The Journey Within
By: Chirapon (Pete) Wangwongwiroj
This essay builds upon an essay that I wrote back in 2011 entitled On Little Deaths and Small Miracles. That piece was a narrative about my spiritual journey that I wrote as a final paper for the class Psych 418: Psychology and Spiritual Development taught by Professor Richard Mann. It was one of those rare opportunities that allowed me to truly be who I am, and in resonance with my soul. That essay remains my favorite piece of writing to date, not because I’m a great writer, but because there seems to be something about telling one’s own story that is so profoundly soothing and liberating.
Earlier this year (2013) I decided that, consistent with the continuous process of human transformation, I would compose a brief update to that first essay to assess where I stand currently—this is how this essay was born. I titled this one The Journey Within as a reference to the continuing process of self-discovery and the exploration of the “universe within,” a concept Ken Wilber discussed in his book Grace and Grit that I found particularly illuminating:
“Spirit within, there is a universe within. The stunning message of the mystics is that in the very core of your being, you are God. Strictly speaking, God is neither within nor without-Spirit transcends all duality. But one discovers this by consistently looking within, until “within” becomes “beyond”. The most famous version of this perennial truth occurs in the Chandogya Upanishad, where it says, “In this very being of yours, you do not perceive the True, but there in fact it is. In that which is the subtle essence of your own being, all that exists has its Self. An invisible and subtle essence is the Spirit of the whole universe. That is the True, that is the Self, and thou, thou art That.” —Ken Wilber, in Grace and Grit
The process of discovery of the self never ends, and perhaps it is not meant to end. They say happiness is a journey, and life itself is a journey. The journey is what matters. I am once again reminded of what Joseph Campbell said:
“People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonance within our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive. That’s what it’s all finally about.” –Joseph Campbell
It is only within these past two years that I am starting to understand what this rapture feels like. Reflecting—and to some extent reminiscing—on these past two years, I think I was finally given the gift to help me understand what it means to be selfless, and what it means to love.
In addition to my usual focus on the big picture, what the past two years helped me realize was that relationships are truly important. Many friends and role models entered my life in the past two years, and for that I am ever grateful. I was also given the opportunity to get to know some old friends better, and to see how they themselves were transformed in the past year. It truly is a joy and privilege to watch the transformation of human consciousness.
I must acknowledge the roles that my friends and mentors have played in the last two years in shaping me into a better person. Some of my friends dedicate their lives to causes larger than themselves, and some live admirably by leaving a positive impact on those around them. I learn from my friends who truly work selflessly, where the goal is to better the world and not to garner credentials or credit. I am inspired by friends who care so deeply for their friends, and am deeply touched by those who invested much time and effort to maintain their friendships. I am empowered by those who believe in me even when I do not believe in myself. Above all else, I was uplifted by a group of like-minded friends who stuck with me throughout this year in such a special way that we essentially became family, one that I love. When Professor Chris Peterson passed away in October 2012, the outpouring of grief reminded me of the personal connections he made in his life, as well as the impact his work had made on me personally. I was especially awestruck when I heard how he exercised forgiveness to the people who used his work without giving him the credit or compensation. How one man could be so compassionate and loving is beyond me. What I do know is that without Professor Chris Peterson or any other person that touched my life, nothing would be possible, because each and every person that I interacted with taught me something. Some stayed in my life longer than others, and those people—you know who you are—truly are the biggest gifts from God.
I wrote in On Little Deaths and Small Miracles that almost all transformative experiences for me have one thing in common: I almost decided not to do it, or some exceptional circumstances rendered me unable to do so. The last two years were no exception. I initially gave up on the Happiness Initiative at the University of Michigan, a student organization that I co-founded back in 2011 dedicated to changing the campus climate to enable students to be truly happy by being who they are. Originally, I was overwhelmed with the challenges of starting a new organization, and just let it go. However, as God worked his divine magic, he brought into my life two exceptional beings who would become champions of the Happiness Initiative. With that, my passion for enabling happiness for all was rekindled.
That renewed passion led me to create a project called MHappy Month in April 2013, which was inspired by the national movement to recognize the period between April 13 (Thomas Jefferson’s birthday) and April 22 (Earth Day) as the Pursuit of Happiness Week. MHappy Month stood for the same goal as the Happiness Initiative, which is to engage students to rethink what happiness means for them and provide opportunities for them to access different paths towards happiness.
