It was still rather dark after an hour of steady driving. The trees were dark, mysterious and withdrawn. The road was now paved but narrow, and every cart meant more dust, more tinkling of bells, and still more carts ahead. We were going due east, and soon there was the beginning of dawn, opaque, soft and shadowless. It was not a clear dawn, bright with sparkling dew, but one of those mornings which are rather heavy with the coming heat. Yet how beautiful it was! Far away were the mountains; they could not yet be seen, but one felt they were there, immense, cool and time free.
The road passed through every kind of village, some clean, orderly and well kept, others filthy and rotting with hopeless poverty and degradation. Men were going off to the fields, women to the well, and the children were shouting and laughing in the streets. There were miles of government farms, with tractors, fish ponds, and experimental agricultural schools. A powerful new car passed by, laden with wealthy, well fed people. The mountains were still far away, and the earth was rich. In several places the road went through a dry river bed where it was no longer a road, but the buses and carts had made a way across. The parrots, green and red, called to each other in their crazy flight; there were also smaller birds, gold and green, and the white ricebirds.
Now the road was leaving the plains and beginning to ascend. The thick vegetation in the foothills was being cleared away with bulldozers, and miles of fruit trees were being planted. The car continued to climb as the hills became mountains covered with chestnut and pine trees, the pines slender and straight and the chestnuts heavy with bloom. The view was opening now, measureless valleys stretching away below, and ahead were the snowy peaks.
At last we rounded a bend at the summit of the climb, and there stood the mountains, clear and dazzling. They were sixty miles away, with a vast blue valley between them and us. Stretching for over two hundred miles, they filled the horizon from end to end, and with a turn of the head we could see from one end to the other. It was a marvellous sight. The intervening sixty miles seemed to disappear, and there was only that strength and solitude. Those peaks, some of them rising over 25,000 feet, had divine names, for the gods lived there, and men came to them from great distances on pilgrimages, to worship and to die.
He had been educated abroad, he said and had held a good position with the government; but over twenty years ago he had made the decision to give up this position and the ways of the world in order to spend the remaining days of his life in meditation. ‘I practiced various methods of meditation,’ he went on, ‘till I had complete control of my thoughts, and this has brought with it certain powers and domination over myself. However, a friend took me to one of your talks in which you answered a question on meditation, saying that as generally practiced meditation was a form of self-hypnosis, a cultivation of self-projected desires, however refined. This struck me as being so true that I sought out this conversation with you; and considering that I have given my life to meditation, I hope we can go into the matter rather deeply.
‘I would like to begin by explaining somewhat the course of my development. I realized from everything I had read that it was necessary to be completely the master of one’s thoughts. This was extremely difficult for me. Concentration on official work was something wholly different from steadying the mind and harnessing the whole process of thought. According to the books, one had to have all the reins of controlled thought in one’s hand. Thought could not be sharpened to penetrate into the many illusions unless it was controlled and directed; so that was my first task.’
If one may ask without breaking into your narration, is control of thought the first task?
‘I heard what you said in your talk about concentration, but if I may I would like as far as possible to describe my whole experience and then take up certain vital issues connected with it.’ Just as you like, sir. ‘From the very beginning I was dissatisfied with my occupation, and it was a comparatively easy matter to drop a promising career. I had read a great many books on meditation and contemplation, including the writings of the various mystics both here and in the West, and it seemed obvious to me that control of thought was the most important thing. This demanded considerable effort, sustained and purposive. As I progressed in meditation I had many experiences, visions of Krishna, of Christ, and of some of the Hindu saints. I became clairvoyant and began to read people’s thoughts, and acquired certain other siddhis or powers. I went from experience to experience, from one vision, with its symbolic significance, to another, from despair to the highest form of bliss. I had the pride of a conqueror, of one who was the master of himself.
Asceticism, the mastery of oneself, does give a sense of power, and it breeds vanity, strength and self-confidence. I was in the rich fullness of all that. Though I had heard of you for many years, the pride in my achievement had always prevented me from coming to listen to you; but my friend, another sannyasi, insisted that I should come, and what I heard has disturbed me. I had previously thought that I was beyond all disturbance! This briefly has been my history in meditation.
‘You said in your talk that the mind must go beyond all experience, otherwise it is imprisoned in its own projections, in its own desires and pursuits, and I was deeply surprised to find that my mind was caught up in these very things. Being conscious of this fact, how is the mind to break down the walls of the prison it has built around itself? Have these twenty years and more been wasted? Has it all been a mere wandering in illusion?’
What action should take place can presently be talked over, but let us consider, if you will, the control of thought. Is this control necessary? Is it beneficial or harmful? Various religious teachers have advocated the control of thought as the primary step, but are they right? Who is this controller? Is he not part of that very thought which he is trying to control? He may think of himself as being separate, different from thought, but is he not the outcome of thought? Surely control implies the coercive action of will to subjugate, to suppress, to dominate, to build up resistance against what is not desired. In this whole process there is vast and miserable conflict, is there not? Can any good come out of conflict?
