The difference between knowing what is good and doing what is good...
There is a very poignant and pregnant moment in the great epic, Mahabharatha. The ‘wicked’ forces of the Kauravas (a clan) are spearheaded by Duryodhana, the eldest son of the blind king, Dhritharashtra. Dhritarashtra proves that he is blind in ways more than one as he allows his jealous yet zealous son a free rein in all matters.
So lost in greed and desire is Duryodhana that even when Lord Krishna approaches him as a messenger of peace to avoid the war, he refuses to listen to Him and even makes the foolish attempt to take Him captive. Lord Krishna then reveals His cosmic form in all its might but that is a completely different story altogether.
On one occasion, Duryodhana meets Lord Krishna. He knows that he has been doing wrong all his life. He also knows the divinity of Krishna. He breaks down and confesses - “Lord! It is not that I do not know Dharma (righteousness). I am very well aware of it. But Lord, inspite of knowing it, I am unable to practise it! I know not why and I know that I will not change. So please forgive me, let me be and you just go about your own ways.”
I remembered this story because of a question someone asked me yesterday - “Why do we not do the good when we know the good?” That set me thinking and discussing and there was an interesting conclusion.
First, it is time to rule out some outliers or exceptions. These outliers have actually been defined by the brother and wise minister of king Dhritarashtra, Vidura. He describes the different kinds of people who are unable to do the right thing even after knowing it. Once we examine the list, there is no need for any explanation of the list.
The list includes the intoxicated ones, tired ones, angry ones, hungry ones and scared ones. However, there were four categories other categories in that list which struck me – greedy ones, impatient ones; desire filled ones and ones with an unsteady mind.
Those four struck me struck me because while the first few are people who are physically incapacitated, the latter few are those with concerns of the mind!
Every person is a composite of the body, mind and soul/heart/spirit/awareness. The body is the gross part and the mind is subtle. The subtlest is the soul/heart/spirit/awareness. At the subtlest level is the knowledge of good and bad. And that is why it is said that everyone is good ‘at heart’! However, action is at the level of the body and before the body performs action, knowledge has to pass through the intermediary – the mind.
It is at the level of the mind that this difference between knowing the good and doing the good happens.
The mind is subject to infinite influences. The mind however is also capable of infinite possibilities. It is the key to the ultimate liberation or terrible bondage as the ancient adage goes – “Mana Eva Manushyanaam Karanam Bandha Mokshayoho.” It is so powerful that it can influence one's whole life.
I remember getting up one day and asking Swami (Bhagawan Sri Sathya Sai Baba)
Me - Swami, the mind is troubling me so much! Please help me.
Swami - What do you want me to do?
Me - Swami please help me control it...
Swami - It is your mind and you want me to control it?
Me - Okay Swami fine! At least give me the strength to control it...
Swami - You already have that strength! Everyone has the strength. You need to put in efforts!
Treatises and essays can be written about the mind. But as Swami says, the mind is a cloth made up of the 'threads' of desire which are constituted by the cotton of 'thoughts'. When it comes to the problem of translating the ‘knowing’ of good into the ‘doing’ of good, I feel there are two aspects to be considered.
The first aspect
The first is that, since it is composed of desires, the mind always looks for benefits. Any action that has to be done, the question that arises is,
“What is there in it for me?”
Though the Good and Righteous always triumph in the end, it does not appear so in the short term. So, though the mind has the knowledge of goodness (which it receives from deep within from the soul/heart/spirit/awareness), it also knows that this ‘good’ is a long term benefit. In the short term, the 'good' seems not so beneficial at all.
And it makes this choice of a short term pleasure or benefit over the long term, permanent one. So, as it seems, the knowledge of good alone is not motivator enough. Be it bribery, copying in the examinations, telling a lie, cutting trees to make a building – the short term advantage drives the mind and it thinks that the associated problems could be taken care of ‘tomorrow’. In that craze of pursuing the short term benefit, the mind loses sight of the long term, permanent benefit.
The heart/soul/spirit/awareness is like a fertile bed. The mind is like a pool on this fertile bed and each desire is like a drop of water that is added to it. (After all, the mind is the sum total of all our desires.) Every time a drop falls into this pool, it creates a ripple. Just as every ripple makes it hard for us to see the fertile bed, every desire makes it hard for the knowledge of goodness to get exhibited.
And that is why the wise advise us to silence the mind; to rid it of thoughts by focusing on something – God' name, God's form, a flame, one's breath and so on.
From this, it becomes so clear that the only way to be able to see the fertile bed below would be to prevent ripples. To be able to see beyond the mind into the soul, one should be free of the ripples of desires! And just like a pool of water dries up when it receives no water, the mind too ceases to exist once it is free of desires. The actions now (body) follow the soul/ heart/ awareness/ spirit!
The dialogue between Lord Krishna and Arjuna throw some light on achieving this:
Arjuna - Lord, the mind is unsteady and wavering. The wind can be controlled but not the mind! I am troubled by it O Lord! What do I do?
Krishna - Arjuna! I agree that the mind is very powerful and it seems to make you helpless. But constant vigilance, repeated practice and detachment are sure to give you mastery over the mind.
This is a quantum leap. It means that it is no longer about long term or short term benefit. It is not about benefit at all. (Remember, it is only the mind that perceives benefit) Every action is done by direct link to the spirit within. Every action is done only because it is good. That is what we term selflessness.
In short, knowing the good does not translate into doing the good for we are not selfless. We always seek some personal benefit – long term or short term.
As long as we seek benefit, we have desires and desires are the cause of us being blinded to “good”. Interesting isn’t it? For this means that once we are selfless, all our actions are 100% good all the time! In fact, selflessness can be used as an indicator of goodness – anything that is selfless, is good!
The second aspect...
Having said that much with one aspect of the mind, let us move to the second aspect that was mentioned in the beginning.
The second is that the mind is heavily influenced by the company it keeps. In the company of noble and virtuous, the mind tends to be so. And in the company of the low and vulgar, the mind becomes so. Again, the company kept is like streams entering the pool. We may find it hard to evolve to the state of mindlessness through desirelessness. But can evolve from a state of low and mean desires to noble desires. This ensures that pure and clear water alone is added to the pool so that it is not muddled and the fertile bed is still seen.
Swami always says,
“Tell me your company and I shall tell you what you are!”
Let us keep good company. And let us try to reduce our desires. One day, let us become desireless so that the good we know also becomes the good we do!
UPDATE - Here is what I read much after the article was written. It is from Swami's discourse:
The mind is an aspect of the Atma. Do not consider it as a mere bundle of desires. From the worldly point of view, it may be a bundle of desires, but from the spiritual point of view, the mind is a bundle of Divinity. How can such a person who does not know the nature of the mind and matter understand humanness? Do not be under the mistaken notion that the body, composed of the five elements, alone constitutes a human being. Humanness, in fact, consists of three aspects, namely, manas (mind), buddhi (intellect) and samskara (the process of refinement). These three have their origin in the Atma (the 'heart' mentioned in this article).
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