A Western Psychologist’s View of The Brook of Life and Purposeful Action

A Review of “The Purpose and Meaning of Life: If I Had Known . . .

By Edward J. Green, Ph.D., Harvard University, Professor of Psychology, University of Tennessee.

PurposeCoverWebGIFDr. Prem Chopra’s charming little book is a multifaceted allegory that can and should be read again and again. At one level, it is the story of Pete Cameron which is the story of Everyman. It tells the story of Pete’s journey from betrayal to enlightenment, the path he takes, and its vindication. It also tells us much about the author.

Pete and Prem share an Eastern cultural tradition that is the framework of the story. Prem wraps his story around a brook — using the Brook of Life as a metaphor for life’s journey. The way we must navigate the brook is the model for how Pete makes his journey.

In actual fact Prem’s brook is a physical reality. The brook as an abstraction also represents the world through which we all pass, and for Prem it is a vehicle with which he teaches great wisdom. The traveler balances in a scull while rowing clear of obstacles in the river on the way to arrive at his/her destination. In choosing a path to follow, one cannot anticipate all the obstacles that one will encounter along the way.

Navigating the brook is not successfully done by a single minded pursuit of an immediate objective. Objectives are merely way stations by which we achieve the mission we choose for ourselves. As we travel the brook, we must constantly re-assess how well the journey brings us to the realization of our original purpose.

Prem is a of Professor Engineering Management, and if for no other reason his book is unique in the literature of his field by the subtle morality that guides Pete’s journey. Its basic premise is that as the brook flows, it takes us all to the sea – the oneness of God, or Truth. Implicit in the metaphor is the essential brotherhood of which we are all members.

Recently I mentioned to Prem that the metaphor is more difficult for Westerners whose evaluation of the journey is measured against “the bottom line” of a financial report. Although we may profess religious beliefs not all that different from the Eastern traditions that gave us Prem and his book, we are powerfully convinced of a reality defined by sensory experience.

While a consultant to a major New York City bank, I was invited to a dinner at which the CEO exhorted several hundred vice presidents to find ways to help minority businesses grow in Manhattan, saying, “This is where we live.” I am sure that both he and his subordinates meant well, but I also was aware that everyone understood that the social objective could not negatively impact the profitability of a department entrusted to the care of one of those young men.

While director of a commuter MBA program at Columbia Business School, I learned the literature of management from planning and goal setting to linear programming. I never heard anyone in those classes ask where or how moral or ethical guidelines contribute to the cost/benefit mix. Presumably once the students were running their own shop, they would naturally be models of ethical conduct. Yet in another class, the instructor soberly announced that within ten years, one of them would probably be on the cover of Fortune magazine, while another would be in prison for the doing the same thing that got the first the cover story. An ethical point, although negative, was made.

Pete’s journey starts with a mission. He asked himself what he really wanted. He might have decided that he wanted to be as wealthy as Bill Gates. Instead, following his grandfather’s teaching, he decided he wanted happiness, and shaped his plans accordingly. Once he had his mission, he made plans for achieving it.

In deciding, he had to examine himself. What was most important? He was happily married and reasonably secure, so animal appetites were unimportant. He was not seeking power and prestige. Pete has evolved to a point at which he could be satisfied by doing a good job of whatever he set himself. Both spiritual and material reward follow that choice.

Prem builds implicitly upon a hierarchical system of values. He acknowledges contribution of both Maslow and Jung, but his hierarchy is older, stemming from the Vedic literature and Sikh practice.

Prem Chopra tells us what things are important to Prem as well as Pete. Commitment to truth is essential. At the end, Pete finds himself in the enviable position of being asked for help by some of the same business colleagues who had cheated him. Because he was committed to the mission he had chosen, he did not take advantage of the opportunity for revenge.

Neither was he seduced by a beautiful woman or a generous offer of money to re-join the firm, both of which would have deflected him from his purpose. By the way he managed his decisions, he held unwaveringly to his course, and, incidentally, gained more in the end than he could have realized by being clever and vindictive.

