I remember reading, a long time ago, the short novel “Notes from the Underground” by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, the great 19th century Russian novelist, writer and philosopher. It was about a man, a retired civil servant, who had isolated himself from society and preferred to live alone. The unnamed narrator was referred to as the “Underground Man.”
I cannot forget his reply to people who were persuading him to come out of his shell and live a normal life in society like any civilized man. “Civilization?” he mockingly asked. “What has civilization contributed to man except to increase the varieties of his sensations and absolutely nothing else?”
Indeed, if we think deeply about it, what is the basic difference between Stone Age man and modern man? Isn’t it a fact that modern man has only a variety of things that increases his sensations, which primitive man did not have—motor vehicle, radio, television, movies, telephone, computers, etc.?
Has civilization added something fundamental to his humanity, or has it alienated him from his own self? I cannot help thinking that Dostoyevsky is somehow correct.
Modern living has not only isolated man from himself but also from nature. His tempo of living is dictated by the clock, by machines, by society, by religion. Even the remedies for his ailments are dictated by the pharmaceutical industries, and not by what his body naturally needs to get well.
The underground man forces us to ruthlessly examine the values we hold dear, and see whether they are for our growth or for its opposite.
Take our concept of wellness. What comes to mind immediately when we think of it? We normally equate it with physical health. We seldom relate it with mental and spiritual wellbeing. But man is composed not only of physical body, but also of mind and spirit.
One cannot be well physically if his mind or his spirit is sick. As Apollonius of Tyana said in the first century, “Man cannot be healthy in the lower part if his upper part is sick.” Or something to that effect.
Apollonius is right. To be healthy literally means to be whole. How can one be whole if the parts of his being are not in sync or in harmony with each other?
One disturbing characteristic of modern civilization is that it has hypnotized or brainwashed us to look outside ourselves for a source of happiness and joy, rather than encourage us to look inside ourselves. We are constantly made aware of what is outside of us rather than what is inside.
As a result, modern man has become acquisitive. To his mind, happiness consists of getting what he wants in life. But as the great Buddha pointed out very wisely, what makes man happy is “not in having what he wants, but in not wanting what he does not have.”
It is admittedly a difficult philosophy to follow—that is, non-attachment—but something worth cultivating.
The underground man in this sense is a happy man because he does not want what others may have. He has remained detached from the allure of the senses.
But in the eyes of those blinded by sensations, the underground man is insane and out of touch with reality.
In the end, each one of us must decide what we hold dear, and do so with complete awareness. Only there lies the ultimate redemption of mankind.
The next Soulmates, Karma and Reincarnation seminar will be on March 7, from 1-7 p.m. Interested parties may call tel. 8107245 or 0908-3537885; e-mail the author at [email protected]