In the early 1950s, when I was attending second grade at School 19 in Albany, a traveling marionette troupe presented a live performance of “Pinocchio.” It was a magical experience. At the time the action seemed remarkably life-like, but I now know, of course, that all the movements of the puppets were controlled by the manipulation of slender, almost invisible strings attached to each puppet’s head, hands, arms, legs and feet. Today, the memory of a stringed marionette brings to mind one of the most powerful verses in the Bhagavad Gita. In chapter three Arjuna asks a question that every sensitive person in the world still asks today: “O Krishna, why do we human beings take actions that cause us so much pain and suffering? What power moves us, even against our will, as if forcing us?”
As Arjuna broods on his own inability to take skillful action, Lord Krishna answers the poignant question with words that are as relevant today as they were thousands of years ago. Just as puppets are manipulated by the puppeteer, he says, every human being is like a puppet whose strings are pulled by powerful forces hidden below the surface level of the conscious mind.
We cannot see them, and we might not believe that they exist, but all of us have “strings” connected to both positive and negative energy reserves. In Sanskrit these reserves are referred to assamskaras–impressions and habits in the unconscious mind that are formed by our previous thoughts, words and deeds. They restrict our freedom of action and can weaken the body’s immune system by blocking our access to a quantum field of health-enhancing, problem-solving information (super-conscious wisdom). In effect, our deepest samskaras become the mental software that operates the body machine. This informational programming includes both our creative, healthy habits and our destructive, unhealthy habits, compulsions and addictions.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia report that the key factors influencing an individual’s state of health have not changed significantly over the past twenty years. Quality of medical care accounts for only 10 percent. Heredity accounts for 18 percent and environment 19 percent. But everyday lifestyle choices contribute an impressive 53 percent. Pioneers of Yoga Science as mind-body medicine go even further in their assessment. Swami Rama of the Himalayas, for example, taught that, “All the body is in the mind. All the mind is not in the body.” From a yogic perspective, the body is a projection of the information the mind can access. The greater the mind’s ability to access and employ super-conscious wisdom, the better the possibility of fulfilling our potential for perfect health. But when our negative samskaras limit the flow of information, the body acts in ways that are deleterious to its own health. In other words, the mind can be our friend or foe. It has the power to motivate actions that cause both health and illness. This irrefutable connection between mind and body has led internationally recognized pharmacologist Candace Pert to favor the one-word term “bodymind.” Pert and many other scientists now consider the mind and the body to be two aspects of a single entity.
With that understanding, imagine what happens when you get angry. In reaction to your anger, a network of “strings” from your unconscious anger samskara is projected throughout the body. There are “strings” to the heart, to the liver, to the lungs, to the endocrine glands as well as to the immune system. So, like those puppets moving about with head, hands, arms and legs controlled by hidden forces, when a person is habituated to anger, the debilitating power from that anger samskara affects the entire organism–physically, mentally and emotionally.
The powerful samskaras that negatively affect our overall well being originate with the notion, “I lack.” Whenever we define ourselves as body and mind alone, we lose the awareness that we are also a citizen of an invisible, non-material world of eternal consciousness, wisdom, bliss and fullness (Sat-Chit-Ananada). This is what quantum physicists refer to as the “field” and theologians refer to as “God.” Without awareness of this dual citizenship, we become insecure and unhappy individuals in a vast and ever-threatening universe. In vain attempts to rectify this sense of lack, we self-medicate with too much or too little food, sex, sleep or attempts at self-preservation. In short, we suffer.
Despite our frenetic efforts, insecurity and unhappiness remain our constant companions. When a desire is fulfilled, we fear we might lose what we have. When a desire is thwarted, we become angry. Although it may provide short-term ego or sense gratification, the most profound, longest-lasting effect of our seeking security and happiness outside ourselves lies in the creation of powerful fear, anger and greed samskaras. Collectively, these habit patterns keep us imprisoned and retard our capacity to fulfill the noble purpose of our lives. Just as Gulliver was hopelessly bound by the Lilliputians’ slender threads, most human beings are held captive by their negative samskaras. And as long as we continue to invest our creative energy in believing that “I lack,” our ongoing search for security and happiness will only lead us to further insecurity and continued unhappiness.
But, the situation is far from hopeless. We do have the power to claim the freedom that is our birthright. To meet life’s challenge head-on, we must recognize that our pain, misery and bondage are not caused by a lack of anything in particular. Rather, they are the result of our deeply held belief that “I lack.” Once we begin examining our life-long investment in a sense of lack, we become the solution–simply by acknowledging that we are the problem.