Values determine how we make our journey. We have the popular cliché that “nice guys finish last,” and one prominent businessman is noted for the comment that “Christianity is for losers.” Observations such as these obscure the fact that one does not have to choose between wealth and decency, although that happens commonly enough.

Equally obscure is the fact that money per se does not automatically imply happiness, especially when money has been gotten dishonestly. Occasionally we read a book or see a film that teaches that lesson, but too often we finish with a wistful sigh that it would be nice if things were really that way. One of the lessons of Prem’s book is that things can be that way. We only have to choose it by our actions.

One of the reasons we in the West have trouble believing it can be is that we have erected a lie about ourselves. Without going into tedious psychological jargon, it must be said that our greatest problem is that we have bought into the notion that we are not really responsible for what we do. If it isn’t an unfortunate choice by an ancestor that gave us a limited genetic endowment, we are victims of something called society.

Psychologists teach that only two factors determine what we are, heredity and environment. In our rush to be scientific, we rule out personal choice. If laws of behavior are to be valid, there can be no exceptions to them, and choice always makes exceptions.

The upshot is that we now live in a culture of cop outs. No one is blamed for anything. If I get fired, it is someone else’s fault. If I get caught committing a crime, it is society’s fault. If I steal from a friend, it is the friend’s fault. If I go broke, it’s just bad luck. M. Scott Peck, who wrote The Road Less Traveled identified what he called a syndrome of evil defined in part by the denial of personal responsibility.

Prem avoids the concept of evil, focusing on the positive aspects of the journey. Pete starts with the awareness of his responsibility for himself. If we don’t assume it, no one will. Without the role of choice, neither are we blamed nor can we be honored.

Happiness eludes those who deny the truth. Nothing happens without commitment. The dreamer who does not act on his dreams remains a dreamer. Action demands a clear assessment of what we bring to a task and what is required for its accomplishment.

Not only must we have a realistic picture to start, but we must constantly re-evaluate how we are doing as we go along. If we aspire to be a great surgeon, we know that we must acquire the medical training that will allow us to do so. Part of the journey must include medical studies. In other words, if the Mission is worthwhile, the journey is likely to be a long one. Surgeons are made, not born.

Before the journey begins, one must realistically appraise where one is, what tools are needed, and what paths will reach the objective. The appraisal is done by a combination of meditation to evaluate one subjective place and resources, and the objective appraisal of what is necessary for on to make the trip. The best of both Eastern and Western resources play their role in this process. With this information one plans the necessary course of action. After all choices have been considered, one begins the journey.

Prem uses the phrase “shooting the arrow” for purposeful action. One does one’s best and to God leaves the rest. From that point on, changes in course are unavoidably affected by local obstacles and other people, but the mission must remain true.

Tactical changes in objectives occasionally must be made to correct for deflections from the original course, but they must be the result of conscious decision, not impulse. Distractions can and do sometimes threaten the mission, so commitment must be strong. To paraphrase an educational specialist talking about setting objectives for a course of study, “If you don’t know where you are going, you will probably end up somewhere else.”

I found the book revelatory. How we in the West have managed to remain essentially ignorant of the truths of Vedic and Sikh philosophy is nothing less than astounding. Perhaps it is because an unfamiliar writing system has been overly daunting.

I know of only two times that East has met West; the first was Alexander whose heritage for the East was the Greek stabbing sword known today as the kukri. The second was the British Raj. Our ethnocentricity seems to have been so strong that we could only impose our conception of reality and reject the equally valid views of the East. Prem did not write a polemic argument, but his gentle melding of both traditions convincingly manifests that truth.

Professor Edward J. Green received his doctorate in psychology from Harvard University under the guidance of B. F. Skinner, one of the past century’s most respected behavioral scientists. Professor Green is the author of several books, has lectured extensively, worked in industry, taught at Columbia University and served as head of the psychology department at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

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