Becoming Gandhi: My Experiment Living the Mahatma's 6 Moral Truths in Immoral Times
An ancient pilgrimage trail, over 1000 years old and 1000 miles long, runs from South Central France, across the Pyrenees on the Napoleon Trail, then due west in northern Spain to the city of Santiago de Compostela. The Camino is a spiritual and physical journey. Often, the Camino is called The Way, for all its many meanings.
In Becoming Gandhi, Perry Garfinkel tells the remarkable story of his three-year spiritual and physical journey in search of Living the Mahatma’s 6 Moral Truths in Immoral Times. As readers, we accompany the author as he re-traces Gandhi’s life through India, England, and South Africa (where Gandhi lived for 16 years and the likely birthplace of his pursuit of justice). Garfinkel explains that he was in pursuit of how the great Mahatma came to embody a “truthful life,” how he achieved his humble yet noble station on our planet.
Gandhi’s moral compass, we learn, had six points of direction: simplicity, truth, non-violence, vegetarianism, celibacy, and faith. As no one is perfect, even the Mahatma, he implored us to be kind to ourselves when we inevitably slip and fall along our way, as he knew he did.
We all have seen books extolling us how to have a healthier, better, and longer life. These often-bestselling books typically propose adopting five, six, ten, twelve (or more) sensible habits, including healthy nutrition, sleep, exercise, and relationships; kindness to others and yourself; meditation, yoga, and so forth. Doctors know these are good habits for our body and mind. But there is no proof that reading a self-help book, or attending inspirational lectures, will change you forever, as well as change the world that surrounds you. But Mahatma Gandhi did not mean to lower your lipids and HgA1C, improve your relationships, or help prevent cancer. He was out to fundamentally change the ethos of the culture of hundreds of millions of people in India, and beyond.
Garfinkel does not shy away from trying to understand what enables a person to bear a lifetime faithful to the “way,” and the principles and habits it embodies. We know from our own quotidian experiences that staying the course is extremely difficult. As the author writes, “it is like swimming in an infinity pool. There was no finish line . . . [with] endless lapse[s] and hopefully self-realization[s].”
There is a science of habit. For the longest time, we thought the brain was immutable. In fact, there is more than ample evidence that our behaviors can change our brains, which blessedly possess what is called neuroplasticity. For example, habitual truth, simplicity, morality, integrity, friendships, responsibilities, and accountabilities can, in their respective ways, create new circuits in our brain, new neurochemical channels etched by our behaviors. Our capacity to alter our neuroplastic brains makes more possible what seemed impossible. Ironically, repetitive behaviors make what seemed like discipline an easier path to pursue because it is "automated" (if you will) by the changes we have produced in our brains.
Garfinkel reminds us of the Zen saying, “fall down seven times, get up eight,” and now science demonstrates that, as a rule, getting up each time becomes less of a chore (when it does not become traumatic). The adage, “be the change you want” surely applies here. There are times we will fail, be bruised, which are to be expected, not an occasion to give up. The circuits are still under construction.
In his determination to walk the walk lit by Gandhi’s life, Garfinkel decides to adopt his six principles. In what is a memoir, biography, and history book, the author provides firsthand reports on practicing a new life, at times literally on the paths that Gandhi walked. You can trust Garfinkel’s reporting. It was “no humbug” because he actually was being the change he sought.
Gandhi’s habits and behavior went beyond himself, nourishing the people of India with the values of non-violence and the behaviors of civil disobedience. Gandhi exhorted in his quiet way that there be no violence under any circumstances and taught how to use civil disobedience as a weapon of war. But those are not enough, as Garfinkel writes, “we don’t achieve change by merely identifying and removing what is harmful; we must fill up that empty space with better options.”
Garfinkel’s exploration of simplicity, for example, equates with the foundation he has laid in his book: the same repetitive behaviors, daily, allow for simplicity, like wearing the same (cleaned) suit every day, as did President Obama. Simplicity is ridding ourselves of clutter. It is giving our minds more room for imagination.
The author’s conceptual travelogue continues in a series of chapters, each named by the principle they probe: celibacy, a vegetarian-plant based diet, and faith.
The chapter on faith, the most meaningful, examines how faith nourishes hope. It is hope (which likely has its own brain circuits) that can sustain us during troubled and painful times. Faith is kind, it allows for our seeing an imperfect world. So don’t give up on our fellow earth dwellers. Instead, see the inherent goodness in (about) everyone.
Gandhi was raised as Hindu by a devout mother. Though, As Garfinkel explains, God for Gandhi was not contained in any one religion, or temple, or belief system. God spans truth, love, ethics, morality, fearlessness, and conscience. God is boundless, all things to all men and women, and God is above and beyond us. Neither God nor faith can be explained by logic or science.
Today, more and more, at least in the western world, spirituality has become the watchword. Not religion, nor an institution, and surely not dogma. Spirituality is unique to each person yet shares a belief that there is something else, beyond and outside, a universal entity, a universal force.
The author concludes by asking himself “will I ever become Gandhi?“ His answer is no. “Being Gandhi is impossible. But becoming Gandhi—Gandhi-like—will always have possibility.” Garfinkel used his three-year pilgrimage well, and we are the beneficiaries.