The goal of life is not the drama being played, but the lesson that it offers.
by Swami Rama
Out of the tumult of human life comes the decision to look for lasting peace and joy. Where is one to look for this treasure, and how can it be found? Going back to the story of the angel who was given the job of hiding life’s meaning, this treasure is hidden within. It also might be said that the treasure is buried under layers of ego, desires, emotions, habits, and other imbedded thought patterns. Atman, the individual’s real identity, is waiting there. It takes nothing more than realization of this fact to truly know it’s just be awake to it, as the Buddha taught. It is as simple as flicking on a light. Peeling off the layers of ego, emotions, and imbedded thought patterns is not so easy. Shankara said that a treasure doesn’t come out when you call it. It must be hunted for and dug up. All that is heaped over the buried treasure must be removed. The decision to look for the treasure is only the beginning of the hunt. The promise that it sits waiting within is taken on faith, but there is also a feeling, a voice calling out from what is at once a great distance and no distance at all. The debris that covers the treasure is identified as maya and the effects of maya. On account of maya, one is not conscious of the real Self. A seeker must start the search in earnest and begin digging.
What separates a human being from his or her true identity? What are the rocks, dirt, and rubble under which the treasure is buried, and how does a person go about removing them? What are the necessary tools to accomplish the same?
This digging is the reason for worldly human existence. Knowing which tools to use and when is the art of life. This work is life, and it is a magnificent adventure with Atman, the treasure, as its goal. We learn as we gradually dig, scrape, and peel off the layers of what is not our real and permanent nature, until finally the work is done and we know who our true Self is. This is why we come to this world, why we create it, why we compose the dramas that are enacted across the globe.
The goal of life is not the drama being played, but the lesson that it offers. Every human being is the playwright of her or his own drama. Most people forget this. They think the dramas of their lives are created by God, or by others, or by the chance of mathematical probability in an inconceivably vast universe. They also fail to remember that the drama of life is just that, a play that is momentarily being acted out for a desired result. Instead of understanding life as a play, they take life to be the ultimate. Then the lessons promised by the drama are missed and a great deal of pain and sorrow is experienced.
So it is. This is how our individual development is shaped. We create and recreate dramas that we fail to see as such dramas. We mistake them to be the ultimate, and get tossed about in the turmoil of pain and pleasure. Finally the day dawns that we turn toward another perspective. We are able to step back and watch the drama from a distance. The pain diminishes and the wisdom and humor of the drama become more apparent. Each person creates a stage, a laboratory, a drama “however you prefer to understand it” to penetrate the layers of barriers covering the Atman. The day will eventually arrive when we will realize our true identity as both the one who is watching the drama, and that which is being watched. There is only One, as the Upanishads state. Each individual is a wave in the single vast ocean of pure consciousness.
What are these barriers or veils between the real and the unreal, the permanent and the transitory, the transcendent and the immanent? What is the makeup of worldly life that binds human beings to its lures and miseries? As already suggested, the drama of worldly existence is the trap, but it is also the gateway to liberation. Put another way, according to Vedantic philosophy, the human mind is the obstacle to liberation, but it is also the tool that drills, penetrates, and drives one to the innermost treasure, the kingdom of Atman.
The Indian view of the mind is different from the prevailing western or European view. The West defines a human being by the mind, as with Rene Descartes’ famous aphorism, ‘I think, therefore I am.’ Materialistic thinkers declare that the soul exists because of the body and as a production of the body. Indian philosophy is the reverse, ‘I am, therefore I think.’ It is not the body that produces consciousness of existence. On the contrary, it is the consciousness of existence that keeps the body alive and activates it. That which moves the mind and body is the real Self.
The body and sense organs have come out of energy, they live by it, and ultimately go back into it. This energy is subject to evolution and is the source of our intellect. It has produced the intellect, the mind, and the sensory powers, which are but the different modes and forms of expression of energy. Vedanta maintains that first there is pure consciousness, and mind is a spark from or a reflection of that consciousness. Consciousness and energy produce the ego, and the Absolute is the source and background of the entire Self and the entire universe.
