A question from one of our members who just returned from a trip to Amsterdam. She shared her internal conflict and wondered if by giving in, by enjoying all the sights and smells and tastes her trip had to offer, she had gone against the precept of controlling one’s senses.
The Gita says that the senses are merely doing their job. Our five sense organs are meant specifically for the purpose of tasting, touching, seeing, smelling and listening. By themselves the senses have no power except to relay information. The culprit, according to the Gita, is the mind, which takes that information and turns it into experience, and then becomes attached to that experience, and then craves more of it. All the sensory experiences we have are distilled by the mind into pleasure and pain, and then either craved or avoided according to its category.
The mind attaches fear, excitement, longing, delight and despair to each of these experiences and drags us along accordingly either toward or away from those emotions.
The key then, to continue experiencing the world through the senses, but still remain unaffected, is to control and calm the mind. If the mind no longer becomes excited by every experience, no longer attaches itself to pleasure or becomes despondent at every negative stimulus, then life is peaceful and harmonious.
To walk the streets of Amsterdam and not enjoy the picturesque canals and the masterpieces of Van Gogh would be foolish. I still remember the tea made with fresh peppermint that warmed us on a cold October afternoon and the wonderful cheese and honey waffles on my own trip last year. And while a traveler’s curiosity might lead one to explore the Red Light District or the famous cafes where every grade of marijuana is freely available, this doesn’t mean you have to engage in indiscretions or become a pothead. The world is full of temptations and sensory overload. Since we cannot shut these out, nor are we required to, we have to learn to be observers both of the world and of ourselves, silent witnesses to the constant flow of information, unaffected and implacable. This allows us to be in the world, but not overwhelmed by it.
We talked this week about how the mind changes as well, as we progress. According to Swami Chinmayananda, when we interact with each other, it is the texture of one another’s mind and intellect that we recognize and connect with. When the texture of our mind changes, through experience, through growth, through wisdom, we tend to be attracted to those who are similar and gradually move away from those who are not. This really resonated with me.
I have found myself moving away from those whose company I enjoyed thoroughly just a few years ago. I’ve wondered why, have struggled with guilt, worried about becoming anti-social since my friends haven’t changed at all. But now I realize that is precisely why. They haven’t changed, and I have.
They wonder what’s come over me, why I no longer want to hang out, why I’m no longer “fun”. But I don’t find dirty jokes amusing, I’m no longer into comparing sarees or jewelry, no longer into swooning over Bollywood stars or male models, completely uninterested in clubbing or drinking or gossiping about other people. And while I can pretend to go along, it has become more and more difficult since my heart’s not in it. Perhaps age has something to do with it, perhaps after a certain amount of experience the mind becomes satiated. Or perhaps, as I would like to believe, I am beginning to realize that temporary pleasures don’t lead to permanent happiness.
One of our group members reminded me during class that while the texture of my mind may have changed, this didn’t automatically make me superior. I am merely choosing a different path to get to the ultimate goal and the Gita reminds us repeatedly that there are many routes to the same destination. What is most important, however, whichever route we choose, whether we plunge into sensory experience and remain unaffected or withdraw gradually from outer distractions, is to keep our minds clear, calm and always focused on the goal.