Monkhood or Money?
Now don’t get me wrong, I enjoy McMansions and IThings as much as the next person. Maybe even more. My family often compares me to a cat, because I’m always lying around lazily in the sun, usually with some chocolate and a good book. My ideal vacation is one involving tropical beaches, massages, spas, luxury hotels, and gourmet cuisine. Ironically it also includes a personal trainer who I then pay to make me get up and exercise off the excessive leisure and calorie consumption. I’m certainly not a minimalist when it comes to enjoying life.
But there comes a time in many people’s lives — mine included — when you start getting tired of the daily grind and oh-so-cruel world, and wonder if you should just give it all up, and stop shaving, and grow hair like a woolly mammoth while hibernating somewhere on a mountain.
It sounds like I’m joking, but I’m serious — I really did consider this at one point. There was a time when I began to wonder if all this effort to live a sansaari or worldly life was worth it, or whether I should go down the sanyaasi or saintly, service-oriented path instead. (both Hindu terms) One where I would begin to detach from my earthly bonds and dedicate my life to charity and my search for enlightenment.
Those who know me might never guess that such thoughts have crossed my mind. They’d probably snicker while they simultaneously eye-roll upon finding out. But I suspect most of us have a hidden side to us — whether spiritual, emotional, artistic, insecure, kinky, kooky, or otherwise — that we don’t show others. It’s not uncommon for our inner child to rebel and desire something different from one’s routine, or to harbor fantasies of shaking up the status quo and doing something radically new.
In my case, the reason for my struggle has been a greater spiritual awareness that has been growing since my mid-30s. During that time I was single with no kids. I was also going through many professional and personal failures. One minute I would think that a long-awaited goal was finally in my grasp, and the next it would simply melt away, for reasons I could not have fathomed or predicted. It truly did seem that the material world is maya or illusion, and that happiness attached to a regular life would never be a permanent one.
But here’s the thing I realized when I sat down to contemplate this self-created fork in the road — when I was seriously considering distancing from the material world and journeying down a more spiritual path instead. I realized that I simply don’t wanna give it all up. That’s right, I don’t WANNA! (Cue petulant, pouty, childish look here.) It’s not the material luxuries I’m after so much, although to be honest, I am a creature of comforts and I need at least a basic level of hygiene and conveniences. I know I’d have a hard time living in heavenly harmony with hairy bugs in some humid ashram somewhere.
However I’ve become simpler in my needs over time and I’m no longer that attached to the siren call of sensory pleasures just for the sake of them. They are no fun when experienced alone. Rather, I am attached to the desire for family, friends, and a partner. Heading down a pure sanyaasi path often involves greater love for everyone but less specific attachment to any one soul. I don’t want to do that. I want to have a nuclear family I see everyday at dinnertime, I want to have a few special people I lean on and confide in, I want to form close, personal attachments to a few other souls. I want my Joey, Phoebe, and Ross. How YOU doin’?
I also want multiple dimensions to my life. I don’t want to engage only in spiritual activities. Growing spiritually can be both draining and depressing, it’s hard work. Of course it’s uplifting too, and overall has led me to more peace and happiness as I’ve learned to navigate the ups and downs of life with more calm and maturity. But it can still be a lonely and difficult journey.
I do carve out significant time for spiritual endeavors, but I also want to be a daughter and sister and aunt and friend and professional. I want to host parties and decorate a nice home and watch chick flicks on TLC (don’t judge!) I want to live a rich, full life. I’ve made the conscious decision that I simply can’t commit to the ascetic path fully, instead I’d like to find ways to incorporate aspects of it as much as possible.
I struggle at times with balancing these potentially conflicting goals. I could certainly give more money to the Red Cross instead of Amazon. I want to do more to help the world, I feel guilty and blessed at the same time to have the platform and privileges that I do, living in a secure country with plenty of resources at hand. I know that the more I form worldly attachments with my nuclear family and circle, the less time I have to spend on serving society as a whole. And when the time comes for me to answer to God — if there is one — he would be justified in asking why I deserved the gifts he bestowed on me if I did not share any of it with the other 7 billion people on this planet. Who am I, God’s special pet? Why should I be blessed with so much good fortune if I’m simply going to hoard it for myself in each life? Why, then, should he not give it to someone else?
There are people I greatly respect such as India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and PETA founder Ingrid Newkirk who seem to have sacrificed their entire lives to seva — or service — to society. They are unmarried with no children, and appear to live with austere simplicity. They have almost extinguished their worldly attachments and have been able to make stunning contributions with their wholehearted devotion to their respective causes. They are not perfect by any means, both have had their share of controversies (especially Mr. Modi), but it's rare to find souls who are so focused outwards.
Historical freedom fighters such as Bhagat Singh or Joan of Arc who eschewed the conventional life because they could not rest at peace while their countries were in turmoil, might be other examples of advanced, enlightened souls who put the world before themselves.
As I progress further down a spiritual path, I have often thought of emulating these shining role models, but I’ve realized I am simply not as evolved to that degree. Instead I can try to follow in their footsteps, but in a more diluted way. I strive to balance my material desires and pleasures with trying to make an impact on the world. There are celebrities who try to do this, as well as ordinary heroes I have observed in everyday life who quietly and anonymously volunteer their time. I’ll pass on adopting a tribe of children, but there are other exemplary acts of giving I can try to emulate instead.
And I think that’s where most of us are. Most people have a compassionate, giving side to them that they would love to exercise more if they could get a break from the demands of daily life. Perhaps not everyone has contemplated renunciation from society like I have, but they have thought about simplifying and minimalizing and finding a way to leave their legacy. I’ve often heard people say that if they won the lottery tomorrow, they would buy themselves a better car or home, but they would also set aside some money to open a school or charity.
It is important to acknowledge that it can be a struggle at times to balance the two objectives, and there are times where we may be engaged in one more than the other. But I’ve finally come to peace with my desire to have a foot on both paths — material and charitable — and learned to cut myself some slack. As long as I keep trying to grow spiritually and do my best to give something back to others, I know that I’ve done all that I am capable of doing, at least in this lifetime.