“My friends’ children have been learning to swim, and throughout the summer I received glowing reports about how well they were doing. In the beginning, I remember the children themselves turned in a very different story. “Just looking at all that water makes me scared,” they told me. “I’ll never be able to swim!” They believed that, and they acted on it. When their parents drove them into town for lessons, there was wailing and gnashing of teeth all along the road.”
Now the same children have invited me to preside over their graduation from swimming school. They look forward to coming to the pool now; they swim back and forth, play games underwater, even dive in the deep end. This did not come about overnight. It came through hard work, under the guidance of a good swimming teacher who knew just how to demonstrate the strokes and skills she wanted her pupils to develop.
Partly they are persuaded into the water; partly, I suspect, they are pushed. They feel this is a monstrous unkindness. “We’re land creatures,” they want to argue. “Why should we learn to get along in an alien element?” That is a logical question. But after a while, through guidance and experience, they lose that fear of the water. Now they are at home in the pool.
We accept this as a natural part of a child’s education. Learning to do stunts in the water is part of growing up. If we never get the opportunity to see somebody do such wonderful things in the mental world, it is mainly because our civilization offers no real facilities for training the mind. But with the right training, any of us can learn to be at home in the world of the mind, just as those children learned to be at home in the water.
The Lake of the Mind
Classical Indian mysticism compares the mind to a lake, which for most of us is continually lashed into waves by the winds of emotional stimulus and response. The real storm winds are four: anger, fear, greed and self-will. One or another is generally blowing; if it’s not the southerly, it’s a nor’wester. As a result, the water is in a constant state of agitation. Even when the surface appears calm, murky currents are stirring underneath.
Through meditation and the other powerful allied disciplines, however, the lake of the mind can be made absolutely clear. When not even a ripple disturbs the surface, you can look into the crystal waters of the mind and see the very bottom: the divine ground of existence which is the basis of our personality.
Christian mystics call this center of personality “the Christ within.” In Sanskrit it is called simply Ātman, “Self.” But the Buddha did not even go that far. He made no attempt at all to tell us what we shall see there. Always practical, he leaves the labels to us; his job is to get us to make the discovery ourselves. “You don’t have to accept anybody’s word for this,” he would say. “Dive deep and see for yourself what you find.” Despite all the words that scholars have written on this subject, we can understand this supreme discovery only when we experience it ourselves. This is the great paradox of mysticism: until you enter nirvana, to use the Buddha’s term, you will not be able to understand what nirvana is.
“Through meditation and the other powerful allied disciplines, however, the lake of the mind can be made absolutely clear.”
We can get an intriguing clue, however, through this image of the lake of the mind, which fits well with the Buddha’s concept of consciousness. On the surface level of awareness, everyone seems separate. We look different, wear different clothes, have different speech patterns, different ambitions, different conditioning. This is the physical level of awareness, below which the vast majority of us cannot see because of the agitation of the mind.
Just below the surface is the level of personal, individual consciousness, a comparatively shallow region which is easily stirred by the winds of sense impressions and emotions. The more physically oriented we are – that is, the more we identify with our bodies and feelings – the more caught up we will be in this mind-world of constantly changing forms. In this state it can be quite a chore to get close to other people; all our awareness is caught in the things that make us seem separate from them and unique. Their differences seem to keep getting in our way.
Underlying this level, largely unsuspected, is what the Buddha calls alaya-vijnana: “storehouse consciousness,” the depths of the collective unconscious. There is only one alaya-vijnana; at the bottom, everyone’s unconscious is one and the same. The deeper we get, the more clearly we shall see that our differences with others are superficial, and that ninety-nine per cent of what we are is the same for all.
To the extent that we can turn our back on our petty, private mind-world and learn to dive into deeper consciousness, we can free ourselves from the influence of the storms that stir up those shallow waters at the surface. At the same time, as we get deeper, we move closer and closer to other people; we feel closer to life as a whole. This, in effect, is what learning to swim in the unconscious is all about.
I have read of people who can race along on a Harley-Davidson and leap over a row of cars. This is an accomplishment, I agree. It requires daring, training and resolution. But of what real use is it? By contrast, with that same kind of daring, you can learn to go deep-sea diving in the fathomless lake of the mind. In our contemporary world, when most people feel helplessly at sea, I think this is a vital gift. When you master it, your life becomes a beacon that others can follow.
