The ancient wisdom of ancient texts
The new year brings new opportunities. For many, however, these new opportunities manifest as mere ideas of new opportunities, which are never acted upon. A combination of self-doubt and in-built societal prejudice towards change conspires against our attempts to transform our lives for the better. Sadly, the new beginnings advocated by the ‘new year, new me’ rhetoric rarely see the light of day.
The thing is that these new beginnings constitute the essential first steps towards Wholistic Wellbeing. This makes rising above the anxieties that prevent us from embracing these new beginnings all the more important. But how do we rise above these limitations, so often self-imposed? Science will offer certain answers, while self-help doctrine will offer others. I personally find that spirituality, when grounded in reality and service, offers the most pertinent roadmaps.
This is not to exclude agnostics or atheists from the narrative of Wholistic Wellbeing: on the contrary, I want to suggest that the wisdom of spirituality transcends religious boundaries and informs our views regardless of our beliefs. In the spirit of democratizing Wholistic Wellbeing, spirituality is key to bringing knowledge and advice to all.
Tao Te Ching, the ancient Chinese Taoist text, and Bhagavad Gita, the Hindu classic, are sacred texts from two distinct traditions, both written to help seekers reach the sacred and attain knowledge and guidance in their daily lives. As a seeker myself, I find these ancient texts can be trusted for the mere fact of their longevity: they are not just legitimate markers of a spiritual identity, but mediums through which even non-believers may seek and find truths which they have not previously considered. Aside from being conduits towards spiritual enlightenment (a vital and valuable feat in itself), they are hallmarks of our human heritage.
The words Tao Te Ching have been translated as The Way. Although its authorship has been traditionally attributed to the sixth-century B.C. sage Laozi, like The Bible, its true author is unknown. The 81-chapter text is composed of a series of allusive images and sayings that have guided and inspired many over centuries, such as spiritual leader Alan Watts, writer Leo Tolstoy, and musician John Cage. For me, one of the most poignant images is that of a still point at the center of a turning wheel. In our frenetic world, it is so important to find our own stillness and space.
This is the epitome of spiritual literature, a guide to cultivating a life of serenity and caring for our fellow human beings. Its aphorisms and parables are meant to guide us toward the Tao, or harmony with the universe.
The Bhagavad Gita is the most well-known and important of ancient Hindu texts. Mahatma Gandhi referred to it as his spiritual dictionary. It is contained within the Hindu epic, The Mahabharata. Although clearly a spiritual text, the story is set on a battlefield, and is directly concerned with real-life decisions and situations. The main character, Arjuna, a warrior, despairs about the violence and death he will cause and is advised by his charioteer, Krishna. Swami Mukundananda offers clarity on the text:
The Krishna–Arjuna dialogues cover a broad range of spiritual topics, touching upon ethical dilemmas and philosophical issues that go far beyond the war Arjuna faces. […] The yogis strive to conquer the mind through meditation because, while a trained mind is the best friend, an untrained mind can be the worst enemy for a spiritual aspirant. Shree Krishna cautions Arjun that by merely engaging in severe austerities, one cannot progress on the spiritual path. Therefore, moderation must be maintained, even in basic necessities like food, sleep, work, recreation, etc.
Both the Tao Te Ching and the Bhaghavad Gita are excellent and relevant literature providing guidance and solace to sustain our spirits as we seek Wholistic Wellbeing through transformation and self-improvement. As we welcome new beginnings for a new year, reading new stories from the corpus of wisdom literature, or revisiting old texts with our own, new interpretations, can sketch out paths for lasting personal growth.