Sunday, August 21, 2016

Life in numbers

Life may be measured qualitatively or quantitatively. We can choose to look at the passage of time in terms of minutes, hours, days, months or decades. In critical situations we are forced to mark the passage of time in terms of seconds and minutes. However, for the most past, we push the thought of time into the background as if the the steady loss of this precious resource is a faraway fantasy. By looking at life qualitatively, the importance of time becomes real in every moment, not just when its finitude becomes apparent through circumstances beyond one’s control. Life is numbered from day zero of our existence and we have the freedom to spend our time joyfully or riddled with fear and anxiety. Time does not treat anyone preferentially based on how one uses that valuable resource. In the eyes of time, all are equal. This very moment runs concurrently for everyone whether or not we are aware of it; and whether one is awake, sleeping or dreaming.

What sets people apart in any given moment is the level and intensity of one’s awareness. Awareness is limited when the focus is on what the senses provide. A constant “eye” on what is beyond the senses expands awareness to much larger dimensions. The radar that probes the regions beyond the senses may be dark currently, but one never knows when the “inner screen” may detect something previously unknown. To be successful in expanding awareness, one must not let one’s focus and attention “fall asleep” just as a radar operator cannot afford to sleep on the job. Awareness is an example of a qualitative aspect of life. Time can be thought of in terms of the past and the future, but one can only be aware in the present moment. Awareness cannot be in the past or the future. Joy is another qualitative aspect of life. Like awareness, joy is real only in the present moment. Remembrance of joy can enhance memories of the past but its full enjoyment can only be had in the present. Dreaming of joy in the future will only remain an unfulfilled desire in the present. Thinking of the future dilutes the joy that can be had in the moment.

Just like joy, fear is also a qualitative aspect of life. Fear pervades the past, present and the future. We easily get crippled by it. When we invoke time in the form of the past and the future, fears can multiply. This enhanced magnitude makes fear seem more real and closer to us than joy. However, there is one positive outcome of fear. It leads us to a higher state of awareness. The tricky part is to abandon fear when awareness of it reaches a peak. If one is able to do that, it would be similar to a rocket that launches a satellite into orbit. A satellite is a very fragile piece of equipment that is not useful on the ground. Put into space, it becomes very useful. Similarly, if awareness is grounded by fear, it is of little benefit. It can infact harm us as we tend to focus and amplify fearful thoughts. Living in fear, life becomes finite, and when lived with awareness it can be stretched to the infinite.

Our objective existence can be measured quantitatively in numbers, be it our bank accounts or health parameters such as blood and lipid counts. By focusing on these measures, we assume that qualitative aspects such as overall well being will be taken care of. But wellness is not just a slew of perfect lab values or a healthy bank account. Wellness is closely linked to our attitude towards our circumstances. This in turn impacts our health. Quantitative measures such as wealth are relative, which everyone aspires to. But wellbeing and health is qualitative. When they are lost, no amount of money can replace them. Wellness is a plurality of many factors including internal (within the mind) and external factors. We can control the internal ones but not always external factors.

It is easy to fall into the trap of keeping up with everybody else and putting ourselves in the midst of a rat race where everything is highly relative and always in a constant state of flux. In the mind,  imaginary goal posts are created which may change from minute to minute depending on what is going on in the world around us. To restore a semblance of constancy, we then turn to numbers, such as income and money to determine success or failure. Like the stock market, there is no way to predict what the next day may be like. An unexpected rise brings joy and a fall brings unhappiness. Very few people unconditionally hitch their sense of success on intangibles such as subjective feelings of contentment. Like awareness and joy, contentment cannot be measured in numbers.

There is no real way of weighing and quantifying our deeper subjective existence and its effects on the experience of life. The notion of happiness is embedded very deeply in our being. Rather than experience it at that level, we have turned it into a superficial measurable quantity by linking it to numbers. For instance a high number makes us happy when it applies to our bank balance but not other measures such as blood sugar and cholesterol. We have come to compartmentalize life into “highs and low numbers”. Certain aspects of life are considered better when they are in the “high” compartment and some others are better in when in the “low compartment”.

