When we ask ourselves the purpose of our life, ultimately, three things are relevant. The first is sanyam, knowing how to restrain ourselves. In the absence of restraint, there is no end to ambitions. These eventually lead one astray and destroy peace of mind and the feeling of contentment. The second purpose is developing the qualities of the heart. A human being is a combination of the faculties of head, heart and hands: intellect, sentiments and action. Most often, we highlight the use and faculties of the intellect, and relegate the faculties of the heart – sentiments and feelings – to the background, thinking that if we express them, people will consider us weak and manipulate us.
The third purpose is to help others, to look beyond actions and performances that are self-centred and self-oriented and are intended to fulfil our own needs. So these are the three components that have to be managed: restraint, cultivation of the softer qualities of life and learning to lend a helping hand. If you adopt any of the three as your aim in life, cultivate a particular attitude and mentality, you will discover that the vacuum that you feel after having attained the peak of material prosperity is filled. This is the message given in the Upanishads as well.
Now, let us analyse the first component, restraint. There are too many distractions inherent in the modern lifestyle. We want to play with every new thing that comes on to the market because it helps us boost our self-image, our ego. It is no doubt true that money brings vices with it. The outcome of acquiring material prosperity is gaining vices because you now have more confidence in the green paper than in your own abilities. And when you lack inner confidence, the mind, body and the family fabric become weak. Confusion, stress and anxiety become the order of the day. This is constantly happening to us. We are unable to manage pressures and stresses. We are unable to manage our own dissatisfactions, and there is always a craving to find the missing link. We are always trying to find something which will make us more fulfilled, contented and happy.
Yoga says that if we are able to restrain some of the dissipated and destructive flow of energy and action, we will become more creative. But how can one acquire the quality of restraint? There is a practical method, a theory, which I call the SWAN principle. SWAN is an acronym standing for Strength, Weakness, Ambition and Need. To practise it, on a sheet of paper, in one column make a list of all your strengths, all your positive qualities. In another column make a list of all your weaknesses and shortcomings that you feel inhibit your growth and clarity of mind. Now make a list of your ambitions. Even if you want to acquire the moon, write it down. Make another list of your immediate needs and long-term needs, the bare minimum that you require in order to lead a fulfilled and satisfied life. Maintain these four lists, look at them from time to time, and cross out and add until you are satisfied that they reflect a true picture of your character and personality.
Now, pick out one strength and cultivate that to the maximum. Do not go overboard, use your common sense. Next, pick out one weakness, and try to overcome it in one month. Try to analyse an ambition. Does it reflect your innermost desire or not? Try to analyse your needs, and find a balance between your ambitions and needs. Transcend and overcome one weakness, cultivate one strength, and find a balance between ambition and need. Spend five minutes every day doing this; sit down quietly by yourself when you come home, and reflect upon this. In this way, with the development of an awareness of your performances during the day, you will be able to develop a good structure of restraint. You will be able to function using optimum strength, having transcended the weaknesses and debilities of the personality, and knowing the difference between need and ambition.
The second point is developing the soft qualities of life. People have always believed that brilliance or genius is determined by the highest IQ. However, in this century, people are not thinking about IQ any more. They are thinking about EQ, emotional quotient. You can no doubt raise your level of intelligence, but at what cost? Besides, such development of intelligence is directed towards material understanding, not personal understanding.
A basic flaw in our life is that we are not educated. I am not talking about degrees and diplomas. In university, school and college, we are educated to cultivate, nurture and develop the intellect, but we do not have any experience of life. Nobody has taught us how to face problems and stresses. Nobody has told us: “Whenever you are under stress, lie down on the bed or on the ground and count your breath back from 30 to 1.” We do not know a simple thing like that. We study medicine, law and science, for an MBA, but we do not study human character and behaviour, or how to modify them. This is a great flaw in our education system, and it will take its toll on humanity one day when we discover that we are unable to face even the least amount of tension and stress.
Developing EQ, emotional quotient, or making our feelings more expansive and soft, is another direction in which life has to develop, especially in the case of achievers. You need to have a philosophy of life, which need not be a religious belief. It is irrelevant what religious path you follow or whether you are a believer or non-believer. You need to have a philosophy in life which guides your performance and defines your aspiration. What kind of a philosophy should that be? It should be to overcome the negative traits and restrictive qualities of life and to cultivate the benevolent and peaceful aspects. How do you do it? Practise 10 minutes of meditation every night before going to sleep. This is an effort you should make for the sake of your own sanity and peace. Allot 23 hours and 50 minutes to your society, family, profession, the world, and 10 minutes for your peace, benefit, tranquillity and sense of well being. For these 10 minutes, sit down quietly and develop a thought or idea in the mind: “For these 10 minutes I am not this body, nor the experience of comfort and discomfort associated with the body. I am not the mind, nor the experience of pleasure and pain that arise in the mind." Try to create total disidentification, total disconnection from the physical and the mental experiences. Now, if you are not the body, if you are not the mind, then what are you? Just yourself, nothing more. And in that experience of yourself, experience the space, the stability, the silence inside.
