Happy New Year! For millions worldwide, January is the month of making resolutions. Just before the New Year begins, it is also the time of looking back at the year that was. In many respects, 2018 has been a year of warnings, in some cases, dire warnings. About climate change, about the dangers of artificial intelligence (AI) and new warnings of global financial instability, trade wars, isolationism, covert wars and refugee crises… the list goes on.
On issues where the most alarm-bells went off, climate change stands high with dramatic changes around us such as increased floods, tsunamis, storms, forest fires, record-breaking warming, and destruction of natural habitats and extinction of an untold number of species. In the United States, the fourth national climate assessment¹ released in November 2018 presents an urgent and stark analysis outlining threats posed to population health, water, infrastructure, agriculture, tourism – all 12 topics in the summary report have such a bleak view of the affects of greenhouse gas emissions that even the most ardent skeptics will take a second look. Of course the swift dismissal of this report by the current US administration defies all logic and shows the dystopian Kali Yuga we live in.
In October 2018 the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)² stated that urgent and unprecedented changes are needed and we have just 12 years to act in a very significant way to prevent catastrophic damage and reduce the risk of extreme heat, drought, floods, poverty … a familiar list.
Speaking of AI, in recent years, prominent scientists, physicists and inventors including the late Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates and Elon Musk have issued dire warnings such as AI as being more dangerous than nuclear weapons. Quietly AI and AI-based control systems have perniciously crept into our everyday life. According to the Wall Street Journal³, 85% of all trading in the financial markets is on autopilot – controlled by machines and algorithmic models. Vast data sets in the cloud and Internet are harvested every second including news articles based on which a so called “trading herd” is created “that moves in unison and blazingly fast.” (WSJ). During the opening of an AI research center at Oxford in 2015, Hawking expressed that while AI has the potential to eradicate poverty and disease, it can provide new ways for the few to oppress the many. The silver lining is that there are some efforts underway to institute measures that will disallow these technologies to spin out of control and cause harm. (Open AI4)
So what are we supposed to do given such alarms all around us? As Yoga practitioners, teachers and spiritual seekers, what is the unique toolset that we have that we can utilize and help others tackle the advancements and the perils of our time?
This brings us to the 9th century philosopher-sage Shankaracharya who is attributed to have written a highly regarded philosophical text called Atma Bodha. Like many of his works, this text is completely self-contained and examines the nature of life and the truth that is within all of us.
The above cited verse, the first of the 68, indirectly extols the seeker to first clean up their karmic entanglements by engaging in Yogic austerities, calming down the sensory pendulum of reactions to external stimuli (love, hate, despair and jubilation etc.), and then develop an interest in attaining liberation. The key here is to have an interest and intent to be free, and gain true Self-knowledge. But how does one get on a pursuit of the knowledge of the Self. Where is the blueprint for it? Is there an instruction manual? Many wise and otherwise people have pondered on this question for thousands of years. There are so many Yoga related texts, commentaries on those texts and contradictory statements by teachers, saints, philosophers and Popes. In this vast web of spiritual paths and teachings it is easy to get lost or try many paths in a short amount of time and get frustrated because we don’t make spiritual progress. In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, the three ways of attaining knowledge (Pramāna) are
Pratyaksha = direct perception or cognition
Anumāna = inference, reasoning, deduction
Āgamah = authority, testimony, validation, competent evidence
One such Āgamah Shāstra or source text is the Ātma-Bodha, using which as an inspiration, the mechanics of liberation – of freeing oneself from whatever it is that is holding us back, can be used to find a way forward.
Liberation from what one might ask – well, liberation relates to freedom, freedom of the Self. It may not imply physical freedom alone, actually it’s the contrary. Because of our life situation, we may not be free to do whatever we want and physically rid ourselves of our daily responsibilities. That’s not the Mumuksha that Shankaracharya is proposing in the verse above. The liberation here being discussed is how we feel about ourselves, inside our mind, our mind-heart and how we interact with the world around us. Are we bound to attachments (often sub-conscious), judgments, and other habitual activities that are harmful to the planet and our fellow human and animal beings?
Jivamukti is a path to enlightenment through compassion for all beings
The first step according to the above verse from Ātma Bodha, is establishing an interest in attaining liberation – at least a gradual freeing of oneself from thoughts, actions, weaknesses and addictions. Setting the Intention is the first step. Creating a sankalpa, focused and sacred intention for liberation, to be able to experience what it is to live like a Jivanmukta.
How can we use the concept of liberation to address the two big warnings about Climate Change and AI?
1. Climate Change: Jivamukti Yoga teachers are activists – spiritual and social activists. Our Yoga toolkit consists of the intelligence and blueprint developed by our teachers to start movements around the world that reduce consumption that harms the planet. This includes food, clothing and shelter – all basic necessities for life. Imagine not being dependent on the global supply chain for any of the basic necessities. Spiritual and social activists always find the solutions such as local farming, sustainable energy production and distribution, inspiring better consumption choices; a Jivamukti teacher recently reported that for the first time she heard within her mainstream and highly successful fashion house, the use of the phrase “Cruelty-Free” production of clothing! These signs point to a better future.
2. Artificial Intelligence (AI): Did you ever consider staying off of social media and reducing dependence on technology and smart phones for a month? Recent stories of people who experimented with such a digital detox reported extra ordinary results: such as increased attention span, more time on hands to read and relax, pursue many other hobbies and interests, better relationships with their loved ones and in general being more happy and content. Innovation in this area will come from necessity and having re-experienced the taste of freedom!