There is a mental calculator that is active all the time in our mind. This attempts to crunch numbers in every situation to calculate the rough odds whether a given situation would be beneficial or not. This is a reversible cause of much mental stress and tension we experience on a daily basis. Adding to the difficulty, many aspects of modern day living are driven by “pay for performance”. Each of us has a certain individual expectation in anything we do and there usually is an implied expectation of personal benefit. Those benefits seem more immediate and tangible when they are considered in terms of quantifiable aspects like money. It today’s world, it is hard to decouple money and happiness, whether one is rich or poor.

Even though we consciously avoid looking at life as a set of numbers, it unconsciously happens in the background. The question, how much is enough is never satisfactorily answered in many spheres of our lives. There is plenty of “juice” in life. Some seem to have more of it and others have less of it. At least that is the reality we are able to perceive superficially. More the effort, more is that “juice”. It’s flavor depends on the seed that’s planted in the mind. If the seed is based on personal desires, the corresponding juice will be bitter or sweet based on where the pursuit of desires take us. But if the seed is more universal, such as enjoying life for all it brings whether good or bad, then there is an entirely different experience of life.

Although growth can be measured and quantified in numbers, how does one measure inward growth which is subjective and cannot be quantified? For this, one must understand the two parts of the mind. One is linked to the subjective self and the other is linked to the objective world. Both are important just as we need two feet working in tandem in order to walk. A lot of the problems we see in the world today are a result of a major tilt towards objective external growth forgetting the equally important other half. Imagine trying to walk with one leg several inches longer than the other. It would be very uncomfortable indeed. It is both an individual as well as a collective responsibility to ensure that there is uniformity in regards to subjective and objective growth. The poor can be just as happy as the rich as long as they look in their respective silos when it comes to seeking happiness. There is a certain amount of freedom in poverty that money takes away. If one does not look upon poverty as suffering, it is the closest one comes to the state of existence when we are born and when we die. In both these instances, we come and go with nothing. Wealth in contrast can be a form of slavery. Although it brings great comfort, it has a dark side. Wherever there is wealth, there is fear of loss. The poor don’t have this fear as they have little to lose.

We have gone from holding our wealth in the form of gold and paper to carrying electronic wallets. The sense of joy derived from touching and feeling one’s wealth in the form of gold has now been replaced by looking at numbers on a screen. The intrinsic value of the number zero is nothing especially when placed on the left of other digits. But move it to the right of the same digits, lo and behold, the value increases. The concept of zero is a relatively recent development in relation to the history of mankind. The discovery of zero was the pivotal achievement that led to the numerical system used today. The concept of zero was developed around 700 AD by an ancient Indian mathematician. Later, in the 12th century, the Italian mathematician, Fibonacci advanced this numerical system in Europe through his book Liber Abaci. It then spread to the rest of the world via the developing trade routes that eventually linked all the continents with one other, chiefly through commerce.

The numbers 0 to 9 are universal. Although developed in one part of the world and propagated from another, no nation or individual can claim ownership over them. Just like the alphabet is the basis of any language, those single digit numbers are the basis of the language of commerce and trade. We are all linked by those numbers. Everyone is free to use them and benefit. Like sunlight, it can be used in many different ways. How we use them is left to us. Irrespective of our cultural or religious differences, we agree upon the universality of numbers. Nations use numbers to “talk” to one another in the form of trade. Our existence is not dependent on numbers, but it is undeniable that it has been greatly enhanced by the use of numbers.

We are intertwined in more ways than we can possibly think of. One one level, we are highly individualistic and different from one another. But that aspect is very small in scale and scope compared to how dependent we are on everything else. Indeed it is a great gift that we can stand apart from one another and proclaim our individuality yet be united. None of the other species of plants or animals can have that perspective. But that gift is often used to the detriment of ourselves and others. The perch of individuality offers panoramic view of ourselves in relation to others. When one scales Mt. Everest and stands atop the world’s tallest mountain and perhaps the most challenging one to climb, it is hard to fathom anyone thinking that they are bigger than the mountain itself. Any thoughts of superiority would be instantly quashed by the hostile environment that has claimed the lives of so many climbers every year.

