This article is third in a series of articles on Spirituality. Read first two parts here.
If you are depressed you are living in the past. If you are anxious you are living in the future. If you are at peace you are living in the present. ― Lao Tzu
In the previous article I explained the problem of ‘ego’ which is the core of all of our mind activity. The voice in head, that keeps talking to me all the time in my thoughts, is actually my ego in the disguise of me. I’m not this voice but I’m the awareness behind it. I’m not this thinker but I’m the one who is watching the thinker.
If we want to get rid of this ego first we need to understand how it works. Ego wants to compel us into unconscious thinking mode because only then we can talk to the voice in the head. If there is no thought in our head, there is no ego. The key to overcoming our ego is to take control of our thoughts.
What does this compulsive thinking actually do? It makes us mentally absent by taking our attention away from the present moment. When we are busy talking to our ego, we are no more consciously present. Our ego wants to use present moment as a mean towards an end; thinking about the past or projecting our thoughts into the future. When we are consciously present, fully focused, we make present moment an end in itself. And when we do that we no more pay attention to the voice in the head. It can neither feed us negative thoughts nor can it dictate our actions. Our conscious presence alone can liberate us from the prison of our mind. This is the only true liberation.
You will never be free until you free yourself from the prison of your own false thoughts. ― Philip Arnold
Source of all anxieties and depressions is this unconscious mind activity. When we are not consciously present, we are either in the past or in the future. We become depressed or regretful when our thoughts take us back in the past. We become anxious when our thoughts take us into the future. When we learn to live in the present, we achieve inner peace. We become free of all anxieties, regrets and depressions.
Stress is caused by being ‘here’ but wanting to be ‘there. ― Eckhart Tolle
Take the example of Kung Fu masters. During a fight, it is very important for a Kung Fu master to be present fully because a split second of mental absence could end up in his defeat. This mental absence can result from many sources and perhaps most important one is anger in this case. If you are angry during a fight it means you are perhaps thinking about some past incident or perhaps want to take revenge. This could lead to your defeat because constant chatter in your head can put you off mentally. This is why learning to keep your calm during a fight, or being at peace with yourself, is essential part of Kung Fu training. This is the link between spirituality and Kung Fu arts. You must have seen Fu masters sitting in a famous yoga position, at least in the movies. What do they try to achieve through meditation and yoga practices? They try to silence their thoughts so that they can achieve the inner peace. In fact the essence of all meditation practices is to make you highly alert and conscious of your presence by shutting down the egoic mind activity.
Kung Fu Panda movies provide good insight on inner peace which can come to different people in different ways. Some can learn it through meditation; some can achieve it by enduring intense pain and suffering. Master Shifu in the first movie and PO, the Panda, in the second movie both struggle for inner peace because of their past sufferings. Shifu suffers because of his troubled relationship with Tai Lung who he had adopted and raised as a son but later he turned against him when Master Oogway denied Tai Lung the title of Dragon Warrior. Panda’s sufferings come from past memories of his parents which he had lost when he was little. Lord Shen exploits Panda’s mental troubles in his encounters with him but Panda eventually, with the help from Soothsayer, overcomes his inner conflict to achieve the inner peace. It was his inner peace that allowed Po to defeat Lord Shen’s cannon using a special kung fu technique involving gentle tai chi movements. Similarly it was the inner peace that allows Master Shifu to catch a water drop and redirecting it into a pool or the ground without breaking it. See the link below for a detailed explanation but remember it is a movie after all 🙂
Those who participate in sports can better appreciate what it means to be present in the now because sports demand high level of conscious presence. Imagine Michael Schumacher in a race driving his Ferrari at speed of over 200 mph. He needs to maintain high level of conscious alertness or otherwise a tiny blip in concentration is enough for him to lose control. Imagine a batsman in cricket facing a fast bowler. Run rate is creeping up and he has just played three dot balls in a row. While playing the forth ball, batsman can’t afford his attention to be anywhere but on the ball. But ego creates disturbance – called pressure – in his mind by making him think about the past, last three dot balls. If he couldn’t free his mind from these negative thoughts, it is likely that he will get out by playing a wrong shot. This happens all the time in cricket and every time we see it we usually say this guy couldn’t handle the pressure.
What is this pressure anyway? It is nothing but a distraction created by your ego to keep your focus away from the task at hand. The ability to stay fully present under pressure separates good players from ordinary ones. People who excel in their fields be it sports, academia or some arts, they are able to maintain high level of conscious presence during their game or work. But the real challenge is to extend this conscious presence to every moment of your life, twenty four hours a day.
Suppose a person who abused you yesterday, now needs your help. Your ego will be quick to take you in the past and feed you negative emotions against that person. But if you are living in the now, you will free your mind from these negative thoughts (like the batsman in cricket example had to forget last three dot balls) and deal with him according to the needs of the present moment. You might end up not helping him because of other constraints, but at least your hatred will not have a final say in your decision. It is awfully difficult thing to do and I fail in it almost every day but refusing to let your own hatred or personal bias control your everyday judgments is very important aspect of spiritual enlightenment.
In this video (2.46 mins) Eckhart Tolle describes two simple exercises to help you live in the now.
Ego can’t survive in the NOW. It needs time to exist. It needs us to live in the past so that we can develop hatreds, prejudices and biases. It wants us to live in the future so that we could develop our anxieties and material desires. These are the things that add up to create egoic thought patterns – our conditioning – which dictates our seeing of the people and things in a negative way. When we learn to live in the now, this conditioning disappears and we start to live according to our true godly nature. We then rediscover our innate goodness and become more loving, just, tolerant, humble and content.
We are not ourselves when we are under the influence of our ego. We are prisoners of ego’s constant chatter, judgments, desires and fears. Freedom from the dictates of your ego is one true freedom that enables us to live as who we truly are. This explains why drinking is considered bad because it makes us unconscious. This also explains why all addictions are bad because they make us slave of our egoic desires. A true spiritual enlightenment means a person becomes master of his own life that he is living fully consciously in the now – without any fear, regret, anxiety, hatred, prejudice, bias etc.
It is true that ego wants us to keep thinking all the time, still not all thinking is bad. It is important to understand the difference between conscious and unconscious thinking. There is nothing wrong in thinking consciously. When a chess player is trying to outsmart his opponent by correctly predicting his/her future move he/she is thinking consciously. When we are trying to learn from our past mistakes, by thinking about them, we are thinking consciously. We can’t grow if we don’t learn from past or plan for the future. The problem is with the thinking that we are compelled into doing by our ego.
When you shutdown the voice in your head, you enter in a state of thoughtlessness. There is no disturbance inside you but silence and peace. This silence is precious as it can connect you with God. We shall discuss about it in detail in the next article Insha’Allah.