In January of ’06, my wife and and were in Mumbai, India (as if there’s another Mumbai you would confuse it with. “Does he mean Mumbai, Kentucky?”) for a friend’s wedding. And, btw, if you ever hava a chance to go to India I can’t recommend enough going for a wedding put on by a well-to-do Indian family. But that’s another story.
Knowing that we’d be in Mumbai, a couple of big-time spiritual seeker friends (that is, they’re searching big-time and they’re well-known for doing it) said, “Oh, you must meet Ramesh Balsekar when you’re there… here’s his phone number.”
Ramesh is a former president of the Bank of India who, for the last 20+ (maybe 30+) years has camped out in a chair in a corner of a room in his million-dollar flat and, at 9:00 am sharp (the only thing that started on time in India) taught/lectured to the mostly-Western seekers who squeeze into the tiny room.
What does he teach? Well, he’s in the lineage of the Advaita (“not-two”) Vedanta teachers, Ramana Maharshi and Nisagardatta Maharaj, if that means anything to you. If not, perhaps what happened at the very end of the 3-hour meeting will ‘splain it.
But before I get to that part, I want to tell you how weird it was to be crammed into a tiny room in downtown Mumbai with 30 people — some 1st timers and some who’ve been in the same room every day for months or years — who really wanted something that, they thought would make them happy finally. The weird part wasn’t all the wanting, it was that I’ve been in the exact same room in Boulder, in Santa Fe, in Marin in Boston, in… EVERYWHERE.
I don’t know why I imagined that with a bona-fide “Indian spiritual teacher” in India would be different than what I’ve seen (and grown weary of) everywhere else I’ve travelled but, oh well, here it was again.
So check this out. Ramesh starts out by saying, “If you believe that by becoming ‘enlightened’ you will become free of unpleasant experiences or emotions, you’re mistaken. You will not get special powers, your personality will not change to that of a saint, you will not become well-liked or loved, you will not live in some imagined state of bliss. You will get nothing. Nothing.”
I laughed, thinking of all the times I nodded my head at the idea that spiritual growth or it’s goal, awakening, would give me ALL of what he just described (and how, after no longer nodding at that idea, I was happier than I ever was when I was on “the path” to get, well, happy). But nobody else was laughing. They were all deadly serious, as if they were waiting for Ramesh to become a California teenager and reveal that he was kidding with a big, “NOT!”
But Ramesh wasn’t kidding.
Why didn’t everyone stand up and leave, I wondered. The only reason I stayed was I was curious to see how he followed this great take-away… and that I had come with someone who I saw was now ready for the teaching about how to get everything Ramesh said you wouldn’t get!
Okay, so at the one hour mark, someone asked, “How did you come to this realization you have?” Ramesh replied, “Oh, I was born with the understanding of determinism in my blood.”
I looked around the room again, to see if anyone really heard what he just said. The guy — the “teacher” — just said that he didn’t do anything to become whatever or whoever he is, that he was just born this way. It was his natural tendency, his innate something-or-other. Something that was completely out of his control. Again, I couldn’t for the life of my figure out why half the room didn’t stand up and leave — after all, if he did NOTHING to get what you think you want, why do you think you can do something to get it?
Well, Ramesh is a pretty funny guy (though I seemed to be the only one laughing at the jokes), so I stuck with it.
Finally, as things are about to wrap up, I said, “Can I try to sum up what you’ve been saying for the last few hours?” “Certainly,” Ramesh replied staring me down.”
“Okay, there’s a thing you’re calling ‘enlightenment’ which you describe as the 100% complete conviction and understanding that there is no inherent ‘do-er’ in our life. That we are not the instigators of our thoughts and actions but, instead, we and everything about us is merely an expression of some un-name-able something which is all of existence.”
He nods. I continue.