In other words, in the West the mind is sovereign, while in the East, consciousness is. According to Vedanta, the mind serves, or must be trained to serve, consciousness. In the West, mind is preeminent. These viewpoints define the difference between the cultures of Europe and North America, and that of India.
The external orientation of the mind in the West has led to the prosperous industrial age of the last two centuries, and the development of highly advanced technologies and scientific achievements. Material prosperity and consumption of resources are the established hallmarks of western civilization. The results of western culture are impressive, as far as they go, but the West’s philosophical approach is limited. Because the West relies on the outward turned mind, cultural knowledge and experiences are limited to the realm of sense perceptions. This philosophy is too restricted to explain the mystery of the Self. It neglects to take into consideration the inner world, where pure consciousness resides in its eternal glory. The dilemma is apparent. An outward turned culture can build towering skyscrapers, transplant hearts, and walk in space, but are its people any closer to true peace within themselves or within their communities? Has this culture done anything to reduce the fear of death? By fostering all the means to deny and run from death, even to the end when it hides its elderly in nursing and retirement homes, does this culture cause the fear of death to be magnified?
The inner world is the focus of Vedanta and the Upanishads, and the goal of life is peace, happiness, and bliss. Indian philosophy describes the mind as a group of four functions called the internal instrument, the antahkarana. These four functions or faculties were mentioned in the last chapter, but their processes must be explained further. There is the ahamkara, or ego; the buddhi, which is the intellect or higher mind, which discriminates, knows, decides, and judges; manas, which is the lower mind that produces and processes data, the importer and exporter through sense perceptions; and finally, the chitta, the subconscious storehouse of impressions, emotions, and memories. These four faculties are meant to work together in harmony, with each faculty doing its particular job. With training and discipline these four are coordinated, and they comprise a very useful tool in the search for Atman. Poorly coordinated, differentiated, and untrained, they comprise a formidable obstacle on the path.
So the first thing is to know the different aspects of one’s mere self, to train those aspects, and to know they are not the real Self. Kathopanishad explains this by the metaphor of a chariot; the spiritual Self is the owner of the chariot, and the body itself is the chariot. Buddhi serves as the charioteer, using the mind as the reins to control the senses that are, as the horses, running unrestrained in the open fields of the sense experiences. Most often, unfortunately, we fail to comprehend this metaphor and are not taught how the mind functions. We do not know what to train or discipline.
The nature of manas is limited to asking whether this or that data should be imported or not, or should be exported or not. Manas should only ask, ‘is this good for me or not?’ Manas should be communicating these questions with the buddhi, and the buddhi should be trained and sharpened to have the answers and to communicate them to manas.
Without training, manas assumes too much power, ignores the buddhi, and acts independently, when it is not reliably capable of doing so. Manas is full of conflict within and without. Without the help of purified buddhi, manas is a source of uncertainty and misery. Over time the actions of manas become habits. This is one reason Indians repeat the famous Gayatri mantra. A portion of the mantra asks the Almighty to enlighten the intellect, which is to say to improve the functioning of the buddhi: Dhiyo yo nah prachodayat.
Another problem with an untrained mind is the inappropriate authority undertaken by ahamkara, the ego. The nature of ego in an untrained mind is to believe that it is the owner of the mind and the center of being. So powerful is the untrained ego that a person forgets that his real nature is divine, ultimate, and eternal. When manas tries to do a job it is not capable of doing well, buddhi is not consulted, and the ego believes itself to be the ultimate, human misery is the result.
Understanding these functions of mind is what St. Paul was referring to when he wrote: ‘Be not conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may know what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.’
Paul did not say to destroy or repress the ego. He used the words transform and renew. Manas has a role to play, but a limited one. Buddhi has a job to do, so employ it. The ego is useful, but its role is limited, not everlasting. The ego is like a lattice framework to operate from in the world. It is not concrete, as we wrongly think. It is simply an aspect of mind, with a function. Ego is not one’s identity. It is the sense of ‘I’ called the ego that divides us into separate and individual entities. The ego gathers together all our sensations and molds our individual identity. Although it is the creator of our identity, the ego is not the ultimate reality. The sense of ‘I’ or the ego is the blending of two factors, one changeable, the other unchangeable. The changeable factor is the foundation of the phenomenal universe, of the body and its sense of external objects, and so on. It is the source of evolution.
