then later the newly empowered person can help another, and so on. These type of partnerships could go a long way, especially if there is personal contact involved.
One way of doing this is by helping out a person in a crisis country. For example, I’ve been sponsoring a little girl in Afghanistan for her school fees for the last few years. In Afghanistan, girls as a rule aren’t encouraged or even allowed to go to school, which leads them with little hope of escaping a life of poverty. A girl will usually have to marry to a man much older than her and spend her life under his control. By enabling an Afghan girl to go to school, something which her parents (if they are still alive) would not be able to afford, her life and that of her family suddenly has different opportunities. The cost of doing so? 20 Euros a month. Really not a lot for me, but it can completely change the course of somebody’s life over there. And this knowledge is as enriching for me as it is for the child.
I do this via a small German NGO called DAI who is run by Afghan and German volunteers. They do wonderful work such as building girl’s schools and solar-powered hospitals, thus helping the people of Afghanistan to rebuild their country sustainably. The best thing about DAI is that all of the money I donate goes straight to the person who needs it. There’s plenty of these small NGO’s around who work hard to make a positive difference in the world.
Some young people from the USA wondered about the same subject and founded KIVA, a great micro-financing organisation. KIVA is an NGO through whom you can lend relatively small amounts of money to people in poorer countries so that they can set up a small business to support themselves. It’s a really great idea because it empowers the people to work for their own existence in often adverse circumstances – and something as little as $25 can change the live of a person. And you get your money back within a few months, which is great if you’re not that well off yourself.
If you can’t afford to donate money, there are other ways of supporting others. For example, there is a great NGO called ‘Futures for Children’ in the USA that helps Native American children, who are often at risk, through mentorships. The mentor writes to the child and encourages him/her to go to school, offers moral support and so on. The children sponsored by this program are more likely to finish school and build a positive future for themselves.
It’s so simple to make a difference, whether it’s through volunteering, signing a petition, visiting a lonely old person, picking up some litter, or simply smiling at the person in front of you. The smallest act can be incredibly powerful when it comes from the heart. May we never forget this in the bliss of our sadhana.
I close with a mantra that says it all:
Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu: ‘May all beings everywhere be happy and free, and may the thoughts, words, and actions of my own life contribute in some way to that happiness and to that freedom for all.’
Wonderful NGOs run by brave trail blazers that have inspired me and enriched my life:
Hindu Kush Conservation Association – a small NGO run by the courageous Maureen Lines who has dedicated her life to helping the Kalash tribe in Pakistan’s Hindu Kush mountains http://www.hindukushconservation.com/
Sea Shepherd – a vessel who helps stop illegal whaling and other environmental crimes in the sea http://www.seashepherd.org/
Kiva Microfinance – as mentioned above http://www.kiva.org/
The Afghan Australian Development Organisation – run by an amazing Afghani lady who is using the proceeds of her restaurant in Melbourne to build girl’s schools in Afghanistan http://www.aava.org.au
Deutsch-Afghanische Initiative (DAI) – as above http://www.deutsch-afghanische-initiative.de/
Eaves Housing for Women – NGO providing housing for trafficked women http://www.eaves4women.co.uk/
Somaly Mam – NGO set up by the brave survivor of sexual slavery http://www.somaly.org
Futures for Children – as above http://www.futuresforchildren.org/
New Internationalist Magazine writes about many issues that affect global imbalance, with advice on what can be done about them: http://newint.org/