Living in Freedom

EKNATH EASWARAN

Some time ago, while visiting Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco, I saw an intelligent, imaginative street performer who billed himself as “one-man vaudeville.” Everything he did I enjoyed, because it was so applicable to the training of the mind. Only in this case it was the hands that had been trained, which is much easier to understand.

This man was an excellent showman. He knew how to drum up business and draw in a lot of people who were wandering aimlessly. Then, when he had a captive crowd, he started juggling first with only one ball. “Everybody can do this,” he assured us. “This is how you start juggling, with one ball.”

And all of us said to ourselves, “Yeah, we can do that. Anybody can do that.”

Next he started in with two – step by step, without frightening any would-be jugglers. And I said to myself, “Yeah, we can do that too.”

Then he started two with one hand. The audience began to get thoughtful.

If I may make a confession, I was particularly interested in all this for a rather personal reason. When I was in high school I was a good student, and I didn’t like some of the remarks made by other boys to the effect that books were all I was good for. So I decided to learn to do something that nobody else could do. I looked about and cudgeled my brain. “Hey,” I said, “nobody is a juggler!”

I went to my grandmother and asked, “What would you say if I learned to juggle?”

“As long as it doesn’t take time from your studies,” she said, “it’s all right with me.”

So whenever I got a few spare minutes, I would take out a lemon . . . and then, after a while, two lemons. It was difficult. You have to time the toss well and then receive it well; the rhythm has to be just right and your concentration cannot waver. But I went on practicing, and to my amazement I succeeded. It was a great day when I went to Granny and said, “Would you like a surprise?” I started in with my lemons, and her eyes glowed with admiration.

That glow was so precious to me that I added another lemon. Try juggling with three lemons; you’ll see how difficult it is. But through perseverance and nothing more, I succeeded.

This time I called in my mother also. “Both of you sit down,” I announced. “You are about to see a really professional performance.” I don’t know who applauded more enthusiastically, my mother or my grandmother.

Now, it happened that at school gatherings, whenever everybody was hard pressed for entertainment, someone would ask me, “Wouldn’t you like to recite ‘The boy stood on the burning deck’?” This time I was ready for them. The next time the occasion arose I replied, “No, nothing intellectual. Real lowbrow stuff for me.” I took out my lemons and started in, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a high school crowd so stunned.

That explains one of the reasons why I was so interested in this man’s performance in Ghirardelli Square. But where I had started with A and ended with B, this man went from A to Z. Some of the things I saw him doing I couldn’t believe. He would be juggling and would suddenly pass his hand right through the rain of balls, or pluck one out and toss it up behind his back. Then he would start juggling with an eggplant, a bowling ball, and a fresh egg. If you haven’t juggled, the impossibility of this may escape you. To be able to juggle – or so I had always thought – you have to have objects of equal weight. Only then can your timing be good. Besides, if there is any kind of collision between a bowling ball and an egg, the result can be humiliating. But though we watched and held our breath, the catastrophe never occurred.

We all thought that was the limit; but there was more. While juggling he would catch the apple and take a bite – all in rhythm – and then send it back into the fray. He did this until the whole apple had disappeared into his mouth.

The climax was stupendous. First, he brought out four empty beer bottles and placed them carefully on the carpet. Then he balanced an ordinary wooden chair on top of the empty bottles. I thought he was going to say, “Don’t you like the way I can balance this chair?” But instead, he climbed onto the chair, stood up precariously, took out two balls and an apple, and started juggling. We all thought that was the limit; but there was more. While juggling he would catch the apple and take a bite all in rhythm and then send it back into the fray. He did this until the whole apple had disappeared into his mouth.

Now, if I had asked, “How did you ever learn to do all this?” he might have replied, “You started too. You just didn’t finish.” In other words, if I had dropped out of school and juggled for hours every day instead of reading Shakespeare and Shaw, I too probably could have learned to stand in Ghirardelli Square and do what he was doing. It is essentially a question of practice – and of where you choose to put your time.

What that young man learned to do with his body, you can learn to do with your mind. With diligent practice, you can learn to stand atop old, unwanted habits of conditioned thinking and juggle gracefully with anything life places in your hands. There is no mystery about this, no magic to it. You simply start by practicing with one or two small things.

