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How to live, and not just survive? || Acharya Prashant, at St. Xavier's, Mumbai (2022)
Author Acharya Prashant
Acharya Prashant
23 min
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Questioner: Good afternoon Sir. I see all the people around me living a life cycle who are just working hard and struggling to survive in the society. My question is, how to actually live and not just survive? So that, when I am on my deathbed, I know that my life was worthy enough.

Acharya Prashant (AP): Girl, you are asking for just too much. This is what the best and the greatest among us in this human race strove for and struggled all their life. So, that's what you are asking for and I am really glad. Wonderful.

So, how to live and not just survive? Wow. What does it mean to just survive? It means to exist for the sake of the body. I am just trying to put in certain technical terms for the sake of clarity.

If most of your waking time is spent in pursuit of physical sustenance or physical pleasure, then you are just surviving. Six to eight hours we sleep, another two hours are spent taking care of the body—that makes it eight to ten; you are left with fourteen hours-sixteen hours. Of these fourteen to sixteen hours, three hours are spent commuting, if you are in Bombay. So, you are left with what? Ten-twelve something. Of these Ten-twelve hours, if you are spending eighty to ninety percent just taking care of your livelihood, or trying to maximize your physical pleasures; then you are just surviving.

What's common between just striving for livelihood and maximizing physical pleasures? Livelihood is the thing that you enter into so that you can maintain your physical sustenance. So, physicality is the common link. You ask someone, “Why do you work so much? Is there joy in your work? Is it a mission you are working for? Do you want to bring about a substantial change within you or in the world?” And if the answer is No, they say, “No, we work so that we can feed ourselves, our family, take care of needs and also provide for our desires and ambitions,” then that's called mere survival. Just survival.

“Most of my effort goes towards taking care of my stomach, my body, my clothes, my accommodation. And the remaining part, the excess amount that I earn, I spend that to take care of my desires, my pleasures,” this is mere survival. A fellow earns let's say hundred rupees a month. Sixty to seventy is spent in what he calls as fixed expenses. Of the remaining amount, the fellow spends rupees twenty in pleasing himself, and rupees ten he keeps in the bank for future use. This is mere survival. And this must have begun to sound horrible to you because this is how ninety nine percent of humanity lives—merely for survival. Just for survival!

What is real life then? Real life is when the body, the physicality is not the end but the means. To live to feed the body is much the same as buying a car to keep refueling it. What does the car do? It goes from the home to the fuel station and comes back to the home. The car moves so that the car can be fueled. The fellow goes to the office so that his stomach can be fueled. He goes to the office so that he can have enough for his stomach, both the stomachs—the physical stomach and the mental stomach.

Why does the fellow go to his office? So that the stomach can be fueled, is much the same as buying a car so that it can be taken to the petrol pump to fuel it. The car goes nowhere else. It goes only till the petrol pump or it goes till the garage so that it can be serviced. What's the point in buying and maintaining such a car? It takes you nowhere. There is no destination it can bring to you.

Similarly, what is the point in having this body, if the entire life has to be spent just servicing this body? And by body, I mean both, the physical body and the mental body. Just as the stomach is both the physical stomach and the mental stomach. And the mental stomach, we all know is hungrier than the physical stomach. What is the point in having the body—by body, I mean the body and the mind—if the entire life you are working just to feed the body and the mind? How does the body demand to be fed? Through food, through clothes and through shelter. These are the three things that the body wants.

How does the mind demand to be fed? Infinite appetite, unending desires. Both of these keep demanding, “Please feed us, please feed us.” The body says, “Give me a better house, give me better clothes.” The mind says, “Oh, that's what I want to have. That next thing remains to be achieved, I must have that.” And life is spent just servicing the body-mind complex.

It's been ten years since you bought that car and it has never taken you anywhere else. And there is so much in the world, great and beautiful that you must go to; but your car takes you nowhere because all your time you are just servicing the car. The car is of no use to you, instead you are being used by the car. You do not own the car, the car owns you. You are a slave to the car.

Similarly, we are mostly slaves to our car. This is our car (pointing at his body). You have been gifted with this so that you can use this to reach somewhere in life. Instead we act as slaves of the body, don't we usually? The body decides what we will do, and body means body-mind. The body and the mind decide what you ought to do. And the mind is nothing but an outgrowth of the body.

Our desires, our thoughts, they arise from our physicality, don't they? Your hormones shift a little and your mood shifts. Does that not happen? So, what you call as your mental emotions are nothing but physical things in motion. So, of what use is life then, if all you have to look for is physical-mental security and fulfilment of blind desires?

