Millions of Americans are spending part of their weekly paycheck in search of a slimmer, stronger, more muscular body. Based on individual preference, there are many possibilities for staying fit. Some people choose to join a gym or tennis club, while others play golf, lift weights or practice Hatha Yoga. But did you know that some of our strongest muscles actually need to be weakened––not strengthened? It’s true. Due to constant over-exercise, our negative emotional “muscles” can become so hyper-developed that they actually threaten our physical and mental well-being.
In the opening verses of the Bhagavad Gita we find ourselves metaphorically represented as the general Arjuna on a battlefield. We are preparing for hand-to-hand combat with well-trained warriors who are armed with potent, ingenious weapons. Organized, fed and directed by the ego (ahamkara), this powerful force spoken of in the Gita is comprised of the seven mighty emotional “muscles,” known in Sanskrit as Kama, Krodha, Bhaya, Mada, Moha, Lobha and Matsarya.
Before we consider these forces individually, we need to understand that virtually all our actions are reflections of our thoughts. All our thoughts are reflections of our emotions, and all our emotions arise from the four primitive fountains affecting all animals: food, sex, sleep, and self-preservation. There are complex interactions among our moods, our thinking process, our behavior and the body’s physiological responses to the consequences of our actions. In order to transform our harmful, negative emotional states and cultivate positive ones, we need to examine our emotions, understand their origins and learn to effectively steward their power for our greater health and happiness. In this noble endeavor, meditation and its allied disciplines (both physical and mental) can help enormously.
Emotions arise suddenly when we encounter a particular event. For example, if someone you are attached to does not act as you expected, you may immediately experience resentment. From a yogic perspective, our emotions develop from our desires, and all desires emanate from one false, dualistic notion: “I” am an individual. “I” am a separate entity living in a vast universe among other separate objects––some of which can make “me” happy, eliminate “my” pain and bring “me” security. Even though our desires are originally born of ignorance, we must use desire to go beyond desires. It is only by consciously regulating the sequence of thoughts––desires––actions––consequences that we can put an end to bondage and fulfill the purpose of our lives. With this understanding in mind and with perfect practicality, Mahatma Gandhi advised, “Direct all your desires and resources toward serving the Truth and you will become liberated.”
Gandhi was a realist. He understood that desire in and of itself is not inherently “bad.” It’s like gasoline in a combustion engine: it’s the fuel for action. Without desire, nothing meaningful is ever accomplished. So we need to use our desires appropriately––with the awareness that not every desire will lead us for our highest and greatest good. Therefore, it is important to recognize that some desires are helpful and some are not.
Helpful desires, known as shreyas, serve our inner intuitive wisdom and are reflected into the conscious portion of the mind by the conscience (a purified buddhi). These positive desires are creative and expansive. They motivate us to change our old, habitual actions and to build new, skillful habits that reduce pain and bring lasting reward. When we increasingly serve these shreyas, our immune system is enhanced and we find it easy to cultivate beneficial and rewarding relationships with ourselves, our family, friends, colleagues and community.
1. Kama: Self-Willed Desire, Lust
In contrast to the shreyas, unhelpful desires (preyas) manifest as those seven negative emotional “muscles” that need to be reduced. The first of these is Kama: self-willed desire or lust. Kama is both contractive and debilitating. It is the desire for some passing ego or sense gratification that conflicts with the buddhi’s inner wisdom. People who have inflated self-will find it difficult to build loving, nurturing and health-affirming relationships. Unfulfilled, they may attempt to compensate themselves by making imprudent lifestyle choices. These actions can bring passing pleasure, but their consequences can also cause blood pressure to drop too low or rise dangerously high, and have been proven to compromise the workings of the heart, liver, brain and digestive process.
2. Krodha: Anger, Hostility
When any desire is thwarted, the first result is anger. With repeated frustrations, the negative emotional “muscle” of anger grows quickly. In addition to clouding judgment and discrimination, it can also damage the heart, lungs, digestive system and even the immune system. When the habit of anger gains strength, the emotion begins to look for opportunities to assert itself. If you have a relationship with someone who fails to meet your expectations, anger flares. Expectation is the mother of all problems.