This kind of juggling begins not with eggs and eggplants but with likes and dislikes. This is only for the adventuresome, but it makes an excellent test of spiritual awareness. Can you change your likes at will? When it benefits someone else, can you turn a dislike into a like? If you can, you have really made progress.

The reason is simple. The basis of conditioned thinking is the pleasure principle: “Do what brings pleasure, avoid what brings pain.” To act in freedom, we have to unlearn this basic reflex. We need to learn to enjoy doing something we dislike, or to enjoy not doing something we like, when it is in the long-term best interests of others or ourselves.

This is not an exotic idea. We set limits to the pleasure principle every day, largely because as human beings, we have the capacity to look beyond immediate gratification to something more important. Every good athlete understands this; so does a mother staying up to comfort a sick child. This precious capacity is called discrimination, the ability to distinguish between immediate pleasure and real benefit, and I shall have a lot to say about it in the pages to come.

Conditioning, then, comes down to being dictated to by our likes and dislikes. And the first place we encounter likes and dislikes is when the senses are involved: with all the things we love (or hate) to taste, see, listen to, smell, or touch. Highbrow or low, almost everyone holds on tightly to sensory likes and dislikes. But by learning to toss them up and juggle with them freely, turning a like into a dislike or a dislike into a like as the occasion demands, we gain much more than a party skill: we get a precious handhold on the workings of the mind.

When you say no to a calorie-laden treat, or yes to a restaurant you dislike but your partner really enjoys, you are learning to juggle with your likes and dislikes in food. When you say no to music that stirs up old passions, you are juggling with your hearing. You can do this with all the senses. In the films you see, the books and magazines you read, the television shows you look at, the conversations you participate in everywhere you can learn to say, “No, this doesn’t help anybody, so I won’t do it; yes, this is beneficial, so I’ll do it with enthusiasm.”

To act in freedom, we have to unlearn this basic reflex. We need to learn to enjoy doing something we dislike, or to enjoy not doing something we like, when it is in the long-term best interests of others or ourselves.

This is the way I trained my own mind, and I recommend it to everyone with a sense of adventure. Sometimes you have to grit your teeth, but the fierce thrill of mastery is exhilarating. It is not possible to convey what freedom comes when you can juggle with your likes and dislikes at will.

We can get so caught up in our subtle maze of likes and dislikes that we temporarily lose our sense of direction. As Spinoza says, we mistake our desires for rational decisions. We tell ourselves, “I like this, so I do it. I don’t like that, so I don’t bother with it. What other basis is there for making a decision?” What we really mean is, “I’m in a car that turns of its own accord. I can’t help going after things I like, and I can’t help avoiding things I dislike.” We have only to look at ourselves with detachment to see how much of our daily routine amounts to little more than going round and round in the same old circles.

There is real truth to an old saying: “The immature person does what he likes; the mature person likes what he does.” In the newspaper recently, three or four persons on the street were asked what quality they most admired in a friend. I would have liked to surprise the interviewer by saying, “Flexibility in likes and dislikes.” Its beneficial effects are immediate and wide-ranging: on our health, because it gives us a shield against stress; on our emotional stability, because now we hold the steering wheel in our own hands; on our relationships, because on most issues we can give easily, without rancor.

Flexibility can be practiced everywhere, starting with food. My friend Brian, who wrote the nutrition section of The New Laurel’s Kitchen, once told me that the thorniest problem in the whole field of human nutrition is helping people to change their eating habits. Even when they know their health demands it, change is almost impossible, simply because likes and dislikes about food can be so rigid.

One of the first things I learned from Mahatma Gandhi was that training the palate is a powerful aid in training the mind.

Suppose, for example, that you have been looking forward to Belgian waffles for breakfast. When you come to the table and find blueberry pancakes, you feel so disappointed! There is nothing shabby about blueberry pancakes, but you have been dreaming of Belgian waffles smothered with fresh strawberries and gleaming with a crown of whipped cream. Many a breakfast table has been the scene of a small Waterloo over just such an incident. But on the spot you can start practicing flexibility, juggling waffles and pancakes. If you have children, a few scenes like this will convey a great deal. They may not say anything, but they will gradually absorb a precious secret about life: being able to change your likes and dislikes means you are always free to enjoy.

