Seeking Truth and the issue of time
For most people I know time, or rather the lack of it, is a central subject. How come?
In our globalised world possibilities of what one can do with one’s time are almost infinite – particularly for those who live in one of the well-to-do nations of the world. Whoever led a modest life at the beginning of the last century – somewhere, for example, in the outskirts of a German town – his days, years and life was very regulated. Everyone knew what was expected, everyone knew exactly what was supposed to be done during the week or on Sundays, when the time for schooling, apprenticeship and the working phase of life would begin and end, and what was the plan for what followed. For most people recreation existed to only a limited extend and the possibility for its expression were also modest. Time was therefore not an issue because for most, it simply was.
Only with industrialisation and increasing mechanisation life has changed for almost everyone active in the work arena, and for everybody still in education – be it in kindergarten or in university. Interestingly the situation often intensifies for those who proceed onto a spiritual journey of any kind. Suddenly time becomes even more scarce.
Actually this is to be expected – for suddenly an absolutely new field presents itself, calling to be ploughed, and most spiritual paths promise valuable treasures which will be found in the course of ploughing it.
Seeking for Truth in a narrower sense is again different because it is an absolute "luxury enterprise" – it does not provide any practical benefits. We may well find the Truth but as truth goes, it is something that already exists: finding it does not mean that we suddenly develop psychic abilities, or become rich and famous, or meet the love of our life. In short: Truth is good for nothing. Whoever invests time in such a dubious enterprise, must be crazy – at least from the perspective of (Western) society. Still there are the people who do it.
And more than a few of them come to grief because they would like to have time for their search, which they do not seem to have. Of course the question who am I can be asked in all situations, and thus it does not need any special context. Nevertheless because it is quite an unusual question, it needs to be fed in order for it to not fall into oblivion again or continually move down our internal list of priorities.
On the one hand this ‘feeding’ consists of actions, which allow the person to really face up to this question. These may be meditation, prayer and other exercises that release the mind from superfluous ballast that disturbs or even sabotages the process of understanding. The main nourishment, however, consists in considering this question over and over again: Who or what am I in Truth? Yet, just sitting and repeating: „Who I am?“ „Who am I?“ is unlikely to provide an answer. Advaita Vedanta offers a certain methodology for how to deal with this question to actually come up with the answer sometime.
To go about the question of my true nature methodically needs time. Therefore, the real seekers of Truth in India have always been people who had freed themselves from obligations of any kind. They had no property and lived on alms. Largely it is like that even today. This model, however, belongs to a society that considers it natural that spiritual seekers perform an important or even the most important social contribution and hence are absolutely worthy of support. In the West there is no comparable social pattern, just because seekers of Truth here have never had an acknowledged status.
In traditional Advaita Vedanta there are basically two models of life, the worldly one and the spiritual one. We, however, are in between, sometimes more on the worldly, sometimes more on the spiritual side. We want both, need time for both and attempt a difficult balancing act. How can one master it? Two aspects of one’s own life need to be examined: the determining of one’s values and the setting of priorities according to them.
In what phase of my life am I?
Do I build up something – privately, professionally or in another regard? Or do I try to sustain what I have built up? Or am I already in the course of “de-construction" – the children stand on their own feet, the parents are taken care of or have died, I am living on a pension etc.?
To whom or what do I feel obligated?
What are my aims and values?
1. Things of vital importance, security - up to which degree do I want to feel secured, where does it start and, above all, where does it end?
2. Quality of life – what are the things I do not want do without?
3. Higher purposes/greater aims – what do I stand for, what ethical touchstones are important to me, were I am actively engaged?
4. To find out who I truly am …
And now the list of priorities. It will help me to invest my time into what is really near and dear to me. What criteria do I apply to determine my priorities?
As a rule we feel most comfortable when the priorities of our values fit with the priorities of the life phase, which we are in. Those who build up something set other priorities to those that sustain it or are already in the course of de-constructing. The more involved I am in certain contexts, the more people and projects I feel obliged to, the more likely it is that the first three values will be my priorities. The less involved I am, the less obligations I have, the more the last value can become my priority. Why? Because, as mentioned, the search for my true nature is purely a luxury project.
Most of the people who start to find out who they truly are, are not in the build-up-phase of their lives any more, but in the medium or last phase – thus are probably most readers of these essays. This is natural because the closer one comes to the last phase of life, the less are one’s obligations and the easier it becomes to devote oneself to the last aim. Every life phase, however, should be brought to a good end. Abandoning one’s children, failing to look after the ageing parents, neglecting one’s work, not paying one’s debts, insufficient care of one’s own body and property, most probably means that one will not be able to bring the respective phase to a good end.
Here another, typically Western problem regarding time comes into play: impatience. Advaita Vedanta presumes that it is better to do well what obviously needs to be done in the current life phase and situation than to take upon oneself something that belongs to another life phase and situation. Example: Having small children at home means that a large part of one’s energy is used to care for them. One’s primary spiritual practice is to be father/mother/caretaker and not to go off for in depths inquiry into one’s true nature.
In Advaita Vedanta this is called "karma yoga", having nothing to do with what we ordinarily take “karma” to mean. Karma yoga is nothing but “yoga of action” and means that one looks upon any of one’s actions as spiritual practice. In a later essay I will describe what this is supposed to mean. Karma yoga serves the preparation of the seeker to the actual path of understanding and is considered to be essential and indispensable. It is by no means a waste of time, even if it lasts as long as half a lifetime.
However, supposed that I am in the "right" life phase and situation and find that I would like to create more time for my search of Truth than I obviously have. First of all: honesty is indispensable when I make my list of priorities. We need to assume that what we invest most of our time in is top priority in our life. Sometimes it is worthwhile to make two lists: one for the proportional portion of my real time investment and one for how I would actually like it to be. If there is a big divergence of both, one at least has acknowledged it, often already causing the balance to shift.
How will the list of priorities of someone look like who is a seeker of Truth, who wants to awake and be enlightened about who he really is? The chief identifier: it is short. There are few points on it and „To find out who I really am“ is quite far towards the top. Better even if it indeed is top of the list. And best of all if it is the only point on the "list". (see > January essay)
Admittedly, none of this is a panacea for more time. But especially the seekers of Truth who complain that they are often lacking the time for the spiritual, need to first determine where they stand and to be clear in their minds which place value their search for Truth can have, and actually has. If other duties are to take priority, it is better to consider them as spiritual practice than saving time like crazy in order to make progress by meditation or the visit of spiritual retreats.
But if nothing stands in the way of seeking Truth except habitually wasting time because one sets the wrong priorities, then it is about time to change this.