You live, when there is something beyond physicality to live for. Do you have that?

As young people, this question should be very, very important to you. I do not know whether we will ever meet again. I do not know whether my words will mean anything to anybody at all. But if even one person here finds some significance in what is being said right now, the very centre of life within will experience a change.

I meet twenty five and thirty five year olds now, and they say that it's probably too late. Why couldn't we meet you when we were in college? And every day there are hundreds and thousands of messages, emails, “Sir, what you are saying is perfectly right, but it's just too late for me now. I am thirty.” Fortunately, you are not yet thirty. So, you are just in the right place to decide what your life is for—servicing the stomach and the mind, or for reaching a lovely destination.

Life is not about eating, breathing, sleeping, walking. You cannot even be called as living if you just eat, breathe, sleep, walk, take a bath and gossip. One cannot even be called alive. You know, technology is progressing at such a rapid rate, we actually have robots today that can do most of what a normal human being does. Robots can even emote, because emotions are just chemical, therefore robots too can be made to emote. What's the problem in having a chemical arrangement that generates emotions? No issues.

Is there something in life beyond what a robot can do? You say, “You know, I am not dead. I am alive.” Why? “You see, because I walk.” Even a robot can walk. “I speak.” Even a robot can speak. “I see.” Even a robot can see. “I love.” But that's simply chemical attraction, even a robot can be made to experience that. Just Google and you will find robots falling in love. They have been programmed to fall in love, just as we have been physically programmed to fall in love. There is no consciousness in our love, it's just material attraction and repulsion, like iron pieces to a magnet. Are you getting it?

Can there be something in life beyond robotics? If we have a robot sitting here, it will register everything that I am saying. In fact, using machine learning, using artificial intelligence, the robot will actually be able to prepare a very intelligent map of what has been said. It will be able to tell how one part of my response to one question mapped perfectly with another seemingly different part of response to a different question. You will find it difficult to do, the robot will do it better than you can. In some sense, if the robot sits here, it's gathering my words better than you can. What is it then about a human being that qualifies it or him or her to be called alive? What is that? What is that? And that's something we need to have.

You are waiting for me to give the answer? That's robotic. A robot can never exceed its programming, a robot can never go beyond its programming. One thousand years from now, when you will have unimaginably fast and smart supercomputers, the supercomputers of today will appear like an abacus in front of them; that kind of computing ability you will have. Thousand years is too much. Within fifty years, that's the rate at which computer science is progressing. Even then, no computer will ever be able to go beyond what it has been created for.

No machine therefore can ever be free, and that's the only characteristic of living. Can there be freedom? No machine is free. All machines are operated by some operator outside of them, they are designed by a designer outside of them, they are programmed by a programmer outside of them; they therefore cannot be free. Can you be free? And if you can be free, then you have lived. Otherwise you have just existed and survived like a piece of flesh.

There are bacteria, fungi, insects, the whole lot of animals; they all exist, don't they? And there's nothing wrong in their existence because they are not even supposed to be free; they don't even want to be free. But human beings, if we are not free, something within us keeps weeping, does it not? You can very coolly have dogs as pets, and kitten; and if you feed them well and if you treat them well, they will never go away. Even if you push them out of your house, you will find them returning, right? And you take them out for a walk, and there's a collar on their neck.

But no human being can ever be satisfied with such an arrangement, provided he deserves to be called human. No human being will ever say that if I get fed properly, and if I am given enough money, and if I am given a cosy place to live in and a nice bed to sleep in, I am ready to live like a dog in your house. No human being will say that, because human beings are constituted to value freedom more than anything else.

The dog will happily survive in its bondages, man cannot happily survive. We know of people who would rather die than be enslaved, right? I hope we all were like that. I prefer death over slavery or bondages. That's the defining and exclusive characteristic of a truly alive human being. Freedom. Freedom from everything—freedom from your external masters, and more importantly, freedom from your inner conditioning.

Inwardly, we are badly conditioned. Each strand of your hair, every particular cell in the body is simply conditioned; there's nothing new in life therefore. That which you are doing, that which you are experiencing, your emotions, your thoughts, your instincts, your reactions, they are all pre-scripted in a sense. And on top of that script, there is another script imposed on you by the society.

