Steady Wisdom: 108 Verses On Changing My Thinking
When a person gives up all desires as they appear in the mind, happy in oneself alone, that person is said to be of steady wisdom.
– Bhagavad Gita 2:55
After three weeks of doing nididhyasana, I take an honest look at my thoughts and actions and ask myself, “How do I measure up to the scripture’s standard of one established in self-knowledge?”
I might be tempted to say, “I’m the self, not the body-mind! I’m free of all action and thought so what does it matter what the body-mind thinks and does?” From the absolute perspective (paramarthika), I would be right: I’m not the body-mind so I’m not responsible for what it does nor do its actions reflect on me in any way (how could I be responsible for, or affected by, an illusion?). But from the empirical perspective of everyday experience (vyavaharika), I would be wrong…for several reasons.
First, it’s a contradiction. Why? Because while I’ll apply the logic of “what does it matter what the body-mind thinks and does?” when evaluating my spiritual progress, I don’t apply the same logic to other aspects of my life. For instance, when I’m supposed to have a presentation ready for work on Monday morning and I don’t get it done I don’t tell my boss, “I’m not the body-mind, so what does it matter?” Instead, I apologize and make an attempt to redeem myself (assuming I want to stay employed). Or when I say something hurtful to a friend, I don’t claim, “I didn’t say anything, I’m the self!” Rather, I apologize and make amends (assuming I want to stay friends).
In those kinds of situations, even though I know damn well I’m the action-less self that’s unaffected by the body-mind, I observe the rules of the admittedly illusory world and make corrections to “my” behavior. And yet, when it comes time to determine whether or not Vedanta is having a positive effect on my mind, I try to wriggle out of making the appropriate changes by claiming it doesn’t matter. This is simply a misapplication of self-knowledge. Because if the actions of the body-mind truly don’t matter on any level, then I would disregard all aspects of my life equally. But I don’t!
Second, while the scripture denies the reality of the body-mind, it never says to disregard its behavior. In fact, it says the exact opposite. Just look at the verse from the Bhagavad Gita above. Further, no legitimate teacher of Vedanta, from the legendary Shankara down to modern luminaries like Swami Dayananda, ever says that self-knowledge negates the value of good conduct and spiritual living. They assume that you’re fully committed to dharma (right living) and sadhana (spiritual practice) before you even begin studying Vedanta. And they expect you to stay committed to dharma and sadhana–even after enlightenment–the same way you stay committed to behaving properly in regard to your friends, family and job. Why? Because right living and spiritual practice lead to peace of mind, even for the enlightened. And Vedanta is pointless without peace of mind.
I may get frustrated at this point, wanting the simplicity of an either/or situation: Either what the body-mind does is inconsequential or it isn’t. But unfortunately, because Vedanta isn’t so naïve as to flat-out deny the existence of the world, it’s a both/and situation: What the body-mind does both matters and doesn’t matter. Because I know I’m the self, it doesn’t matter. But because knowing I’m the self doesn’t make the illusion of the body-mind disappear, the behavior of the body-mind still matters, at least on the illusory level. As a discriminating Vedantin, it’s up to me to know the difference between the absolute and relative levels and to apply the correct knowledge in the proper context.
For instance, when my mind gets angry, I remember that I, the self, am never angry. From that perspective (the absolute) I understand that the angry mind is not a problem. But from the relative level I see that anger causes suffering, both in my mind and the minds of others. I could disregard this situation saying it doesn’t matter (and technically, from the absolute perspective, I’d be right) but by that reasoning it also doesn’t matter whether or not I eat, pay my rent or wear clothes (yet I do those things unquestioningly in order to avoid suffering).
So remembering that the rules of the relative world still apply on the relative level whether or not I’m enlightened, I work on my mind (if not for my benefit, then I do it for the benefit of others who don’t know, or even care, that I know I’m the self). The difference is that before self-knowledge, I worked on my mind with anxiety, thinking that I was the mind or that the state of the mind defined who I was. When the mind was good, I felt good about myself. When the mind was bad, I felt bad about myself. But now, I tend to my mind without the anxiety of identifying with it, simply because it needs to be done, the same way that I pay my utility bill because it needs to be done.
The beauty of Vedanta is that it considers both the absolute and the relative levels of reality. It shows me that I’m the absolute reality so I can tend to the relative level of reality with objectivity. I know that life is just a play but I keep playing my part. When the actor known as the body-mind flubs its lines, there’s no reason for concern. I just hand it the cue card and move on to the next scene. That’s steady wisdom.