If we continually acquiesce to the bullying tactics of the emotional “muscles,” we inevitably become physically addicted to the accompanying chemical rush of adrenaline (and other hormones), and we will continue to act unskillfully. As a consequence, every relationship suffers. Just as building the back, leg, arm or abdominal muscles requires regular exercise, the practice of meditation also needs to be regular, systematic, enthusiastic and sincere if we intend to reduce the harmful effects of our negative emotional “muscles.”
3. Bhaya: Fear, Anxiety
Once any desire has been fulfilled, we fear losing what we have. Fear stems from the most powerful of all primal forces: self-preservation, which relates to much more than the preservation of a living body. It also concerns the attainment and protection of honor, social status, being right, proficiency and physical attractiveness. Self-preservation is about the fear of losing love, nurturance and income, just as much as it is about the fear of illness or death. If we believe our life is threatened we try to run away, or seek to protect ourselves with all our strength and cunning. If our deepest samskaras (habits) enslave us to the notion that we are a separate entity in the universe, we are doomed to experiencing a paralyzing fear of losing our body. We fear losing what we have, and we fear not getting what we want.
The fear of annihilation (the central concern of self-preservation) leads to a variety of symptoms, including anxiety or panic disorders, irritable bowel syndrome, possessiveness in relationships, the fear of losing belongings, the fear of heights or flying, and a host of other debilitating phobias.
4. Lobha: Greed, Possessiveness
Perhaps the most obvious present day personification of the negative emotional “muscle” of greed and possessiveness (lobha) is Bernie Madoff. We all know that Mr. Madoff was far from being poor, yet his actions revealed him to be a man very heavily invested in a sense of poverty. No matter how much money he made in his life, it was never enough. He continued to see himself as a poor kid from the lower east side of New York. Therefore, no amount of money or financial success could ever bring him contentment.
Here’s how that happens. When we repeatedly direct our attention to an attractive thought, emotion or object, we create a wave of desire that rises in the lake of the mind. When we finally obtain the object of our desire, we experience a passing pleasure.
“I wanted the car. I wanted the car. I wanted the car. Now I have the car and I’m happy.” The pleasure may last for only a few moments, but the memory of that pleasure can spawn an infinite number of new desires.
When we obtain the object of desire, the ahamkara (ego or I-maker) quickly attributes our happiness to the newly acquired object. And why would we doubt such a conclusion? Most of our experiences seem to indicate that the ego is correct; that other entities in the world can make us happy. But in truth, the ego is not correct. When any desire is fulfilled, the wave of that desire for the object crashes and the mind becomes calm. For a brief time there is no desire calling our attention outside ourselves. In that stillness, the bliss that reflects into our awareness does not come from the object. Rather, it is none other than the imperishable comfort of consciousness Itself (Ananda)––more full and complete than the passing pleasure experienced in fulfilling any desire.
Through the 2008 collapse of the housing market bubble, we’ve discovered how painful greed and possessiveness (lobha) can be for all of us. But there’s nothing inherently wrong with acquiring necessities and some items that gratify the senses. Each of us has a body equipped to experience pleasure. Life is certainly to be enjoyed, and in truth, everyone really does need stuff. We need a car, a warm house, clothing, food and recreation. But ultimately we must be responsible for either accepting or rejecting the imprudent impulses of our emotional “muscles.” Hundreds of years ago the Iroquois nation, recognizing this challenge as a shared problem, urged their community to live sustainably by working for the benefit of their children seven generations into the future.
If we mindlessly defer to the bullying of our overgrown emotional “muscles,” we will rarely, if ever, receive what was promised. No matter what our age, we already know that there are choices that yield strictly passing pleasure and others that serve our long-term best interest. Our intuition and experience tell us that there is a difference between the preya and the shreya. The pleasant does not always equal the good. As Jesus the Christ succinctly reminds us, “We cannot serve both God and mammon (greed).”