The mind, of course, has been the subject of very serious study. But from the point of view of spiritual psychology, how can we expect to understand the mind by using the same methods we use to study the physical universe? The very concept of entering the unconscious while conscious is beyond the scope of our imagination.
We identify ourselves with the mind, so how can we expect to study it objectively? As long as we believe we are the mind, we take for granted that we can find fulfillment by catering to its demands and living for its private satisfactions. And as long as we remain at the surface like this, we can never see through the mind clearly. We have little choice but to be tossed about like a toy boat in its fierce storms.
“I can dive to the bottom and bring up pearls, the infinite inner resources that are the legacy of us all. Instead of feeling threatened by adverse circumstances, I can remain calm and help to change those circumstances.”
Dive Deep in Meditation
But we can learn a different perspective. In meditation we discover that we are not the mind. It is an inner world of its own, an environment we can learn to move through. Just as those children now go to the pool with eagerness on their faces, when I find tempests rising in the mind I have learned to swim with joy. I can dive to the bottom and bring up pearls, the infinite inner resources that are the legacy of us all. Instead of feeling threatened by adverse circumstances, I can remain calm and help to change those circumstances. Instead of moving away from difficult people I can actually enjoy their company, move closer to them, and win them over.
This vast treasury is within the reach of all. Sri Ramakrishna, one of the greatest mystics India has ever produced, sang ecstatically of what waits to be discovered at the seabed of consciousness:
Dive deep,O mind, dive deep
In the Ocean of God’s Beauty;
If you descend to the uttermost depths,
There you will find the gem of Love. . .
Once we have learned to dive deep in meditation, there is no end to the resources we can bring to our daily life; there is no challenge we will be unable to meet. Each morning we can descend to the depths and gather armloads of
precious precious jewels: breathtaking gems of love and wisdom, lustrous pearls of patience and compassion. We can distribute them freely, knowing we have an infinite inheritance from which to draw every day.
Once we get beneath the surface of the mind, we begin to see that there is a very close connection between the kinds of distractions we have in meditation and the kinds of problems we face in daily living. It is these problems that prevent us from diving into deeper levels of consciousness. They are both internal and external. They arise in the mind, and we encounter them there in meditation; but because they shape our actions, we also encounter them during the day in a hundred and one disguises.
Sri Aurobindo, one of twentiethcentury India’s most luminous figures, has a good motto for reminding us of this: “All life is yoga.” Every moment, he means, is an opportunity for training the mind.
The explanation of this is simple. Every moment, from the time we get up in the morning until we go to bed, we have a choice: to give our attention to ourselves, or to give it to those around us. If we indulge ourselves during the day, we should not be surprised to find strong distractions in meditation the next morning. On the other hand, if we reduce the number of things we do just to please ourselves, distractions will be fewer and concentration deeper.
“In meditation we discover that we are not the mind. It is an inner world of its own, an environment we can learn to move through.”
I would go so far as to say that dwelling on oneself is the root cause of most personal problems. The more preoccupied we become with our private fears, resentments, memories, and cravings, the more power they have over our attention. When we sit down to meditate, we cannot get our mind off ourselves. With practice, however, we can learn to pay more and more attention to the needs of others – and this carries over directly into meditation. Less self-centered thinking means fewer distractions, a clearer mind, fewer outgoing thoughts to impede our gathering absorption as meditation deepens.
No one begins to meditate without a mind full of distractions. “The mind is restless, turbulent, powerful, violent,” says the Bhagavad Gita. “Trying to control it is like trying to tame the wind.” So when somebody complains to me about meditation being difficult, my only consolation is, “Just wait. It’s going to get a lot harder.” Gaining control over one’s own mind is the most difficult task a human being can undertake. All this preliminary sparring with distractions in meditation is to prepare us for the really big fights to come, when we struggle to transform the powerful currents of negative thinking that swirl deep in the unconscious mind.
This is a miraculous achievement, but there is no miracle about how it is accomplished. It requires a lot of hard work. When your meditation is progressing well, if your mind goes into a negative mood – about yourself, about your problems, about other people, about the state of the world – you should be able to switch your attention away from the negative and focus it on the positive. By doing this over and over again, you can reach a state in which negative thoughts cannot even appear on the scene. Then your behavior is always kind, your words are always helpful, and your life becomes a positive influence on all.
“This is the great paradox of mysticism: until you enter nirvana, to use the Buddha’s term, you will not be able to understand what nirvana is.”