Thinking badly about one's own self is a normal behaviour of the mind, and talking and thinking badly about others is an expression of that mental behaviour. If you have a bad smell in the body, that is your bad smell, but it is projected outside and others can smell it. In the same way, if you are thinking negatively, your thoughts are projected outside in the form of criticism. So both these phenomena are interrelated.
In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, there is a sutra: "The most important thing is peace of mind." When you think badly about others, your mind is not at peace, and if you don't have peace of mind, then you can't have good meditation. You may have good concentration in meditation, but at the bottom, the tempest is blowing and it can blow out the light at any moment.
In order to attain peace of mind, you must have the attitude of friendship for the people who are happy and you must have compassion for those who are unhappy. You must be pleased with the people who are virtuous and you should ignore the people who are vicious. These are the four attitudes you should try to develop when you are dealing with the four different types of people. I will elaborate on these.
When we see people who are very happy and prosperous in their lives, we are usually jealous of them. That is the natural reaction. However, according to yoga, you should make them your friends. If you are a rich person, a great scholar or a renowned person, or if you are happy in every respect with good children, husband or wife, I should not be jealous of you. If I am jealous, then my peace of mind is destroyed. I should make you my friend so that your happiness becomes my happiness. That is point one.
There are many people in the world who are very unhappy. If we see that someone we don't like is facing sickness, poverty, pain or grief, we are very happy. We say, "That's right, he deserved it." When you think like this, you are disturbing your own mind and then your meditation will be affected. The correct attitude is one of compassion. Of course you know he is a bad man, but after all he is very unhappy. That is called compassion. That is point two.
There are many people who are virtuous. They help others, they are philanthropic and they give a lot in charity. What we usually say is, "It's not genuine, he's just doing all this to impress or show up others." Or we say, "He has earned this money through bad means and now he is trying to give it away in charity." By saying or thinking this, you are disturbing the base of your mind and it will affect your meditation. The right attitude is that you should be happy in your heart that he is doing good work. He is helping this institution or that mission; he is very generous and charitable; he is making proper use of his money. If you think like this, you will be happy and that will boost your meditation. That is point three.
Now, point four. When you see a debauched man, a criminal or a thief, you say, "Hey, he is a very bad man. Don't go near him." In any congregation, there is usually one person who talks badly about others day in and day out. This person always becomes very unhappy and quite abnormal, almost to the point of mental crisis. Maybe a person is bad, but if you keep on talking ill about him, you are only making matters worse for yourself. If he is bad it does not concern you. You should ignore him, that is the right attitude.
In order to attain peace of mind, your attitudes must be correct. I will give you an example of a person I knew who put these attitudes into practice throughout his life. I lived with this person for many years; he is my guru, Swami Sivananda. He used to serve anyone who criticized, harmed or offended him just like a mother serves her child. He used to treat those people better than he treated his own disciples.
Some of us were very good disciples who were completely devoted to him, but he did not care very much for us. But any disciples who were not up to standard were given special attention. He used to send coffee to their room. Any time fruit came to the ashram, they were the first to receive it, and whenever distribution of clothing took place, their names were first on the list. If there was a congregation or satsang in the ashram, they were always given a special place. And this is how he behaved all the time.
However, there are many people who do not change even if you treat them exceptionally well. Once we pointed this out to Swami Sivananda because there was a disciple who was, in spite of Swamiji's behaviour, persistent in his evil actions. We said, "Your attitude to evil disciples is definitely good, but if they don't want to change, why don't you teach them a lesson?" He said, "No." Then he narrated the following parable.
Once a very good natured person was taking a bath in the Ganges and a scorpion was being swept along by the water. In order to save the scorpion, the man picked it up and held it in his hand. The scorpion bit the man, but he still continued to hold it. Again it bit him. A man who was witnessing this whole game asked the good man, "Why don't you leave that scorpion to die?" Do you know what his reply was? "When a scorpion does not give up his nature, why should I give up mine?"
So, if you want to eliminate negative thoughts, your whole nature must be changed. By attending satsangs you can transform your nature greatly, and this is most important. Satsang means association with people where positive things are being practised. You may be singing together or studying yoga together. You may be reading the scriptures or discussing the problems of day-to-day life. This is called satsang, and after it you start thinking very positively.
The opposite of satsang is kusang. 'Ku' means bad, evil, negative or devilish, and 'sang' means association. When you are in association with negative people or ideas, that is called kusang. So, in order to purify the human nature, the most important sadhana is satsang. If we cannot hold a satsang ourselves, then we can read a positive and inspiring book. When I was a student, I frequently read a marvelous book called Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis. Every time I read it, I got some new light. In the same manner, Swami Sivananda has also written some wonderful books which can help you to restructure your whole nature.
We write books on yoga, practical books. Swami Sivananda used to write books on human nature. There is a fantastic book written by him called Mind - Its Mysteries and Control. When you read that book, you can see your own self as though you were looking at a mirror. Unless you can see yourself, how can you correct yourself? In order to transform your nature, you have to see yourself naked, you have to have an absolute vision of your entire personality. And besides this, certain basic virtues have to be practised and developed. This is how the whole thing goes.
September 1980, Zinal, Switzerland