“Like it or not,” I tell my mind, “this is part of our work now. So let’s see what we can learn about emotional factors in heart disease.”

If I may say so, I think this skill is much harder to learn for those of us who grew up in countries where food is very highly spiced. Just as children in this country go to the ice cream parlor after school, we used to go to a mango tree – even when the fruit was not yet ripe. To South Indians, green mangoes have a complex appeal: partly sour, partly sweet, partly pungent. And we had our rituals about how they should be eaten. One, at least for boys in my village, was that you should get your mango without climbing the tree. You have to take a little stone, sharpen it, and knock the fruit from the branch – and it is not supposed to touch the ground, either; you have to catch it as it falls. Then you season your prize liberally with red pepper and salt everybody brought his own from home and enjoy it right on the spot. I might add that our red pepper is not the civilized cayenne pepper you get in this country. Kerala peppers are flaming hot.

This is the kind of food South Indians enjoy. It should burn. Just imagine! So when somebody has been eating this way morning, noon, and evening for twenty or thirty years, it is almost impossible to change to milder food. Yet it can be done.

Some years ago a distinguished Indian scholar visiting this country was drawing me out about the life I was leading here. “I hope,” he said earnestly, “that you have made arrangements for getting Indian food.”

“Oh, no,” I said. “Now I eat food without chilies or spices, and with very little salt.”

He shivered visibly. “How horrible!” He couldn’t know that for the passing pleasures of red pepper and green mango, I had bought a lasting joy.

One of the first things I learned from Mahatma Gandhi was that training the palate is a powerful aid in training the mind. The reason is simple: you get at the mind through the senses, and taste is a double sense. Ask a gourmet: when something appeals to the palate, flavor and aroma are combined. So for those who want the taste of freedom, I am going to make a rather unpleasant suggestion. When you have the opportunity to eat some special delicacy, which you like very much, choose instead to ask for something nourishing that you don’t particularly enjoy. Try it: you won’t like it. At first it may make your skin crawl. Then why do I suggest it? Because even two or three experiments like this bring a heady sense of self-mastery. If you get hooked, you will see for yourself how much freer your life becomes.

Every day brings opportunities to practice this, as I can illustrate with another personal example. In India, as you may know, we use many kinds of vegetables in curries, but we generally don’t serve vegetables raw. A tossed green salad is just a pile of leaves to us, and the only people in India who eat leaves are characters in our ancient epics who have been exiled to a forest or have taken vows of mortification. When I came to this country, consequently, I had some difficulty in taking to salads. My body needed their nourishment, but my mind did not understand that; I had to teach it. Today I probably eat more salad than half a dozen of you together, and I enjoy it immensely.

But the challenges didn’t end there. The first time I tried asparagus, for example, it really tasted like grass to me. I might as well have been eating plankton. My mind objected strenuously, “This isn’t food!”

Whatever the job, all of us feel a natural desire to work at what we like, in the manner we like, with the people we like, and at the times we like. This happens so quietly that we seldom notice that our little preferences are making choices for us.

I remember picking up the San Francisco Chronicle in those days and seeing a gourmet columnist announce with joy, “The asparagus season has arrived!” It struck fear into my heart. I asked myself, “Will it claim me for its own someday?”

“Asparagus is full of valuable nutrients,” the columnist wrote. “So what?” my taste buds demanded. “What about us?” I thought they had a point. To get nutrients into the blood, you first have to get them past the taste buds. Mine stood there like armed sentinels, saying, “No!”

Yet now – it is a real tribute to my mind – I eat so much asparagus that at my next physical examination my blood may prove green. Friends buy it for me by the crate. When I went to the store a few days ago, I was introduced to the produce man as “the man who eats all that asparagus!” He was duly impressed.

There is no struggle in this any longer. I don’t face a plate of asparagus with a sense of conflict, and I don’t force it down either; I enjoy it. With lots of nutrients and so few calories, it is excellent for my body’s needs.

You can juggle with likes and dislikes about work in the same way.

Whatever the job, all of us feel a natural desire to work at what we like, in the manner we like, with the people we like, and at the times we like. This happens so quietly that we seldom notice that our little preferences are making choices for us. Only as my meditation deepened did I begin to see that I was drifting toward doing things I liked and away from doing things I didn’t like, without my even being aware of what was happening. Discrimination dawned with the insight that I was rarely acting in freedom.

