India, Rishikesh – Self-improvement 101

“I feel like I’ve grown so much over the last few days, I’m really evolving.”

“That’s so wonderful. I’m so happy for you. This morning, at the end of meditation class, my Guru made this profoundly wise statement about universal purpose. And it affected me. Profoundly. You know, since I came here, I feel like I’ve completely changed as a human being.”

“So true. I feel it too. I went to the toilet this morning before yoga practice, and for some reason I felt the urge to look. You’ll never guess what…my shit floats. All of it. I confess it had me a bit worried, but then I asked my Guru about it, and he told me it was actual physical proof that I had moved closer to Enlightenment.”

“Oh my god, that is so amazing. I wish I was already as far on my Journey as you are.”

And on the conversation went. Jacob had tried his best to ignore the three Europeans at the table behind him, but their lengthy spiritual circle jerk was impossible to mute out. He ached to turn his head and see if they were actually being serious. Their tone of voice told them that they were. Their conversation made him cringe inside, since they reminded him so much of his multi-million-dollar clientele. Which, up till three days ago he had been narcissistically proud of. A nationwide clientele that gobbled up his pricy self-improvement books, courses, and live seminars filled with words like ‘evolve,’ ‘change,’ ‘grow,’ and ‘purpose.’

He felt sick to his stomach and pushed the plate with his barely touched breakfast to the far end of the table. He should never have come here. He had spent twenty-one years making his business the success it was today. Twenty-one years , his whole adult life And he’d done it, not just to make money, no, he’d believed wholeheartedly in his own teachings.

Until ten days ago that is. Now, he felt his life’s work to be one big fucking joke. He felt like an idiot. A delusional idiot.

He should never, ever, have come to India.

It had been a bet. More like a challenge actually. The others had turned it into a bet. He had been having dinner with his entourage to celebrate the company making eight figures in sales for the first time. After coming close to the magic number three years in a row, this year, it had finally happened. He’d splurged on the dinner party, and everyone had been drunk on champagne. As always happened when he dined in a public place, people recognized him and came over to ask for an autograph, engage him in pointless chit-chat, or thank him for changing their lives. He usually had his assistants shield him from these interruptions but that day he’d felt so good about himself he thought he’d share his energy with the lesser crowd. He signed about two dozen books – each with his handsome, smiling face on the cover – and had even allowed several other diners to engage him in a few minutes of conversation. He never paid any attention to what was being said during these kind of conversations. His body language showed genuine interest, he nodded and answered with suitably generic phrases, meanwhile ruminating on whether the Aston Martin DB3S or the Porsche RS60 would be the best new addition to his vintage car collection. He breezed through all the conversations on autopilot. All except for one.

Jacob had rattled off a greeting and a few other words he couldn’t recall to the man who had obviously waited to be the last to speak to him. The ‘lurker’ as he’d dubbed the person hovering around him – at every gathering there was always one – set on being the last in line to talk to him. Lurkers suffered from the misapprehension that they had Jacob’s undivided attention if there was no one else left who wanted to speak to him. In fact, the opposite was true. The later someone popped up in the line of supplicants, the less attention Jacob granted him or her – they of course, felt like they received his full, undivided, genuine interest. Lurkers were almost always slick men in slick suits hoping to wow Jacob with their slick opportunities.

Jacob was a self-made man. He’d built his business from the ground up, conscientiously sculpted his brand until the dropping of his name alone was enough to launch six-figure products. He would sooner beg for money on the streets than accept someone else’s great deal or golden opportunity. He had a mission a life. A purpose greater than himself. And he had grown, changed, evolved in his quest to achieve it.

The lurker standing in front of him was most definitely not a slick man in a slick suit. He was wearing a burgundy red sweater that had seen better days (if it had ever seen any good days that is). Loose threads were hanging from the sleeves and near the bottom, and an alarmingly unfashionable pair of pants; baggy in a one-size-fits-all-and-we-really-mean-all kind of way, with an elephant design repeated seemingly countless times across the white fabric in a shade of purple that Jacob could only describe as ‘cheap.’ The man, who’s beard also had loose threads everywhere, did not say a word, but stared at Jacob with calm, unblinking eyes. Not in a creepy sort of way, but as if the man had seen the whole of Jacob’s being with a single glance, yet without judgement. Jacob felt his soul had been laid bare. And had been dismissed, as if it was of no consequence.

Jacob was not happy. He considered himself to be of great consequence.

“Can I…can I help you with something?” Jacob asked, with a timid voice he didn’t recognize as his own.

The man continued to gaze deeply into Jacob’s eyes. The silence stretched, both within the bounds of their strange connection and outwards. Their staring contest appeared to have captivated everyone in the restaurant.

