Simran Jeet Singh is the Executive Director for the Aspen Institute’s Religion & Society Program. He is a columnist for Religion News Service, host of the “Spirited” podcast, and a lecturer at Union Theological Seminary.
Below, Simran shares 5 key insights from his new book, The Light We Give: How Sikh Wisdom Can Transform Your Life. Listen to the audio version—read by Simran himself—in the Next Big Idea App.
1. We’re all searching for happiness.
In many ways, my life is very typical. I grew up in south Texas with three brothers and played sports all the time. Now I live in New York City, where I’m raising two daughters with my wife. Like a good American, I eat much more than I probably should, but at the same time, I recognize that my life is not typical because I wear a turban, have brown skin, and a beard. In this country, my experience has been that this makes me an enemy in the eyes of many neighbors. It has been challenging to make sense of this gap between how I see myself as a regular person trying to find happiness for myself and my family, and other people’s assumptions that I am violent, misogynistic, or backwards.
I want to share what I’ve learned since my childhood in Texas to my life in New York City, as I have tried figuring out how to navigate some core challenges that we all face. How do you deal with people’s hate without becoming hateful? How do you deal with the negativity of our world without getting sucked into it? And how can we find the middle path between disparate beliefs, so that we gain new understandings of finding the happiness we all want?
2. Much of Western philosophy is premised on the individual self.
Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am.” This is a self-centered way of understanding our world, and contributes to the American focus on hyper-individualism. This vision is at odds with many spiritual traditions. Buddhism focuses not on independence, but interdependence. Native American indigenous traditions call for a recognition of a shared collective spirit. My faith, Sikh, teaches that the ego is the root cause of human suffering.
“There’s a divine spark in each of us, and this light binds us together.”
One Sikh teaching is that the ego is like a thorn in your foot. The more you walk without removing it, the deeper it gets embedded and the more pain you must endure. Perhaps if we introspect for a moment, we might see that self-centeredness in this country is at the core of our social and political challenges. The promise of drawing from various wells of spiritual wisdom is recognizing that there are other ways of seeing ourselves and the world around us, and that we have an opportunity of following a middle path.
Sikh wisdom offers a foundational premise called Ik Onkar, which teaches that all of existence is interconnected. Oneness is the first teaching we learn as Sikhs. It’s the first term in our scripture, the first concept my parents learned growing up in Punjab, and it’s the first concept my brothers and I learned as kids in Texas. Now it’s the first concept I am teaching my daughters here in New York City. Ik Onkar is the idea that we all share the same light. There’s a divine spark in each of us, and this light binds us together. When we all have the same light, then there’s no room for discrimination or social hierarchies. There’s no place to say that someone is better or worse, evil or sacred, pure or polluted.
It completely changes the way that one views the world in relation to the self. Many traditions refer to this through the metaphor of light and I like that this reminds me of the sun. The sun is always shining, but our ability to see it depends on our vantage point. The challenge is adjusting our perspective to see the light that resides within each and every one of us.
3. Interconnectedness can be felt.
Once we see the connections, then we begin to feel them. This state of feeling is more than observation or knowledge. It’s the experience of connection, which we’ve all felt before: love. Whether with our parents, partners, children, or friends, we’ve all experienced love. We all know that love, as an experience, is an emotional connection.
The challenge is that love is fleeting and transient. But Sikh wisdom offers a deeper kind of love, because if we learn to feel the world as interconnected, then we can find a love that is more sustaining, nourishing, and which goes beyond specific relationships. Such love permeates our entire experience of this world.
“Practice love daily and you’ll find that the ends are the same as the means.”
This is the goal of life in Sikh philosophy. Guru Arjan, the fifth teacher, said, “I don’t want power. I don’t want Mukti. I don’t care about salvation either. All I really want is to be in love.” We achieve this goal the same way we achieve anything and that’s by practicing daily. Practice love daily and you’ll find that the ends are the same as the means. The goal is the process.
4. Love inspires action.
When love is drawn from a sense of interconnectedness, we are driven beyond action for a particular person, but rather towards action for everyone. It’s natural and selfless. In the Sikh tradition, we call this Sewa and it is central to our way of life.
Sewa is a natural expression of love and gratitude because when you truly feel connected to the people around you, and truly feel love for them, then you will do everything in your power to help them and reduce their suffering. This is my experience as a father, where if my girls are sick and unable to sleep, I will stay up with them. My wife will stay up with them too, ensuring that they’re as comfortable as they can be, even to our own detriment. We all do this for the people we love. There’s no agenda. There’s no expectation. It’s just love.
This is the most beautiful of human expressions, and we see it often in our closest relationships. In rare moments, we have seen people go beyond their interpersonal relationships, giving of themselves to people they don’t even know. Think about the sacrifices of some of the greatest people in history. Working for people beyond themselves were people like Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Nelson Mandela. They model for us something we are all capable of.
5. Remove the ego from activism.
The other piece of Sewa is that this approach offers a different model for activism than what we see in Western modalities. In the west, we often talk about justice as activism. It’s about action. But Sewa says it’s not just about what you do, but also what’s in your heart when you do it. Sewa is not measured by outputs, though those are important for driving positive change. Sewa is measured by the sincerity in one’s heart. Much of American activism is rooted in ego, and it’s why we’ve fallen into the traps of performing outrage online and announcing to people that we have the “right” opinions. Some call this signaling, and it’s why we post memes and black squares on Instagram without being moved into action. Our behavior doesn’t change unless our hearts change.
“When love is drawn from a sense of interconnectedness, we are driven towards action for everyone.”
Sewa is different because it calls on us to approach the work with humility and selflessness. It’s not about me—it’s about love, oneness, and service. This spirit of Sewa is the antidote to egocentric American practices. It is a practice that helps reduce our egos and tap into the light that binds us together, Ik Onkar, and the love we all share, which is at the height of human experience.
To listen to the audio version read by author Simran Jeet Singh, download the Next Big Idea App today: