1.3 Who are We?[21]

Reconnecting humans back to Nature is about reconnecting humans back to reality by identifying and overturning all the absurd notions that underlie our current civilization. It is also about reconnecting humans back to our own selves. Nature isn't just out there in the wilderness, Nature is within us as well. Put it another way, to dissolve the illusion that we are separate from one another and from Nature, it is necessary to dissolve our ego which promotes our illusion of separateness and thus connect within to the Atman, the Spirit within us. To become compassionate towards all Life and thus fulfill our purpose as human Butterflies, we must first practice to be self-compassionate. As such, the Metamorphosis is a deeply spiritual undertaking.

The foundational texts of Hinduism are the Vedas. In the Vedic view, the universe is built up of dualities. And human beings are no exceptions. The Bhagavad Gita, the Hindu song of songs, speaks explicitly of the ego/Atmanor ego/Spirit duality. Perhaps a more comprehensible model is the Caterpillar/Butterfly duality described above, but the gist is the same.

It is the identification with the ego that drives the Caterpillar side of a human being. The Caterpillar is driven by the fear that arises out of a sense of separation and isolation.

It is the identification with the Atman that drives the Butterfly side of a human being.  The Butterfly is driven by the love that arises out of a sense of belonging.

According to the Upanishads, which are a commentary on the Vedas, we are each built with the exact same ingredients, with the exact same potential for hate and for love, for crassness and for greatness. It is up to us to choose who we want to be.

Moments in time when we feel alienated, separated, angry and hurt strengthen our ego. The stories that etch these moments in our memory then begin to further cloud our perception of reality. That is, until we become aware of these filters and train ourselves to see through them.
Moments in time when we feel perfectly at peace with the universe and experience a sheer sense of joy at being alive, strengthen our identification with the Atman. It used to happen to me occasionally; the first time I saw the Himalayas from the foothills of Nainital in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh in India, the first time I saw the Grand Canyon in Arizona, the joyful moments I spent with family and friends, the moments I held my children in my arms and the moments when I found a creative solution to some knotty problem or the other. Fortunately, it now happens to me a lot more frequently, every time our granddaughter, Kimaya, tries to gnaw on my nose with her baby gums, and every time when I meditate. These are the moments when our sense of separation dissolves and we feel at one with the universe.

Just as the ego is experienced as an accumulation of separation events, the Atman is experienced as an accumulation of such integration events. In our current scientific world view, we are biased to recognize just the ego as the totality of our human experience and to ignore the Atman. We assign superiority and grade intelligence on the basis of the extent to which beings can separate themselves and stand out from the whole, to the monkey that can recognize itself in the mirror, but not to the spider that can delicately spin an intricate web that captures the right sized insect for its specialized diet. We studiously ignore the intelligence in Nature that arises in the integration, ascribing that intelligence to a machine-like, automatic "instinct.” And we celebrate the intelligence that separates a being from its environment. We celebrate the ego. The problem was compounded by Sigmund Freud, one of the more influential thinkers of the 20th century, who proposed that humans are born with just the Id in the mind, a self-centered construct that is only interested in the fulfillment of its desires that then develops into the adult ego. He based this on his observation that a baby only significantly interacts with the universe when it cries. And it cries only when it desires something, a change of diaper, some food or some sleep.

So in the Freudian world view, babies are born Caterpillars.

Sigmund Freud had perhaps never played with his baby daughter in the vast intervals between her crying when she could have gnawed on his nose with her baby gums and smiled up at him. Perhaps she only cried when she needed something, some food, a change of diaper, some sleep and not because she desired anything. But it was Freud's ideas that were developed into the world consumer societies of the 20th century by his nephew, Edward Bernays, with the encouragement and support of large corporations. Bernays originated the idea of linking products to emotional desires and feelings in order to persuade people to behave irrationally, to consume things that they really didn't need. He persuaded women to take up smoking even though it was taboo until then, by convincing them that the cigarette was a phallic symbol of power. He dreamed up many of the techniques of mass consumer persuasion using celebrities that we now experience on a daily basis. The incessant fulfillment of desires, supposedly in the pursuit of happiness, was born in what the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) has characterized as the "Century of the Self,"  the century of the ego, the 20th century[22].

In November of 2009, I was at an India Development Coalition of America[23] (IDCA) conference in Chicago to talk about our non-profit work in India. At the end of the conference, my host, the President of IDCA, Dr. Mohan Jain, invited me to visit the Hindu Swaminarayan temple in Bartlett, IL, with him to meet with a holy man, Swami Atma Swarupji, from New Delhi, India. He said that if the Swamiji got interested in our work, then he could bring an enormous amount of resources to fund our project. That temple in Bartlett sported a huge dome plated in gold!  Since my flight back to San Francisco was the next morning, I readily agreed and went with him to the temple. Once there, Dr. Jain approached the temple priests, dropped some names and got us into the anteroom of the Swamiji's chamber, where we were told to wait until the Swamiji finished his meeting inside. Waiting with us was a wizened man, Mr. K. R. Jani, probably in his eighties and whose son was in the meeting with the Swamiji. We were chatting with him for a while about this and that until we were told that the Swamiji was running late for the assembly and that we should have our audience with the Swamiji the same way as everybody else, after his discourse to the assembly in the cavernous main hall. Since we were honored guests, we would be given front row seats during the discourse and would get to see the Swamiji at the head of the line.

As we were returning to the main hall, Mr. Jani walked alongside me holding my hand. He became very solicitous of my work and offered me words of encouragement. Then he took me past the entrance to the hall, gave me a great bear hug and held my head in his hands. He had one thumb in the center of my forehead and another at the back, while he said, "This is Sri Krishna (God) speaking to you through me. Your inspiration comes through here (pressing the back of my head) and your execution comes through here (pressing the front of my head). Do your work without any ego and let me do it through you." Then he turned away and left.

