How Do Experiences Arise?
Sri Swami Chidananda
This article is a chapter from the book Swami Chidananda Talks in South Africa.
Radiant Immortal Atman! Blessed divinities! Children of the Divine! Beloved seekers of the Lord! Spiritual aspirants! Yogic practitioners upon the path of practical Yoga! I am very happy to welcome you to this Saturday evening Satsang.
This day as my humble and loving contribution to this Satsang, I would like to offer a little thought for consideration and reflection. I can promise that it will bring added understanding about experiences through which you go in life.
What is the basis of human experiences? Do they really exist outside of you? Have they got an independent existence apart from you? Your joys and sorrows, your happy laughter and your boo-hoo tears—do these things exist in this world outside of you? Do they come and hit you? Or is the actual state or affairs something different?
Who makes you happy? Who makes you weep? Can you point the finger at someone or something and say: ‘This is the cause of my happiness; this is the cause of my sorrow’? That is what we all do. We think we are all wonderful, innocent nice people; but this world ‘outside’ puts us through the mill. We are bothered by the world giving us a very unfair deal. We are seeking for causes.
Even supposing we concede for a while that there is possibly something outside of us that comes and makes us happy or unhappy—even then, it is not due to someone else! This is the great vision and wisdom of the Vedic understanding of life. Ultimately, you are the root of whatever comes to you—even when it seemingly comes to you from outside. You are ultimately the cause of all your experiences—whatever they are—whether they are plus or minus, positive or negative, joy or sorrow. You cannot put the blame on someone else, much less accuse someone else. No one is responsible.
But the even more essential and primal dimension is this first question—is there something at all outside? Is this world capable of giving us experiences? We attribute a great deal of power to this world. But does it deserve it? This is a world of inert things, and we are conscious beings. Who is superior? Can inert things give experiences to conscious beings? I am not talking of your breaking a leg in a car-accident—that is something physical, which the body undergoes just like disease, old-age, infirmities, aches and pains, coughs and colds. Apart from these, the inner experiences of our frustration, disappointment, fulfilment, happiness, sorrow—does this also come from outside? Does it exist apart from us?
One great sage dismissed the whole thing. He made a short and swift answer. He said: “Just consider what happens every day, after you have had a full day of work, social activities etc., and you are exhausted. You go to bed and sleep. And the moment you switch off from this state of waking consciousness and enter into the state of deep sleep, all your problems, sorrows and experiences of this outside world cease to exist! They just vanish out of sight. Everything that prevails during your waking consciousness—from the moment you wake up in the morning, throughout the day—is bundled away. You don’t have any problems, you don’t have any unhappiness—no fear, no disappointment, no frustration, no anxiety, no tension, nothing! You go into a serene state where everything is restful, peaceful and silent.”
And if that state does not come to you for two or three days on end, then you become upset and want to go and see a doctor or take a pill. All people all over the world seek that state—it may be a condemned prisoner in his cell or some man serving a life-sentence, or it may be a hobo who lives merely on scraps or dole, or he may be a multi-billionaire, an emperor. No matter what the outer life is—it may be full of luxury, and yet even he has to seek that other state, night after night. Supposing you say: “Why do you want to go to sleep? Why not keep enjoying these luxuries and riches?” “No. No. No.” The time comes when that state seems to be more covetable. And therefore, the emperor and the beggar, both, seek to enter into a state where this world does not exist—there is no human relationship, there are no psychological hang-ups, no problem or complication of any kind. Everything is ‘Shanti, Shanti, Shantih’. Isn’t this wonderful? What makes us go off into that state where things cease to exist? Well, you can understand it, because when you enter into that state everything is instantaneously, magically, gone! This great sage said, “This is not all. See what happens the moment you wake up. All these things come back to you! Why do they vanish when you enter into sleep; and why do they once again start when you come back into the state of wakefulness?”
They vanish because the mind ceases to be active. The moment you enter into that state, the mind comes to a standstill—there are no thoughts. The moment you wake up, the mind starts to become active, and the moment mental activity commences, the whole world with all its experiences comes back. So, the kingpin of this entire matter is the activity of the mind. This means, if we are able to change the nature of the activity of the mind, we have the key to bring about a change in the nature of experiences that may come to us from outside.
Now, here we are not concerned about all the things. We are concerned about joy and sorrow, because that is the crux of the human situation. We do not want sorrow and pain—we want happiness and joy. That is what everyone is seeking. So, that particular question is more immediate and relevant to us.
All your experiences are created by yourself. You make your own happiness, and you make your own misery. This is the truth. Ponder this truth again and again and again. Right at the very beginning, if you refuse to allow anything in this world to affect you either in this way or that way, then already you have guaranteed what will happen to you and what will not happen to you. And even if it is not done right at the very beginning—supposing a sudden devastating episode occurs, some terrible thing happens, and you are taken unaware—as you look at it, as you are confronted with it, in a lightning flash of moment you think: “Oh no! This is how I am going to react to it. I am not going to allow it to devastate me.” Coming to this instantaneous decision can make all the difference between breaking down and making yourself miserable, or standing like a rock no matter what comes.
But then, this lightening decision of the moment, at that split-second, has behind it the whole background of what you have trained yourself to be, what you have listened to, what you have learned as lessons of life, and how you have cultivated yourself—heredity, early environment, your parent’s upbringing, what they did to you, what they told you; and then, your own observations of life, gradual understanding of people, world and its experiences; and then later on, God willing, you begin to go to the source of wisdom, scriptures, philosophical books, and come into contact with those who have gone this way before you, who have gathered insight and wisdom, and you begin to listen and absorb these truths. So, there is this whole background of what you have made of yourself, how you have moulded yourself—that ultimately enables you to successfully come to a split-second decision about any experience. For a person whose background is discrimination, philosophical enquiry, keen observation, analysis, deeper understanding and higher vision, the world has no power to shake him. It cannot break him.