5. Moha: Delusion, Infatuation, Self-Deception
When our actions continually conflict with our intuitive wisdom, we experience dis-ease. Suffering from our inability to examine and trim down our inflated emotional “muscles,” we tend to seek comfort through some infatuation. It’s not uncommon to hear people say things like, “Oh, I just can’t live without that!” Let’s face it, human beings enjoy being swept away by some passion. It could be a delight in food, sex, sleep or even the latest electronic gadget.
As Madison Avenue copywriters try to convince us that objects and relationships will bring only the pleasant, their advertisements often resemble the sign that flashes in big, red neon letters over the entrance to the local bar and grill: Free Beer! Free Beer! Free Beer! But just as you walk into that bar to claim your free beer, you spot a small, handwritten sign hanging beneath the neon. It simply says: “Tomorrow.” There is no free beer today. That’s the real message. No matter what day you arrive for free beer, it’s always going to be served “tomorrow.”
Still, our emotional “muscles” are so resilient that after each unsuccessful attempt at happiness and security we pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and reach for the next brass ring. After we consume another huge meal and experience the resulting pain of indigestion, we eagerly swallow that little white antacid pill that effectively shoots the messenger of pain––and we pretend no harm has been done. Without the desires for self-control and liberation (moksha) it’s impossible for us to see through the mirage of moha.
6. Mada: Pride, Arrogance
Our most trusted misconception, the deeply held belief that “I” am a separate entity, sets us up for the delusion of pride (mada). If “I” desire a certain outcome, make efforts to attain that outcome and accomplish the goal, it means the accomplishment is “mine.” And because “I” see a separate and constantly threatening world, “my” list of accomplishments can become a primary source of “my” happiness and security. Paradoxically, the more proficient a person becomes, the more alluring becomes the trap of pride. Concerns for “my” good name, “my” status, “my” race, “my” religion, “my” cause, “my” feelings can easily trump compassion and service. Arrogance (mada) is “my” protection.
7. Matsarya: Jealousy, Envy, Resentment
In the twelfth chapter of the Bhagavad Gita, the Lord (in the form of Sri Krishna) urges Arjuna (our personality) to reduce the final emotional “muscle.” Krishna lovingly says, “Do not agitate the world nor be agitated by it. When you stand above the sway of elation, competition, lust, fear and anxiety, and let things come and go as they happen, then you will be my beloved.” But when the ego (ahamkara) compares itself (I, me, mine) with the accomplishments and wealth of others, it becomes dissatisfied with its own measure of happiness and security and seeks to obtain more and more. Whether this emotional attachment manifests as malice, hostility or selfishness, it is always painful.
Recognizing the Solution
Two friends walking in the forest approached a swift-flowing stream. For each of them the stream’s rapid current and uncertain footing presented an insurmountable obstacle to the continuation of their journey. One man was blind, and the other was lame. After much consternation, the blind man had an idea. “Look here, my friend. You are lame and cannot walk well, but have excellent sight. I am blind but have strong and steady legs. If you sit on my shoulders, you can guide my sure-footed steps with your keen vision. Together we can cross the stream.” And so the lame man climbed onto the shoulders of the blind man and they crossed the rushing water. By sharing their unique resources, both accomplished their goal.
Swami Rama of the Himalayas taught that emotion is like the blind man who has the strength to walk but cannot determine which way to go, whereas thought is like the man who can see which way to go but is lame. Yoga Science teaches us how to unite these two forces––emotion and thought––so we can help ourselves and one another make the journey of life pleasant and rewarding. Through the daily practice of meditation we learn to cultivate the skills of detachment, discrimination and will power. With these practical mental tools, we can regulate our emotional “muscles” and begin to acquaint the ego (ahamkara) with the joys of deferring to the perfect wisdom of a purified buddhi (conscience).
As our meditation practice deepens and we more confidently and fearlessly follow the superconscious wisdom of buddhi in handling all our emotional issues, we recognize that our real Self is none other than the One eternal, universal and compassionate intelligence. Armed with that Truth, we experience emotional fitness. Difficult emotional relationships will either heal or wither away as new, rewarding relationships spontaneously arise, and we will be led beyond our personal limitations to discover how to live life in peace, joy and freedom.