Of course, what Mr. Jani said was straight from the Bhagavad Gita where Sri Krishna tells his devotee, Arjuna, to perform fruit-forsaking action without any ego and thus become the flute that Sri Krishna can play to create melodious music. This is the very symbolism of the statues of Lord Krishna playing the flute that we commonly find in Indian bazaars. That didn't surprise me. What surprised me was that I was left in a daze with his thumb imprinted on my forehead for the next few hours and I still feel his thumb on a daily basis when I meditate. Egoless, fruit-forsaking action is what the Gita calls for, but the Century of the Self celebrated the exact opposite, the ego-driven, fruit-seeking action.

The Gita proposes that only the Atman within us is permanent, while all other aspects of the human experience including the ego, is impermanent. The Atman can be viewed as a ripple in an eternal ocean of Consciousness that takes up temporary residence in a material body that is impermanent and constantly flowing. The Gita states that the Atman never dies and returns back to the ocean of Consciousness when the body dies. The body is controlled by a mind and it gets its inputs and performs its actions through its various senses. The Gita distinguishes the mind (the "subconscious mind" in Psychological terms) from the discriminating Intellect (the "rational mind" in Psychological terms), which is said to reside behind the center of the forehead, in the pre-frontal cortex of the brain. The ego then completes the makeup of the human being, leading to a sense of separateness from the universe. The ego is fluid and impermanent as it can be diminished through practice and awareness.

There is a scientific basis for the Gita's model of the Atman being a ripple in the eternal ocean of Consciousness. The microbiologist, Lynn Margulis, has accumulated compelling evidence that the mitochondria in human and other animal cells and the chloroplasts in plant cells are all bacterial in origin and therefore, each complex being can be viewed as a closely cooperating colony of trillions of bacteria[24]. Therefore, we are each, literally and physically, part of the whole and deeply embedded in it, except that we seem to have lost our connection with the whole over the years due to our cultural upbringing.

According to the Gita model, the Caterpillar is enslaved by the ego. The Caterpillar has a fluid mind that is constantly invoking new desires and commanding the intellect to find ways to satisfy those desires. In a Caterpillar, the intellect is the servant of the mind, which is the servant of the ego.

Thus, the Caterpillar is oriented outwards in service of the ego. Its purpose is to fulfill its never-ending desires.

In a Butterfly, the ego is diminished and even non-existent while the mind is steady and solid, well controlled by the discriminating intellect. In a Butterfly, the mind is a servant of the intellect.

The Butterfly is oriented inwards in service of the Atman and through it, all Creation. Thus, it has a purpose larger than itself, which becomes the source of its deep-rooted happiness.
Caterpillars are driven by fear, specifically their fear of Death.

Butterflies are driven by love, specifically their love of Life.

The Caterpillar/Butterfly dichotomy is thus intimately tied to the fear/love duality which resides in the Medulla oblongata or the reptilian brain of most complex beings. This is fundamental to most life forms as we all need fear to escape a predator and we all need love to take care of our babies. Without these two fundamental functions, a species would find it hard to survive. In her popular Ted talk[25], Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, the Harvard-trained neuroanatomist, describes the left-brain/right-brain dichotomy that arises out of this fear/love duality and that she vividly experienced as a result of a stroke which temporarily disabled the left hemisphere of her brain. The right hemisphere of her brain, which is devoted to processing present moment reality, made her feel intensely connected with the universe around her. The left hemisphere is about judging the present moment using stored memories from the past, to filter out the enormous inputs received by the brain at each instant. It is also about making predictions and plans for the future. The ego resides in the past and in the future and dissolves in the light of present moment reality. Thus, the Caterpillar is ruled by the left hemisphere of the brain while the Butterfly empowers the right, while using the left as a tool.

And it is my thesis that in our modern industrial culture, we deliberately train all our babies to grow up to be Caterpillars, even though they are born Butterflies.


[21] The Gita model of a human being and my interpretation of Vedanta and the Upanishads draws heavily from Swami Yogananda Paramhansa's treatment in "The Essence of the Bhagavad Gita," Crystal Clarity Publishers, 2006. http://www.amazon.com/Essence-Bhagavad-Gita-Paramhansa-Remembered/dp/1565892267 and from P. Lal's translation of the Bhagavad Gita in "The Bhagavad Gita," Lotus Collection Roli Books, 1994. http://www.rolibooks.com/lotus/lotus-collection/-/the-bhagavad-gita/. I have also drawn upon Jaya Row's excellent discourses on the Gita at Bhagavad Gita Chapters," http://www.youtube.com/user/vedantavision#p/c/3F94DFB2BEE78B0E. Unlike most other organized religions, Hinduism does not recognize a central authority for interpreting Hindu scriptures and leaves it up to the individual and his/her teacher (Guru) to form their own opinions. As such, the faith of a Hindu is an expression of his/her personal freedom. I trust that the reader will take my interpretation for what it is: an expression of my own limited understanding of the Hindu scriptures, gleaned mainly through English translations due to my rudimentary knowledge of the original Sanskrit. Any errors or omissions are strictly my own.

[22] BBC Documentaries, "The Century of the Self," http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IyPzGUsYyKM .

[23] More information on the India Development Coalition of America can be found at http://www.idc-america.org/ .

[24] This is the famous endosymbiotic theory of Lynn Margulis. Please see, e.g., http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Endosymbiotic_theory

[25] Jill Bolte Taylor, "Stroke of Insight," http://www.ted.com/talks/jill_bolte_taylor_s_powerful_stroke_of_insight.html