“So, if there is no ‘person’ who is doing any thing, if we are not the causes but, instead, the effects… then there’s nothing we can do to make this understanding/awakening thing happen. No amount of meditating, no amount of spiritual practice, no amount of sitting here with Ramesh Balsekar will guarantee it happening, or accelerate when it happens. And no amount of not practicing or acting ‘non-spiritually’ will keep it away. If it’s going to happen, it’ll happen and if not, then not. And there’s nothing to do be done about it either way.”
“YES! That’s it,” he laughed… and I laughed with him… but I looked around the room and nobody else was laughing. In fact, they all looked like they were thinking “If I could really understand that point, then that would lead to my enlightenment!”
“If you want something to do while you’re waiting to see if it happens or not, I have something for you,” Ramesh offered to the group. “At the end of the day, sit down and relax — if you need a beer or two to relax, do that. Then think of something you did that day, something you know that you did, something where you know you had control over it… and then examine that carefully.”
This is very similar to something I teach people to do (something I picked up from my friend Byron Katie). Take a look at all the things you do without any awareness at all? Did you consciously decide to put your arms or legs in that position? And if so, take a look at the thought that preceded your action? Did you make that thought happen? Were you sitting around doing nothing, and think, “Okay, I’ll have the thought about going to get some ice cream in … 5… 4… 3… 2… and NOW!” or did you just notice that you had the thought? Or notice that you must have had the thought because you now find yourself on the way to get some Chunky Monkey?
If you force yourself to think about an elephant, did you consciously make it exactly that size, that color? Did you plan to put those rough hairs on the elephant’s feet (or had you not even thought about it until I said it, at which point it showed up, fully formed without any effort)?
“Do this for about 30 minutes each night,” Ramesh suggested. And one day, you’ll be blinded by the total, complete understanding… and it’ll all be done.
Oh, crap. When push comes to shove, even the guy who spent 3 hours (and 30+ years) saying there’s nothing to do that will get you where you think you want to go, gives something to do to get you there! Hmmm…
As I was leaving, some of the “regulars” stopped me to say hello. “It was so nice to have you here. To hear someone laughing and bringing your energy; we’re glad you made it.” “Thanks,” I said, “it was fun.”
“Are you coming back?” they asked.
I was a bit shocked by the question.
“Why? Didn’t you hear what he said? It’s all taken care of. No reason to come back or not come back. He’s a nice, smart, funny old guy, but I’m here for a wedding. I’ve got shopping and eating to do.”
They looked like they kinda got what I was saying but couldn’t quite believe I’d pass up the oppurtunity to hang out with a guy who admits there’s no reason or benefit for hanging out with him.
In fact, I noticed that while all the seekers where hanging out in the foyer, Ramesh was just wandering around the flat. So, I walked back to say hello and thank him for an entertaining morning. He gave me a big hug, showed me around the place, and we had a picture taken of the two of us. Cute old guy.
BTW, did you notice the little bombshell Ramesh dropped (and I mentioned) about determinism? That’s his big thing. Not only is there nobody doing anything, but it’s all pre-determined. If you were supposed to become enlightened (or a good golfer, or the one who should be fighting with his spouse over money), then it will happen to you. It’s pre-determined so there’s nothing you can do about it. Once you understand that, he says, there’s on need for guilt or blame or shame because you’re all merely doing what God set you up to do.
I won’t get into all the problems with this line of thinking, but I will point out 2 simple ones:
First, if you’re not the one running your life, you don’t need some mega-being who is. Life can unfold with probabilities and chance and randomness just fine. It doesn’t need a universal map that accounts for the position of every particle over all time.
Related to that is #2: If your life is merely the play of some pre-determined plan, then so are the lives of your parents, and their’s and so on and so on… follow that back long enough and you will either never find an initial cause, a moment that set everything else in motion… or you will conclude that there was one moment, BILLIONS of years ago, when the great Planner in the Sky decided what time this morning you would go to the toilet.
While I find determinism a bit more close to my actual experience (especially when I notice that I did nothing to have the thought “Time to write about Ramesh now”), it’s also yet another belief I can nod my head at as a way to add some “meaning” to a life that is much more rich, fun, and full of possibilities without this theory.