Thursday, May 10, 2012

IChant: The Ultimate App

From Elephant Journal

Genius is a multifaceted jewel. It has many rough edges, and it doesn’t care for any mundane norms or compromises.

The package that genius is wrapped in doesn’t necessarily belie what is within but it is the duty of time to reveal that this genius— in whatever forms it takes—speaks to our body, mind and soul in many profound and challenging ways.

I think Steve Jobs was a genius. Of course the nature of Jobs’s character and his integrity as a person are quite complicated. History will see him as the “poster boy” for the troubled, difficult persona of the genius. History will also reveal that, as he expressed it to his biographer Walter Isaacson, his feeling that he follows in a line of innovators that includes Thomas Edison and Albert Einstein, was not mere hyperbole. His influence on our cultural expressions, on our connectivity and communication, and in the ways we define ourselves as biological beings in an increasingly technological world is already immense and will only grow more so.

Being a spiritual seeker, my obligation is to see the glass more than half-full when I examine the nature of such a complex and powerful personality.  The Bhagavad Gita tells us that the truly wise person sees everyone on a spiritual level, beyond the body-mind construct which is the general source of all our foibles and follies. While being very clear and honest about the dark side of Steve Jobs, still I can’t help but appreciate the honest sincerity of his ambition, his own spiritual leanings and his desire to create a legacy of ideas and products that speaks to the best of human creativity at the intersection of technology and aesthetics.

What particularly strikes me about him was his attitude towards design.  An early slogan of Apple was that “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” This mirrors a saying from my own Hindu tradition, echoed by such great teachers as Mahatma Gandhi and bhakti-yoga pioneer A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, of “simple living and high thinking.” The idea is that only when we simplify, when we clear away the dust that only complicates the obvious truth, will we be able to discover the presence of enlightenment within ourselves and all around us.

In Walter Isaacson’s excellent Jobs biography, Jonny Ive—Jobs’s confidante and core designer during Apple’s incredible renaissance of the last decade— shares his take on this philosophy of simplicity:

Why do we assume simple is good?….Simplicity isn’t just a visual style. It’s not just minimalism or the absence of clutter. It involves digging through the depth of complexity. To be truly simple you have to go really deep.

We now reap the benefits of this philosophy in so many interesting ways in our lives.  Our personal computers, tablets, phones and our whole conscious existence are full of these little apps that connect us and push us and inform us in ways that deftly ride along the balance of aesthetic and technology that so inspired Jobs’s overall vision.

What exactly is an app? To put it roughly, it is a little program which shapes our daily life in a particular way.  We can just see it for what it apparently is, a bit of cutting-edge technology. But I want to go a little bit further, into the depth of complexity, to shine a different light of definition on this whole idea of the app.

Disclaimer: Reading the bio of Jobs and also being the recent purchaser of a wonderful, sturdy, fast and sleek Macbook Pro, I have the inklings of  having become an Apple cultist.  Some of the feelings are not entirely dissimilar to my spiritual practice, for both give one the sense of a particular worldview.  That is why, as I was walking through New York City recently, meditating on my prayer beads, I was struck by the idea that the mantra I was chanting was also like an app and how it was the best app I had in my life.
Krishna and Radha

My spiritual practice revolves around the chanting of the maha-mantra, which is part of the Bhakti (devotional) path of Hinduism. The mantra features three names of the Divine, of God, as known in the Bhakti tradition: Krishna (the masculine aspect of the Divine), Hare (the feminine aspect of the Divine), and Rama (the pleasure reservoir of the Divine).  The whole mantra goes like this:

Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna Hare Hare
Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama Hare Hare

The maha-mantra is, in one sense, a tool in the toolbox of apps that is part of my daily existence as a spirit in the material world. But in the ultimate sense it is so much more. By chanting this mantra, we are taken through the depth of complexity of our own being, allowing us to see and transcend all the illusions that we carry in our consciousness. We come to the simple core of our being, as eternal souls in a loving relationship with God.

While my Weather Channel app can give me a grasp of my environment, and my IBooks Author app can help let loose a real dose of my productive creativity, my maha-mantra app helps me to understand who I really am, at the deepest level of my being. This is an app whose substance is entirely spiritual and which helps me to understand that the substance of my being is also entirely spiritual.  It is the ultimate app to me because it contains the essence of all divinity.

By chanting the names of God—because these names are non-different from the substance of God—one’s being comes directly in touch with God. By being in contact with the vibration of God the dust of the heart, or all of the chains which keep us stuck in the vagaries of our ego, is removed. It is a very simple practice of meditation on sound vibration, yet what can be more sophisticated and wonderful than the presence of God?

It is the ultimate app because it is available to everyone, for free, at all times and is not at all contingent on one’s skin color, sexuality, political preference, or whether one is even spiritually qualified to practice it.  One doesn’t have to be a Hindu to chant the maha-mantra. It enhances any kind of spiritual search because it is a universal app. It connects one to the source, the powerhouse of reality, and is inclusive of everyone.

