Writing on Air

Writing on Air by Jim Paredes

Mastering life balance

Posted on June 12, 2011 by jimparedes

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star)

I watched a feature on Discovery Channel last week about Christian Fabre, a successful French fashion businessman who lives in India. He owns a company that makes tens of millions of dollars every year and has carved a name in the fashion world. But that is not what is so amazing about him.

Many years ago, when he started his business in India, he experienced a great business and personal failure where he lost everything including his wife who abandoned him together with their child. He was absolutely devastated.

To cope, he went through a lot of soul-searching. He took up yoga. But the guru he learned from the most was a common leper he had met. Even if the man had lost all his fingers to leprosy, he seemed perfectly content. When Fabre got back his spiritual footing, he took the guru’s advice and went back to fashion, this time to succeed beyond his wildest dreams.

But that’s not the only transformation Christian Fabre went through. He eventually converted to Hinduism. The most paradoxical thing about him is that while he makes millions selling clothes, he likes to go through the day completely naked, believing in the Hindu tenet that “we are born naked and we will die naked.”

For every 10 days that he works, he retreats to his ashram for two weeks where he goes through his days in total nudity and asceticism. When he has to visit his factories or meet people, he wears saffron robes complete with bindi. A recognized Swami or an ascetic or yogi, he has been initiated into the religious monastic life. Aside from his Western name, Fabre is also known as Swami Pranavananda Brahmendra Avadhuta.

He has embraced the life of a holy man. In the documentary, I saw a person who seemed totally at peace. He has shunned materialism and now needs very little to live. He gives 56 percent of his company’s profits back to his employees and pays himself U$200 a month. His only luxury is the altar he built for the gods and goddesses of his faith.

There are more interesting things about Christian Fabre. He has never fired any employee and is known to sit with them, listen to their problems and give spiritual advice. He also does not believe in contracts. Wall Street, to be sure, is anathema to his ways and his thinking. Needless to say, I am very impressed at how this man has completely found a new life for himself.

He is an example of a person who is very much in the world but not being of it, which is a definition of Christian spirituality. How many people can actually free themselves from the pull of relatively much less materialism in their lives as this businessman-Swami has done?

Christian Fabre is extraordinary in the sense that he is able to balance the obvious polarities in his life. There is on one hand his extreme wealth and, on the other, his wholehearted answer to the call of ascetic spirituality.

It makes me wonder what the right balance is in how one must live life.

While they have their avowed mission to live among the poor and help the unfortunate, the institutional churches possess untold riches. I remember how troubled I was when I entered St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome for the first time decades ago. While it housed the bones and relics of the superstars of the Catholic faith, such as St. Peter and numerous popes through the ages, the opulence and grandeur, from the architecture to the art works, and the intricate gaudiness got in the way of how I understood and appreciated my faith. To be frank, (and I know this is a controversial opinion), it did not impress me as a holy place.

Before me were the ultimate power symbols of a worldly empire rather than an apt representation of the simplicity of Christ. It was the seat of temporal power of the Roman Catholic Church with its gold, its priceless art and other historical treasures displayed for all to see. It was, in my mind, no different from the palaces of emperors and potentates. I told myself that perhaps the real face of Christ can be found more easily among the poor in many parts in the world than here.

The contrast I saw between Rome and the poor was so stark, it was enlightening. As I grew in years and wisdom, I began to understand complexity and learned to accept the yin and the yang of things. Everything exists only because of its opposite. There is rich because there is poor. There is holy because there is profane. There is beauty because there is ugliness. And so it is even with the churches. Only in this context can many things be understood and one can accommodate two contrasting realities in some sort of unity.

The outer and the inner, the form and emptiness, the body as well as the soul must both be paid attention to. They are each other’s mirror image.

But then the question is, how should one balance all of these.

There cries in the heart of every materialist and atheist an indefinable yearning to make sense of an earthly existence, even if, in their view, it eventually ends without an afterlife. And every spiritual person who cares for his fellowman knows the importance of food, housing and the comforts that the material world can offer to ease the suffering of humanity.

I know people who are deeply dissatisfied despite the fact that they are living the life they have always strived for—security, wealth, fame, etc. Why is that? Some may ask: Are we supposed to choose between spirit and matter? Are we, in the end, being asked by God to leave our worldly ways and go completely spiritual?

Sometimes I am tempted to think that life would be simpler if I did that. I still have this yearning to someday live in an ashram or a monastery a few months.

But then, I have also met highly successful people who do not feel the need to choose between materialism and spirituality. Some of them practice Zen in the zendo in Marikina that I am part of. One of the most fascinating people I have ever met is a Zen Roshi (Zen master) from Japan who is also vice president of a big bank. He comes to the Philippines to give retreats to practitioners at least once a year. Speaking with him, I am amazed at his great ability to live in both the phenomenal and the spiritual world. I think it is his practice of non-attachment that makes him comfortable in any situation he is in.

A Zen saying goes, “Ride your horse along the edge of a sword; hide yourself in the middle of flames.” One needs to know and master this life balance.

While we all want to be happy, we must also not cling to happiness but instead allow every state to just come and go gracefully.

William Blake said:

He who binds to himself a joy

Does the winged life destroy;

But he who kisses the joy as it flies

Lives in Eternity’s sunrise.

Attachment is dangerous. One must accept life, however it shows up. The consequence of not accepting is to be trapped in choosing dichotomies, or choosing parts of life and condemning others. And we know where that leads to.

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    A good article by Jim Paredes « Derdo's Weblog

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  1. Cynthia says:

    Hi, I found myself in tears while reading this article. To find oneself in contentment even at the lowest ebb in one’s life is mastering life itself. While most of us would be wallowing in pity and injustice, a chosen few seem to see the bigger picture, not just a piece of puzzle that represents this life, thus they just cruise along life. In this pragmatic and cutthroat world, it is so hard to break free from the mold. Thus Christian Fabre and Zen Roshi’ understanding of their lives are really worthy of emulation albeit tough acts to follow.

    • jimparedes says:

      “We can never have enough of that which we really do not want.” -Eric Hoffer

      That sort of summarizes the rat race. People like Fabre and the Roshi know that there is really nothing outside of them. That’s why they can remain centered around the madness.

  2. Carren says:

    Lovely story! Amazing man 🙂

  3. Another very interesting read there Sir Jim. To think, I am in that road, of people struggling to get rich, thinking that happiness is really getting out of, in what Robert Kiyosaki calls a “Rat Race”.

    All of a sudden I read your story and I thought, hmmm, maybe wealth might not 100% equate to real happiness.

    Yet now I feel more inspired to succeed and make tons of money but at the same time I realize now that it is nothing more than just to pay the bills and make life more bearable for me and my family. Also thinking about it…being a millionaire monk is not that bad. 🙂

    • jimparedes says:

      Carolyn Myss describes a lot of people living today and earning their keep as ‘mystics without monasteries’. We are all in a search. When we do find it, the daily job becomes more pleasant and yet both merely incidental and important to what is really going on in life. We discover that we live in paradox all the time. Like being a millionaire monk.

  4. Is it me or is it that simplicity is an underlying theme to real success. I want not to destroy the winged life and to bask in eternities sunrise. Another fantastic post.

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