By Ekanath Easwaran
Remember the Buddha’s words: “All that we are is the result of what we have thought.” If our thinking is based on stimulus and response, he is trying to tell us, then most of us live like puppets, moved by patterns of thinking built up over years of repetition. These habits of mind cause us to say and do certain things habitually. They motivate our actions and mouth our words, and we just go along.
When we lose our temper, for example, it is as if anger were a puppet master, sticking two fingers up into our head and stimulating all the old control centers to make us move. “Start fussing and fuming now! You know how. Remember?” When we act on these angry impulses, we are adding to our habitual angry response. After a time, we have precious little choice in how we respond to the frustrations and irritations of everyday life.
Someone gets in our way and we can’t help exploding. It is not as if we choose to get angry. Anger – what yoga psychology calls the anger samskara – is making our decisions for us.
The same mechanism is at work in all our rigid, conditioned emotional reactions – resentment, jealousy, lust, anxiety, greed, self-will, and their hundred and one relations. We would be amazed if we could look below the surface level of consciousness and see how many of our problems are caused by these deep-seated habits of thinking. This is a distressing sight, but it serves a vital purpose: it fires the desire to rise once and for all above the tyranny of our mind.
How can we do this? Is it possible?
Yes, the mystics answer with one voice, it is possible. We can learn to make every response, a matter of free choice.
“In the river of life,” says another ancient yoga text, “two currents flow in opposite directions. One, on the surface, flows toward sorrow, toward sickness, toward bondage. The other, beneath it, flows toward happiness, health, and freedom.” This may be fantastic hydrodynamics, but it illustrates our predicament perfectly. If we stay at the surface and do nothing, this image suggests, life will still take us somewhere – but not where we want. Staying in one place is not an option. To catch the deep current that leads to freedom, we have to swim and swim hard, against the flow of every conditioned response. Here is how it happens