Concentration in meditation is a form of self-centred improvement, it emphasizes action within the boundaries of the self, the ego, the ‘me’. Concentration is a process of narrowing down thought. A child is absorbed in its toy. The toy, the image, the symbol, the word, arrests the restless wanderings of the mind, and such absorption is called concentration. The mind is taken over by the image, by the object, external or inward. The image or the object is then all important, and not the understanding of the mind itself. Concentration on something is comparatively easy. The toy does absorb the mind but it does not free the mind to explore, to discover what is, if there is anything, beyond its own frontiers.
‘What you say is so different from what one has read or been taught, yet it appears to be true and I am beginning to understand the implications of control. But how can the mind be free without discipline?’
Suppression and conformity are not the steps that lead to freedom. The first step towards freedom is the understanding of bondage. Discipline does shape behaviour and mould thought to the desired pattern, but without understanding desire, mere control or discipline perverts thought; whereas, when there is an awareness of the ways of desire, that awareness brings clarity and order. After all, sir, concentration is the way of desire. A man of business is concentrated because he wants to amass wealth or power, and when another concentrates in meditation, he also is after achievement, reward. Both are pursuing success, which yields self-confidence and the feeling of being secure. This is so, is it not?
‘I follow what you are explaining, sir.’ Verbal comprehension alone, which is an intellectual grasp of what is heard, has little value, don’t you think? The liberating factor is never a mere verbal comprehension but the perception of the truth or the falseness of the matter. If we can understand the implications of concentration and see the false as the false, then there is freedom from the desire to achieve, to experience, to become. From this comes attention, which is wholly different from concentration. Concentration implies a dual process, a choice, an effort, does it not? There is the maker of effort and the end towards which effort is made. So concentration strengthens the ‘I’, the self, the ego as the maker of effort, the conqueror, the virtuous one. But in attention this dual activity is not present; there is an absence of the experiencer, the one who gathers, stores and repeats. In this state of attention the conflict of achievement and the fear of failure have ceased.
‘But unfortunately not all of us are blessed with that power of attention.’ It is not a gift, it is not a reward, a thing to be purchased through discipline, practice, and so on. It comes into being with the understanding of desire, which is self-knowledge. This state of attention is the good, the absence of the self. ‘Is all my effort and discipline of many years utterly wasted and of no value at all? Even as I ask this question I am beginning to see the truth of the matter. I see now that for over twenty years I have pursued a way that has inevitably led to a self-created prison in which I have lived, experienced and suffered. To weep over the past is self-indulgence and one must begin again with a different spirit. But what about all the visions and experiences? Are they also false, worthless?’
Is not the mind, sir, a vast storehouse of all the experiences, visions and thoughts of man? The mind is the result of many thousands of years of tradition and experience. It is capable of fantastic inventions, from the simplest to the most complex. It is capable of extraordinary delusions and of vast perceptions. The experiences and hopes, the anxieties, joys and accumulated knowledge of both the collective and the individual are all there, stored away in the deeper layers of consciousness, and one can relive the inherited or acquired experiences, visions, and so on. We are told of certain drugs that can bring clarity, a vision of the depths and the heights, that can free the mind from its turmoils, giving it great energy and insight. But must the mind travel through all these dark and hidden passages to come to the light? And when through any of these means it does come to the light, is that the light of the eternal? Or is it the light of the known, the recognized, a thing born of search, struggle hope? Must one go through this weary process to find that which is not measurable? Can we bypass all this and come upon that which may be called love? Since you have had visions, powers, experiences, what do you say, sir?
‘While they lasted I naturally thought they were important and had significance; they gave me a satisfying sense of power, a certain happiness in gratifying achievement. When the various powers come they give one great confidence in oneself, a feeling of self-mastery in which there is an overwhelming pride. Now, after talking all this over, I am not at all sure that these visions, and so on, have such great meaning for me as they once had. They seem to have receded in the light of my own understanding.’
Must one go through all these experiences? Are they necessary to open the door of the eternal? Can they not be bypassed? After all, what is essential is self-knowledge, which brings about a still mind. A still mind is not the product of will, of discipline, of the various practices to subjugate desire. All these practices and disciplines only strengthen the self, and virtue is then another rock on which the self can build a house of importance and respectability. The mind must be empty of the known for the unknowable to be. Without understanding the ways of the self, virtue begins to clothe itself in importance. The movement of the self, with its will and desire, its searching and accumulation, must wholly cease. Then only the timeless can come into being. It cannot be invited. The mind that seeks to invite the real through various practices, disciplines, through prayers and attitudes, can only receive its own gratifying projections, but they are not the real.
‘I perceive now, after these many years of asceticism, discipline and self-mortification, that my mind is held in the prison of its own making, and that the walls of this prison must be broken down. How is one to set about it?’ The very awareness that they must go is enough. Any action to break them down sets in motion the desire to achieve, to gain, and so brings into being the conflict of the opposites the experiencer and the experience, the seeker and the sought. To see the false as the false is in itself enough, for that very perception frees the mind from the false.