In some ways, maintaining a constant awareness of being human is to climb the “Mt. Everest of evolution”. When we lose that awareness we start looking down on other beings. Humans have already reached the summit of evolution, but we are yet to experience it in its true form. Unlike a mountain, the height of awareness cannot be measured. Higher the awareness, smaller is our individual self. The last bit of individuality is the hardest to give up. Once it is given up, there is always the freedom to return to it and don it as a mask, without mistaking it with one’s true self.

The study of mathematics starts with numbers. From that foundation, man has tried to explain everything including the universe we live in. For scientists, the beauty of existence is expressed as mathematics. This beauty is clearly evident in the structure of atoms which we all carry in our bodies. The body through which we perceive existence is part of that same existence. At times we see ourselves as separate from existence forgetting our connection to it. It is like a flower looking at a plant and claiming to have come about independent of the seed that gave rise to the plant. The life of a flower is limited, however, before a flower withers away its essence may be captured in a bottle of perfume that can last for a very long time. Similarly, the body does not stay young and healthy indefinitely. While the going is good, it is a great tool to extract the essence of life and preserve it in many forms such as inventions, discoveries, music, poetry etc.

Our recorded date of birth is more than “just a number”. It is a highly significant time in our lives. It symbolizes a concrete evidence of a living being emerging from nothing. Before we were even a thought in our parent’s mind, where were we? That aspect of our being is the powerful state of nothingness, empty yet with infinite potential. That state of nothingness is out of reach of the triple qualities of existence which are creation, preservation and destruction. These three aspects are seen in the universe around us, in our bodies and also in our minds. Let’s call the state of nothingness as the “zero state”. The prevailing theory of the universe also suggests that it came out of nothing. The number 0 symbolizes the latent power of “nothing” that has created everything.

Number 1 is representative of our individuality, which comes out of “nothing” when we are born and merges back into nothingness upon our death. Without 1 in front of it, 0 has no intrinsic value, similarly unless we have a body to experience life, individuality has no real meaning. It is only by standing apart from everything can we get a clearer perspective of the universe around us. The experience of individuality is a very important phase in higher mental evolution. It is the proverbial fork in the road. When this gift is misused, it can lower us to a level beneath that of animals. Wild animals, although instinctual and appear cruel, do so for a reason such as hunger and survival. It also serves a bigger purpose such as maintaining balance in the ecosystem. In today’s world there is no justifiable reason for humans to kill one another. Entrapped in unsavory sensory experiences, one can easily become blind and full of hatred leading to a downward spiral. Preserving oneself even at the cost of others somehow becomes justifiable by a mind blinded by negative qualities such as anger, greed, hatred, jealousy and envy. When our individuality is used in a positive sense, it can be a tool to help others. The agent of change that we want in the world is not a mythical person who appears in the sky. Change for the better can only happen through each individual’s effort. We are born with empty hands, but everyone has plenty of internal wealth. It requires time and effort to bring that to the surface.

Coming into this world affords us that rare chance to stand apart from everything else that we are so connected to, albeit in a deeper sense, and yet be both an observer and an active participant. This would not be possible without that sense of individuality which creates a separation of everything into two; the observer (us) and the observed (everything but us). Greater the separation between the two, greater is the feeling that this separation is real. Just as one cannot read a book if a page is placed right in front of our eyes with room to focus on the page, one cannot enjoy or experience life through the senses if there is no sense of separation of the subject which is us and the objective world. The objective world does not travel towards us. We seek it out by directing our power of attention to it. Forgetting that the power of attention comes from within us, we live “outside of ourselves” seeking a home in the objects perceived by the senses. The world is subject to constant change. Within everyone, there is a silent internal fight against change. There is always a conflict between our true nature, which is closely aligned with changeless awareness and the change we see around us. Through mistaken identification with the objective world we suffer on account of the its changing nature. Whatever is observable, including the mind and thoughts, becomes part of the objective world of matter. The subjective observer is tucked away far deeper than the mind. When this is realized and understood, change in any form is welcomed rather than feared as one then understands that change is nature’s greatest agent. Without change, there would be no evolution, and we would not be here to experience our individuality.

