The road led south of the noisy, sprawling town, with its seemingly endless rows of new buildings. The road was crowded with buses, cars and bullock carts, and with hundreds of cyclists who were going home from their offices, looking worn out after a long day of routine work which held no interest for them. Many stopped at an open market on the roadside to buy wilted vegetables. As we went through the outskirts of the town, there were rich green trees on both sides of the road, recently washed by the heavy rains. The sun was setting to our right, a huge golden ball above the distant hills. There were many goats among the trees, and the kids were chasing each other. The curving road went past an eleventh-century tower, standing red and lofty amidst Hindu and Mogul ruins. Dotted about here and there were ancient tombs, and a splendid, ruined archway told of a glory that was long ago.
The car was stopped, and we walked along the road. A group of peasants were returning from their work in the fields; all were women, and after a long day of toil, they were singing a lilting song. In that peaceful countryside their voices rang out, clear, resonant and gay. As we approached, they shyly stopped singing, but continued with their song as soon as we had passed.
The evening light was among the gently rolling hills, and the trees were dark against the evening sky. On a huge jutting rock stood the crumbling battlements of an ancient fortress. There was an astonishing beauty covering the land; it was all about us, filling every nook and corner of the earth, and the dark recesses of our hearts and minds. There is only love, not the love of God and the love of man; it is not to be divided. A big owl flew silently across the moon and a group of the educated villagers were talking loudly, debating whether or not to go to the cinema in the town; they were rowdy, and aggressively occupied half of the road.
It was pleasant in the soft moonlight, and the shadows on the ground were clear and sharp. A lorry came rattling along the road, blowing its threatening horn; but it soon passed, leaving the countryside to the loveliness of the evening, and to the immense solitude.
He was a healthy and thoughtful young man, still in his thirties, and was employed in some government office. He was not too averse to his work, he explained, and everything considered, had a fairly good salary and a promising future. He was married and had a son of four whom he had wanted to bring along, but the boy’s mother had insisted that he would be a nuisance.
“I attended one or two of your talks,” he said, “and, if I may, I would like to ask a question. I have got into certain bad habits which are bothering me, and which I want to be free of. For several months now I have tried to get rid of them, but without success. What am I to do?”
Let us consider habit itself, and not divide it into good and bad. The cultivation of habit, however good and respectable, only makes the mind dull. What do we mean by habit? Let us think it out, and not depend on mere definition. “Habit is an oft-repeated act.”
It is a momentum of action in a certain direction, whether pleasant or unpleasant, and it may operate consciously or unconsciously, with thought, or thoughtlessly. Is that it? “Yes, sir, that’s right.”
Some feel the need of coffee in the morning, and without it they get a headache. The body may not have required it at first, but it has gradually got used to the pleasurable taste and stimulation of coffee, and now it suffers when deprived of it. “But is coffee a necessity?”
What do you mean by a necessity? “Good food is necessary to good health.”
Surely; but the tongue becomes accustomed to food of a certain kind or flavour, and then the body feels deprived and anxious when it does not get what it’s used to. This insistence on food of a particular kind indicates – does it not? – that a habit has been formed, a habit based on pleasure and the memory of it. “But how can one break a pleasurable habit? To break an unpleasant habit is comparatively easy, but my problem is how to break the pleasant ones.”
As I said, we aren’t considering pleasant and unpleasant habits, or how to break away from either of them, but we are trying to understand habit itself. We see that habit is formed when there is pleasure and the demand for the continuation of the pleasure. Habit is based on pleasure and the memory of it. An initially unpleasant experience may gradually become a pleasant and ‘necessary’ habit.
Now, let’s go a little further into the matter. What is your problem? “Amongst other habits, sexual indulgence has become a powerful and consuming habit with me. I have tried to bring it under control by disciplining myself against it, by dieting, practising various exercises, and so on, but in spite of all my resistance the habit has continued.” 8 Perhaps there is no other release in your life, no other driving interest. Probably you are bored with your work, without being aware of it; and religion for you may be only a repetitious ritual, a set of dogmas and beliefs without any meaning at all. If you are inwardly thwarted, frustrated, then sex becomes your only release. To be inwardly alert to think anew about your work, about the absurdities of society, to find out for yourself the true significance of religion – it is this that will free the mind from being enslaved by any habit.
“I used to be interested in religion and in literature, but I have no leisure for either of them now, because all my time is taken up with my work. I am not really unhappy in it, but I realize that earning a livelihood isn’t everything, and it may be that, as you say, if I can find time for wider and deeper interests, it will help to break down the habit which is bothering me.”
As we said, habit is the repetition of a pleasurable act brought about by the stimulating memories and images which the mind evokes. The glandular secretions and their results, as in the case of hunger, are not a habit, they are the normal process of the physical organism; but when the mind indulges in sensation, stimulated by thoughts and pictures, then surely the formation of habit is set going. Food is necessary, but the demand for a particular taste in food is based on habit. Finding pleasure in certain thoughts and acts, subtle or crude, the mind insists on their continuance thereby breeding habit. A repetitive act, like brushing one’s teeth in the morning, becomes a habit when attention is not given to it. Attention frees the mind from habit.
“Are you implying that we must get rid of all pleasure?”
No, sir. We are not trying to get rid of anything, or to acquire anything; we are trying to understand the full implication of habit; and we have to understand, too, the problems of pleasure. Many sannyasis, yogis, saints, have denied themselves pleasure; they have tortured themselves and forced the mind to resist, to be insensitive to pleasure in every form. It is a pleasure to see the beauty of a tree, of a cloud, of moonlight on the water, or of a human being; and to deny that pleasure is to deny beauty.
On the other hand, there are people who reject the ugly and cling to the beautiful. They want to remain in the lovely garden of their own making, and shut out the noise, the smell and the brutality that exist beyond the wall. Very often they succeed in this; but you cannot shut out the ugly and hold to the beautiful without becoming dull, insensitive. You must be sensitive to sorrow as well as to joy and not eschew the one and seek out the other. Life is both death and love. To love is to be vulnerable, sensitive, and habit breeds insensitivity; it destroys love.
“I am beginning to feel the beauty of what you are saying. It is true that I have made myself dull and stupid. I used to love to go into the woods, to listen to the birds, to observe the faces of people in the streets, and I now see what I have allowed habit to do to me. But what is love?”
Love is not mere pleasure, a thing of memory; it’s a state of intense vulnerability and beauty, which is denied when the mind builds walls of self-centred activity. Love is life, and so it is also death. To deny death and cling to life is to deny love. “I am really beginning to have an insight into all this, and into myself. Without love, life does become mechanical and habit-ridden. The work I do in the office is largely mechanical, and so indeed is the rest of my life; I am caught in a vast wheel of routine and boredom. I have been asleep, and now I must wake up.”
The very realization that you have been asleep is already an awakened state; there is no need of volition.
Now, let’s go a little further into the matter. There is no beauty without austerity, is there? “That I don’t understand, sir.”
Austerity does not lie in any outward symbol or act: wearing a loincloth or a monk’s robe, taking only one meal a day, or living the life of a hermit. Such disciplined simplicity, however rigorous, is not austerity; it is merely an outward show without an inner reality. Austerity is the simplicity of inward aloneness, the simplicity of a mind that is purged of all conflict, that is not caught in the fire of desire, even the desire for the highest. Without this austerity, there can be no love; and beauty is of love.