We know a tenet of many spiritual traditions is living in awareness. In modern times too, we hear a lot about living consciously. Perhaps you’ve even read some articles about how this way of living is in fact an antidote to being a slave to karmic impressions and the compulsions they create.
When we try to apply this notion of living with more awareness to our daily lives, the first thing that happens is that we think we know what awareness means – just more attention right? Well, not really… there are plenty of articles too that guide us in how to bring awareness to our everyday activities. But when we really study awareness at the level of the mind, we realize that most of us are approaching this quite superficially. There’s a lot going on in that head and body!
Professor of psychology Jonathan Haidt has written a book called The Happiness Hypothesis in which he asks the question: While we all want to be happy, and there are so many books written on how to achieve everything we want; so many books on self-help and how to revolutionize our lives – be it mental health & physical fitness, building wealth, or leadership & influence – why is it that most people are unable to take all that advice to heed? Why do we fall off the prescribed path so easily, and revert to old habits? Professor Haidt postulates that we are not an integrated personality. We have an intellect, we have sense organs, and uses the model of a man riding an elephant. The rider knows where to go, has a map. The elephant does not know the destination and is not interested in the map. If the elephant listens to the rider, then the destination is reached. If the elephant is not in a listening mood then it will simply go wherever it wants, the rider is much weaker than the elephant and cannot force it. Exactly like that, the intellect is convinced by a book or talk that yoga is good for you. But the intellect doesn’t have to do the yoga. The body has to do the yoga. The body is like the elephant, it has its own agenda, its own autonomous intelligence. You can clearly see this distinction every morning – your intellect says, get out of bed! Your body says, it’s warm and comfy here, I will stay a bit longer… the snooze button proves this dichotomy! The reason why we fail at self-help is because the inherent body intelligence is not aligned with the intellect. The body is interested in specific learned experiences and habits, it is not interested in nutrition labels or yoga poses… so what to do? Jonathan Haidt points out what we already know – the elephant responds to training. The body responds to training. We must build new habits over time. The tongue acquires new tastes, the body begins to enjoy exercise or yoga. Now we come to what real awareness is – the keen insight to realize what is happening in our minds and bodies at all times, and actively using the intellect to guide a conscious choice rather than unconscious habits and compulsions.
Consider a little illustration: A tiny cluster of cells in the tongue drags whole a mountain of a man into a chocolate shop!
We see this simple wisdom expounded much further in writings from thousands of years ago. You may be familiar with the ancient Hindu scriptures – the Upanishads. In the Katha Upanishad as well, we are given a conceptual structure to illustrate the same thing – you the Self are a passenger in a chariot. The body is the chariot, the five horses are the sense organs running along five sense paths, the mind is the reigns by which the chariot is connected to the horses, and the intellect is the driver. You are none of these, not the mind, nor the body. You are the witness consciousness, the experiencer. That is what the enlightened know and what the rest of us have forgotten – identifying ourselves with the mechanisms of experiencing life (objects) instead of the underlying witness-consciousness (subject). Lord Yama says to his student Nachiketa, if the horses are trained, the chariot well maintained, and the mind focused then you experience a holistic and fulfilled life. The Sanskrit translation for his prescription to train the mind is the same that Buddhism has been preaching – mindfulness. And what about the intellect? It needs to be triggered immediately in that instant of choice, before the choice is lost to habit – in that tiny spec of time between an event and our reaction… to continuously exercise the intellect instead of letting it take a back seat to our compulsions.
But if the horses are chasing their own thing, the chariot wobbly, and the mind spiraling among a thousand thoughts about the past or the future then is it any wonder that people describe their lives as, “I’m just trying to hold it together” or “I’m hanging in there…” Karmic impressions in mind, body, and our energy systems, or let’s just state simply as old habits, are called Samskaras. One thing that they hate is light being shed upon them. And that is what living in awareness means – to shed light on our Samskaras so we can recognize them and act consciously to change them.
So that is what living consciously means – to grasp this concept of the components operating within our inner system, and to consciously take control. It means to train the mind, body, and senses according to whatever the goal may be, and to utilize the intellect effectively. If one aspires to be a celebrated leader, then that means one thing. If one has spiritual aspirations, then that means another thing. The key is to live with awareness of life and not be a slave to the compulsions of the conduit which carries us through life.
As Swami Vivekananda said, “Goodness will come, power will come, glory will come, all that is great and excellent will come when the sleeping soul is roused to Self-Conscious activity.”
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