By Swami Pavitrananda
Swami Pavitrananda was the head of the Vedanta Society in New York City from 1951 until his death in 1977. He was editor of Prabuddha Bharata from 1931 to 1935 and was elected a Trustee of the Ramakrishna Order in 1947. This article was first published in the Nov-Dec, 1967 issue of Vedanta and the West.
We know that all our troubles begin in the mind. Our mind is our friend as well as our enemy. When under control, it is our friend. When it gets the better of us, it is our enemy. Those who have control over their minds are at peace. They are truly happy.
Swami Vivekananda once met a monk who had been wandering to different places of pilgrimage for forty years. The Swami asked him, “Why don’t you sit in one place and there practice intense spiritual disciplines?” The monk was frank. “My mind does not give me rest.” Imagine! For forty years he had traveled from place to place—and for what reason? His mind did not give him rest, even though he had given up everything. He wanted to meditate, he wanted to develop his spiritual life, but he had become a victim of his own mind’s tyranny.
Another swami lived in one place on the bank of the Ganges for nearly forty years. He did not go anywhere and yet he was peaceful and happy. The difference lay in the fact that one had control over the mind, while the other did not. It happens with monks. If we analyze ourselves carefully, we will find that the mind is the source of all our difficulties. We blame others wrongly. We blame others because we do not know the real truth. We find it easy to put the blame on others. We feel this or that person has hurt us. Why? Because we are sensitive.
If we were inwardly strong, then we could ignore all these things. Just imagine! Permitting our happiness and peace of mind to depend upon what this person or that person says of us or how this or that person behaves towards us. Why not say, “I alone am to blame!” Why not take care of ourselves? All our troubles begin when there are two—myself and others. We cannot have any control over others, but we can have control over ourselves.
In any trouble, each side must be held partly responsible. It may be sometimes that we have contributed more than another person, but why not take care of that and forget the other? Ordinary people cannot. With some experience, some people may, to a certain extent, gain some control over themselves. But that is not the solution to the whole problem. Eventually it resolves down to this simple question: What is the mind and how does it work?
If we read books on psychology we will find that such books find it difficult to present a clear idea about what the mind is, how the mind does things, or what consciousness is. Some will say that the mind is similar to refined, attenuated matter which illuminates events that have registered in the brain cells.
Yet that is not any real solution. Others will say more honestly and thoughtfully that although we encounter willing, thinking, feeling, we do not encounter the self which wills, which thinks, which feels. Who is that which really feels and really wills? We do not know what consciousness is—but we still are conscious.
Dr. Carl Jung, the eminent psychoanalyst, said: “A part of the psyche is beyond time and space, unknown to us. A thing which is beyond time and space cannot be known to us. If it is beyond time an space, it will be beyond causation too.” So there is something he admits we do not know. That is the rub and there is the clue. Jung himself said, “The older I grow, the more I feel I know very little of myself.”
We therefore do not know much of ourselves because, as he says, there is a portion of the mind which is beyond time, space, and causation—which we cannot reach. We cannot study our own minds because we ourselves are parts of mind. We do not know how we think, so we cannot study the mind completely. Some facts, however, emerge clearly.
If we watch our mind and see what it is, we find it is always changing. This we discover easily. For instance we know how our mind gives us trouble. And yet we see there is absolutely no reason why we feel disturbed. Many people feel unhappy but do not know its cause.
One moment the mind is happy and the next moment it is unhappy. For no reason our minds suddenly become irritated because we have no control. If we watch the mind, we can notice it change. Who watches this changing? Something within us. We can feel that we are watching the mind. We say, “My mind gives me trouble, therefore I am separate from the mind.”
At the same time we speak of being troubled by the mind. Some day, however, we will come to the conclusion that there is something within us which is beyond the mind. From that comes a consciousness separate from the contents of the brain cells. We are something separate from our minds. As we discover, the mind changes, but one does not change. That which feels, which thinks, and which feels happy, that is Oneness.
Archimedes said that if we could find a position beyond the earth at a sufficient distance, then with a lever we could raise or lower the earth—just as one can raise or lower an apple. In the same way, if we can find a position away from the mind, at a distance from the mind, then we could have complete control of our mind.
But trouble arises. We become identified with our mind and body. Who feels unhappy? Our body, our mind or both? When we experience physical pain, the pain itself is of the body. On the other hand, when we suffer an insult or loss, we feel it not in the body but in the mind. When we read of another person suffering a business failure we don’t feel so unhappy. But if it is our own business, we suffer a terrible shock. It all depends on how close we are to the tragedy. We can clearly see that when we identify our mind with these things that we suffer.
Nothing in the world can cause us suffering if we do not identify the mind with the object of that suffering. Therefore Vedanta asks us not to identify ourselves with our body and mind. If we can do that, we are at great peace, a peace beyond description.
The real problem is how to discover that which is beyond the mind and how to avoid identifying ourselves with the body and mind. We know there are both sense objects and sense organs and that behind these is the mind, and back of that is the Self. By knowing that Self, we can know happiness and by that means control the mind.
One thing is interesting: to control the mind we need the help of the mind. The mind stands midway between superconsciousness—which is beyond time, space, and causation, beyond description—and the external world which is gross and concrete. What causes this feeling of separation within the mind? There is something which is not mind, which is beyond time, space, and causation, unaffected by anything.