First of all, we are all born conditioned, and then the social influences on us, coming from family, and the media, and the college, and the religious stream we belong to; they all burden us even more and we become thoroughly mechanical. The fellow loses all sense of freedom. What's scary is, most of us lose even love for freedom. We resign. We surrender. We agree to live like slaves. We start calling the master's orders as our own thoughts and desires.

Are your desires your own? Are your targets your own? No, they are mostly coming from a master outside, who is dictating terms to us. Sometimes we know the master, most of the times we do not even know that the stuff we are chasing is actually of no use to us.

Some blind force has taught us to respect something, to chase something, to value something, to live for something; and we are blindly obeying the commands. Like a clerk receiving dictation from an officer, like a master commanding the dog to fetch the newspaper, like a programmer asking the machine to fetch a certain result; that's how most of us live.

Can you be free from all this? Can you see that your existence is threatened from all sides by blind forces that are violent, and senseless, and meaningless? And because they are blind and senseless, they want to capture others’ lives. One mark of ignorance is that it suffers. When you are ignorant within, you suffer. And when you suffer within, you know what you become? You become violent, so that you can make others suffer. When society in general is ignorant, it suffers and it makes everybody suffer.

Young people must be cautious. Suffering, bondages should not be labelled as responsibilities, as virtues, as sanctimonious stuff. We must question all the definitions that have been fed to you. You must figure out what is really sacred in life. You must figure out what is important, what is not, on your own; and then you are free, or at least are walking towards freedom.

I do not know whether absolute freedom at all is possible. I began my response by saying that you are asking for too much. I do not know whether in your lifetime you will ever be able to come to something called as absolute freedom, but life is made worth living by striving for freedom at all costs and all times. Irrespective of how lucrative bondages appear, reject them. It does not matter that you are wearing respectable chains. No! Even if your fetters are made of gold, just drop them. Are you getting it?

That's what a robot cannot do. If I ask a robot, “Are you getting it?” It will just look into the code and database to figure out what to say when somebody asks, “Are you getting it?” And if it finds nothing there, “Error,” or “Bad input.” That’s how machines respond. So, are you getting it? No robot can ever understand what has just been said. It can comprehend, but not understand. Not today, not hundred years from today.

Do you understand the difference between comprehension and understanding? To understand is to live it. When you understand freedom, then you drop your bondages and you start living freedom.

Comprehension means, “Oh, I know what those words imply.” So, if you can know my language, if you can turn active voice into a passive voice, if you can translate what I said from English to German or to Hindi, you have comprehended. But comprehension means nothing. Understanding means living. Comprehension simply means intellectual translation; intellectual translation never helps anybody. There are so many people who know so much intellectually, it doesn't change their lives.

But to understand is to commit to what you have known to be true. “Now that I have understood, I am living it.” And that's what a machine cannot do. If I speak of freedom to a robot, it cannot drop its programming. A thousand times I will speak of freedom to a robot or to a computer, it will still remain programmed. And that's how human beings are human beings. It is possible for you to go beyond your programming, it is possible for you to be free, it is possible for you to understand. Do you choose to understand?

That's an unfortunate ability bestowed on us. Choice. Why unfortunate? Because, typically we choose the wrong option. Freedom is a choice; bondages too, are a choice. Ninety nine times out of hundred, we make the wrong choice. The robot, well, it cannot choose at all; it is simply programmed. And even if it will choose, the choice will come from the programming. True?

Can we make the right choice? We will have to live rightly then. Right choice is not just about uttering something from the mouth or nodding your head. It's about beginning to live in a free-way from the centre of freedom. Possible? First of all, beautiful or not?

Audience: Yes.

AP: When you will find it beautiful, then you will make it possible. There must be beauty in a young person's life. If there is no beauty, then there is no inspiration. Why will you move if there is ugliness all around? From ugliness of one kind, who wants to strive to reach ugliness of another kind? Somewhere you must see greatness, and brightness, and beauty; and then you are inspired and then you move. And that's when you can fight your slavery and fighting requires a lot of energy. Be strong!

Q: I am in the department of Physics. You see, just as a corollary to what you just said, I want to ask. A robot doesn't have ego, so now, what is the intersection between the urge to be towards freedom and your ego?

AP: You could say the robot does have an ego planted into it by its designer. Therefore, the ego of the robot is totally in bondage and therefore choiceless. You could either say the robot has no ego, and that would be perfectly correct. Or you could say the robot has an ego, a sense of ‘I’.

