In a recent talk at the 2012 TED Conference, Dr. Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist (and an atheist with an appreciation for religion), talks about the evolution of the human capacity for self-transcendence:
“But every known religion has some sort of rite or procedure for taking people out of their ordinary lives and opening them up to something larger than themselves.”
His talk is timely, as it comes around the season of Vaisakhi when Sikhs celebrate the transformation of their faith group in 1699 into one that surpasses individual needs to promote goals and ideals greater than themselves.
Dr. Haidt’s lecture gave me a slightly different perspective on Vaisakhi, a celebration in which I traditionally viewed as a historical anniversary of the creation of the Khalsa, of Amrit Sanchar (Khalsa initiation ceremony), of the elimination of caste differences, and of the elevation of a downtrodden people. After watching the video, I find myself reflecting on what it means to be Sikh in an actionable way. While many people, including myself, seek to be better at following our faith in its philosophy and physical prescriptions, there is more that I am now reminded of – to acknowledge the Great Soul within and become something more than my self.
The opening few minutes of the Dr. Haidt’s discussion talks about religious experience of the “sacred state”, and how it has been commonly reported as an experience akin to climbing a staircase. Immediately, I thought of an experience I had ten years ago, perhaps.
Once a week, I would gather with a multi-faith group for a collective meditation session that was loosely based on simran, a Sikh form of meditation in which a name of God is chanted collectively and continuously. We would chant together for some minutes and then meditate in silence in our own ways, postures and positions, but all sitting together in a dimly lit and closed room.
In these meditation sessions, I would sit on the floor, cross-legged, and often become lost in some internal world, oblivious to what was around me until my eyes would pop open. I would then re-familiarize myself with my surroundings and those who were still meditating in the room. However, during one of these sessions, something else happened.
As I was meditating, I felt myself lifting. It was an uneven, organic movement and as I felt my body lose contact with the floor, I could see myself rise. I hovered upward towards the top of the room and looked down on the others still meditating on the floor. When I became conscious of my ascent, I felt a rush within me, and felt myself come back down to the floor again. My eyes opened and I was back where I started, and everyone who I saw while floating were still seated and meditating.
Now, I don’t partake of alcohol or drugs, so the experience may have been a function of my imagination, or perhaps I was dreaming. Regardless of its nature, the experience was very profound for me. Unfortunately, I’ve never been able to experience that again, and perhaps my awareness and expectation of that experience is now a hurdle in that regard.
Dr. Haidt’s discussion in his TED presentation reminded me of this experience, and reinforces for me the idea that human beings are predisposed to one or more elevated states of consciousness. The Guru Granth Sahib – the Sikh scriptures and Guru of the Sikhs today – contains verse after verse espousing the theme of seeking a higher level of consciousness beyond the profane and sensory experiences of the day-to-day human experience. The following is but one of almost innumerable examples from the Guru Granth Sahib that reminds Sikhs to seek a state of consciousness beyond that of the self:
Siree Raag, Third Mehla:
The three qualities hold people in attachment to Maya. The Gurmukh attains the fourth state of higher consciousness.
Granting His Grace, God unites us with Himself. The Name of the Lord comes to abide within the mind.
Those who have the treasure of goodness join the Sat Sangat, the True Congregation. ||1||
O Siblings of Destiny, follow the Guru’s Teachings and dwell in truth.
Practice truth, and only truth, and merge in the True Word of the Shabad. ||1||Pause||
I am a sacrifice to those who recognize the Naam, the Name of the Lord.
Renouncing selfishness, I fall at their feet, and walk in harmony with His Will.
Earning the Profit of the Name of the Lord, Har, Har, I am intuitively absorbed in the Naam. ||2||
Without the Guru, the Mansion of the Lord’s Presence is not found, and the Naam is not obtained.
Seek and find such a True Guru, who shall lead you to the True Lord.
Destroy your evil passions, and you shall dwell in peace. Whatever pleases the Lord comes to pass. ||3||
As one knows the True Guru, so is the peace obtained.
There is no doubt at all about this, but those who love Him are very rare.
O Nanak, the One Light has two forms; through the Shabad, union is attained. ||4||11||44||
In the core of the philosophy of the Sikh Gurus is that we must seek to re-merge our consciousness to the Divine Consciousness, and that this requires us to uplift our awareness to beyond the mundane and egocentric perspective. We must, as Dr. Haidt might say, seek to become more than ourselves.
In this vein, the last Guru in human form, Guru Gobind Singh, created the Khalsa in 1699. He elevated the Sikh community to his level, removing the line between Guru and disciple, and detaching from hierarchy and inequality. He created a sacred community that is dedicated to seeking and living in this higher state of consciousness that is attached to something greater than themselves. Being a Sikh, and particularly one initiated into the Khalsa, is more than taking on a last name, maintaining articles of faith, and speaking up for our rights. We must see to live not for the benefit of our own self, but for the benefit of community, Sikh or otherwise. Indeed, such a philosophy is why self sacrifice is so prevalent among the Sikhs in their history.
After watching Dr. Haidt’s lecture, I’m asking myself how is it that I’m using Sikh teachings to achieve a higher state of being, which is more than the simple following and espousing of our religious practices. Certainly, our collective dedication to our religious practice and distinctiveness have inspired us to survive through centuries of oppression and more, but what the Gurus teach is something more than simply our own survival.
It’s ironic that I relate the theories of an atheist to my own religious experience, but Dr. Haidt’s conversation brings me a novel reminder, particularly in this Vaisakhi season, that as a follower of the Sikh faith I must continue to seek something greater than my own self.