Sunday, November 28, 2021

On Trying to Find Peace with Prem Rawat

Since falling into a pandemic funk, I've tried a variety of books and videos to try to get a little inner stillness in order to continue to function. Omicron and our region's rising numbers aren't helping matters! I'm crap at meditating, but Healthy Gamer's course (my notes) came the closest to getting me on board. The modules walk you through the background of breathing exercises, and how they work in the body, and I stayed with the lessons largely because the work to do is all thinking and learning instead of doing. When the course came to a close, and I tried the doing part, it quickly fell apart. I keep trying again from time to time, but I'm still looking for something that will help it all stick for me. A colleague loaned me Hear Yourself by Prem Rawat, which is all about calming that inner dialogue. 

I appreciate that Rawat starts with a disclaimer that you have to see if the books works for you instead of a more sales pitch tactic of suggesting he's got a magic elixir to cure all ills. But his message is mainly that, to find peace within, you just have to want it. I feel like I want it, but there must be something holding me back. I keep getting sucked back in the busyness of life that keeps me from carving out even just twenty minutes a day of quiet. It makes me think of a friend teaching me how to catch a snake. After watching me try and fail, he insisted, "You just have to really want to catch it." I had been hesitating at the wrong moment and that brief resistance stopped me from grasping things. I can catch snakes now, but I still can't quiet my mind. I have to find and dismantle my resistance. 

Rawat's message is the same as so many others: "The agenda for today is joy . . . kindness . . . fulfillment . . . love . . . to live in peace. . . . Extracurricular activities might appear--those practical or necessary things that come into our lives--but none should distract me from the priority of living life to the fullest" (19). He has a few useful stories of his childhood and of speaking tours and analogies with his experience being a pilot, but a lot of it is just stoic in nature. The life stories are bracketed by many, many quotations from Plato to Isaac Asimov that don't always nail the sentiment, but fit in a more cursory manner and I wondered about their inclusion. It sometimes feels like he's using the authority of the ages to back up his claims instead of his own life of the lives he's touched over the years. That's a common tactic in modern self-help books, and I'm not fond of it. 

It occurred to me that the ubiquitousness of books like this, collections of quotations and older stories peppered with bits from his own life, might point to a useful personal exercise for us all: collect the quotations and stories that have been meaningful to us into one place, explaining the impact they have on us as we go. It might tell us a lot about ourselves. However, there are some problems with this method in the book. I'll get to that later on. For now, here are the parts of his own story that might be useful to remember:

He explains that we allow the noise to continue in our head; however, "it needn't be an either/or choice between technology and inner peace, between noise and contentment, between the outside and inside worlds. People sometimes assume that they can either have all the benefits of modernity or inner peace, as if one thing is incompatible with the other. We don't have to sacrifice one for the other. We just have to make sure it's we who are choosing where our attention goes" (31).

This idea runs counter to Plato's allegory of the cave, where Plato laments the many people stuck in the cave attached to the trivial illusions of our world in constant flux, and admires the rare few who make the journey upward to contemplate the Good. In class we discuss if it's a false dichotomy, and it's certainly easier to buy into that contemplative, meditative life if we can do it just sometimes. It's too hard if it has to be a permanent mindset that has us living like monks. 

He includes several stories about Kabir Das, a 15th century Indian poet, which were new to me, like this one: 

"'You are just a little boat made out of paper, sailing down the river.' They're such astute words, because as you go down the river of life, guess what? The paper is getting soaked and is starting to disintegrate, meaning the boat is losing its form and slowly merging with the water. And so it goes. . . . I'm not afraid of death. I use it as inspiration to experience the best of each moment, and that gives me a sense of urgency" (58).

I like the reminder that we all just dissolve back into the earth again, and I love that Vonnegut nod! 

He has a dirty shirt metaphor that I also liked: "You don't bring cleanliness from somewhere out there and put it inside the shirt. You take away what's not required and leave what's wanted. . . . You do not add peace to your inner self; you let everything else fall away. Self-knowledge is about allowing your true self to shine in the present moment" (72). We tend to try to get happiness and everything else externally, but we have it already; we just have to clear away the clutter to find it. I get that. Plato and Socrates were on about that too. Rawat's message is similar to the existential notion of authenticity, urging us to live consciously, fully aware of our choices and empowered to take full responsibility for them. 