One secret I learned was to try to see myself as someone else would. That enabled me to see with clearer eyes what I was avoiding and why. When you look at your life in this way, you soon find opportunities to work in circumstances that may not be to your liking – perhaps even with people you don’t like – but where your help will benefit others. In such situations, most of us not only lose our patience, our concentration, and our good manners; often we lose our skill as well. That is the challenge. If you can only do well at jobs that are fun, what is special about that?

Again, let me illustrate from my own experience. For most of my life I have luxuriated in literature. I fell in love very young with the best from both English and Sanskrit, two of the richest literary traditions in the world, and I must have memorized thousands of lines of poetry; that was the extent of my passion. I carried Palgrave’s Golden Treasury in my pocket wherever I went, and during the summer I used to go up to a spectacular, secluded spot we called the Glittering Rocks, where mica sprinkled stones rose above the headwaters of our river, and recite aloud the whole of Gray’s “Elegy” or the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. I mention this just to give an idea of the love I poured into literature, which I haven’t lost even today.

Yet today, although I still sit up reading until late at night, the one thing I almost never touch is literature. Everything is medicine, science, political essays, economic analyses – with one or two exceptions, the most forbidding stuff. Sometimes it turns out that the writer has little to say and little interest in saying it well either. At times like these, despite all its training, my mind still complains. “I don’t like this!” it says. “You have a volume of Maugham short stories on your shelf; can’t we read one of those for a while, just for a break?”

“Like it or not,” I tell my mind, “this is part of our work now. So let’s see what we can learn about emotional factors in heart disease.” My mind has learned to accept this answer without groaning. It has become natural, effortless, to ignore my personal preferences when it serves the interests of the whole.

Even after years of training, I assure you, your mind will keep a few harmless likes and dislikes. That is its nature. The difference is that you no longer get compulsively attached to them. You don’t lose your capacity to enjoy life’s innocent pleasures; you lose the capacity to get caught in them like a fly in amber. In other words, you always have a choice. You can view your predilections with a detached eye, and you can change them, if necessary, as easily as you change your shirt.

Strong likes and dislikes lead to strong passions, which are an open gateway to anger. Just contradict someone with rigid opinions and see what happens; you could insert a thermometer into his mind and watch the temperature rise.

Without this flexibility, likes and dislikes can become rigid and ingrained. Strong likes and dislikes lead to strong passions, which are an open gateway to anger. Just contradict someone with rigid opinions and see what happens; you could insert a thermometer into his mind and watch the temperature rise. Don’t you talk about a “hot temper”? A really angry person has a “temp” of one hundred and four. His mind is agitated, so his attention gets scattered: he cannot listen to anybody, and he gets stirred up before he even knows what the subject is. I have heard some good American advice for such a person: “Keep your cool.” When you keep your cool, the mind does not flutter; it is still. Then you see everybody’s point of view clearly. You have the understanding to help the person who is agitated with you, and if necessary, you can oppose his views without getting overheated or apologetic.

Juggling with likes and dislikes, then, is much more than learning to be flexible about the relative merits of foods or jobs or people. The real issue is freedom. Our habitual responses in small matters reflect the way we respond to life itself: the person with rigid tastes in food is likely to have rigid tastes in other fields as well. All of these hold him hostage. He is happy so long as he gets everything the way he likes it. Otherwise – which may be ninety-nine percent of the time – he is unhappy over something. He might as well be bound hand and foot. My grandmother used to tell me, “Don’t ever beg from life.” Life has only contempt for people who say, “Please give me two things I like today: one in the morning, preferably just before lunch, and another about midway through the afternoon, when I start to get irritable… Oh, and please remember to keep everything I dislike at a convenient distance.” This is panhandling, and we usually get what we deserve: disappointment, with a capital D.

We are not beggars, Granny would say; we are princes and princesses. We can learn to say to life, “It doesn’t matter what you bring today. If you bring something pleasant, I will flourish; if you bring something unpleasant, I will still flourish.” Once we have tasted the freedom of juggling at will with our personal preferences, we can face whatever comes to us calmly and courageously, knowing we have the flexibility to weather any storm gracefully. This is living in freedom, the ultimate goal of training the mind.

 

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