What should be the guiding principle of my life?

We generally find in life that we can partly shelve the responsibility for facing up to many decisions, because, in the ordinary way, circumstances will not allow us to do what we like.

The responsibility is not wholly ours, for our choice is limited by the force of circumstances.

Suppose that we achieved a society which was totally permissive, in which there was nothing one could not do if one simply wanted to do it, in which the human individual was entirely free from any social pressure or external taboos. What would then happen is that the individual would have to face up consciously to the question which only he is in a position to decide: What should be the guiding principle of my life? As an entirely free and independent being, how am I to decide what course of action to follow ?

There are those who think that in these circumstances they would advocate free indulgence in sensuality. For them, in Milton’s phrase, liberty does mean licence. They reject any other aim in life as the pursuit of some vague or transcendent end, whereas they maintain (or they think that they would maintain) that the pleasure they believe in is real and immediate. But this is clearly a point of view which cannot stand up to scrutiny, still less to being put into practice. It is in fact a guaranteed formula for disaster in life.

There are at least two good reasons for this. The first one, well known to poets and philosophers throughout the ages, is that the pleasures which are maintained to be the object of life are in themselves transient and ephemeral. In the very act of trying to follow this plan of life man finds that the objects which seemed to promise happiness have turned to ashes in his mouth. The joy that they offered is much more unreal in the long run than the higher ideals which the hedonist rejects. The second reason why the hedonist’s plan is doomed to failure is that it contains the seeds of great pain and suffering.

As the Bhagavad Gita says: “The pleasures born of the contact of the senses with their objects are ultimately only sources of pain; they have a beginning and an end. O Arjuna, no wise man delights in them.”

Leonardo da Vinci wrote in his personal notebook that pleasure and pain were like two Siamese twins joined back to back; where one is, the other is not far off, and at the next turn of circumstances it will become apparent.

Nowadays there are many people who seek pleasure by resorting to drugs. An account was published of the widespread use by young people in Sweden of illicit supplies of amphetamine, supplies produced by those who value the profit of their own pocket above any consideration of human good. These unfortunate addicts, in the search to maintain the effect of the drug, were taking doses a hundred to three hundred times the ordinary dose, three or four times a day. It was said that in Sweden alone there are today a minimum of ten thousand such serious addicts and that they constitute a major social problem.

Even in much smaller dosage this drug can cause temporary madness and hallucinations and it also leads to many wild acts of antisocial nature. Quite apart from their effect on the community at large, the addicts themselves rapidily become social dropouts; they are unable to work or to carry on a normal life, and many of them suffer from serious infective diseases like hepatitis which they easily contract from the use of unsterilized syringes.

This is one example of the consequences of adopting the hedonists’ view of the deliberate pursuit of pleasure for its own sake. As the Bhagavad Gita says, that happiness which arises from the contact of the senses with their objects may be like nectar to begin with but it becomes like poison in the end. The pursuit of happiness in sensory experience per se, whether it is induced by drugs or in any other way, is doomed ultimately to failure.

One has to remember the advantages in not having total permissiveness. Total permissiveness includes freedom to destroy oneself, and there is such a thing as mental and spiritual suicide as well as physical suicide.

The Isha Upanishad says of those spiritually ignorant ones who delight only in physical life and who are addicted to sensual pleasures, that “they envelop themselves in blinding darkness”; that is to say, they induce in themselves a mental darkness which blinds all their higher spiritual, moral and aesthetic faculties; and the Upanishad calls these people “slayers of the self,” not because they necessarily commit suicide in the physical sense, but because morally and spiritually they are destroyers of their own personalities.

In the sixteenth chapter of the Bhagavad Gita there are said to be three gates to hell for the individual which should be avoided at all costs; they are lust, anger and greed. Indulgence in any of these tends, like taking drugs, to become habitual, and it is more and more difficult to break oneself of the habit.

“When the worldlings admit a phenomenal form into their hearts, in the end they curse it in contrition,” says the Persian mystic, Rumi.

“But the repentance they show is like that of the moth; soon forgetfulness draws them back again to the same work. Like a moth, such a one deems the fire seen from a distance to be light and packs off towards it. As soon as he comes to the fire it burns his wings and he flees. Then again he falls, like greedy children in a hurry, and relapses into his old ways, spoiling his good resolutions. Once more, thinking and hoping to profit, he quickly dashes himself on the fire of that candle; once more he is scorched and recoils and then again the greed of his heart makes him forgetful and intoxicated.”

