In 1951, Dr. George Harding, with the National Capital Parks in Washington, looked in amazement at a lotus sprout. The lotus seed that had just come to life was a “relic of one of the early crops of lotus cultivated by Buddhists” at an ancient dry lakebed at Pulantien (Laoning Province, China) after the introduction of Buddhism to the region.
This particular lotus seed had been collected by a Japanese scientist named Ichiro Ohga and had been carbon-dated to be approximately 1300 years old, thus holding the seed-germination longevity record.
Had we been standing next to Dr. Harding, marveling at the showy, dish-like leaves and the beautiful pink of the lotus corolla rising gracefully above the surface of the water, we might have thought: “How is it possible for a living thing to remain itself, unaffected amidst the mud of its circumstance, for such a long, long time?”
It is exactly this question of identity that preoccupied Chandrakirti, the seventh-century Buddhist thinker who happened to die around the very time Dr. Harding’s lotus seed was born. Indeed, what is identity? What is essence? What is purity? What is self? Or are these questions just different ways of looking at the same issue?
In the 1970s German botanist Wilhelm Barthlott studied Nelumbo nucifera (the Sacred Lotus) through a scanning electron microscope. The reason for his interest had to do with an amazing property of the lotus leaves: they are self-cleaning! Indeed, the lotus leaves are extremely water repellent (superhydrophobic, in technical parlance). Water droplets roll right off the leaves, washing away any dirt particles.
As a result, the lotus, an aquatic flower that starts out at the muddy bottom, manages to rise to the water’s surface unstained and free of the muck of its humble origins.
The sacred lotus offers an inspiring rags-to-riches, slime-to-sunshine metaphor of growth and enlightenment. We might consider the lotus to be the ultimate Cinderella story: it cleans all day and never gets dirty.
The self-cleaning lotus exemplifies an empowering narrative of integrity. It manages to remain itself, pure and unaffected, and to grow to its fullest amidst the impurity of its circumstance. Unsurprisingly, the lotus flower (padma in Sanskrit) has a position of great cultural and spiritual significance in Asia.
In Buddhism, the lotus represents purification and disentanglement from the trappings of conditioned existence (samsara), liberation from suffering, and the achievement of enlightenment. The “lotus pose” (padm’asana) in yoga is a universally recognizable symbol of wisdom and serenity. As a visual symbol, the lotus flower is inescapable: it is a core element of Asian iconography. As a sound, the lotus invocation is forever resonated in the om mani padma hum mantra (“jewel in the lotus”) .
As intriguing as this scientific and cultural lotus trivia might be, I am not really talking about the bio-mimetic (nature-mimicking) nano-technological applications of the lotus effect; nor am I writing about sitting in the lotus asana. I am talking about a psychological kind of lotus effect; namely, about surviving the informational muck that constantly bogs us down.
Case in point: you wake up feeling good. You step up on the bathroom scale and see a number that you don’t like. Suddenly, your mood goes down the drain. What happened? Technically, nothing happened: you—in your essence—are still exactly the same as you were before you weighed yourself. The only difference is that now you have a toxic piece of information on your mind: a number. A moment ago you were feeling fine, but now this informational tidbit is eating at you.
As banal as this case of informational poisoning is, it shows the potent toxicity of information. This basic scenario is the story of many lives. Whether you gain a pound or lose your car keys, fail a test or pass gas in public, have a bad hair day or a good administrative lashing, your brain continuously translates life into information, and then this information transforms how you feel about your essence.
Information disrupts our hard-won calmness with the ease of a stone skipping across a sleepy pond. This number on your bathroom scale is just a tiny pebble, but look at the (emotional) waves it makes!
The goal is to thicken your psychological skin and to learn to shed the informational dirt, lotus-like. I’m not talking about ignoring information—that wouldn’t be helpful. What’s needed is an exploration into the very real possibility of healing from the toxic information that wounds your sense of self.
The goal is to learn to survive this stream of information, to not drown in it. The goal is to learn to remain in your essence, unaffected, unstained, and free, cultivating a lotus-like capacity for self-cleaning from the informational residue that stands in the way of your growth and well being.
In sum, the idea is to cultivate the Lotus Effect—the skill of informational detoxification—and to rediscover the lotus of your essential self.
Adapted from Lotus Effect: Shedding Suffering & Rediscovering Your Essential Self (P. Somov, New Harbinger, 2010)
Lotus flower photo available from Shutterstock.