As the modern sage Dayananda Saraswati has observed, all problems fall into one of two categories. The first has its solution outside the problem and the second contains its solution within the problem itself. The solution to feeling cold, for example, lies outside the problem. If you wear a wool coat, the problem is solved. If hunger is your problem, the solution lies in food–which is also outside of you. The solution to a jigsaw puzzle, however, is contained within the problem itself. Similarly, when you do not understand something, the problem is in you, whereas when you do understand, the problem dissolves.
Both the problem of and the solution to insecurity lie within our unconscious samskaras. The mind is both the problem and the solution. To solve this puzzle we must understand that the habit patterns that manipulate us are not permanent constructions. As Mahatma Gandhi wrote, “Humankind’s greatness lies not so much in being able to remake the world . . . as in remaking ourselves.” Samskaras are always works in progress. They can be altered. Many of our habits are beneficial because they provide access to the field of quantum information or wisdom. Debilitating samskaras, however, can become overwhelming unless we consciously monitor their growth. Over a lifetime these hidden tendencies increase bondage to pain, misery and illness.
Remember, the Law of Karma states that every action brings about a consequence. When we consciously and consistently defer to the quantum wisdom of our conscience (buddhi) in choosing which thoughts deserve our attention and which do not, we are changing our samskaras–thereby preventing and reversing many painful and unhealthy conditions. The process is similar to tending a garden. If we want to grow highly prized flowers or vegetables, we must be diligent about pulling the common, vigorous weeds. If left to grow unattended, they will crowd the more delicate plants and eventually choke off the nutrient supply.
The most effective way to re-engineer our negative samskaras is to practice mantra meditation. The use of a mantra is an integral part of every spiritual and religious tradition, and recently has been recognized by the American Medical Association and the American Nurses Association as a valuable therapeutic component of mind-body medicine. A mantra is a word or series of words that represents a perfect harmonic or vibration. The resonant quality of the mantra’s syllables is relaxing and healing for both the body and mind. The vibration of a mantra creates a harmony in the rhythms of the heart and nervous system. As other bodily systems syncopate to this rhythm, a connection or coherence is established. Researchers are finding that cardiac coherence leads to greater mental equanimity, clarity, creativity and an observable improvement in the way we handle stressful situations. Listening to a mantra throughout the day (japa) and in seated silent meditation creates new, healthy samskarasof love, fearlessness and strength. This process weakens the power of negative habit and frees us from unconscious fears, anger and self-willed desires by gradually bringing these hidden forces under the direct supervision of the buddhi’s discriminating capabilities.
As our meditation practice deepens, we learn to master four vital skills that serve us in every relationship: one-pointed attention, detachment, discrimination and will power. When used regularly, these tools effectively cut the “strings” that have controlled us. They transform the power of debilitating samskaras into an expansive, creative and health-enhancing force.
Just imagine how you might benefit from these skills. First, you could think, speak and act in ways that would boost your immune system and help you fulfill the purpose of your life (shreya). Second, you could stop thinking those thoughts that are unproductive and debilitating and that cause dis-ease (preya). Whenever you might feel anxious or in conflict, you’d be able to draw on your meditation practice to do something that is immediately relaxing, positive and health-affirming. Whatever your state of mind–fear, anger, self-will, jealousy, guilt, lethargy, doubt, restlessness or depression–meditation would unburden you by cutting off that negative line of thinking at its unconscious source and would open you to an infinite number of possibilities.
Our thoughts, desires and emotions are powerful reservoirs of potential energy. Just as gasoline fuels the automobile, fear, anger and self-willed desires–when transformed–provide fuel for creative action. The key to a healthy and rewarding life lies in choosing not to let the potentially destructive and debilitating preya determine our actions.
The daily practice of meditation in action instructs us to honor our powerful mental resources through the conscious control of our attention. A compelling thought, emotion or sense craving really has no power of its own. All the power any thought possesses comes from the attention you give it. By learning in seated silent meditation to willingly withdraw attention from distracting thoughts and to surrender our attachments for them, we gain access to super-conscious information and energy that prepare us to meet all challenges.
In the language of every great mystic, whether it is the Buddha, Saint Francis of Assisi, the Baal Shem Tov, Black Elk or Rumi, the person who is happy, healthy and secure can be easily identified. At the end of the second chapter of the Gita, Arjuna asks Krishna, “How can I recognize the man or woman who always lives in wisdom, security and happiness? How do they talk? How do they act? What are such people like in the details of everyday life? And with compassion, Krishna lovingly responds, “The man or woman of wisdom is fettered no more by the selfish ‘strings’ of attachments. They are not elated by good fortune nor depressed by bad. They live free from lust and fear and anger. Such are the seers.”