Complete permissiveness, then, has its dangers. One may be free of all outer constraints; but if this is merely used as an opportunity for the individual to destroy himself, or at least to put himself under a greater bondage than existed before, it is a mockery of freedom.

“Destroy sensuality, O Rama,” says Vasishtha, “this is the first stage. What is the good of using many words when it can be described by few? Desire is the strongest bondage, and the absence of desire is complete release.”

The message of the Yogis is that man cannot ignore the ethical and moral questions, not because someone else says that he ought not to do so, but because these are practical problems which affect the whole course of his life. He is a human being, not an animal. The lower instincts of the mind may drive him towards sense pleasures, but the instincts are only one part of his personality. He has reason, humanity, fellow-feeling and idealism.

He cannot ignore these higher aspects of his nature and he must satisfy their needs also if he is to live as a whole man. So long as he does ignore them he will be at war with himself inwardly; there will be somewhere within him a constantly nagging sense that he has not realised the potentialities of which he is capable.

The problem of good and evil is not something which is imposed on man from outside by society or by institutional religion; it has a much more profound basis in the human personality itself, and it arises fundamentally from the need which man feels to realize his full stature. So long as he does not do so, he will feel a sense of moral inferiority arising from the fact that his life does not feel to him worthy of himself.

He may suppress this feeling but it will be there nonetheless, and it will exert its permanent nagging and disturbing influence on his mind so that he cannot find real peace or real rest. He may complain about circumstances and blame the outer world, but at heart he will feel dissatisfied with himself.

We can say, in agreement with the philosopher F. H. Bradley, that the one aim which man tries to follow throughout his life, which is the basis of all his conduct, is the aim of self-realization. To realize himself, and to feel that he has achieved significance, is the fundamental drive in his personality. When man asks what is the good life he is asking what will achieve this aim.
What is called ‘having a good time’ is one answer.

The good life may be imagined to be—as it is by some—a Parisian weekend or a South-Sea-island existence; but in each case it is an attempt to answer the same question:

“How can I fully realize myself?”

And it is the same question which the saints and the philosophers discuss when they speak of the summum bonum of human life. The answers may be very different, but they all aim fundamentally at fuller self-realization for man.

Even in sensuality man tries to assert himself in enjoying the sense objects. It is not the objects themselves that he wants; it is to possess them and make them his own as a means to satisfy this craving for self-realization. But he misreads this inner urge; he cannot realize himself fully in this way because in doing so he has to trample on the higher part of his personality, and the realization which he does attain is unsatisfying and temporary and leads to suffering.

The instincts are only the raw energy in the mind. They are like the coal, dirty and unattractive in appearance, which was hidden within the countryside of Great Britain and, once discovered, and used in the last century to produce the power for our industry, led to the great prosperity of England.

The raw instincts are like such raw energy, unattractive, blind and degrading in themselves, but capable of being harnessed to become a great creative force within the personality. If they are simply awakened and left to themselves, then they will wreak destruction—one might liken it to setting light to a coal mine.

This is the lesson of the sensualist. But if they are controlled and harnessed, then the same instincts can become a great source of good for the individual. Therefore the Yogis hold that the most important development for man is the development of character. Man’s character is not absolutely fixed. It develops itself and it changes.

Has man really got free will?

It is a difficult question. Some will say that man is completely free; some will say that he is entirely bound by his circumstances and by the law of causation. The answer which is adopted in practice by the ordinary man of common sense, as Bradley says, is that man has a degree of freedom. To some extent his freedom is limited by his own character. His desires, his prejudices, his preconceptions, all limit his freedom of choice. But this character itself can be modified. He modifies it in fact by every decision that he takes in life, however insignificant that modification may seem.

In this way he has a degree of freedom and the Yogis say that he can increase that freedom by developing his own character. Yoga Vasishtha speaks of the past karma in the form of the residue of past thinking, past habits, past prejudices in the personality, and the present endeavour in action and thought, as being like two rams which are continually fighting with each other. Sometimes one seems to overcome, sometimes the other; but all the time the present endeavour is changing the situation, changing the character.

In this sense man has freedom; he can decide now what lines he will live on, what direction his life will take, and to this extent the Yogis would agree with the existentialists. Man’s personality represents that Self which is trying to realize itself continually, and by developing it he can work towards that freedom of thought and action which he desires. True Self-realization in action is that which realizes his whole Self and not merely a partial aspect of it.

