Questioner (Q): The theme of today’s interaction is inner growth. Usually when we talk of growth, we talk of external growth. For example, for an individual growth usually means job promotions, better income, or more comforts, etc. For a company, growth may mean growing in profits. For an institution, it may mean better rankings, greater enrollments, etc. And for an economy, it may mean higher GDP, employment, and so on. So, given this context for external growth, how do we define inner growth for a human being, and what is its relationship to external growth?
Acharya Prashant (AP): You talked of external growth. What does that usually consist of? We earn, we accumulate, we learn, we gain knowledge, and we gain experience. And most of it we call as external growth, which is all very fine. It is just that along with it we need to keep asking: For whom is the accumulation? For whose sake are we gaining experience or knowledge or money or power? And when you ask that question, then the whole situation shifts to a different plane. Because obviously we do not earn money or gain power for the sake of money or power; we do not gain knowledge or experience for the sake of knowledge or for the sake of experience. We do it all for ourselves. We do it for our own welfare.
So, that question ‘for whom?’ is extremely important. And when you ask that question, you discover that even when you are striving for external growth, you, the person, the striver, the seeker is actually at the center of all your efforts. And like in any process that consumes effort, time, energy, and must produce a certain output, here in this process also, the process of external growth, we need to keep measuring whether that external growth process has delivered the final output, and the final output is the welfare of the self.
I go for money, I go for power, I want to learn something. I do it for myself. So, even as I go about accumulating all that I do in the world, I need to constantly ask myself to what extent has it really benefited me. So ‘I’, the subject, is at the center of all that I do with respect to the various objects in the world. So, that is inner growth: being able to clearly see to what extent have all my worldly external endeavors facilitated my internal well-being.
Now, what is this thing, internal well-being? You see, we are born with certain tendencies and those tendencies do not let us stay at peace. If you look at a newborn baby, it already has fear, it already has greed in a rudimentary, in a nascent form. Primordial jealousy, ignorance—these things are already present in us even as we are born. And these tendencies, these physical tendencies become all the more harmful and exacerbated under the influence of social conditioning, because as we go through life we gather experiences, we gather knowledge, we gather a sense of right and wrong, and mostly that does not come from places that can help or further our inner growth.
So, internally we all need a lot of work because internally we all have a preexistent mess even as we begin the journey of life. That mess needs to be cleaned up, that inner chaos needs to be sorted out, and that is inner growth. So, inner growth is essentially a process in which you reduce or drop or rectify or cleanse a lot of stuff that you were born with; a lot of stuff that you later on, unfortunately, picked up along the process of life; stuff that was not worthy of being picked up, yet it did get into your inner system.
So, inner growth, then, is a misnomer. It is not a process of growth, actually. Nothing grows, nothing becomes bigger in inner growth. In inner growth there has to be a reduction, a simplification. In inner growth you drop a lot of things, you become smaller internally, like a tumor you are carrying within. When do you say you have grown in health with respect to that tumor? When the size of the tumor reduces. So, that is inner growth: the size of the inner tumor has to reduce.
All external efforts have to be made keeping this inner metric in mind: “Stuff that I am doing externally, in business, in profession, in relationships, with respect to books, knowledge, whatsoever I am doing from morning till evening every day, to what extent is it contributing to reducing me from within?” That is how you should look at the utility, the efficacy of whatever you have been putting your time and energy into. “I gave it so much time, I gave it energy, I worked on it. Did it really help me in an internal way? Because I did not do it for doing’s sake; I did it because I had a strong internal reason.” And that is the only reason really that one can have because we all exist within ourselves.
So, all that we do is fundamentally for our sake. I know I am being repetitive here but it needs to be emphasized. All that we do is for our sake. “I do not exist outside of myself, so I need to have one eye always on myself. I need to be self-observant. I need to keep asking, what is all this doing to me?” That is inner growth.
Q: When we talk of inner growth or inner wellness, it is not something that is unheard of; it is something which is in the common parlance. So, if we go to the neo-spiritual teachers, they talk of inner growth and inner wellness. But there, inner wellness is usually equated with stress relief or relaxation and techniques thereof. So, if one thinks about it, inner growth in that sense is considered important only to the extent that it supplements outer growth. Outer growth still remains the primary objective. Do stress relief and relaxation and techniques have any relevance with what inner growth means in the real sense?
AP: Good question. You see, this internal mess that I talked of—and quite dramatically referred to as an internal tumor just for the sake of effect—is not an easy thing to get rid of. We are born with it. It is a part of our body. It resides in each of our cells. These tendencies that I am talking of, ignorance, attachment, fear, greed, jealousy, and so many other things, they live within us. We are carrying them through the process of evolution. In fact, we share those tendencies with every living organism in the world. So, they are quite animalistic, these things that we carry. They are animalistic and deeply entrenched. And that, you would understand, is also the reason why so few people even attempt to get rid of these things.
