By Ekanath Easwaran
By thinking the same thoughts over and over and over. To get free, then, we have only to think opposite thoughts over and over. That is why the Buddha called his way of life patisotagami: swimming “against the current” of selfish living, in order to merge at last in the flow of love that is our real nature.
Like everybody else, I grew up believing that I was purely physical, a collection of biochemical constituents. My friends subscribed to this belief; my learned colleagues shared it vehemently. The world we live in is based on this view; everyone takes it for granted. Even if we believe intellectually that the human being has a spiritual side, very, very few of us can conceive of ourselves without the physical, biochemical apparatus of our body and personality.
In the realization that you are pure consciousness, the body becomes no more than a kind of jacket that you wear: you take care of it as very useful, but you never once think that it and you are the same.
Imagine if you thought you were your jacket. Taking it to the cleaners would be frightful; torn pockets would be a major trauma. It sounds silly, but that is just how most of us relate to our bodies too. To a surprising extent, we live to please our body instead of having it help and serve us. We identify with it so closely that we allow it to make decisions for us and dictate how we feel about ourselves.
When our body experiences a craving, we say it’s a “biological necessity.” If our appearance is less than perfect, we think there is something wrong with us. It is from this obsessive identification with the body, that many physical and emotional problems arise.
Either by innuendo or by outright declaration, all the advertisements are aimed at one deep, almost universal desire: to change who we are, make ourselves somehow better: richer, smarter, more beautiful. Unfortunately, these implicit promises deal only with externals: a fragrance that the opposite sex will find irresistible, a ring that will make a relationship “last for eternity,” a house so spectacular that we will want nothing more but to lounge in it all day and admire the appointments and the view. Despite their sophisticated appearance, below every advertisement like this I would like to write, “This won’t change you! You’ll still be the same old person. You’ll still have to live with yourself as you are.”
In the Bhagavad Gita, the Lord quietly tells his disciple Arjuna: “When the senses encounter sense-objects, a person experiences cold or heat, pleasure or pain. These sensations are fleeting; they come and go. Bear them patiently, Arjuna.”
Between senses and sense objects, the Gita explains – for example, between the taste buds and a fresh pizza – there is an intimate affinity which has nothing to do with us. We think we are involved because we identify ourselves with the body. Our real Self, pure spirit, consciousness or being, is the detached observer, who watches life with quiet compassion, always free to enjoy.
This is profound, practical philosophy with a touch of humor in it too. The Lord asks teasingly, “When you have your bath, do you cry if the water is warmer than you like? Do you get angry if it is a little too cold?” Temperature is just the contact of water with skin, sometimes pleasant, sometimes unpleasant. On a cold morning it is enjoyable to have a hot shower; after a hot day, it is refreshing to plunge into a cool river. Everybody finds these experiences pleasant. But we don’t spend a lot of time thinking about them. We don’t go around telling everyone in the office, “I had a hot shower this morning!” or go to bed depressed because the bathwater was too cold.
It is the same with the mind. Just as we experience a momentary sensation of warmth or cold on the skin, we feel a momentary sensation of liking or disliking in the mind, as fleeting and insubstantial as a shadow Our usual response, however, is to cling to things we like as if they could last forever – and without realizing it, we cling to things we dislike too. When someone says something objectionable we comment to ourselves, “I don’t like that person.” And we keep on saying it, despite all the other things he or she may say or do; we can’t let go. “This is just a momentary touch of unpleasantness,” Sri Krishna would say. “Why get excited over it? Don’t give it any more attention than you would a tepid bath.”
But can we change?
No one need ever feel resigned and say, “There is nothing I can do.” There is everything we can do. That is the purpose and the power of that persistent upward force within us: if we turn inward we can remake ourselves completely, modeling ourselves in the image of the loftiest spiritual ideal we can conceive.
There are changes any one of us can learn to make. It is a tremendous adventure, the greatest that can beckon to a human being. It tests every quality we possess, brings into play every faculty we have. It is for embarking on this supreme adventure that we have come into the world, and until we accept the challenge, we can never really rest content with anything less.
If you can be secure where you were insecure, selfless where you were selfish, if you can respect people around you even if they don’t like you and you don’t like them, then I will say with joy, “Yes. You really have changed.” As Mister Eckhart would say, “The pauper that you were is dead; the prince is born.”