over a New Leaf
monks decided to observe silence for a month. They started
out well enough, but after the first day one monk said, 'I
wonder if I locked the door of my cell at the monastery before
we set out.' Another monk said, 'You fool! We decided to keep
silence for a month and now you have broken it.' A third monk
said, 'What about you? You have broken it too!' Said the fourth,
'Thank God, I'm the only one who hasn't spoken yet.' (1)
story lends itself to some reflection. Hardly does our mind
let us carry out our intentions. More often than not, our
resolutions remain as resolutions. Not only being unable to
live up to our pious intentions, we sometimes act in an entirely
opposite way, despite knowing that such a course of action
will be detrimental to us. Knowing what was right but unable
to follow it, and knowing what was wrong but unable to desist
from it was Duryodhana's predicament. His inherent wickedness
coupled with the evil designs of his vicious uncle made him
what he was. However, he is not alone is his predicament;
there is a streak of it in every one of us.
a worldly man continues to be worldly in spite of himself,
Sri Ramakrishna describes graphically and forcefully:
The bound creatures, entangled in worldliness, will not come
to their senses at all. They suffer so much agony, they face
so many dangers, and yet they will not wake up.
camel loves to eat thorny bushes. The more it eats the thorns,
the more the blood gushes from its mouth. Still it must eat
thorny plants and will never give them up. The man of worldly
nature suffers so much sorrow and affliction, but he forgets
it all in a few days and begins his old life over again. Е
a worldly man is like a snake trying to swallow a mole. The
snake can neither swallow the mole nor give it up. The bound
soul may have realized that there is no substance to the world-that
the world is like a hog plum, only stone and skin-but still
he cannot give it up and turn his mind to God. (2)
our mind does not easily let us turn over a new leaf. For
the most part, it acts as our enemy. Can we ever tame this
unruly mind? Vedanta says yes, it is possible, but it needs
effort: there is neither a short cut here nor an instant result.
It calls for protracted struggle, sometimes enough to unnerve
the bravest of us. But yes, the rewards are also commensurate
with the struggle: control over the mind implies more and
more identity with our real Self, the Atman, the source of
eternal Being, Knowledge and Bliss. A study of how our mind
works will help us in training our mind and bettering ourselves.
Orientation of the Mind
mind and the senses are constitutionally outward-oriented.
In the words of the Katha Upanishad, 'God inflicted an injury
on the sense organs by creating them with outgoing tendencies;
therefore one perceives only external objects with them, and
not the inner Self.' (3) In our daily activities, we remain
mostly identified with our mind. That we are different from
it sounds to be just a pet theory for most of us.
any perception, the 'I'-our pure Self, the Atman - gets attached
to mind, which gets attached to a sense organ, which in turn
comes in contact with its sense object. Since the mind, the
inner organ, is involved in all perceptions by connecting
itself with any of the sense organs - ears, skin, eyes, tongue
or nose - it is called the chief of all organs. (4) Outward-oriented,
the sense organs are always eager to come in contact with
their respective sense objects, and drag us and the mind along
with them. Even a wise man struggling for perfection is not
exempt from this pull of the senses, says Sri Krishna. (5)
Impels Us to Action
we act, how we react to situations, the circumstances we find
ourselves in-in short, what we are at any time is determined
by ourselves, by our samskaras. Anything we do or think leaves
an impression (samskara) in the mind. The impression
gets strengthened with every repetition of the act or thought.
Any desire arising in our mind to enjoy an object is triggered
by the samskaras corresponding to its earlier enjoyments.
We are suddenly caught off our guard: the mind becomes one
with the desire, hooks itself to the sense organs and objects,
and drags us towards the object of enjoyment.
we are able to satisfy a desire without obstruction, we feel
how free we are. True, there is an element of freedom there,
but it does not belong to us, but to the mind and the senses:
they have the freedom to drag us wherever they want. We fail
to understand this because of our total identification with
the mind. True freedom, however, is not freedom for the senses
but freedom from (the hold of) the senses. When we understand
this, we become aware that we were taken for a ride by the
senses and the mind, and that our so-called freedom is not
something to make a song about.
down to Brass Tacks
superiority, it is said, consists in not being superior to
others, but being superior to our former selves. Turning over
a new leaf is indeed difficult, for it entails mind discipline.
Like water and electricity, the mind too follows the line
of least resistance: the senses-objects chain. The mind rebels
only when this least resistant line is threatened. But that
is precisely what mind discipline does: weaning the mind off
from the hold of the senses. Any amount of reading self-development
books or hearing words of wisdom is of no avail unless we
decide to work on ourselves with patience and persistence.
