Hindus Seek Detachment. Have Plants and Animals Already Found It?

Here in suburbia, next to a glassy corporate office, sits a Hindu temple, its white, ornate façade surrounded by parking lots. Curious, I removed my shoes and walked into the large room. Instead of chairs or benches I found a marble, white and gold room with altars placed throughout. Worshippers strolled from one garlanded deity to the next, circling them several times or standing before them with hands together, eyes closed, heads lowered.

hindu temple inside (blogs.bootsnall.com

(blogs.bootnall.com)

Along the walls was a frieze of passages from the Bhagavad Gita, the dialogue between the god Krishna and a warrior about to enter battle, Arjuna. I walked beneath Krishna’s words about detachment:

He who hates no creature, who is friendly and compassionate to all, who is free from attachment, balanced in pleasure and pain, and forgiving…is dear to Me.

He by whom the world is not agitated and who cannot be agitated by the world, who is freed from joy, envy, fear, and anxiety—is dear to Me….

He who neither rejoices, nor hates, nor grieves, nor desires, renouncing good and evil, full of devotion, is dear to Me.

He who is the same to foe and friend, and also in honor and dishonor, who is the same in cold and heat and in pleasure and pain, who is free from attachment, to whom censure and praise are equal, who is silent, content with anything, homeless, steady-minded, full of devotion—that man is dear to Me.

I left the temple soothed by the place and by the words, by the invocation of a calm that does not take sides or react or pursue.

In my backyard later, I wondered whether nature sends us the same message of the value of steadfastness that Krishna proclaims. Can the non-theist find in other living things a model of that centeredness that rises above dualities?

(ivillage.com)

(ivillage.com)

I’m not sure. The backyard is a calm place, but even in winter the creatures there are hardly without their “attachments.” Birds search constantly for food and for each other. The trees and bushes and grass, though less agitated, are hardly “content with anything.” They wilt in a drought and burst with life when the environment is kind. They are different in good circumstances and bad, very different. What would Krishna say?

He might observe that plants and animals follow their in-born programs with no distracting superstructure of plans, preferences, or judgments. He would probably say that, except for humans and some animals, other living things may struggle and even kill but they don’t hate, they may shy from danger but they aren’t riven by anxiety, they may react differently to cold and heat but only at the basic physiological level.

So perhaps in the backyard I am looking at an imperfect but good lesson in how beings can do the work of staying alive and yet remain undistracted and unconfused. Can the human non-theist find a model of detachment in other living things? Partly, yes.

The Death of Everything

I wrote last year about my five fears of dying. They included four familiar ones—fear of pain and fears of letting go of my life and my ego—along with a mysterious one that I could describe only as the fear that when I die “the rest of the universe will end also.” This fear is not severe or continuous—it comes in flashes—but it is recurring and I’ve been trying to understand it better. I don’t know if others have this experience and I haven’t read that they do, but I think I’m probably not alone in feeling irrationally that my death will in some way threaten things or people beyond myself.

Abyss (hdwallsource.com)

Abyss (hdwallsource.com)

These flashes of annihilation come at me seemingly out of nowhere. My gut tightens and there is an instant of blur and panic until I catch something else to think about. The suddenness is like the flash of a frightening memory from childhood or like the imagining of a car crash. The odd thing is that the sudden blankness sometimes includes my surroundings along with me. Maybe it is like being in a completely dark room and losing your sense of where the furniture is, then of which wall is where, and finally losing for a moment even your sense of being in a room.

Sometimes the surroundings that dissolve are everything, the entire universe, in all directions. Sometimes, though, what seems to disappear is just me—that is, my past and the fact that I ever existed. As if there never was a Brock Haussamen. In either case, whether it’s my self or the universe that disappears, the feeling is of a hole, an absence, that is larger than my self. Grim, but brief.

(idailymail.uk)

Disappeared (idailymail.uk)

As far as I can figure out this sensation, the basis for it is that my knowledge of both myself and the universe is all packed inside my head, so when the inevitability of death comes at me, my disappearance seems to include the disappearance of all the things I know about.

