Friday, October 24, 2008

I Who Have Nothing

What must you have and what is nice to have?

It is a very tough question that will yield as many different answers as the number of people on earth. On this, I drew a little reflection from a monk who recently visited Singapore.

British-born Buddhist monk, Ajahn Brahm was in town last week to deliver talks at the Asia-Pacific Psychiatric Rehabilitation Conference.

Born Peter Betts in London in 1951, he decided at a young age of 16, that religion was important in life. He later studied theoretical physics at Cambridge University on a scholarship before going to Thailand to become a monk.

He lives a life so simple that it sounds punishing to many. He does not have a single cent with him. He has no mobile phone and no MP3 player too. At where he lives, there is no radio, TV or internet. His bed is the floor and his once-a-day meal is decided by donors.

In his usual self-deprecating humor, he considers himself 'one person in the world who's completely immune to the economic downturn'.

He seems to have nothing and yet he lives such an enriched life. In the spiritual fraternity, he is a highly respected teacher and leader. Just like Anthony Robbins, he is a much sought after inspirational speaker. However, unlike Mr Robbins, you do not have to pay through your nose to listen to him as most of his talks are free. He has also authored several books.

It is tough to live such a simple life, isn't it? How does he do it?

I gave myself a moment to think: How much of what I have now can be given up?

I mentally listed and browsed through my worldly belongings (I do not own a Porsche) and I drew up an imaginary table with 2 columns: 'must-have' and 'nice-to-have'. As I attempted to shift my belongings to the 'nice-to-have' column in my head, I cringed.

Even though it was only a mental exercise, I felt the ache of not having some of the possessions. I do not consider myself materialistic but I admit that it is difficult to give up some stuff which I won't die without. (No one has died of not having an MP3 player, right?)

I guess, I have to turn to Maslow's hierarchy of needs for some reasoning. The famous theory laid out 5 broad layers of humanistic needs:

1. The physiological needs
2. The safety and security needs
3. The love and belonging needs
4. The esteem needs
5. Self-actualization

The physiological needs, at the lowest level, include the need for food, oxygen and water. When that is taken care of, we start to look for security. Then we begin to feel the need for love from friends and relatives. Once all these are fulfilled, we go deeper for self-respect and dignity.

The last level is difficult to attain. If we want to be truly self-actualizing, we need to have our lower needs taken care of, at least to a considerable extent. That is tough. Maslow reckoned that only 2% of the world population is truly, predominantly, self-actualizing.

You and I are likely to be hovering between level 2 and level 4 during our life time. But, millions in the world are struggling just to cross level 1. In our haste to accumulate material possessions, we must not dismiss the fortune we have already earned.

I shall keep my imaginary 2-column table as a constant reminder on what is truly important in life. The list is messy right now and needs a little sorting.

Have you made your list yet?

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