This project ended up defining my senior year at the University of Michigan. I devoted many hours to the project—too many actually, and I would not have it any other way. What the project gave others I do not know, but what it gave me was the realization that whatever I do in the future, it will involve my service dedicated to the transformation of the human consciousness. This work is so important to me because I continue to believe in the interconnectedness and interdependence of our world, and how my experiences are so intertwined with both those around me and those all over the world. We are united under a common destiny—for survival, for fulfillment, for happiness.
We owe our ability in large part due to the newly minted wealth passed to us from our parents’ generation. My friends and I speak about the intergenerational shift from a time where we work to make ends meet to a time where we work to discover meaning in our lives. It is indeed a fascinating transformation for with wealth comes both privilege and responsibility: privilege to be able to identify and ponder issues that our wealth shelters us from, and responsibility to ensure that we act on those issues. I remembered the time when I was in Liberia and saw how people simply had to make ends meet each and every day. There was no other option. Survival was the priority. While I was there, I started thinking about why I work on sustainability. It seemed as if sustainability was a first world problem! I was privileged to be able to care about sustainability actively. I thought about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, and where I stood on the pyramid. Not everyone was at the apex, and that is why I do my work—to get everyone to the top. Whether you believe in Maslow’s Hierarchy is, to me, secondary. The argument I am trying to make here is that many of us have privileged identities without knowing so, because that is how privilege works; it does not bother you.
A man who inspires me to continue doing what I do is Robert F. Kennedy. I got to know him through my work on alternative economic paradigms based on happiness. Believe it or not, Robert Kennedy had this vision for America forty years ago:
“Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it tells us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.” —Robert F. Kennedy
I found comfort in knowing that a passionate political figure and servant leader forty years ago understood why our current economic paradigm is unsustainable. I wondered what would have happened if he was not assassinated, for he would have had a pretty darn good chance of winning that presidency. I was fascinated by RFK’s story and learned more about him. In a way, the story about how he fought mightily to define himself beyond the shadow of his brother, who was also his mentor, only to have him leave so abruptly sounds like a mighty challenge from God. That was RFK’s little death and small miracle. His transformation into a passionate and righteous thought leader completed what Joseph Campbell and other mythologists would call a hero’s journey—the basic pattern found in many narratives across all cultures.
One of his favorite quotes spoke highly of his character:
“None can usurp the height…
But those to whom the miseries of the world
Are misery, and will not let them rest.”
–John Keats, in The Fall of Hyperion: A Dream
My god. What a powerful phrase. This gives me strength to continue doing the work.
Now, you may have already noticed that a remarkable difference between The Journey Within and On Little Deaths and Small Miracles is that this piece has a more worldly spin to it. The abstract spiritual ramblings take the backstage. This is an intentional shift that reflects where I currently am in my journey. Although I continue to redefine my sense of spirituality and what it means to me, the mighty question that weighs heavily on my mind is how my worldly pursuits can—and must—align with my spirituality. I say “must” because I would not have it any other way. My pantheistic beliefs feature prominently in my advocacy for social justice and equality for all.
The big challenge for me is how to remain engaged, but not attached. This is inspired by Thich Nhat Hanh’s work on “engaged Buddhism.” Thich Nhat Hanh argues that Buddhists can remain engaged in the world (as activists, change agents, and anything else really) based on Buddhist principles. As a man who was raised Buddhist, this resonated with my profoundly. It is so important, especially in the field of sustainability, to remain fully engaged in what one does without taking any setbacks or resistance as personal failings. I used to get so distressed worrying about the state of the environment. The science is not particularly uplifting; all numbers and research point to an (unavoidable?) impending disaster. Some predict that we have already past the tipping point, and some claim that 2050 will spell doom.