But if this background is not there, then you are playthings in the hands of whatever is outside you. Everything has the power to push and pull and shake you up and make you either weep or laugh. It is unwise to give this power to things outside to manage your life inside. You ought to be the master of your own house—of your own situation within. And therefore, you have to seriously cultivate yourself, carry on discrimination, deep thought, and also learn lessons by observing other people’s lives. You must know clearly—‘This is it, this is life’. That is what the great sages did. They saw.
You have the beautiful saying: “O Lord! Give me the courage to change that which can be changed, the serenity to accept that which cannot be changed and the wisdom to know the difference.” In this way, they saw the inevitable, accepted it and came to terms with it. They said: “This is so. I should accept it. I should learn to relate myself in the right way.” Our experiences, our happiness, our misery, joy and sorrow, are by and large, 95%—a matter of how we know ourselves, and how we relate ourselves to our inner life.
I will give you some examples. Here, I am talking to you as seekers in whom the enquiry has already arisen in the mind. We all recently heard about the baby, who was born with some defect in the heart and was specially flown all the way from South Africa to America. They tried to save it. There was a great deal of anxiety to the parents. And ultimately the baby died. Great sorrow.
Now, apparently, the death of a child is an outer event—‘apparently’. But philosophy wants you to ask yourself—‘How many children are not born like this? And how many don’t die like this?’ Maybe in our neighbourhood, in the family next door—but it does not make a great difference to me! It does not put me into terrible sorrow. Nevertheless, it is happening. There are people ill and dying of cancer—cancer hospitals are full of cancer patients, children’s hospitals are full of terribly ill and dying children—and yet, we go along as though these things never existed! Why is it that when it happens in ‘your’ family, to ‘you’—that you become filled with sorrow and you suffer?
It is not because the child died or because some person is suffering from cancer that you are in great grief. It is because of ‘my’ child or ‘my’ brother’s son, or ‘my’ nephew—whom ‘I’ love very much. It is because the mind has conceived of a particular relationship. So you trace the experience to the state of your mind, to the special way in which the mind has related itself to that thing.
I give you another example. Suppose you are waiting at the bus-stop. Fire engines are rushing, bells clanging, sirens flitting. You are not very seriously concerned. But during your journey someone tells you that it appears that the fire is in ‘your’ area, ‘your’ road—then a chill catches hold of you. You are gripped by anxiety, you are a changed being. Immediately you are in a terrible state, you have no peace of mind—”O God! It may be ‘my’ home?” And if actually it is ‘your’ home—finished! Your world is falling apart.
This is ‘mine’-ness—the special state of mind with regard to that particular object or thing. If a bank or financial firm crashes and goes into liquidation, you are not bothered—provided you have not invested in it! You simply continue your cup of coffee. But if it happens to be ‘your’ bank, and all ‘your’ finance is already invested—the bulk of your earnings and savings—Oh! Your coffee falls down, and you run to the phone. Then you are like the proverbial cat on hot bricks. What is this? Do you ever ponder it? It is not because ‘something has happened’ that experiences hit you. It is because there is already something there, in you, with regard to that particular thing. And when you become tired, go to bed, and dose off to sleep—no anxiety, no misery, no sorrow, no disappointment. Everything is alright. You enjoy like a prince. Why? The mind is not active!
Ultimately your experience is due to two factors. One is this special way in which the mind thinks of a particular thing, event or circumstance. If a civil war breaks out in some country and your daughter and son-in-law are living there, then it becomes very important to you. But if no one belonging to you is in that country, then it is just like any other thing—far off, something happening, many people concerned, many being killed—but that doesn’t bother you one little bit!
The second factor, as already mentioned to you, is the way in which you have cultivated and trained your mind to receive things, to meet things, to face things. If it is in a negative way, then every experience has the power to put you out of balance. If it is in a positive, creative and right way, then you go through life serene and unaffected—a little bit of impact is there, but at same time, you have already created within you a core of strength. Call it philosophy, higher wisdom, deeper understanding or equanimity—or all these ingredients put together. It is this second factor that determines in what way you face and meet life, and in what way you move through the inevitable ups and downs, vicissitudes and variations. The crux of this matter of human experience is your mind, and how you relate to your mind. Are you a puppet in its hands? Or are you its master? Or are you weak and helpless, unable to do anything about your own internal situation? You have to decide.
It is the same with your senses. The Gita says that the controlled senses of a person are his greatest friend, and the uncontrolled senses are his greatest enemy. If your senses are under your control, they cannot bring you suffering; and if your senses are not under your control, they become the cause of your suffering—any number of painful experiences, disease and suffering. There is a limit to which the senses can bring about suffering, because they operate mainly upon the physical level. Even more so is the mind; the extent to which the mind can affect you—the sky is the limit!
Therefore, recognise the fact that you are the creator of all your experiences; and therefore, you can change them. If you are able to bring about a changed situation within, then your progress towards the Ultimate Reality can go on unhampered. But if you cannot change this, then in spite of your highest aspirations, best intentions, love for ideals etc.—you will always have pitfalls. You will always be plagued and badgered by this thing inside. At every step you will find some difficulty, and so the progress will be slow.
Not without reason did the ancient men of wisdom in India say:
Mana eva manushyanamkaranam bandhamokshayoh
The mind of human beings alone is the cause of their bondage as well as liberation.
Peace be unto all beings, peace be unto you all, and the joy of the Lord!
Hari Om Tat Sat.