Francisco Contreras – Unabashedly Skeptical

"The essence of the independent mind lies not in what it thinks, but in how it thinks." –Christopher Hitchens

Category Archives: Emotional Development

Work to Live or Live to Work?

“ Work is what people have to do in order to be able to buy Iphones and party”

This sentence was uttered by one of my middle-school students during a class discussion about what work means to them. Regrettably, she was not an outlier in uttering this opinion, but a representative of the class consensus; and as far as I can tell, society’s consensus also. For quite some time it has been generally accepted that one’s “job”  is merely the obligatory, often grueling task that one has to do in order to fund leisure. Do you want to have nice things? Well suck it up and work. Do you want to travel and go to shows and concerts? Well suck it up and work.  Indeed , the so-called Monday-Friday workweek is often seen as an oppressive barrier from you and your “real life”. “TGIF”, am I right? This is our modern philosophy of work, and it is prevalent anywhere we look. To take one example, high-school students today are told to choose  college majors solely based on the amount of expected income the majors might provide in the future. These students are no longer told to consider qualitative values of choosing a profession, whether the job will allow them to express themselves, whether it would help society, etc. Is this conception of work one that we should have as a society? What have been the consequences of excluding work from our personal identity? How has this happened and how ought we to change it?


Small Is Beautiful by E. F. Schumacher is considered to be a modern classic on alternative economics. It is a wonderfully enlightening book that critiques our underlying economic  assumptions and encourages a new perspective  on how we can move towards a sustainable economic future. This collection of essays was written in 1973,  but its ideas remain as relevant today as on its day of publication. Among the most interesting of the essays is one entitled Buddhist Economics, where he argues that the current philosophy of work  in much of today’s society is dissatisfying, confusing, and ultimately unsustainable.   

2015-01-09-consumerismSchumacher explains that due to the adoption of Keynesian Economics and capitalist economic structures, our conception of work, which had been previously informed mostly by religious traditions, took a turn for the materialistic with the dawn of the Industrial Revolutions in the early 1800s. Modern economic theory reduces work to an activity to acquire monetary wealth, a mere economic utility.  The reasoning behind this new philosophy of work was that it was the only way to meet the industrial employment demands of the new economy. If people continued to view work as part of their personal and social identity and not as merely a way to to make money, then they probably wouldn’t have accepted the impersonal, grueling jobs of the industrial era.

“For at least another hundred years we must pretend to ourselves and to everyone that fair is foul and foul is fair; for foul is useful and fair is not. Avarice and usury and precaution must be our gods for a little longer still. For only they can lead us out of the tunnel of economic necessity into daylight. “  

— John Maynard Keynes

From this philosophy stems the desire to avoid work at at all costs, which Schumacher argues has estranged us from finding a fulfillment and purpose in life.  He instead encourages us to adopt what he calls a Buddhist Perspective of Human Labor. Which consists of three parts.

1: Work To Develop One’s Faculties

Our work should allow for the full expression of our creative and intellectual capacities. It should not be an obligation, but an exercise of our mental dexterity.

2: Work To Overcome Ego-Centeredness

Schumacher states that according to Buddhist tradition, work is the main way in which we can go outside ourselves and collaborate with others. 

3.Work for Necessary Sustenance  

The last point of this perspective deals directly with material necessity. Unlike our modern perspective, working for material gains should be only a component of why we work, not our sole aim.   


Personally a lot of these ideas seem interestingly reminiscent of Henry David Thoreau, which makes sense considering he took a lot of inspiration from Eastern Philosophy.  One could argue that the main message in all of his work is his fierce opposition to the mindless consumerism and materialism of his day. Though fiercely eloquent, Thoreau’s thought always featured the tricky juxtaposition of idealism and practicality, and I think that’s the main challenge we too must wrestle with if we are to continue to re-think our philosophy of work. However, it is clear to me that we must give it a shot.

