Monday, September 8, 2014

de officium et felicitas

Yesterday I finished reading a collection of essays called Medium Raw, written by food and travel authority Anthony Bourdain.  There is a passage at the end of his chapter on a chef named David Chang which elicited an insight.   A little context for those readers who are non-foodies: Mr. Chang is an enormously influential chef who has several restaurants in New York City.  He is relatively quite young and exhibits many of the tropes commonly associated with great artists-- self-doubt, mercurial temperament, drive, and, of course, rare talent.  So, here's the passage:

...a few days later I ask [his friend] Peter Meehan what he thinks makes David Chang really and truly happy--- if the wheels can ever stop turning, he relaxes, takes a deep breath of free air, nothing on his mind.   "I've seen it," Meehan says.  "It's there.  But he doesn't pursue it.  His happiness is not a priority in his life.  It's an incidental benefit, but he's not dead to it.  Maybe, if someday he realizes that happiness can help him achieve his goals, he'll give a shit about it."

Is this sad?  Pathetic, even?  Here's a young man sitting at the peak of his profession and yet he can't, or won't, enjoy it because he's only focused on greatness, as it were.  Why put it in all that work, endure all that suffering for something that can never be enjoyed?  I, for one, however, find this to be not sad but instead a source of great inspiration.  It boils down to a single word: dharma.  Unfortunately, it is a tricky word to translate.  In the Hindu sense (for Buddhists, Jains, and Sikhs, respectively, it has slightly different meanings and connotations) dharma can mean many things, including law, order, duty, custom, model, "path of righteousness."  My understanding of the term includes all of these, and also purpose and a little dash of destiny or fate.

Dharma is the supreme directive.  It overrides love, happiness, and even morality when necessary.  There is a fine illustration from the Old Testament of dharma trumping morality in the story of Abraham and Isaac.  Abraham accepts that his dharma is to obey God, even if it means being willing to commit the shockingly immoral act of killing his own son.  Fortunately for Isaac, the mere acceptance of the dharma satisfies God and Abraham is not obliged to follow through.  And, of course, in the Bhagavad Gita Krsna reminds Arjuna that he is a warrior first, and a brother/cousin/nephew/disciple second.  Mr. Chang, it would appear, has realized that he is a chef first, and all other considerations, including happiness, must come second.  He is acting according to his dharma.

We, in the United States, at least, live in a culture obsessed with happiness-- a Prozac culture replete with bonafide happiness shaming.  I, for one, have been led to believe that there was something wrong with me for not feeling happy at all times.  For example, I frequently see Facebook memes and posters featuring figures like Osho (whose image, I must confess, makes my skin crawl every time I see it, may he rest in peace) saying something to the effect of:  happiness is our natural condition.  Or that happiness is our birthright.  Fuck that.  It sounds more and more like bullshit to me, I'm afraid.  At least it runs counter to my understanding of Krsna's message in the Bhagavad Gita.  We are entitled to our dharma, not our happiness.  Happiness may or may not come if we act according to our dharma.  It doesn't matter.  This is why Mr. Chang's story resonated with me.  While I accept that many may find this to be textbook slave morality, or profoundly pessimistic at best, I must say that I find it supremely comforting to accept that there is a purpose beyond ourselves.

This begs a serious question; how do you know what your dharma is?  This is why so many faith systems have the directive of "know thyself."  It is my earnest hope that anyone who engages in serious self inquiry will discover what his or her dharma is.  Once discovered it leads to a profound sense of peace and security, one that I hope all will have the good fortune to feel.

1 comment:

  1. Something tells me that on some very deep level, Mr. Chang is actually at peace with himself because he is doing what he is put on this earth to do, so to speak. I believe this to be true even if, on another level, he is always full of self-doubt and anxious about his work. He can't help being anxious about his work, just as I can't help being anxious about, say, whether I will get my yoga practice in tomorrow morning or whether I will oversleep. It is an anxiety that is born from having a deeper calling, or dharma, as you would put it. In my opinion, having this kind of anxiety is more worthy than having the kind of rather superficial happiness that comes with buying stuff or having lots of stuff. And actually, I don't think that Nietzsche would say that either Mr. Chang or you are suffering from slave morality. In fact, I'm quite sure he would say that it is the peddlers and buyers of Prozac culture that are truly the sheep and the slaves.