Even though it was five years ago, I can remember the first time I read What Is Enlightenment? magazine as if it were yesterday. I was nineteen years old and working as a temp agent in Dublin, Ireland. As a recent college
graduate, I had moved across the Atlantic eager to embark on the life journey of great meaning and purpose I had always envisioned for myself. Granted, I was a little vague about what exactly this would look like, but there was no doubt about it: with my heart aflame and a top-class education under my belt, I felt I was ready to accomplish glorious, important things.
“Things” did not go according to plan. For those who have never tried it, I can tell you that working as a temp is arguably the most pointless, banal job the modern world has to offer. I soon realized that making a living at it while sustaining my ambitions was going to be extraordinarily difficult. And indeed it was; before long a sense of profound defeat and aimlessness descended upon me. After a mere six months, I found myself teetering on the edge of what I can only call existential despair.
I have often noticed that people my age seem to have a predisposition for this state. The single most difficult question I see my friends struggling with over and over is that of what to do with their lives. There is an acute lack of conviction among us in regard to this issue. Could this be a result of understanding from a very young age, whether instinctively or factually, that ours is a world in a state of unfolding crisis?
In this context, the question of what to do and how to respond to the times we live in is rife with complexities. The old guideline of the American Dream feels heartbreakingly moot. What does having the right to the pursuit of happiness mean when genocide, starvation, and environmental breakdown are facts of life all over the planet? How do we contribute to society when we sense its corruption of values and commodification of culture? How do we carry on an existence of meaning and dignity when these words have become arbitrary and encrusted in cynicism for the postmodern world? In response to these issues, many parents of Gen-Y’ers became protesters, activists, or spiritual seekers. But where, I asked myself, is the lasting evidence of this idealistic revolution in the world today?
These were the questions that plagued me on April 27, 2001. There I sat behind an oversized desk at the Bank of Scotland, a sleeping computer and silent telephone in front of me. It was casual Friday, the day of the week when everyone returned from lunch slightly intoxicated, and from somewhere within the humid, airless room I could hear the sound of a bee trapped inside and beating against a window. I wanted to scream. Luckily, that morning I had visited the post office to find a copy of WIE in my mailbox, sent to me as a gift, and I now eagerly opened it in an attempt to escape my surroundings. Randomly, I began to read an article called “Awakening to Total Revolution: Enlightenment and the World Crisis” by the social activist and spiritual teacher Vimala Thakar.
Vimala Thakar was born in central India in 1920 to a middle-class Brahmin family. From an early age she seemed to possess an almost preternatural spiritual passion, and when she was as young as five years old, her father encouraged this interest. As a teenager she visited ashrams and studied the scriptures; at nineteen she spent a year living in a cave dedicating herself to meditation. Shortly thereafter, she began to work as an activist in the land redistribution movement (which was influenced by the work and philosophy of Gandhi and his spiritual successor Vinoba Bhave), traveling the Indian countryside for eight years.
In 1960, Thakar was invited to hear the legendary J. Krishnamurti speak in Varanasi, and after the lecture, she was able to meet him in person. She later wrote of the experience, “Something within has been let loose. . . . The invasion of a new awareness, irresistible and uncontrollable . . . has swept away everything.” Within a year, Krishnamurti was encouraging her to teach, saying that Thakar should “go out and set them on fire!” Thakar left the land reform movement and began traveling the world as a spiritual teacher. Upon her departure, she wrote to her colleagues, “My association with the movement is over. Today it strikes me that the true problem is the internal problem of complete freedom! . . . The only salvation for mankind appears to be in a religious revolution of the individual.”
Yet in 1979, Thakar returned to activism and rededicated herself to its objectives of aiding the poor and disenfranchised, environmental sustainability, and social justice. When American meditation teacher Jack Kornfield asked Thakar why she had gone back to this work, she answered him by saying, “Sir, I am a lover of life, and as a lover of life, I cannot keep out of any activity of life. If people are hungry for food, my response is to help feed them. If people are hungry for truth, my response is to help them discover it. I make no distinction between serving people who are starving and have no dignity in their physical lives and serving people who are fearful and closed and have no dignity in their mental lives. I love all life.”
“Awakening to Total Revolution,” an excerpt from Thakar’s 1984 book Spirituality and Social Action, expands on this essential philosophical position. In it she passionately explains the necessity of moving beyond the dualistic compartments through which modern individuals see the world: inner and outer, social and individual, you and me. For Thakar, these delineations are constructs that enable us to constantly absolve ourselves of responsibility for the way the world is. “A new challenge awaits us at the beginning of the twenty-first century: to go beyond fragmentation, to go beyond the incompatible sets of values held even by serious-minded people, to mature beyond the self-righteousness of one’s accepted approaches and be open to total living and total revolution.” In this vision of complete wholeness and supreme interconnectivity, spiritual enlightenment becomes a social responsibility; the aim of inner awakening is not to experience peace or happiness but a moral imperative that must be acted upon in order to save the world from degradation
It would be difficult to overestimate the effect reading this article had on me that one spring day. This woman’s incredible conviction and the truth of her words seemed to bypass my mind completely and resonate in an infinitely deeper place; once there, they stirred something in me that I hadn’t even known was asleep. The experience felt alchemical, earth-shattering, impossibly inspiring. Whereas hours before I had doubted that solutions or answers to my questions even existed, I now had proof that there was a purpose in life greater than I could have imagined. Hiding my face behind the computer, I began to cry with something like profound relief.
Later, another book by Thakar would put this unforgettable experience into perspective for me. “The essence of religion,” she writes in The Eloquence of Living (1989), “is the personal discovery of the meaning of life, the meaning of truth. Religion is related to the unconditional, total freedom that truth confers on us.” On that day at the bank, one could say that I tasted truth and something of religion for the first time. And once I tasted it, everything changed. Within weeks I had packed my bags and moved back to the United States, a decision that would eventually lead me to work at the very magazine that changed the direction of my life.
When I was asked to choose my favorite article for WIE’s fifteenth anniversary, I didn’t need to think twice. “Awakening to Revolution” was a significant milestone in my own development. But it also exemplifies a fundamental belief and working principle of this magazine and the people who create it—that it is urgent, as Thakar says, “for concerned people to awaken, to rise to revolution” because the future of the world rests completely and undeniably on our shoulders. It’s a message that we need to hear now more than ever.
» Continue to the interview