“… to make a living not merely holiest and honorable, but altogether inviting and glorious; for if getting a living is not so, then living is not”

 –Live Without Principle, Henry David Thoreau


Secrets from the Yogis

I just came back from spending a few of days at a Kundalini yoga “ashram” (a yogic community-living arrangement). In the middle of one of the most densely populated cities in the world, amidst the chaos of a subway station and endless rumbling of metropolitan life, stands one most fascinating places I have been to. The magic of this place I think is that its inhabitants possess a collection of secrets; a dainty collection of immensely valuable principles and practices adorned in ancient religious rhetoric. I did not realize this at the beginning.  In full disclosure, my first day at the ashram was not focused on analyzing the wisdom of their philosophy, but rather on the whimsical eccentricities of their environment. Among other things, I was amazed and somewhat envious –alright, very envious– of the men’s ample facial hair , the vibrant colors of their furnishings, and the unique cultural fusion of their names( e.g. my host “Sat Tara Singh Sanchez Gomez”) and their food (e.g. vegetarian tamales accompanied by tea made from traditionally Indian Ayurvedic  spices). However, when I began really listening and reading what they had to say, I noticed an uncanny overlap of their teachings and actions (mostly founded on Sikh philosophy) to Abraham Maslow’s characteristics of self-actualized people. From what I gathered,the yogis at the ashram, much like myself, are on a life-long learning journey to become better versions of themselves.  The practices and principles on which they operate (and that have been around for millenia) act as a mental model or framework towards becoming self-actualized individuals.


Self-Actualization vs Mukti

A central backbone of Sikh philosophy takes the form of a list of five principles or virtues. These virtues provide a guide with which to achieve Mukti, a mystical union to their concept of the Divine.  I observed that these five virtues and the steps to achieve them perfectly encompassed Abraham Maslow’s  characteristics of self actualized people.


Sat (Truth)

Sikhs place special emphasis on recognizing and living in line with  the true nature of reality.  They do not proclaim to have the only divine truth, but recognize that their “path to divinity” is but one of many ways to achieve Mukti. Therefore, Sikhs are open to other faiths, philosophies and ways of thinking (religious and non-religious), and independently judge these ideas in order to discern what is beneficial or not in their own lives.  I am non-religious and was completely surprised at the acceptance and genuine curiosity that these people demonstrated, even as I voiced some premature skepticism towards their ideas.  They explained that they believed truth to be a practice which welcomes analysis and starts with the premise that everyone is equal.  They are constantly testing their beliefs by comparing them with their own subjective experience.

This concept of truth clearly overlaps with three of Maslow’s characteristics, 1. Efficient Perceptions of Reality, 1. Spontaneity and Naturalness 2. Reliance on Own Experience.  In other words, their process of meaningful, systematic and inclusive  questioning is compatible with humanistic psychology.

Daya (Compassion)  

When I stayed at the ashram, there were about nine guests, at least two of whom (including me) were not yogis or Sikhs but random travelers who were offered a place to sleep. We were not only offered lodging and hot water, but were overwhelmed with offers of delicious food, traveling advice, German classes, yoga classes, and pleasant conversation. Everyone at the ashram treated us like family. They would get out of their way to see that we were happy, that we were fed, and that we were warm. They explained that they believed in the sacredness of hospitality; that all human beings are part of one community and that cherishing compassion towards each other keeps the heart content. They are exercising what Maslow referred to as “Social Compassion” and “Task-Centered Altruism” in a way that gives them meaning and fulfillment.

Santokh (Contentment)

I had some of of the most pleasant conversations of my life while at the ashram. Everyone had a fascinating story to tell and seemed genuinely interested in hearing everything I had to say (Maslow’s “Continued Freshness of Appreciation”). It was obvious that most everyone had a strong appreciation of community. Yet, a substantial part of their day was spent in solitude. Most of them would find a time to practice their chants and meditations or just take a moment to sit by themselves and savoir vivre. They were some of the few people I have ever met who deliberately practice autonomy and who seek to achieve comfort with solitude (two key characteristics of self-actualized people).

Nimrata (Humility) and Pyare (Love)

The permanent residents at the ashram were a perfect representation of social diversity. The group’s members included students, farmers, a biologist, a lawyer, and a cook. Yet despite the disparity in social status, material wealth and education level, there was no underlying hierarchical structure at the ashram. Everyone’s opinions and ideas were equally valuable and the loving connection they had with one another was palpable.  This was perhaps a result of their love of humanity and their recognition that despite their different circumstances, they were on a similar path.


The goal of my learning project is to find the models and skills necessary to help me develop intellectually, emotionally and socially.  My experience at the ashram enriched my perspective on the essence of emotional development. By being open to different ways of thinking and comparing their philosophy with my subjective experience of truth, the principles I learned at the ashram have meaningfully added to my conception of self-actualization.  For example, the Five Virtues of the Sikh tradition and  some of the practices they entail (hospitality, meditation, openness to criticism, self-discipline) are now part of my  mental model and I predict they will be key to this ongoing process of emotional development.