My friends and I got slowly worn down by the consistent inertia and stubbornness. In fact, some of us reached a point where we stopped fighting altogether. Part of the reason I started working on happiness is because I believed we needed a new positive vision that brings us together—one based on ideals that consider the collective and unite us. I also focused on happiness because I needed a break from all the bickers and ill will surrounding environmentalism. My passion for sustainability—both environmental and social—has not gone anywhere. What is different is my approach. I stopped following the science, because that no longer brings me any good. I choose to present the systemic change that is needed to create a positive and sustainable society. This quote below perfectly captures how I now see our world:
“Your work is not to drag the world kicking and screaming into a new awareness. Your job is to simply do your work—sacredly, secretly and silently, and those with eyes to see and ears to hear will respond.” –The Arcturians
I believe in the Gaia principle, which postulates that the earth is one giant organism, and all of us are living cells inside this organism. What we do impact the whole body, and right now we act as malicious cells that are slowly degrading the earth. One can imagine a parallel narrative is that our organism is undergoing the maturation process—from a destructive period (i.e. puberty) to a more mature and regenerative phase. Spiritual greats like Thich Nhat Hanh and Eckhart Tolle speak of a spiritual awakening that will usher in this new phase. That is what I am fighting for—sacredly, secretly, and silently.
The year 2013 marked the closure of yet another chapter in my life: my undergraduate years at the University of Michigan. I am currently sitting on a train traversing rural Canada pondering what will come next in my life—not just on the literal dimension but also the spiritual one. If I let my mind speak its true calling, it would say “I am a storyteller.” I truly am. Whether we admit it or not, we are storytellers. Brené Brown said in her awe-inspiring TED talk on spirituality that she was called a storyteller. This same concept is a theme that Joseph Campbell believes so strongly to be universal; the inherent human need to tell stories transcends our differences. This is why I write. I like to tell my story. I write because it helps me understand, and I write with the hope to forge connections with kindred spirits. Above all, I tell stories in the hope that they will transform consciousness, as others’ stories have graciously transformed mine. That truly is the joy of writing and storytelling.
Dr. Shelly Schreier—a phenomenal psychology lecturer at the University of Michigan—once said to me that she is “an old soul.” I have to concur. We old souls wander out and about leisurely, taking the time to watch the beauty of nature and forge meaningful connections along the way. To me, the basic joys in life are—put simply—the best kind. I am reminded of what how Thoreau lived:
“I went to the woods because I wanted to live deliberately,
I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life,
To put to rout all that was not life and not when I had come to die Discover that I had not lived.” —Henry David Thoreau
However, not all the pieces fit together quite nicely. I am still figuring out how different pieces fit together in this puzzle called life. I am still not sure why I am born as a Thai. I do not know why I was given the opportunity to travel. I am also clueless as to why I have not found my soul mate, but perhaps the biggest apparent misfit is my training as a chemical engineer. Why is an engineer thinking about all these issues? One can say that I do not belong in the engineering world. Currently, engineers—broadly speaking—are trained to mainly consider the single bottom line—money. In my opinion, engineers should play a much larger role of creating a positive impact on the society. While technological inventions need to be profitable to be sustainable, I concur with Albert Einstein:
“It is not enough that you should understand about applied science in order that your work may increase man’s blessings… Concern for man himself and his fate must always form the chief interest of all technical endeavors, concern for the great unsolved problems of the organization of labor and the distribution of goods—in order that the creations of our mind shall be a blessing and not a curse to mankind. Never forget this in the midst of your diagrams and equations.” –Albert Einstein
I am a rebel. I fight systems. I fight institutions. I fight the status quo. Oddly enough, the University of Michigan has made me anti-establishment, because of all the possible changes that I do not see happening. My passion for higher education has developed markedly over the past two years, an effect of both my frustration with the current system as well as the transformative impact of many mentors and professors throughout my college career. What I will end up doing I am not sure, but that is not the point. The point, in my mind at least, is that I give my all to my work, and my work brings me meaning, because it is rooted in my passions and values. Even when the times are dark, I take comfort in knowing that I am fully alive and feeling the rapture of my journey. I trust life enough to know that if I continue to follow my destined journey, doors will open for me when they are supposed to.
“I am a child of god. God loves me. Everything is fine.” Lake Shrine Temple, Pacific Palisades, California
So I let go, and let God.
If you are still with me this far, please accept my sincere gratitude for devoting your time to hear my story. Please know that I would love to hear yours, be it in person, through writing or otherwise. It is my intention that I will continue to write annual or biennial updates on my spiritual path, so I hope this is not the last of our interactions. For now, let us let go, and let God.