Those readers who are still interested as to why I am veering towards the path of Hinduism will have the question more fully answered in this post. This covers the meditation and yoga conference that I went to that inspired me.
The title of this post comes from a movie that came out in the 1990's, titled "Fight Club." The overall plot of the movie can be summarized as follows: a working class man feeling oppressed by the monotony of everyday society transforms himself into an organizer of pit-fights that draw men from all over the country to his cause. He then turns them into his own personal army to violently oppose society...and in the process becomes the very sort of authority figure he once despised.
What does that have to do with my own trip to the Meditation and Yoga 2011 conference held by the Art of Living organization in New Jersey?
Well, the title of this article comes from a line from that movie - "you are not a beautiful and unique snowflake." The main character utters that line to his followers to "educate" them on why they must give themselves to his cause. However, while the followers of the main character of Fight Club take that line and then become his violent soldiers, during the MY2011 conference I thought of that line during the speech by the Art of Living's spiritual leader H.H. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar...and discovered its true, positive meaning.
To establish a proper context, I'll start from the beginning. Throughout much of my young adult life I've been dealing with feelings of depression, anxiety, and other associated mental disorders, mainly arising from my diagnosis of Asperger's Syndrome when I was in middle school. Add to that my diagnosis of Type II Diabetes during a long, painful night in the hospital in the midst of my college years and, well, I feel I have a lot on my plate. I've had trouble dealing with these issues...a lot of trouble. They seemed to define my life, as they have impaired my ability to function in everyday society.
One thing that did not help these issues at all for me, at least at first, was my becoming aware of the political, social, and environmental issues facing this world as I grew older. It seemed, to me at least, that my being a white male American citizen, and thereby having the lifestyle that goes with it - a lifestyle that seemed to depend on the suffering of others and the planet - was proof that my existence was a sin, and my mental and physical health ailments my punishment. Thereby I was constantly looking for some way to validate my existence, to somehow find evidence opposite my conclusion and prove that my life was worth living.
One day, as I was walking down the corridors of Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester, NY on my way to take the bus home from an appointment I had there, a flyer caught my eye, a flyer for the Art of Living course being offered in Rochester. The flyer was out of date, as the course had already happened, but still I noticed a phone number for one of the organizers, Chitvan Sharma. That evening, out of curiosity (and perhaps desperation), I called the number and found out more about the Art of Living course and the organization, and she encouraged me to do more exploring on my own. I did so by visiting the Art of Living website and reading some of the materials there. The course sounded like it could help me deal with my everyday troubles, but I could not afford it at first. An idea popped into my head, though, that perhaps if I did a little bartering - volunteering my time and energy to help the local Art of Living chapter, that is - I could take the next course offered at a discount. Chitvan and the other organizers liked that idea, and so I did some volunteering for them, getting to know them better in the process. Still, though, there were some lingering doubts in my mind as to whether or not the course would help me.
Then came time for the Meditation and Yoga 2011 conference in New Jersey...a conference I did not know about until the very last minute. The way the conference was advertised to me was through the instructor for the Rochester Art of Living course - Arati Hunsemara - suggesting I attend the conference to meet H.H. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, and thus remove my doubts as to the course's benefits. I wanted to go not only for that reason, but also as an opportunity to take a break from my ordinary routine. The problem was that since I didn't know about it until the last minute, it was very difficult to include me in the group's trip to the conference, from finding an available ticket (that I could afford), to acquiring a place for me to stay for an evening, to clearing a little time off from my day job so I could prepare before the trip.
Somehow things fell into place, and I soon found myself on the journey to the conference. On the journey there, I bonded with Chitvan and the others in the Rochester Art of Living group, and upon arrival in New Jersey, I got to enjoy the gracious hospitality of our host, named Lakshmi (I sadly cannot recall her last name). I could tell things were going to be good, but anxiety still gripped me, as it naturally would having gone so far from home.
The morning of the conference came, and I was still nervous. I arrived late to the morning yoga session, and had trouble finding the spots reserved for us. Still, I eagerly joined in, and performed the yoga to the best of my ability. Some poses were difficult for me, but I got through to the end of the morning yoga session feeling physically exhausted, but mentally satisfied, as if I accomplished something. It took a while for the afternoon talks to get into full swing, but the audience was rapt with attention, as was I, when Sri Sri entered the stage. I admit it - when Sri Sri entered the stage, I was at first expecting some pre-planned speech full of obvious platitudes and general affirmations, that most likely wouldn't help me much.
However, after he entered the stage, he was silent. Silent for what seemed like an awkwardly long time. I didn't know what to make of it.
Then the words he spoke floored me, as they were not what I was expecting from a guru: "If I just stood on this stage and said nothing for the next few hours, would you still want to be here?"
Most of the audience responded with an enthusiastic "yes," although I did manage to hear one "no" from the opposite end of the audience area. And that's when I knew I was in for a truly inspiring experience, as it proved to me this guru was here to truly educate, and not merely bask in the adulation of his fans. Soon after, he asked a question which was something to the effect of: "what will you all do when I am gone?" In effect he was asking his followers to try to think for themselves. I liked Sri Sri right then and there.