I’m reminded of children who believe that when they close their eyes, they become invisible. Their loss of vision prompts them to believe that others can’t see them and so their own body has in effect disappeared. In my case, imagining myself dead means imagining I can no longer perceive anything which in turn prompts the eerie sense that everything has disappeared. As adults we trust that the world persists without our keeping an eye on it 24 hours a day. But when we imagine ourselves gone, the trust goes with it and anything else can be sucked into the black hole.

(arlingtonnational.com)

Life (arlingtonnational.com)

I have strategies now for easing such panicky moments. Sometimes I remind myself of people who have passed away and how steadily, inspite of sadness, those who knew them have carried on. During the last few days, two elderly friends have died. Despite the grief of those who knew them, it is a rock-solid sure thing that our own lives are continuing, for now.

This simple continuity reassures me more than it used to. I breathe easier. A death, no matter how great the loss, does no damage to existence itself. Nor to the chain of life. Every year we are surrounded by the deaths of plants and animals of every description and beyond counting, death on such a scale there might well be reason to fear an apocalypse. Yet none occurs. The world is as full of animation as it is of disintegration, life and death turning together constantly.

Fear of the Past

Fear is mostly about the future, about what might go wrong in the next moment, minute or month. It can be present-oriented as well, when one is distressed by a crumbling economy or is chronically worried about car accidents.

As for the past, we don’t generally think of it as scary. We enjoy most of our personal memories, we usually stay away from the awful ones, we celebrate holidays that commemorate secular and religious history, we know a bit of the background of topics that interest us.  Among people I know, one knows well the history of the community college movement; another, life in New Jersey during the Depression; another, life in Java and a Japanese prison camp there; another is a world historian; another, an anthropologist; another knows the history of musical comedy; another, an evangelical, studies the Bible. We all have “our” pasts where we navigate easily in the comfort zones while avoiding the danger zones such as memories of our worst mistakes or scenes of violence.

But all our zones, together with all the zones of the people we know, amount in an obvious way to only a tiny portion of the past. I suggest that the past as a whole is an intimidating piece of work. It is huge and incontrovertible. While our perception and understanding of it may change, in itself it is a growing mass of de facto. It is gone and beyond our grasp. We learn about and remember people in the past, but they are further from our understanding than we think. “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there,” wrote novelist L. P. Hartley (quoted in Kevin Reilly’s Worlds of History). Especially foreign are the mega-pasts of billions of years of the early universe and the slow start of life on earth, in comparison to such familiar narratives as Genesis. And to make matters worse, this strange past is playing itself out now, here and everywhere. We might understandably feel uneasy with the weight of the past behind us and out of sight but always at our backs.

Future-Past

A sure sign that the past is important
(easywillpower.com)

If we were to aspire to being at ease with the unbounded past instead feeling so comfortable with only our narrow slice of it, what might that lead to? When it comes to our future, we find that less daunting if we can describe the goals and objectives that we plan to pursue. What if a parallel exercise were to inventory the past, to take stock of the topics from the past that we know about along with those we’ve only heard of or can imagine? What if the friends who I mentioned above met together to talk about the pasts they know best and the others they wondered about, in a discussion about “The Scope of the Past”? What if they all tried to diagram their comfort zones, their not-so-comfortable zones, their danger zones, and their unknown zones? What if school children were asked to draw or sculpt the whole past?

Our sense of history would widen. Our awareness of other peoples and how they lived would grow, as would our insight about the ways that societies change and about the complex nature of causes.

Our understanding of time would broaden. American bromides about leaving your past behind and living in your present and your future would be revised to include “staying open to the past.” We would be wiser about how slowly the important things in life happen and about the rhythms of the seasons, years, and life span.

Our spirituality would deepen. I don’t mean that more people would follow religions. I mean that our sense of place in the universe and in the long story of life on the planet would be sharper. Our being alive, and all the joys and travails of being alive together, would mean more.