Manas and ego are like precarious weeds in the mind. They take over if they are not attended to. Manas says to do this, do that, lie about this and you will stay out of trouble, steal this and you will get ahead, enjoy this pleasure and you’ll be happy. The ego says, yes, this is great, this is for me, and I am all that matters.
This path of doing whatever manas wants and ego says it needs, will end in pain, fear, and more ignorance. This is the path of having, needing, getting, keeping, of me, mine, and I. Ego says this body is mine, this house is mine, this spouse, these children are mine. This sense of mine and thine separates the individual from other individuals, dividing the world into them and me. It also separates the individual internally, putting up barriers to the true Self. It creates a fear of death. Death will mean the end to these things we own and want. That is scary. The prospect of the body dying is terrifying if we think we are the body, because then death seems like the complete cessation of our existence.
However, when buddhi is trained and used, a person questions: Is this thing really needed? Is this object really required? What is the body? Buddhi teaches that the body is no more a person’s identity than the reflection of sun on the surface of a calm lake is the real sun. When the discriminative aspect of mind called buddhi is trained, a person becomes aware that transitory life leads ultimately to suffering. The buddhi begins to explore and then concludes that a life aimed towards what is not transitory will lead ultimately to a life of nonsuffering.
Once the buddhi is trained, the choices that seemed murky to a person earlier become evident. Before buddhi and the art of discipline and discrimination are well employed, reason leans toward what is pleasurable. Buddhi sheds light on temporary pleasures and on the futility of gambling one’s life on that which will not last. Buddhi then begins to direct the person to the course of action or thought necessary to carry one to the higher Self. Buddhi will ask what is the relationship of the ego with the higher Self. And so on.
When the buddhi is not allowed to function, the Self remains hidden. Life is wasted in a futile effort to satisfy manas and ego, which are merely aspects of the inner instrument, the total mind. Manas and ego are tools for the human being, but when they are allowed to take over they become master.
The fourth faculty of mind is chitta, the vast unconscious sea in which are stored our impressions, thoughts, desires, and feelings. What bubbles out of this sea is what we’ve put into it lifetime after lifetime. For most people chitta is like a great soup with a huge variety of ingredients, some dominating others in their flavors or textures, some negative, some positive.
These ingredients in the chitta affect our behavior, thoughts, and actions. We may have strong desires, for instance, for ice cream, or react strongly to certain personalities, prefer certain climates to others, or have emotional responses to particular stimuli. These desires and reactions seem out of our control, as if coming from out of the blue. These thoughts and feelings are not out of the blue at all. They are coming from within and are accessible and can be controlled by us. First we need to know, or at least be willing to accept as a reasonable thesis, that there is within our minds this tremendous storehouse of feeling and experience. As fact or thesis, we can act upon it, test it, and probe it.
Access to the subconscious mind comes from calming the surface, the conscious mind. There is nearly always some degree of turbulence on the surface of the mind, the mind bounding from one thought to another, from this to that, then back to this. Sometimes the turbulence is great, and other times the surface is calmer. There is nearly always activity in the conscious mind that prevents access to the subconscious mind.
Knowing how the mind functions and training it properly is the real duty of a human being. This is spiritual work because the properly trained mind is what allows the divine within to reveal itself. It is this duty and obligation that brings peace and joy to a human being. The first step is to remember what our real identity is. We are not our bodies, emotions, thoughts, egos, or mind. We are Atman, divine, pure consciousness. Our bodies, minds, and egos are meant to serve Atman. If we don’t know that truth, isn’t it at least worth accepting as a theory that we are divine and eternal? Isn’t the possibility of divine nature worth an exploration? Isn’t it a critical question in knowing the relationship of life and death? What dies? What lives? What cannot die?