What is ego? A sense of ‘I’, ‘I’. The robot has an ego that cannot choose. We utter, “I”, we utter, “I exist,” “I am.” And this ‘I am-ness’ could either be robotic or real. It is robotic when your ‘I am-ness’ is dependent on others. And if you feel threatened that if the other disappears or withdraws, the ‘I am-ness’ itself will disappear; that's the slave ego.

For example, “I am rich.” What is ego? The ‘I am’ thing is the ego. And if the ego says, “I am rich,” and if the riches vanish for some reason, a stock market crash, let's say. The fellow says, “Oh, my God, I am gone.” Because who was I? The rich one. And the riches have gone, so I am dead. ‘I am rich’—now strike out the word ‘rich’. What remains? Nothing. That's false ego.

But most of us choose to live in this kind of false and dependent ego. Real ego is self-dependent, free. It does not find it necessary to identify itself with something; it does not experience a kind of vacuum that it must compulsorily fill up with something, anything, some trash.

Many of us, for example, might be finding it difficult to just sit silently and listen. Because in the moment of silence, you have to say, “I am.” In fact, you don't even say, “I am,” there is just silence. And that's a threat to the ego because the ego must say something, “I am X,” “I am Y”. So, the ego chooses to say, “I am gossiping.” Now, gossip makes the ego feel alive, “Oh, I exist.”

Otherwise, there is the danger of inner death, obviously a false death. No real danger, actually. Do you get this? The way we are, the way we are born, we are born with the sense of ‘I am’. It is this sense of ‘I am’ that works all life to gain fulfilment. Being unfulfilled is our condition right since birth. But we choose—because of ignorance—fulfilment from the wrong kind, not even wrong, useless kind of sources. We choose to be associated with something that will fail in delivering fulfilment.

So, “I am rich,” “I am traveling,” “I am a tourist,” “I am a husband,” “I am a lover,” “I am educated,” “I am intelligent,” “I am Hindu,” “I am Muslim,” “I am male,” “I am female,” “I am smart.” We want at all moments to associate ourselves with a certain identity in the hope that the association will bring fulfilment. That association does not bring fulfilment because it is an exercise in the wrong direction.

We require not association, but actually dissociation; that is called freedom. Freedom is to dissociate yourself from all your dependencies.

Would you remember this? Freedom is to dissociate yourself from your dependencies, whereas the ego is constantly clamouring for more and more dependencies. Even the things that you call as your assets, actually become your dependencies. For example, “I own a Rolls Royce.” In language, I seem to be implying that I am the master of the car. But tell me, one day the Rolls Royce isn't visible, something has happened. And you need to go from place A to place B, and all that is available is a humble Hero Splendor (a motor cycle). What will happen to you? Think of your condition.

Now who's the master and who's the slave? Who is the master? Were you the owner of the car? No! The car became so important to you, you got dependent. And now when the car is not there, the car is not suffering; you are suffering. So, who is the master? The car is the master.

The ego chooses to associate, associate, achieve, obtain, accomplish; thinking that all these associations will give it fulfilment. No, they don't. Freedom comes from dissociation, and dissociation does not mean that you throw your Rolls Royce away. Freedom simply means that internally you are not dependent on the car for your identity. The car is there if it needs to be. I don't think mostly it needs to be there, Rolls Royce kind of thing. But even if it is there, it is at your periphery, mental periphery. It does not become so important to you that you keep it at the centre of your life.

Similarly with persons. You start idolizing someone, you call someone as your role model and that person becomes so important to you. Or, because I am talking to young people, you fall in love and that person becomes your entire universe; if not the entire universe, at least the centre of your universe. That's the way of the ego to depend, to constantly experience a hollow and look towards the world to somehow fill up that hollow. “Can this fill up my hollow? I want to attain this. So, I will work very hard to earn money to have this, hoping that this will reduce my feeling of being unfulfilled.”

Rolls Royce, a higher degree, a better paying job, a bigger house, a new boyfriend; all these are in the same category. The ego is using them to somehow get rid of its state of incompleteness; but these efforts do not succeed. What the ego really wants is freedom, not association. More associations will not make you feel better. Freedom from associations is what makes you come alive, and freedom from associations does not mean being a loner, it simply means not being a slave.

Can't you be in a relationship without being a slave? Can't there be a healthy and free relationship? Or do you really have to become somebody's pet dog for the relationship to exist, right? So that's a choice that you have. Do you want to live in freedom or do you want to chase associations, assets, accomplishments all your life? The more you chase, the more you will be disappointed and suffer.

Is this making sense or is it just too much and too fast? Not sure. I hope this at least gives you a start. You are young, you have a long way to go and you have time.

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