'No rules for success will work if you don't' cannot be more
significant than here. Now we discuss some aids on the path
to bettering ourselves.
strong determination to change: An abiding faith in oneself
and a resolute mindset are a prerequisite to turning over
a new leaf. An old man was on a pilgrimage to a Himalayan
shrine in the bitter cold of winter, when it began to rain.
An innkeeper asked him, 'How will you ever get there in this
kind of weather, my good man?' The old man answered cheerfully,
'My heart got there first, so it's easy for the rest of me
to follow.' The hereditary farmer in Sri Ramakrishna's parable
is another case in point. He doesn't give up farming even
though he doesn't get any crop in a year of drought.6 Even
so, a man endowed with determination does not give up easily
even if he fails in his attempts at change. Swami Vivekananda
wrote to his disciple Goodwin, 'The road to Good is the roughest
and steepest in the universe. It is a wonder that so many
succeed, no wonder that so many fall. Character has to be
established through a thousand stumbles.' (7)
alert about our thoughts: We saw that our actions and
thoughts leave their impressions on the mind. And since thoughts
impel us to actions, we cannot be too careful about what we
think. Though it is certainly helpful to know what goes on
in our mind by witnessing its functions, it is more useful
to proactively think wholesome thoughts, not letting the mind
brood over undesirable things. Swamiji's words offer great
hope and consolation: 'The infinite future is before you,
and you must always remember that each word, thought, and
deed, lays up a store for you and that as the bad thoughts
and bad works are ready to spring upon you like tigers, so
also there is the inspiring hope that the good thoughts and
good deeds are ready with the power of a hundred thousand
angels to defend you always and for ever.' (2.225) Elsewhere
Swamiji compares truth to 'a corrosive substance of infinite
power. It burns its way in wherever it falls-in soft substance
at once, hard granite slowly, but it must.' (5.71) Consciously
thinking about our higher nature and ordering our actions
accordingly is thus an indispensable means to self-culture.
In fact, only wholesome thoughts can counteract bad impressions.
into a contract with God: Fasts, vigils and taking vows
are some well-known means to strengthen will power. To the
extent our will becomes strong, we are able to detach ourselves
from our unruly mind and forge ahead on the path to perfection.
External rituals remain just mechanical and lifeless observances
if they don't strengthen our will as a sequel. Stressing the
importance of a strong resolve, Sri Ramakrishna says:
a man becomes pure by chanting the holy name of God, but immediately
afterwards commits many sins. He has no strength of mind.
He doesn't take a vow not to repeat his sins. A bath in the
Ganges undoubtedly absolves one of all sins; but what does
that avail? They say that the sins perch on the trees along
the bank of the Ganges. No sooner does the man come back from
the holy waters than the old sins jump on his shoulders from
the trees. Е The same old sins take possession of him again.
He is hardly out of the water before they fall upon him. (8)
asking his devotees to have faith in God's name, Sri Ramakrishna
advised them to enter into a contract, as it were, with God:
'One should have such faith as to be able to say, "What?
I have taken the name of God; how can I be a sinner?"
God is our Father and Mother. Tell Him, "O Lord, I have
committed sins, but I won't repeat them." Chant His name
and purify your body and mind. Purify your tongue by singing
God's holy name.' (9) (Emphasis added)
with the wise: Sri Ramakrishna often prescribed holy company
as a potent cure for bhavaroga, the disease of worldliness.
in prayer and meditation: Holy Mother stressed regular
japa and meditation in the mornings and evenings, for that
would keep tabs on the mind on a daily basis and sharpen our
over a new leaf involves mind discipline and long and patient
struggle. The struggle is challenging and at times unnerving,
but only we human beings can struggle and become great despite
failures and mistakes. The 'voice without a form' is ready
to inspire us 'until the world shall know that it is one with
God': 'Never mind failures; they are quite natural, they are
the beauty of life, these failures. Е Never mind the struggles,
the mistakes. I never heard a cow tell a lie, but it is only
a cow - never a man. So never mind these failures, these little
backslidings; hold the ideal a thousand times, and if you
fail a thousand times, make the attempt once more.' (10)
Anthony de Mello, The Prayer of the Frog (Anand: Gujarat
Sahitya Parishad, 1989), 152.
M, The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, trans. Swami Nikhilananda
(Chennai: Sri Ramakrishna Math, 2002), 165.
Katha Upanishad, 2.1.1.
'Indriyanam manashcasmi; Among sense organs I am the mind.'
- Bhagavadgita, 10.22.
The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols. (Calcutta:
Advaita Ashrama, 1-8, 1989; 9, 1997), 8.383.