When it is understood that Atman is the essential nature of a person, one can begin the work of clearing the way to Atman. Access begins with understanding the framework of the mind and the makeup of a human being.
The second step is understanding the four aspects of mind and its functions, buddhi, ahamkara, manas, and chitta. In the untrained mind, manas assumes roles that are inappropriate for it, and aham-kara, the ego, takes a greater position of power and authority than is its rightful place. The ahamkara is really a temporary structure that gives form to the individual. The ahamkara is not lasting. It is not the true identity of the individual, but a servant with a tendency to think it is master.
The four faculties of the mind must be integrated. Each has a necessary role to play, in concert and harmony with the others. Manas and ahamkara should do their jobs and no more. Buddhi must be trained and exercised to make the decisions that bring a person to growth and joy.
To accomplish this integration of the faculties of the mind a further understanding of mind and emotions is required. Four basic urges determine personal emotions and their effects on the mind. Primitive, fundamental, and shared by all human beings and other living creatures, these urges are for food, sleep, sex, and self-preservation. From the standpoint of these urges, there is not much difference between human beings and other animals. The difference is the pre-eminence of the human mind in its ability to control these urges.
Other animals are subject to these urges. Their lives are determined and led by them. Human beings, on the other hand, can control these urges by proper use of manas and buddhi. If the faculties of mind are not working in harmony, these four basic urges will express themselves in dysfunctional, unbalanced, and generally unhealthy ways. Eating disorders, addictions, and sexual excesses affect a person’s physical and emotional health. Too much or too little sleep, or fitful sleep have similar effects on emotions and health. The fear of death, which is the central issue of self-preservation, leads to a wide variety of fears, including fear of loss of belongings, possessiveness in relationships, or fear of flying and other phobias. These disorders and addictions, with all of their emotional complications, also get fed into the chitta, shaping personalities and creating habits for years and even lifetimes.
When all the faculties of mind are truly integrated a person can soar to the higher levels of enlightenment. No great person has ever attained Self-realization or enlightenment without total integration of mind. This integration requires effort, practice, and skill. It means making the mind one-pointed and inward. Unless the mind is integrated it cannot perform skillful actions, because the finer cords of the thinking process and desires will remain obstacles in the path of liberation.
Begin the process with some sense that within you is Atman. You will come to feel the Atman and realize it is your best friend. Conduct a dialogue with yourself. Remind yourself of your real identity. Converse with yourself. You will discover that the best of all friends in the external world or anywhere else, is your own Self. If you learn to have an internal dialogue you will become comfortable with yourself. Fears of the outside world, of others, and of circumstances, will disappear. Then the presence of Atman will gradually make itself more apparent.
This dialogue requires introspection. With any close friend you are interested in their life and you are sensitive to their emotions. You listen to them. The same should be true in your relationship with yourself. Pay attention and inspect your own feelings and thoughts. Be gentle with yourself, as you would be with any good friend. Don’t condemn yourself or be judgmental. You will begin to trust your inner Self and realize what a magnificent guide and constant, faithful companion your inner Self is.
Finally, it is necessary to calm the mind. As said earlier, when the manas is untrained and the ego is left unrestrained, the mind becomes turbulent and uncontrollable. At the same time the contents of chitta keep bubbling up and surfacing into consciousness. The individual becomes a slave to this chaos, and is jerked around on the chains of erratic emotions and powerful desires.
This turbulence has to be calmed. Calmness can be established with meditation. When a person’s body is still and the breath is quiet and even, the mind can begin to concentrate. When the concentration is held, the conscious mind becomes more and more calm, and clarity of mind grows deeper and deeper.
When this kind of meditation is achieved the real work begins of cleaning out the mind, emptying it of old desires, thoughts, and fears, and completely integrating buddhi, ahamkara, manas, and chitta. With complete integration, the mind realizes that pure consciousness is everywhere and is sovereign. Then the mind surrenders as it realizes that all its power and authority come from pure consciousness, the source of life. Ego vanishes and death is defeated.