"After our youngest son had seen Star Wars for the twelfth or thirteenth time, I said, "Why do you go so often?" He said, "For the same reason you have been reading the Old Testament all of your life." He was in a new world of myth." Bill Moyers, interview with Joseph Campbell









PRABUDDHA BHARATAPrabuddha Bharata | January 2007  






           Contemplation in an Active World



          Swami Smaranananda



     Among the many developments in the postSecond World War period, the popularity of contemplation and meditation is particularly significant. With the advancement of technology, the hope of getting more leisure dawned on modern man. But, alas, instead of increased leisure, increased activity has become the order of the day! Instead of rest, restlessness has taken hold of the human heart. What went wrong?

     In this age, when progress is reckoned in terms of material development, economics takes centre stage. Activity calls for more activity, resulting in increased production. This, in turn, demands more markets for selling the goods produced. Advertising creates more markets, and that again leads to increased consumerism. Thus the rat race goes on!

     In the Bhagavata there is the story of the great king Yayati, who, at the threshold of old age, felt that his desire for worldly enjoyments had not been satiated. So he requested his four sons - one after another - to exchange their youth for his old age. The first three sons refused to do so, but the fourth son, Puru, agreed. Yayati, with the borrowed youth of his son, continued with his enjoyment of worldly pleasures. After some years he suddenly realized that desires can never be satiated by more enjoyment, and uttered this great truth: Na jatu kamah kamanamupabhogena shamyati, havisa krsnavartmeva bhuya evabhivardhate; Desires are never appeased by more enjoyments; rather they grow all the more fierce, like a smouldering fire fed with ghee. (1)

     Modern people, finding no respite from intense activity on the one hand and boredom on the other, are seeking ways and means of bringing a little peace and quiet to their disturbed minds. In this scenario, they clutch at various kinds of contemplative and meditation practices marketed by the latest management gurus. It seems that they do derive some benefit from these physical and mental exercises.

     But the basic question remains: Is activity opposed to contemplation? In India, for centuries it has been thought that meditation is not compatible with activity - this in spite of the fact that the most sought-after scripture of the Hindus, the Bhagavadgita, advocates intense activity along with deep contemplation.

     All activity begins in the mind. It may be to fulfil some desire or to work towards a goal that we act. Activity and contemplation seem apparently contradictory. But both can go on simultaneously. The Gita describes this graphically: With the mind purified by devotion to performance of action, the body conquered, and senses subdued, one who realizes ones Self as the self in all beings, though acting, is not tainted. The knower of Truth, being centred in the Self, thinks, I do nothing at all, though doing many things. He who acts forsaking attachment, resigning himself to Brahman, is not soiled by evil, just as a lotus leaf is untouched by water. (2)


     Emerson, the nineteenth-century New England philosopher, says: It is easy in the world to live after the worlds opinion - it is easy in solitude to live after your own; but the great man is he who, in the midst of the world, keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.



     If we try to understand our mind, we will find that it is the source of all action. This manifests as volition, the activity of the ego. The mind is working ceaselessly. Either it is going towards something or it is turning away from something else. The senses are drawn towards their objects, but it is the mind that gets connected with the senses. It then gets connected with the ego, which makes us think, I am doing this, or I am not doing this, or I will not do that and so on. Thus we identify ourselves with the ego and the senses through the mind.


     All spiritual practice is concerned with the control of the mind - to direct our thoughts through a channel. Thus, one part of our mind can always be directed towards a goal to be attained while the other parts of the mind
may be busy with other things: Gunah gunesu vartante iti matva na sajjate; It is the [three] gunas (which constitute the senses) that act upon the gunas (as sense objects); with this understanding the sadhaka does not get attached (either to actions or to their results) (3.28).


     As mentioned earlier, even before I met Swami Gadadharananda, I used to do puja at home. Ours was a religious home, and we had a tradition of thakur seva (service to the family deity). In the hostel also I used to do sandhya-vandana (daily devotions prescribed by the scriptures) regularly. That, however, was traditional. What I got from the ashrama was something totally different. An ashrama is a place full of spiritual vibrations. That is something inspiring, lively. But in ones home and family, it is a mere traditional way of life, and religious practice, a routine thing; there is not that life there.


     Here lies the secret: to be intensely active, but all the time remaining a witness of ones actions, keeping one part of the mind directed towards God, the supreme goal of life. Whenever the mind, in the midst of various activities, forgets this goal, one has to take notice and turn it back to God again. Brother Lawrence says that with him the time of prayer is not different from that for any other work. He further says: That useless thoughts spoil all; that the mischief began there; but that we ought to reject them as soon as we perceived their impertinence to the matter in hand, or our salvation, and return to our communion with God. (3) He was kept busy all the time with the various activities of the monastery where he lived. But by this practice of keeping his mind always tuned to God, he had come to love God and, in spite of his being very little educated, even many of his superiors found it spiritually profitable to converse with him.




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International Yoga Day 21 June 2015
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