When you do attempt to get rid of them, when you do undertake the mighty battle, the giant project of challenging your inner self to become better, to reduce in size, to drop all its baggage or most of it, then it is not easy. The self refuses to grow up. It wants to remain the way it was. And it says that if any growth is to happen, it must happen in the external domain. “Internally, I will remain how I have always been. Internally, I will remain afraid, I will remain insecure, I will remain covetous. But externally, I will gather this, reach there, climb to that position,” and so on. That is the position, that is the statement of the self, the inner self; you could call it the ego or whatever.
So, when you do want to grow internally it involves pain. It actually involves taking on stress for a long time, deliberately, with resolution. So, the person who really wants to have inner growth will not be afraid of stress. In fact, he will be prepared to go through stress. He will be prepared to invite stress—stress of the right kind, mind you. It is the stress of the right kind that has been truly, classically called as tapasya or sādhana . The very word tapasya at its root is tap , and one of its meanings is ‘going through heat’. You pass through fire knowingly so that all that is unworthy within you gets incinerated, burnt out. Obviously, your system would not like that; your system, your entrenched tendencies will oppose that. So, then there is inner conflict and you will have to bear that conflict.
I am not in favor of stress, obviously. But usually what happens is that in the name of avoiding stress we tend to avoid the right action as well. Such is man’s predicament, that right action would involve a lot of stress. Wrong action, action that is harmful to your real well-being, does involve stress. But contrary to popular belief, right action may involve a higher degree of stress than wrong action does. So, you have to be ready to take that challenge on.
The easier path is usually not the better one. Also, if one is doing in life stuff that is needless, then it would bring its own share of stress and tension along with it. Now, what happens is that there is a temptation to seek a cheap remedy to this situation, and the cheap remedy is to take an analgesic, some kind of a painkiller.
For example, I might be in a job that puts me in a lot of stress, and that stress is quite unwarranted. It is not the stress of the kind that facilitates any higher inner purpose. It is just that I am at the wrong place, in the wrong environment, wrong company, wrong people, and so I am obviously stressed out. Now, what do I do? I turn towards one of the popular meditation techniques floating in the market, and to some extent those techniques work, in a very superficial way, in a very short-term way.
So, I return from the bad job that I am doing in the night and I sit down for meditation. Or, in the morning before I leave for the office, I sit down to meditate for half an hour and that relaxes my system to some extent temporarily and enables me to continue in that same job, same profession, same environment, which is, in fact, bad for me. Now, this kind of stress relief, this kind of meditation is actually becoming an enabler for the wrong thing.
So, there is a difference between stress and stress. Whatever one does in life, it does involve some stress. One must know the right stress to choose, just as one must know the right thing to choose in any condition, in any sphere of life. So stress is not necessarily a bad thing. Also, stress, to a great extent, is inevitable. Spirituality is not, initially at least, about avoiding stress. A state of peace starts descending on the spiritual person after a while, sometimes after a long while. But till then, one must pass through fire.
Also, please remember that peace is not the appearance of peace. The spiritual person will take on mighty projects and that will necessarily involve conflict. We are not talking of fairy tales here. We are talking of the real world, and in the real world when you want to do something important, something really meaningful, there is conflict. Peace, therefore, cannot mean an appearance of peace. Peace, therefore, cannot be about that typical peaceful face that we see on idols and in paintings and pictures and popular narratives and depictions.
Peace is something that inwardly allows you to continue doing the right thing even when externally there is a total lack of peace. Externally there might be noise, chaos, great turbulence, and still you manage to stay put—that is peace.
In that sense, peace or freedom from stress is indistinguishable from Truth, from silence, from all the great qualities that one associates with spirituality. Peace is not about carrying that sublime smile and walking around like you have nothing on your shoulders, no loads, no baggage, no tensions—no, that is just an appearance of peace. It is quite deceptive. More importantly, it is self-deceptive.
Q: It is very clear that outer growth has its own problems. When people start going for outer growth they tend to consume more, and excessive consumption leads to all kinds of global problems. In fact, scientists are saying that unless something drastic is done, man is on the verge of extinction. But still, some amount of outer growth is necessary. As we discussed, internal growth is also important, but there is a certain amount of outer growth that is required for inner growth to happen. So, can there be a middle path somewhere, a compromise where one can have a fine balance between outer growth and inner growth? Something like sustainable consumption or something.
AP: You see, that middle point you are asking of, that great optimum, it emerges naturally on its own. All that you have to do is: you must continuously keep asking yourself whether all your external endeavors are contributing to your internal welfare. You said inner growth is ‘also’ important. That needs to be put in perspective.
Inner growth is the only thing that is important. It is not one of the things to be taken care of; it is the only thing to be taken care of. I might be sounding a bit absolutist here, but if you will think about it, you might agree. Ultimately, you are yourself and all that you are doing is for your own sake, so what else can be important except your own welfare? It might sound selfish here but only to the point you do not meditate on the meaning of self. And when you go into what the self is really about, you might find that real and pure selfishness is not a bad word at all. In fact, it is a great thing.