It is the ultimate app because it’s fully open-source. It can be transmitted to anyone at any time.  Whatever the technology of your being, of your personality, the maha-mantra fits into the system of your life.

It is the ultimate app because, being of eternal spiritual substance, it never breaks down, and it never needs an upgrade.  It’s always in style, and it’s always available.

There have been calls for a “spiritual Steve Jobs”  to appear, to innovate some of the rusted structures of spirituality.  I can certainly agree with this sentiment in many ways, but it is essential to remember that real change begins within our own heart.  The maha-mantra is a tool, a spiritualized lifestyle app, which allows us to come to the core of the real innovation and creativity of our true being.

In the Bhakti tradition it is said that everyone has the responsibility to become a teacher, a guide, a selfless sharer of the essence they are finding. Understanding the real tools, the real apps, of our spiritual life and seeing their immense value in our daily life can help us to become givers of the Divine, of God’s reality.  It can bring us to the simplicity of our being, and allow us to give the ultimate sophistication.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Occupy Wall Street: Don't Dehumanize The 'Evil Banker'

From the "Occupy Wall Street" section at The Huffington Post

As a spiritual person, I have felt aloof from the Occupy Wall Street movement. I have thought about this aloofness a great deal, spoken and dialogued about it, and written about it, but I still struggle to put my head and heart together over how I can serve and contribute to Occupy and within the realm of social justice as a whole.

At a recent panel discussion at Union Theological Seminary, entitled "Being Mad And What To Do About It: What Occupiers And The Occupied Can Learn From Interfaith Dialogue," my frustration was crystallized to a certain extent. As my friend Samir Selmanovic spoke eloquently about the need to deepen our compassionate spirit in our dialogue with the "other," i.e the people who run the machine of Wall Street, and as I heard the responses from Occupiers in the audience who refused to acknowledge the need for any such kind of dialogue, the nature of my own disconnection from the Occupy movement became more clear.

I felt that, as natural and acceptable as it is in one sense to feel anger at some of the entities on Wall Street. the "vampire squids" and "evil bankers," and as natural as it is to respond to being dehumanized by such entities by dehumanizing them in return, as a spiritual person my engagement with this immense problem must go deeper. It must include yet transcend the rage, exasperation, and frustration all of us feel.

One can say that these "evil bankers" don't deserve a compassionate dialogue, yet compassion is multifaceted. It is not just good vibes, but the strength of providing what is truly needed for someone to give up their selfishness and illusion, even if that means the strong arm of justice and the clear light of truth.

One can say that because of the power dynamics at hand, because of the immense wealth and influence that Wall Street has in this discussion, that to engage with them is fruitless. Yet there is nothing more powerful than a spiritual response to injustice and inequality. If you doubt what I am saying, just look at the lives of Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi, among many others. The divinity behind their voice was what gave them the power to make such immense change.

I can relate to the struggle Thomas Merton went through in the 1960s, as he lived his life as a Christian monk yet was deeply drawn into the monumental struggles of civil rights and nuclear war. As a committed spiritualist, his response to these issues required an incredible amount of depth and clarity. One passage, from his book "Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander," elucidates my feelings towards how we should view the "Other" or our "enemy" much better that I could ever say:

The tactic of nonviolence is a tactic of love that seeks the salvation and redemption of the opponent, not his castigation, humiliation and defeat. A pretended nonviolence that seeks to defeat and humiliate the adversary by spiritual instead of physical attack is little more than a confession of weakness. This may be easy to talk about in theory. It is not easy to practice, especially when the adversary is aroused to a bitter and violent defense of an injustice which he believes to be just. We must therefore be careful how we talk about our opponents, and still more careful how we regulate our differences with our collaborators.
I was particularly impressed by what author/Wall Street veteran Monika Mitchell said during the panel at Union. She made it very clear (and also does so through the powerful book, Conversations With Wall Street, that she and her husband Peter Ressler wrote) that Wall Street is full of living, breathing, even ethical human beings who are deeply affected by the transgressions that have happened, and who deeply desire to bring the integral and the personal back into the culture of Wall Street.
I was also moved by a comment Samir made, in which he wondered and called out for people to minister and counsel to the people within the crypt of Wall Street itself. I told him of my friend Rasanath, whom I have lived with as a monk for the past three years, and whose remarkable experience of giving up a lucrative career with Bank of America to live as a monk has given him the perspective and calling to become a spiritual guide for many people on the Street.

The only response to any injustice I can give, as a spiritual person, is a humane response. It is a response which doesn't ignore the injustice at hand but which transmutes into something that actually moves and heals. I ask our fellow Occupiers to consider the language, tone, and motivation of their response, so that we can deepen our ability to affect the change we seek.