Today I started reading The Monk and the Philosopher, which is a fascinating dialogue between Matthieu Ricard (the supposed happiest man in the world) and his father. Ricard gave up a promising career as a scientist to become a Tibetan monk. His father, a philosopher, couldn’t understand why, so the book was produced.
This is how he felt about his science career:
“…the realization that such research was unable to solve the fundamental questions of life – and wasn’t even meant to do so. In short, science, however interesting, wasn’t enough to give meaning to my life.”
…and he got to know and mix around with very famous people (both his parents are famous) and yet he realised:
“But at the same time the genius they showed in their particular field was not necessarily accompanied by what you could call human perfection. All their talent, all their intellectual and artistic skills, didn’t necessarily make them good human beings.”
His father argued that Ricard could have done more for humanity had he continued his pursuit in science, but he responded:
“It’s true that biology and theoretical physics have brought us some fascinating knowledge about the origins of life and the formation of the universe. But does knowing such things help us elucidate the basic mechanisms of happiness and suffering?”
…and that external progress will be futile without internal progress:
“We can end a conflict, or a war, but there will always be more, unless people’s minds change. But, on the other hand, isn’t there a way of discovering an inner peace that doesn’t depend on health, power, success, money, or the pleasures of the senses, an inner peace that’s the source of outer peace?”
I haven’t finished the book, but I deeply resonated with most of his thoughts. I too, felt a sense of emptiness no matter what I did in my career. On hindsight I think subconsciously I knew that my accomplishments in my career didn’t not make me a better human being. In fact, it made me regress. I think there’s three ways one can truly succeed (whatever success means):
- If you cannot beat them, join them
- Become numb
- Develop skills to manage people but this takes a healthy sense of self and yet it still gets tiring when everyone has their own baggage.
I didn’t have it in me to do any of those three. At the end, I was so burnt out that all I wanted to do was to become a ride-share driver to pay my bills. The idea of driving people around was infinitely more appealing.
What about the world? Doesn’t it need more activists, or people to work with causes, non-profits? Shouldn’t I forego my own sense of well-being to help? I cannot answer this for everyone, but in my own experience, I was only carrying my own suffering everywhere I went. There are power struggles and conflicts even in activism work. As long as I didn’t have a healthy sense of self, I would just be contributing to a dysfunctional dynamic. In chinese we have a idiom, 越帮越忙, which loosely translates to, “the more one helps, the busier it gets”.
But even if I did well, I would still feel empty. I didn’t want the illusion of accomplishments to define me, I too, wanted an inner peace that is indestructible. I have gone through enough in my life to know that everything is transient.
And I don’t think anything I could have done would solve anything. Us human beings, we don’t know how to be fulfilled. We could go to Mars, reverse climate change, end poverty, and I would bet that we would still not know to be fulfilled. We would probably still try to assert power over each other or depend on heavy laws to prevent us from doing so. I don’t think true peace comes from imposing laws and achieving material progress. We will always be in conflict until we understand that peace comes from within.
I cannot change the world, but I can attempt to change myself. If I can’t work for peace for this world, then at the very least I should bring peace to myself so that I can stop inflicting pain on others.
The past few months I’ve been doing mostly nothing except read. The books have brought me a huge amount of peace, acceptance and aspiration. For once, I aspire not to be successful or to save the world but simply to become at peace with myself. I want to become equanimous with my own suffering: to allow myself the room and right to suffer and yet not be crushed by it.
It was hard leaving my old world behind. I was so embedded within tech, most of my friends still work in tech, my sense of identity was infused with tech. But I think I have to give up the comfort of familiarity if I truly want to search for truth and meaning, to walk into the unknown without a path.
Fortunately, I do have the company of numerous people before me. I wouldn’t be the first person to search for truth, neither would I be the last, but I think I am starting to feel at home in this space of uncertainty and becoming.