Jacob felt like minutes had gone by. He wondered whether the man was a foreigner, maybe he did not speak English. He opened his mouth to prompt the man again and closed it as the man’s voice filled the hush draped over the crowded establishment.

“I have read your book. I found it…interesting. Do you truly believe everyone has a purpose in life, a purpose bestowed upon you by the…universe, by a higher power?”

Jacob had answered this question or something similar thousands of times. He couldn’t understand why this time he was hesitant to answer.

“Yes, I do. I wouldn’t describe it quite like that, but yes.”

“But is that not how you describe it in your book? You devote a whole chapter on finding your life’s purpose. You write about it as if it is something that is and must be discovered in order to live a life worth living. You even advise readers who have a difficult time finding their purpose to go on things like vision quests. Have you gone on such a quest yourself?”

“I have not. My purpose in life was crystal clear to me very early in life.”

“And this purpose is the reason you were put on this earth?”

“It sure is.”

“By a higher power?”

“I am not talking about God or anything, if that’s what you are on about.”

“I know you are not, it is obvious from your writing that you are an atheist. But then, my question remains, where does your purpose come from?”

The man was starting to piss Jacob off. His purpose was greater than him, it fueled his existence. He did not know where the calling came from exactly, but it came from somewhere outside him. Yet he felt that whatever word he used right now to describe it – the universe, lifeforce, his watcher – would make him sound like a spiritual ninny, the likes of that goose who wrote The Secret and nearly wrecked the credibility of the entire self-improvement niche. But it was true, he was certain of it, purpose was everything.

“It does not matter where is comes from. It is as immutable a fact of life as breathing. Purpose is the air on which the human mind subsists. Without it, man’s existence is empty.”

Jacob had caught his stride as he spoke and had unleashed his full alpha male stage presence on the man. He could feel the effect of his energy ripple through the crowd. The other diners had congregated in a circle around him during their conversation, and he could feel their awe for him. Not the man in front of him though, he just stared at Jacob, unblinking and completely unaffected. The man continued as if Jacob had not spoken at all.

“Wherever this holy…excuse me…righteous purpose comes from, would you say each person on Earth has one?”

“Most certainly.”

“And this purpose, would you say it to be that person’s lot in life?”

“It is the lot, as YOU say, he or she should do everything possible to attain.”

“Destiny? Fate?”

Jacob hesitated. Something did not feel right about this conversation. He felt like he was being railroaded to a place he did not want to go. And by his own (written) words. But he couldn’t, and wouldn’t, back down now. Backing down was not in his nature, and besides, he had an audience. “Yes, purpose IS destiny. And fate.”

“So,” the man paused, as if contemplating. “As you say, there is a design to life. To each and every life, and every person must seek out this purpose, and then do their utmost to attain it?”

“As you say,” Jacob said with a smirk.

“And your purpose in life, your granted purpose, is to be rich and famous?”

“My purpose in life is to help others achieve their purpose. Life has rewarded me for what I have given. Giving to get is central to my teachings, as you’ve undoubtedly read in my books.”

“And what of those who have less control over their lives than you, what about their allotted destiny?”

“Everyone has control over their lives and should exert it. Those who do not align their lives with their purpose live a life not worth living.” Jacob could not keep his disgust for the seemingly endless herd of mediocre people shitting their lives away in a nine-to-five job and staring at the screen of their phone or TV – his pet peeve – out of his voice.

“So,” the man paused again. “Everyone is in charge of their lives, and if they do not align their lives with their purpose, they live hardly a life at all. And if they do chase their granted purpose, they will be rewarded with riches and happiness.”

“Yes.”

“I think it would be good for you to expand your experience of the world.”

Jacob could not quite recall how that comment had led to him traveling to India, by himself, two weeks later. But there had been bets involved among the crowd surrounding them that night at the restaurant. And it was not in his nature to back down.

He had been in India for ten days now, visiting the places the man had told him to go, and if there was a grand design to life, he no longer wished to see it.

People, everywhere, with nowhere to go, and no hope to get there if they did. They sat by the side of the road, begging for near-worthless rupees, scavenging for plastic to sell to a recycler, holding up their arms all day for a small helping of uncooked rice. They were born, lived, and died in rickety shacks that housed ten people but could logically only fit two. Many did not even have a shack, some not even a blanket to sleep on.

