By EKNATH EASWARAN
Few human beings are born with the ability to weather storm and stress with grace. But everyone can learn. We can’t control the weather outside, but we can control how we respond. Like the Queen Mary, we can install stabilizers where we need them – not outside ourselves, of course, but in the mind.
For it is in the mind that the storms of life really blow. What matters is not so much the turmoil outside us as the weather within. To a person with an agitated mind, something as minor as a crude driver can cause enough stress to ruin a day. By contrast I think of Mahatma Gandhi, who gave himself away when he confessed, “I love storms.” Gandhi began life as a timid child, but he learned to keep his mind so steady that he could face tremendous crises with courage, compassion, wisdom, and even a sense of humor. This steadiness of mind is one of the most practical of skills. Without it, no one can face the storm and stress of life without breaking. And life today is storm and stress. We live in the midst of conflicts – within ourselves, at home, in the community, even nationally and internationally. This is an age of conflict, which makes it an age of anxiety as well. Nothing is more vital than learning to face this turmoil with clarity, confidence and grace.
Fortunately, we don’t have to develop these capacities. We already have them. The problem is that we need a calm mind to draw on them. When the mind is agitated or confused, they’re simply locked up inside. That is the practical importance of a calm mind.
Fascinatingly enough, so far as the mind is concerned, the cause of stress is not important. What matters are the waves of agitation in the mind.
Whether we are anxious, panicky, angry, afraid, or simply out of control, the mind is doing the same thing: heaving up and down like the sea. This is a precious clue. It means that we don’t have to prepare for one kind of crisis in this way and another in that way. All we have to do is learn to steady the mind.
We learn this with little challenges – the thousand and one daily irritations that upset us even when we know they aren’t worth getting upset over. Life graciously provides us with innumerable little incidents like this, which, instead of irritants, can become opportunities for spiritual growth. If you go on taking advantage of them as they arise, you can gradually raise your threshold of upsettability higher and higher.
But whatever popular psychology says, it’s not all “small stuff.” Coping with these annoyances is just training. The Olympic events are the crises and tragedies – accidents, illness, separation, betrayal, bereavement – that are bound to come in one form or other without warning. That is when we need to know how to find shelter in ourselves, for that is just when external supports are likely to fail.
When you try to meditate at such times, you can almost see your mind surging up and down like a stormy sea. And what you are doing is telling the waves of the mind, “Be still.” It takes a lot of practice, but gradually the waves rise less and less until finally they subside.
There is nothing unnatural about this stabilizing process. No matter how hard life strikes, almost everyone regains balance sooner or later. The difference is that when the mind is untrained, we might need days or even weeks to recover. Once you begin to train your mind to be steady always, it takes less and less time to get on an even keel again. Finally, like a good helmsman, you will not lose your hold on the wheel even in the roughest sea.
Most precious, perhaps, is how this stabilizing influence affects others. Just as an agitated person disturbs those around him, one person with an even mind helps others to find the same equilibrium in themselves. You not only develop stabilizers in your own ind, you become a stabilizer for others too.
Teresa of Avila, one of the world’s greatest teachers, illustrated this idea of shelter inside us with a famous image. All of us, she says, have a rich and spacious “interior castle” – an inner world that is our real home. Everything we need is stocked there for us to claim. But until we begin the spiritual life, we spend our lives in the courtyard and never even dream of trying the door.