Stories of Buddha show up too. There's one with Buddha ignoring criticism and a disciple questioning it. Buddha hands him a bowl over and over asking him whose bowl it is. The disciple says, "It's your bowl" repeatedly. The point is that it's not your bowl if you won't accept it, no matter how many times it's offered to you. The same goes with criticism (111). Yup. And he has us try to grasp the oneness of the universe as we're currently on a brief vacation from being dust: "The same cosmic dust that formed us also built every planet in our solar system. We are each part of the Milky Way above and of the dirt below our feet." (255). Sure. 

My problem is that I get all that, but I understand it on the surface. I never really get it in my bones enough to actually live it, and Rawat doesn't say anything that helps me go any further that I was on page one. 

But, even worse, at one point it all came crashing down with a quotation attributed to Socrates that is so clearly not even close to the right syntax or word choice for that time period, even with the loosest translation:

"If you don't get what you want, you suffer if you get what you don't want, you suffer; even when you get exactly what you want, you still suffer because you can't hold on to it forever. Your mind is your predicament. . . . . Life is not suffering, it's just that you will suffer it rather than enjoy it" (130).

It took mere minutes of digging to find it in Dan Millman's The Way of the Peaceful Warrior, spoken by a gas station attendant called Socrates. And the incorrect attribution, taken from another self-helpy type of book written when I was in grade 10, marred the whole rest of the book for me. Later he quotes Plato out of context, which didn't help. He says, "The message is as relevant today as I imagine it was back in the days of Plato . . . people are born good, and peace can be found in everyone" (161), which is decidedly not Plato's message to the world. 

Even if Rawat has a useful message, and a lot of love to share, and compassion for the world, he now appeared sloppy and phoney to me. The other stories he told started to stand out more for their missing attributions. Many are folk talks, mythological lesson, and religious parables that my parents would rhyme off at opportune moments throughout my upbringing. But, in the form of a book, it started to feel like plagiarism to string them all together under his own name. There's the Japanese folk tale, The Unhappy Stonecutter, and Hans Christian Anderson's The Nightingale, and a Cherokee legend about two wolves, and this Zen parable:

It's likely these old tales are under some open copyright by now, but it still feel disingenuous to tell many of the stories as if he made them up himself without even mentioning their origins. He seems to have lived an interesting life, and I wish his book focused on his own inward journey and stood on its own instead of assembling so many other stories that many of us have already heard. What was it that took him across that line to the internal world so confidently? The words of some dead philosophers or storytellers can't tell us that


Tom Gubler said...


It's a little hilarious that you read this book of excerpts from this fraud's speeches without realising the point of his message. That peace is available if you want it badly enough but it is only available from him. He started his career as the teenage Guru Maharaj Ji, the Lord of the Universe and collected a following of disillusioned counter-culture youth. In the mid 1980s the dropped the Indian shtick and bankrolled by his loyal 10 or 15,000 followers has toured around the world since making speeches and trying to gain a new following and some respect as an advocate for peace. You seem to be pretty smart, didn't it occur to you to google the guy and look into his past and determine whether he's got something to validate his words?

All the best

Tom Gubler

Marie Snyder said...

This was a while back, so I likely googled, but didn't necessarily dig for dirt - likely because it came from a friend. I took the book on face value to see if it had anything to value regardless any possible scandals, and found it lacking nevertheless. However, I also think it's possible that even a grifter could have a good idea or two, and contemplating them is free.

JS said...

Mr.Gubler is correct. Rawat's personal life is so filled with issues and problems, such as affairs, alcohol, materialism etc, that I would imagine him to be one of the worst spokesmen for inner peace. 95% of those initiated into his meditation have left him, including his entire family (mother and 3 brothers). He's a mess. If you can't experience peace in your everyday life, why write a book about it, pretending you have it?