So, just keep asking, “I am accumulating this, I am traveling to that place, and all of that has carbon consequences.” You know, you fly to some place, you raise a big house, you want better air conditioning, you want your second or third SUV, and all of that has its own carbon consequences. Most importantly, you want to have a baby. What is usually not mentioned or discussed in these circles is that the one thing that contributes the most violently to the climate crisis is growth in population. When you bring one body to the world, it is not one body you have brought here; it is an entire series.
So, if you want to reduce your carbon footprint by, let’s say, a hundred units, then up to seventy or eighty units of that can be achieved just by having a baby less. Otherwise, you may keep on doing things that appear quite holy, quite public-minded, even sanctimonious—they amount not to much. As we said, seventy to eighty percent of your contribution towards arresting anthropogenic global warming can come from just refraining from having kids or having fewer kids.
So, these are the questions one has to ask. “Do I really need that global trip? Have I seen enough of my homeland? Do I really need to fly? Do I really need to plan for one more kid? Do I really need to do this, do that?” We all know, we are pretty aware people. We know to what extent carbon is released in what kind of activity. And if we are asking those questions—not the question of whether activities that I am proposing to do or planning to do would release carbon, but first the question whether the activity that I am planning to do is really needed for me—then we will find that automatically the carbon footprint of our existence would become smaller.
So, these things go hand-in-hand: right life and right kind of coexistence with the environment. A fellow who is living rightly is automatically living sustainably. So, right life and sustainable life, they go together. The corollary is a bit unnerving: If today we are leading the kind of lives that would potentially require a dozen Earths to fulfill our demand of resources, then surely we are not leading the right life. If right life is sustainable life, then surely unsustainable life has to be a wrong life too, wrong internally.
Which means that today, if our footprint is so big, if we are releasing copious volumes of methane and water vapor and obviously carbon dioxide and several pollutants as well, oxides of sulfur, nitrogen, then surely even internally we cannot be happy. We will have to accept that this equation exists. One who is polluting the environment would also not be internally joyful or peaceful. One who is contributing to biodiversity loss or hacking down of jungles would also be leading a pretty miserable internal life. The relationships would be bad, the sleep would be bad, the entire inner life would be messed up.
So, that optimum, that sweet spot would emerge where you consume and you consume rightly, where the consumption is not blind, where you know why exactly you are consuming. Prakriti , nature, does quite generously allow for that extent of consumption. There is no problem. Every living being in the world does consume and does modify or manipulate, in the positive context, Prakriti , nature, for its physical sustenance. Even a bird or a squirrel makes its nest. In the summers even dogs, the usual street dogs we have around, they dig the soil to have a certain cool place for them to rest in.
So, every organism is doing certain things with the environment, with the ecology. Man, too, is entitled to do that. We don’t have to really go back to the jungle. But the question is, how much are we entitled to consume? And how many of us are entitled to consume? If eight billion of us—who are going to be eleven billion in the future within the next two or three decades—if eight or eleven billion of us decide to have a per capita consumption that mirrors that of the US or Japan or Germany, then, needless to say, we are already doomed.
So, we need to be fewer. We need to be consuming with an eye on our true welfare. “Do I really need that third vehicle? What is it going to bring to my life? I already have two. What did they bring to me, and what is it that they did not bring to me that this third one would?” These are the kind of questions that an aware and intelligent person needs to ask. And when we lead a life that is very self-aware, then you find that your carbon footprint automatically goes down, even without planning.
And I would take a minute to also add a small warning here: If you do not lead internally right lives, then legislation is not going to deliver the goods. If we think that global meets and international summits or legislations from the side of governments are going to tackle this problem, it is not going to happen because governments are elected by people. It is a largely democratic world. And if people want to consume, governments will not be very effective in checking that consumption. Governments cannot antagonize people beyond a point.
So, it is the population that has to be awakened, and the population cannot be awakened just by telling them that, “You are doing all these things and that is causing harm to the environment.” They will come up with counter arguments. They will say, “Fine, we will go to Mars and settle there.” Already many of our poster boy billionaires are saying that. “The Earth is no more good to live in, so we are now going to colonize Mars. The planet we have made very inhabitable, inhospitable, so let’s quit the planet.” And that is what they will say. They will say, “If there is going to be a mass extinction, it is nothing new. It has happened several times before. So why should we trouble ourselves to avert mass extinction?”
And they can come up with a lot of arguments if you just keep emphasizing on environmental welfare. They will say, “We do not want environmental welfare. Why must we care about this little speck of dust in the universe called planet Earth? We have so many other places to look at, you know. From global we will become universal.” When you used to talk of something national, they said, “We don’t want to have a national identity, we want to have a global identity.” Now that the globe has been burned down, they will say, “We want to have a universal identity, we will move to some other planet,” and then they will move to some other galaxy. Ultimately, all this will lead to just one big black hole.
So, the action has to be internal. Only that will succeed. I am not coming from a moral point of view. I am coming from a very pragmatic place.
If you want success even in the external dimension, you have to begin within because that is where you are.