Although we have the innate ability to observe our individuality and how it relates to everything else, there is something within us that masks that perspective. It is what we call the ego, which crashes the party ahead of our true self. In the “masquerade ball” of the world, our projected persona based on our likes and prejudices becomes the mask. That mask, whether it is ours or belongs to others, is taken at “face value” and assumed to be the real self. The origin of the individual persona is the ego. Greater the ego, more egregious is the persona and vice versa. The real self is forgotten when we think we are the persona. Once contact with one’s true self is lost, it is very hard to regain it. A lifetime’s effort may not be enough. The real self does not suffer misfortunes or enjoy success. It is the persona that experiences ups and downs. If the real self is known, whether there is success or failure, both are accepted as the same. In general, we are three steps ahead of our real self. The first step is the ego, the second is the created persona and third, the interaction of that created persona with the objective world. To get back to our real self, those three steps will have to be traced back. The number 3 represents these three steps that takes us back to our true self.

Most of our lives are spent chasing comfort within four walls, of not just physical dwellings, but also within the mind. We equate happiness within the confines of the mind as freedom. But in respect to our true self, those four walls are a source of our bondage. Even if we are in a beautiful wide open space, we cannot easily leave the confines of the mind. The mind is a “mobile home” that we carry with us wherever we go. The senses form the four windows and the door of this “mobile home”. At any given point in time, one of the five senses is dominant in relation to the other four. For instance, when we are eating, the sense of taste is most prevalent. Furthermore, if the food is especially tasty, we tend to close our eyes as we savor the food. Similarly, when we come face to face with a very beautiful scenery, the eyes take over and so on. The dominant sense functions as the door and the other four senses can be thought of as the windows of the mind. When we look outside through a window, we can only see what is visible within the window frame. If there is no window, everything becomes visible. Similarly the world and our inner self appear limited when viewed from the mind and the senses. If one can leave the four walls and the five openings of the mind, even for a short period of time, an entirely new perspective may be had.

If the senses can be made perfectly still and quiet, one could in theory experience complete silence. In such a state of absolute silence, there is no thought. Our consciousness then leaves the mind and then rests in the heart. Without the interference of the mind, feeling of love that naturally emanates from the heart is very pure. The mind tends to contaminate, condition and confine it within its boundaries. The heart is at the real crossroads in the body, not just its physical location but also from where we can enter the world of dualities or the pure self by seeing the oneness in all. Too far in either extreme, one is either trapped in the happenings of the world or one cannot function in the world. A ideal state is one of balance. This balance is represented as a hexagram or a six pointed star in the Eastern traditions, same as the Star of David, the symbol of modern Jewish identity. It is formed by the superimposition of an upward pointed and and a downward pointed triangle. One represents the inner and the other the outer. The number seven can be thought of as representing life in the body. When we write 7, we start at one point and end at another. These two points represent birth and death, both of which are common to everyone. The line that joins the two points may be thick or thin, light or dark but it connects the beginning and the end. Life starts in one place and ends in another place. As long as we tie our consciousness to the body, life is unidirectional progressing from beginning to the end.

The number 8 is a representation of infinity. When written horizontally it is the symbol for infinity. From our finite perspective, both the inner and outer worlds are infinite in scope and magnitude. The outer universe gets larger and larger all the way to infinity. One cannot with certainty say there is a finite limit to the universe. If there is a finite limit, a question may be asked, “what is beyond?”. On the contrary, the inner world may be shrunk to an infinitely small point. We are in between these two extremes. The point where the two circles that comprise the number 8 join is the place of balance where our consciousness resides. That is where life as we know exists. Finally the number 9. It represents our journey to and from the “zero state” of nothingness. It is in the highest single digit number and has a lot of symbolism in many cultures and religions. Depending on which way nine is written, top down or bottom up it may be thought to represent coming into manifest existence from the zero state (top down) and merging back into the unmanifest when written bottom up. We are in the womb for 9 months, which is the sanctum sanctorum of all human life. Once we come into the world, the body becomes the “womb” that houses the life principle. Just as we enter the sanctum sanctorum of a temple or a chapel where holy relics are kept, the journey of life truly concludes when we enter that sanctum within our own being. We circle it every day when we dwell in the mind but we never get an experience being in the true sanctum. Before our number is called and we age out of limited bodily existence, it is never too late to contemplate the true meaning and importance of the temple with nine doors, the human body. It’s doors may be counted, but the treasure within cannot be limited to a number.