He has to harmonize the conflicting elements within his own being and to create something worthwhile out of them. In this sense the problem of good and evil, of what course of action it is right for him to take, arises not only in society, not only for man among his fellows, but even for a man who lives completely isolated on a desert island. Even he has this dilemma.
Why is it that the good life enables man to realize himself more truly than the bad life?

The reason is that the bad life is disharmonious and anarchical. It is the life of a personality at war within itself. It is against reason and its only policy is a policy of revolt, revolt against authority or against what is right. As such, it is really only a protest. It is essentially destructive. It aims to get rid of its guilt by destroying what is good; but in trying to silence conscience and to subvert reason it is trying to destroy another part of the same personality of which it is a part; it can never finally succeed.

The soul of each and every man knows intuitively what is right. Morality is the quest for harmony within the personality; it is the search for that which will satisfy the whole of man’s personality and not merely one aspect of it. It is the realization of the whole Self, so that all man’s smaller ends are taken up and embraced in larger ends.

In the Gita it speaks of these two attitudes as the life of the lower self and the life of the higher self; and from the yogic point of view ultimately the life of the higher self, of which the Gita speaks, is the means to the highest Self-realization. How is this realization to be achieved? How is the raw energy of the instincts and lower urges to be harnessed and used?
The Yoga says that the secret lies in the will.

Will is the faculty by which Self-realization is achieved in action. It is the most creative faculty of the human personality. Our teacher used to say that by means of will and imagination used rightly man can transform his personality and can create first inwardly, and then in the outer sphere, forms and influences of beauty and value. In fact, if he only knew it, even the ordinary man in all his voluntary thought and action is trying to achieve a form of Self-realization.

Every time man uses his will he is trying to assert himself in some form or another. But the attempt to impose his will on outer objects is a mistake. The right field for the exercise of the will is within his own personality. By making the inner changes there and transforming his character into a powerhouse of light and peace he will then be in a position to create the highest thoughts, and thought is a much more potent agent and influence in the world than direct action.

So long as the moral struggle within the personality is not won, and inner peace has not been restored, any outer efforts will ultimately serve only to reflect the inner discord.

This is the lesson of history’s conquerors, like Napoleon and Alexander. These were people of tremendous will-power, energy and activity, but they had not harmonized their own personalities, and therefore their energy merely became enslaved to the power urges and ambitions of their own lower minds. Therefore the will is to be used to transform and redirect one’s own raw instincts in the personality, to channel them creatively and not destructively.

The aim is to control the mind and render it concentrated and tranquil so that it can be receptive to truth, in a spirit of impartiality, even if that truth goes against one’s fondest wishes. This is true enlightenment. It is not to create an artificial state, but to allow the mind to manifest the highest of which it is capable.

As Lorenzo says to Jessica in the fifth act of The Merchant of Venice: “Such harmony is in immortal souls, but whilst this muddy vesture of decay doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.”
The harmony is already there, but it is drowned in the discord of the conflicting desires and passions of the raw mind.

The aim of Yoga is to enable the individual to silence this discord and to reveal the inner harmony.

What then are the first practical steps in using and training the will so that it can become an agent to transform the personality. The first step is to have a daily meditation period. To sit in meditation and to practise, first of all, deep breathing; take eleven deep breaths, silencing the mind and concentrating on the breath. Deep breathing has a great effect in calming and silencing the mind. If distractions come, then to lead the mind gently back to the practice, and then to focus the mind on a text. One such text is:


The word OM which is used at the beginning and end of the meditation text in Yoga is a symbol of God, of the Highest, of Truth, but without any connotations of any particular creed or religion. It is a universal name of God. So to focus the mind on the meditation text for ten minutes or longer if one can, and then, after the meditation, to review one’s personality and life objectively. To take one fault that one finds in oneself and to resolve to overcome it; then to meditate upon the opposite virtue for a few minutes.

It may seem that these are very small and trivial steps, but in this way the course of the mental life can begin to be changed and we can make the first moves in transforming the personality into an ally instead of a battlefield, Great transformations start with small steps, and the Yogis emphasize that it is much more important to make daily sustained efforts rather than making superhuman exertions which do not last very long.

Let us conclude with some lines on this same topic from the Katha Upanishad: “One is the good, another is the pleasant; these two, serving different ends, bind man. Happiness comes to him who of these chooses the good; whoso chooses the merely pleasant forfeits the true end. Both the good and the pleasant approach the mortal. The intelligent man examines and distinguishes them; for the wise man prefers the good to the pleasant. It is the ignorant man who chooses the pleasant for the sake of his body.”

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