Books on yoga dealing with the solution to mental problems say our mind is like a lake made restless by winds constantly blowing on its surface. In the same way, the surface of our mind becomes restless when external events affect it. Now, if we can discover a method to keep the surface of the lake unaffected, then no ripples will disrupt its surface. The mind will become very, very calm. How do we do this? One way is through meditation. Through meditation we strengthen the mind and do not allow it to be affected by outer things.
What is meditation? To constantly think of an idea. If you have an ordinary idea, meditate on that. Even this will enable you to have a certain amount of concentration. But that is not enough. If we meditate on a spiritual idea, something which does not belong to time, space and causation, if we think on something not earthly, not worldly, then gradually the mind gathers strength. It is able to erect a wall against external influences. That is the psychology of meditation.
When you begin to meditate, the mind will probably seem more restless, because you are trying to subdue it. But if you continue your meditation, there will be peace. By making an effort, you can make the mind calm. One may not find that the mind is calm every day, but if only the practice is continued for a sufficient time, one is sure to find that the mind will grow tranquil—to a certain extent at least. And one day you will find it will bring you peace. Even ordinary people will experience this peace if they continue to practice the right way, not haphazardly. The mind can be made calm. Through this deliberate attempt to still the mind, we may be given a gleam of light. It is now a question of earnestness and time.
It is this method by which the saints control their minds and find something which is beyond the mind—that peace unaffected by outer things. The true saint is not affected by anything of this world. Even death cannot trouble such a person. A saint controls the mind effortlessly and spontaneously. The saint has realized that he or she is not the body and not the mind.
I have heard at least one saint say, “I have realized that I am not the body nor the mind. The Lord made this body and mind as instruments. So long as He wishes me to use them, I do not worry.” Swami Vivekananda put it in another way. “The mind is like a clod of earth with me. I can do whatever I like with it.”
Of Brahman, the Upanishads say, “He is the seer. He sees everything but we cannot see Him. He knows everything, but we do not know Him.” We do not know in that way. He is the power behind our thinking, but we cannot bring Him within the grasp of our thoughts.
He is the Eternal Witness. He sees everything. And that means He is separate. We see with our eyes, but the eyes cannot themselves see. It is the real power behind the eyes which sees everything. God knows everything, but we do not see Him; that means he is the Eternal Seer.
From that clue comes the distinction of seer and seen. Soul and nature are not the same, but separate. When we discriminate, calmness comes. If someone insults us, we think of the insult as apart from ourselves. The Self is nonmaterial and cannot be affected by mere words. If we constantly analyze that way, there will come a time when we will become calmer and calmer—unaffected by these external disturbances. We have but to ask ourselves: “Why should I be affected by the insults of others?” “These are nothing but words. It is nothing but the weakness of another, the ignorance of another.” (And an ignorant person should be the object of pity, not anger.)
If we begin to discriminate in this way, we begin to develop a sense of separation, a sense that we are not a “person,” we are not “nature.” We are separate.
There are other methods also. There are those who pray to God or repeat a name representative of the superconscious state. Then the idea begins to invade the mind. Finally, through constant discrimination, one becomes established in the idea that one’s real Self is separate from the external world. Just repeat the name of God, any name. Books on yoga give detailed descriptions of how to meditate, the requirements for meditation, ethical qualities, physical qualities, and so on, yet they too mention that simply by repeating the name of God, we get the same results.
There is another method. Accept whatever comes to you with the thought that it is the will of the Lord; or simply intellectually “accept” any and all situations as they occur, although it is much easier when you have some devotion to God. If you are able to regard everything as the will of the Lord and accept each situation, then your mind will begin to grow calm. That is the interesting thing. As I said, the mind becomes disturbed by external stimuli, but when we accept everything that comes along, then the mind has nothing to disturb it.
When we have the feeling of love for God, then it becomes easier. I said earlier that if you can simply “accept,” you will get the same results—but it is not always possible to do this. One cannot usually accept every situation unless there is an association of feeling. When you believe in God, when you believe in a God who is your own, whom you love, who is compassionate, it is easier.
What is the ultimate goal of religion? To feel God is everything in us. If we have faith in God, there is nothing to disturb us. This is another method. When you feel that God is your own, and through spiritual practice you begin to know that all these things are not your doing, then you actually feel free from your responsibilities. You really feel it is so.
When you know He is all-powerful, all knowing, and He is your own, then you have no responsibilities. You feel you are free, you feel you are separate from the external world. Then comes the state when you become master of your mind. By becoming so little, by becoming a zero, you become all-powerful. You inherit God’s power.
It is said that the greatest joy and purpose of human life is to get freedom in this life. But how can we get real freedom in our life? Political independence will not give us freedom in our minds. Humanitarianism will not give us peace of mind.
Let me quote a verse by Shankara: “The Self is eternal. It is eternal existence. Why did the Self assume a human body? To experience the joy of freedom in this life.”
Think of a situation when we have that kind of freedom, when we are not affected by anything in the universe. We receive a kind of joy which cannot be described in terms of sense pleasures. It is a joy of a different type. Think of such freedom, such unceasing and total freedom. If we can find that freedom, we have found the goal of life.
A disciple of Ramakrishna, when he was young, developed religious tendencies. He was studying Sanskrit and practicing hard austerities. He said that when he read the above verse of Shankara’s, he “jumped at the joy of it. I knew then that such a state could be realized in this very life.” These great souls are the real masters of their minds. But for us, if we can but know such things are possible and have been realized by others—that is a great thing. Then at least in our difficult moments, there comes the overwhelming conviction that our real state is a state of freedom—supreme freedom, supreme bliss, and supreme knowledge.