Are you thinking your own thoughts?
I just got back from a jam-packed teaching and speaking tour of India, supported in part by the Speaking Tree. As a 56-year-old Western spiritual teacher who originally came to Mother India in 1984 seeking enlightenment, I find myself in an interesting position when I return. I come back to share with others what India so generously shared with me, but this trip began with an unexpected rude awakening.
When I arrived to give my first talk at the Shahani Centre for Management at Bandra National College in Mumbai, I noticed that the title had been changed from “Spiritual Self-Confidence” to “Self-Confidence.” When I inquired as to why that was, my host explained that if they kept the word “spiritual” in the title, young people wouldn’t come!
Over the last five years or so during my travels through modern India, I have come to appreciate in ever-new ways the enormous pressure, stress and tension there is on young people. These are individuals who are committed to taking full advantage of India’s dramatic leap into material abundance and a higher standard of living, along with a shift from traditional values to modern and postmodern ones.
What I found most troubling was a profound lack of autonomy, healthy curiosity, and independence in the way too many of India’s educated young adults were thinking about the human experience. My message to them was very simple: Are you thinking your own thoughts? Or are you, like too many people these days, blindly and unconsciously seeing the world through the beliefs, convictions, and assertions of others?
Young modern Indians experience enormous pressure from their families and their culture to live up to very high expectations: to work hard at school. . .so they can get good grades . . . so they can get high-paying jobs . . . so they can get married . . . and have enough money to live well . . . and afford a good education for their children. If they’re lucky, they’ll go to America—the land of milk and honey—and get even higher paying jobs. While there’s nothing wrong with all of the above, too often what tends to be missing are higher human values and even more importantly what has always been the greatest gift of India herself to the world: spiritual ideals.
As I spoke to bright young audiences in urban centers throughout North India, I found myself telling these young people that I had originally come to India seeking for Enlightenment because I couldn’t find it at home in modern, wealthy America. I explained that her most lauded luminaries of the last 100 years, people who had influenced myself and countless others, people like Sri Ramakrishna, Swami Vivekananda, Ramana Maharshi, Sri Aurobindo, and Mahatma Gandhi, were all bold individuals who bucked the status quo in order to follow their own muse.
They all courageously did what too few human beings are willing to do, think for themselves about the big and important questions in human life. Who am I? Why am I here? What is the purpose of existence and what is the purpose of my existence? Without their brave and heroic spirit of independent inquiry and action, think of how much poorer we would all be.
Then once again I asked them: Are you thinking your own thoughts? Are you living your own lives?
What I call “spiritual self-confidence” comes from knowing the answer to these profound and fundamental existential questions. In order to become self-actualized human beings, ironically we have to, in our own ways, find the strength and integrity to mimic the greatest human beings who have come before us. In this case that means embracing enough independence of spirit to finally find our own authenticity and think our own thoughts. It’s not an easy thing to do. But it’s worth it. It’s more than worth it.
My concern is that in the midst of the enormous benefits of modern India’s great leap forward, she may be losing touch with her greatest gift to the world. That’s why I was imploring her young people: Do you really want to think someone else’s thoughts and live someone else’s life? Or are you willing to make the heroic effort to live your own life?
Editor: Kate Bartolotta