The rest of his speech was affirming, encouraging, and enthusiastic, but not nearly as profound to me as those opening moments. I listened intently, but the true message was yet to come. After his speech, he got up to depart the stage, and almost immediately members of the audience flocked to his side for reasons I could not ascertain. The other speakers frantically shouted "please remain seated" into the microphone in a vain attempt to get the audience to cooperate and leave Sri Sri to peacefully depart the venue. I did my part and remained seated, but I knew I was in the minority. I have to admit, at first my thoughts were along the lines of: "why are all these people intent on forming a huge, almost mob-like crowd around him?" I honestly didn't get the reason. Sure, Sri Sri is a great person, but what would crowding around him just to be near him accomplish? This turned out to be an important thought in my later reflection on the event, but there was more to come.
After the main event came to a close, I caught up with the other members of my group, and they soon departed, me in tow, with a clear agenda on their minds I couldn't grasp at first. They eventually filled me in: they were attempting to "chase" Sri Sri in an attempt to get a more personal encounter with him. I asked how they intended to do that, and they said they had "resources" with which to track him. Suddenly I grew excited at the prospect of being able to meet Sri Sri in person, in a much calmer setting. Chitvan even mentioned I could possibly get a blessing from Sri Sri. Unfortunately, we got sidetracked. Somehow we ended up near the apartment of our host, in effect where we started the day, no closer to Sri Sri. After we learned that Sri Sri was hosting an after-party of sorts for the volunteers for the event at the venue, we were hungry, so we went back in the apartment and practically shoveled dinner in our faces, and went back to the venue in what seemed like a wild goose chase.
Unfortunately, by the time we arrived back at the venue, Sri Sri was just closing the after-gathering, and we missed our window to see him. Was I bummed out? Yes, at first. But then I realized it was okay.
Okay in what way? Would I have loved to receive a blessing from His Holiness Sri Sri Ravi Shankar? Oh yes, definitely, in an "awesome things I want to accomplish before I die" sort of way. But did I absolutely need it? No. I was content with the whole experience as it happened, as I made new friends, did things I've never done before, and enjoyed the company of some sincere companions. I didn't need a personal meeting and/or blessing for this experience to have been a good one. It would've been awesome, yes, but I really got what I needed already.
After coming back home, I reflected on the experience, and of course crashed like a stone upon my bed for some solid sleep. But the morning afterward, I felt truly energized and ready to face the day anew. And during that day, I extrapolated upon my feelings of the experience and came to this conclusion: what I learned from H.H. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar was learned indirectly, but was profound nonetheless - I didn't need the blessing of anyone. I didn't need an outside authority to validate my existence. The mere fact that I do exist is evidence enough that I deserve to exist.
What exactly does this have to do with being, or not being, a beautiful and unique snowflake, though?
During Sri Sri's speech, he led a meditation session, and he prefaced it with some instructions. The instructions were as follows (and I'm paraphrasing here): do nothing, say nothing, be nothing. And it was that last instruction that he elaborated upon in detail. He said, "if you believe yourself to be a rich person, this meditation will not help you. If you believe yourself to be poor, it will not help you. If you believe yourself to be the holiest person alive, this will not help you. And if you believe yourself to be the worst sinner ever, this will not help you either." As the meditation session began in earnest, I kept that instruction in mind...and as I was meditating, that line from Fight Club popped into my head.
Before this point, all this time I was thinking I was, as Sri Sri described, the "worst sinner ever," in the sense that my existence was parasitic of the world, that I was merely a blight on our planet's surface, that the universe as a whole would benefit if I was gone. As I kept Sri Sri's instruction in mind, I realized how much of a folly this line of thinking was. In attempting to not think too highly of myself, I ended up going on the opposite end of the same curve...that even though I thought myself worthless, I was still committing the same mistake of those believing themselves holier than thou.
I was believing myself to be a beautiful and unique snowflake. And in letting go of that belief...I set myself free.
Don't get me wrong, I still have a very strong sense of individuality. But what I realized, in letting go of the "unique snowflake" belief, was that even though I have a sense of self, that self, that ego, doesn't have to be unique. In other words, I don't have to try to be unique, in the sense of redeeming myself in a foolish manner (that wouldn't redeem me at all) or of condemning myself. I don't have to try to be unique because I already am. I have flaws, yes, but I also have strengths. I have bad qualities, but I also have good ones. To be unique in this world, one doesn't have to be someone like Martin Luther King Jr., or Mohandas Gandhi, or any other famous leader.
One has to just be.
Sure, the main character in Fight Club, when he utters that famous line, is using that statement for malicious intent, in an attempt to get his followers to blindly follow his crusade against society. However, even a stopped clock is right twice a day.
Today, as I write this, I've felt happier and better than I have been in ages. My mind feels like it is firing on all eight cylinders, and I'd even say my brain feels like it's on fire, but in the sense that it's finally working. It might sound like I think all my problems are over, but I know that to be false - I know my problems are just beginning. However, I now stand ready to face them as someone with a healthier mind, and lighter soul.
I now face the world with the knowledge that I can just live in it...and even if I accomplish nothing else, I now know that I've accomplished something just by living.