Hurt to be Honored


 I felt the force of, and an attraction to, a comment made by the Nobel prize (1965) winning physicist, Richard Feynman, concerning how he felt about being honored. He exclaimed that it hurt him.

 Get this - to be honored hurt the man.

 It’s not exactly what you'd expect to hear - that Feynman felt hurt at being recognized by any awards, including the Nobel prize.

 His reaction to awards startled me, and then got me into that fierce mode of searching something out, that for me makes life worth living.

 For there is hardly anything I love more than to be seized by some tacit insight and then to become engaged in the effort to understand it more fully.

 And thus I am exploring here the meaning of the scientist’s contempt for prizes.

 What did Feynman’s disdain for prizes and awards say about him? Why was it that he couldn’t care less about honours, rewards and prizes?

 In our day especially, when some are thinking (disgustingly) that all should have prizes, why did Feynman spurn them?

 Why his resistance? Why the reaction? Well, it was surely because he had something else going for him.  

 Which is clear that Feynman felt the presence of a deeper satisfaction than what any honor could bestow.

 Already fulfilled, he was not looking for some award to verify and validate him. 

 Well, I found Feynman's indifference to awards to be elevating and enlarging.

 And might it be that we could all do better than to give a hoot about honors and awards?

 For far better than to receive an award is to experience the same satisfaction that was Feynman’s, which he expressed in his own inimitable way, as the joy of finding things out.

 It was the joy of discovery that meant so much to him. Indeed the very quest for understanding gave him joy.

 Feynman’s comment points to a higher state that he had tasted and cared about. 

 Feynman, I think it’s fair to say, had experienced what is regarded as the goal of spiritual life in the Bhagavat Gita.

 The Gita described a state of being indifferent to praise or blame (ie. awards or criticism)

 It’s a state of holy apathy made possible because of an already attained sense of fulfillment so complete that nothing external can compare or compete with it. 

 In my own small, but significant way, I experienced something of a taste of this level of discovery - the joy of finding things out - as I waited for surgery four weeks ago at the False Creek Surgical Centre here in Vancouver.

 Awaiting surgery, I felt a mixture of dread and hope. About to place my life in the hands of the surgical staff, I was surprised to find that I began to sing a chant that I had discovered twenty-three years ago. 

 I say I sang it, but it was more that the chant was singing me. I did not even need to sing it aloud, for it kept playing on within me the entire time.

 I have always loved the particular chant, but had not expected to be so wonderfully held in its graceful grip.

 I had not realized that during one of the most vulnerable experiences of my life that this particular chant would spontaneously begin moving through me with a tremendous surge of grace and support.

 It really was a surge of a deeper life within me.

 My experience was of a deeper identity, a deeper sense of self, than the surface sense of myself as a sixty-two year old man named Al about to head for an operating room.

 Awaiting surgery, the holy words of a chant that had caused me to weep with joy twenty-three years ago, was now pulsating through me.

 It was a subtle but powerful sensation.

 And then when I woke up I was further surprised to find that the first thing I was aware of was that the chant was still going on internally. (I didn’t wake up singing. That would be a bit much to report!)

 The second thing I was aware of was that I had been seeing pictures of the meditation teacher while I was under - another surprise. I had been hearing her chant and seeing her picture in my mind’s eye.

 It was then with a sense of wonder that I noticed a radiant East Indian nurse looking at me smiling. 

 Her presence and kindness reminded me of the meditation teacher I’d been hearing and seeing, Gurumayi Chidvilasananda. 

 Within minutes of waking up, I was sharing my experience with the nurse.

 I shared that the effect of the chant was to take me into a different place, an eternal place, somehow. I was in some zone beyond space, time and matter. A realm somehow safe and secure, no matter what. 

 Maybe the nurse hears this kind of thing all the time as patients wake up from surgery! I don’t know.

 But she listened as if she was really interested, and I concluded that she was the world’s best nurse.

 I’ve been pondering during the weeks since the surgery that my experiences with Gurumayi in the early 1990’s had changed me more radically than I ever knew.

 I feel more strongly than I ever have that the experiences then have permanently altered me.

 In the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna asks Krishna how it is that a human being can enter the supersensible, or transcendental realm.

 The key that enables access is to be unattached to the fruit of one's labour or efforts. Like Feynman, you do what you do for its own sake. You're not anticipating some future award.  

 Instead you are firmly rooted, established, or anchored, in a deeper dimension.

 And if that’s the case, according to the Gita, you are ready to “attain the ultimate freedom." 

 Feynman expresses in his own creative way the gist of the Gita’s teaching when he says: “I don’t believe in honors, it bothers me, honors bother, honors are epaulettes, (an ornamental shoulder piece worn on uniforms, chiefly by military officers.) 

 "Honours are uniforms. My pap brought me up this way. I can’t stand it. It hurts me." 

 "I don’t know anything about the Nobel Prize, I don’t understand what it’s all about or what’s worth what."

 "I don’t have anything to do with the Nobel’s a pain in the… (laughs)"

 "I don’t like honors. I don’t need anything."

 "I don’t need anything else, I don’t think there is any sense to anything else." 

 "I don’t see that it makes any point that someone in the Swedish Academy decides that this work is noble enough to recieve a prize." 

 "I’ve already got the prize. The prize is the pleasure of finding things out, the kick in the discovery, the observation that other people use it. (my work) Those are the real things. The honors are unreal to me.” (Richard Feynman, The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman)

 I think back to high school when I basically had no inner life and wanted only to be externally recognized, especially by the cool kids - the President of the school - the first string of the basketball team - the school’s cheerleaders.

 And then astonishingly, I was ushered into that select inner circle. I drove around with the school president’s in his sports car - I dated one of the cheerleaders - I made it onto the first string of the basketball team.

 I become one of the elect. I was in the inner ring. But then found, after a while, that I hated it.   

 I stopped caring about being on the inside and in the know.

 Instead I had this idea that I wanted my life to have meaning!

 There can be such an intense struggle between the search for inner meaning or for that of outward recognition.

 As C.S. Lewis says: “One of the most dominant elements is the desire to be inside the Ring or Circle, and the terror of being left outside.” 

 And yet he warns - as I experienced - that making it into the inner ring is entirely unfulfilling.

 Lewis compares the effort to belong to the inner ring as like the attempt to fill a sieve with water

 It is therefore good to realize early on that the best choice is Richard Feyman’s way, the way of the Gita, the way of inner satisfaction.

 It is only then, says C.S. Lewis, that you will find then that "you have come to a real inside.

 The real inside is the inner way. The way of integrity.

 You enter the real inside for the joy of it and cease to care about recognition and awards.

 Thus oriented, an award might indeed hurt you.


Om Namah Shivaya, Lex  Van Someren