They were in every city, in small groups or in throngs. An endless mass of people carpeting this massive country. There was no purpose to them, except survival. A life of making it through one day at a time. No hope, ever, of improving their lot in life. He heard the man’s voice inside his mind, mocking him: ‘doesn’t everyone have a grand purpose in life, a purpose bestowed by something greater than them. Aren’t you glad the universe deigned you to be rich, good-looking, and fortunate in everything, while others—”

Jacob had a vision of himself teaching a seminar to the beggars of India, telling them they could be whoever they wanted to be. As long as they chose themselves, invested in themselves. Changed. Evolved. Grew.

He pushed the unwanted images in his mind away and tried his best to ignore the unwanted images on the street. After visiting three of the cities – Mumbai, Delhi, Varanasi – the man had told him to, he’d escaped from the vision of the world that so conflicted with his worldview. He flew to Rishikesh. He’d been told it was the ideal place to relax and center yourself. A prime destination for yoga and meditation, two practices he advised all his students to embrace. He’d heard good things about Rishikesh. It would be a good place for him. The Beatles had even visited it one time.

There he could organize his thoughts. Or so he’d hoped. But it was not to be. His thoughts were constantly interrupted by the Westerners crowding Rishikesh, incessantly yakking about their purposeful changing, growing, evolving. Words that were gospel to Jacob thrown around with as much gravity as talk about the weather.

Were his clients like these people? Was this the effect he was having on the world? Was he only feeding the narcissistic impulse of people living privileged lives just by the luck of their birth?

Because that is one thing he has certainly during this India trip; up till now, he has lived a sheltered life. Besides the occasional beggar on the streets of Chicago – who he still believes does have his own fate in his hands – he had never been exposed to true hardship. Unescapable hardship. He’d heard the sob stories on TV and other media, he’d donated a bunch of dollars to some charity or emergency fund or something, he’d seen Slumdog Millionaire. Somehow these things hadn’t truly registered in his mind.

Now that his mind had been opened to other realities of life, he had no trouble in considering that what he saw in India was only the tip the iceberg. The world was full of people who were basically fucked from the moment they were born.

The man’s voice sounded inside his head again. ‘So, rich and famous purposeful man, what about all these people you see, what is their granted purpose?’

His mind refused to answer the question. Because the answer staring at him from the slums of Mumbai and the banks of the Ganges in Varanasi made a joke out of his lifetime-held worldview.

This was unacceptable.

He was done here.

He’d seen all he needed to see. He got the man’s message. He was privileged. Maybe he could turn that privilege into purposeful action. To help those without privilege.

Jacob checked out of his room in Rishikesh, took a taxi to the airport, boarded the first available plane to an international airport, and there, got on the first available flight to the United States. A first-class seat, as was his standard.

He slept straight through the fourteen-hour flight, having suffered nothing but restless nights in restless India. He dreamed vivid dreams about growth, purpose, and beggars, but upon waking the dreams faded from his mind.

Back in his two-point-three-million dollar apartment in Chicago the vividness of his India experience also quickly faded from memory. Occasionally a thought would float to the fore in his mind, an idea that he should do something for the helpless on this earth. Something, with purpose. Over the weeks that followed, as he settled back into the life he had built for himself – had purposefully created for himself – the thought surfaced less and less. Should became could, became maybe, became not much of a thought at all. He’d regained his stride, charging down his path toward his purpose.

His purpose was greater than himself. He was the leader of men, chosen to guide others to their purpose and to greater lives. Change. Evolve. Grow.

Jacob’s life’s work consumed nearly all his time. He did not mind. It was that important. Sometimes he would reward himself with a short vacation to recharge his batteries. Wherever he went on these holidays though, he felt the trip should also align with his purpose. Which, in his case, meant a holiday with very little in the way of (mental) distraction. On these vacations he never ventured far from his five-star resorts.

The man, who’s purpose in life was to try and reach people whose influence might make a difference to the lives of those who had no control, never crossed Jacob’s mind – or path – again.

My own story of Rishikesh

Rishikesh lies in Northern India, among the foothills, on the banks of the mighty Ganges river. It is considered one of the holiest cities in Hinduism. The Beatles stayed in an ashram there in 1968, catapulting the city to Western fame and making it a place of pilgrimage for any and all from across the globe. Rishikesh offers them a wide variety of spirituality. Traditional ashrams stand beside centers teaching meditations on parallel worlds populated by dinosaurs, other dimensions, past or future lives, and many other ideas that go beyond our visible reality. It makes for a diverse mix of people: the many gurus, the people from across the globe coming for their teachings, the backpacking tourists, the locals making a living catering to Western needs, and of course, the beggars lining the street. Rishikesh is definitely worth a visit if you’re in India.

Travel is a great teacher on life. No matter how much you learn about the world through the media, books, or people’s stories, there is no substitute to first-hand experience with cultures different from your own. Though we all live in the same world, we do not share the same reality.