Next, quickly review the activities of the day: “I woke up at this time in the morning, I had this for breakfast, I wore this, I read this, I saw this, I spoke this, I did this, I did that.” If you find a challenging situation in which you reacted in a particular manner, then hold the reel there for few moments. Freeze the recording, look at it, and think how you will react if you encounter the same situation again. In a better way or in a worse way?
If you continue to do this every day for a month, you will find that your responses have changed. Instead of going like a bull in a china shop and shattering everything around, you are more careful, more conscious, more aware of what you are doing and more in control of your responses. You will be better able to manage your levels of stress by acknowledging them and saying, "Tomorrow I will find a better way to deal with this situation. I will not subject myself to the same agony that I underwent today.” Cultivation of awareness will take place with this meditation. After having reviewed the activities of the day, observe the flow of the natural breath for five minutes, and try to take long, deep and slow breaths. This completes your 10-minute meditation practice.
You do not need to replace other practices or rituals that you may or may not be following. Include this meditation as a habit in your life, not as something you are forced to do. Without any complication, in a very simple manner, sit down, become still, disidentify from the body and the mind, review the activities of the day, analyse, say to yourself, “Tomorrow I will deal with this situation in a better way,” plan, observe the breath, relax and stop. That’s the meditation.
As you become more aware of your unconscious reactions and responses through this process, you will find that you begin to cultivate the softer qualities of life. These qualities come with understanding, with putting oneself in others’ shoes, knowing the difficulties that they are facing, and trying to find a compromise, balance and harmony between them, between your aspirations and others’ performance.
To lend a helping hand is the most important thing in life, because it allows you to connect with other beings. Humanity is one single club; there is no elite group and no deprived group. The groups may exist socially and economically, but as part of the life experience that we are all undergoing, there is no separation. Some people have had the opportunity to express themselves and others have not had such an opportunity. When their time comes, they too will shine. After all, it is the same brain, the same mind, the same force in each and every one; the application depends on the opportunities that one gets in life.
Swami Sivananda was an advocate of humanity. By profession he was a medical doctor, but he left his lucrative practice to become a sannyasin. And he became a sannyasin of the highest quality. There is a difference between those who take sannyasa because they are committed and those who are escaping from life. There are people who take sannyasa to escape from life, and there are people who take sannyasa because they want to commit themselves to help others grow and prosper. There are many who belong to the first category and a few who belong to the second. Swami Sivananda had only one aim in mind, “How can I help another person attain health, peace and prosperity?” And it is his teachings that are being lived in the institutions that are created in his name, Sivananda Math and the ashram.
Paramahamsaji also says that there is much hypocrisy in our lives. Life should be innocent, simple and joyous. We put on different masks every moment to project ourselves in a particular way. Even when we look at ourselves in the mirror, we have the masks on. We want to see ourselves differently, not as we are. We become so used to seeing ourselves in the mask that when we remove it, we don’t recognize ourselves any more. “Am I really like this?” is the question that comes.
The only way we can feel free internally is by experiencing oneness, atmabhava, being able to see ourselves in other people. This is when we begin to understand them and their situations. Having come to this point, if we are capable, we should help them out. If not, we should direct them to somebody else. But a movement of cooperation must take place between human beings, not to satisfy our egos, but to help others come out of their misery.
There is a famous saying: “If a person is hungry, don’t give him fish to eat, but teach him how to fish." This has been the principle of Swami Sivananda. He did not believe in charity; he said that charity is the mother of poverty, of dependence, weakness. He always emphasized the role of purushartha, self-effort, self-empowerment. To lend a helping hand, therefore, means that you empower another person to manage and look after their own life and be responsible for their peace and prosperity. This is the actual meaning of the phrase ‘lend a helping hand’. And this is the idea of service or seva.
Paramahamsaji tells us, “If you go to the market to buy shoes or clothes for your two children, instead of buying two pairs, buy three. Two for your own children and one for the unknown child that you have adopted in your mind.” There are enough deprived people in the world to whom you can give that pair of shoes or that uniform, and they will cherish it for the rest of their lives. They will always remember the kindness showered upon them. If every affluent citizen looks after the needs of one deprived citizen, in ten years there will be no poverty anywhere.
All you have to do is see yourself in that deprived state. We are very fortunate that we have enough to eat and also to waste. Eighty percent of the population in this country does not have a square meal a day. They are our fellow beings who need some encouragement, who need to know that they have not missed all the opportunities in life and that somebody is looking after them. If this becomes your one activity in life, you will die happy, knowing that you have brought smiles to one person or family. When you have this realization, it will be a day of great satisfaction.
The three concepts of restraint, developing the softer qualities of the heart and clarity of mind, and lending a helping hand provide a definite direction and purpose to life, which acquisition of material prosperity cannot do. Today, we do need a direction in life. In this context, yoga assumes significance. Yoga is not what you read, hear about or see in the media. Yoga is a lifestyle, it is an attitude of the mind, it is the cultivation of the best that a human personality can offer. Yoga is developing and integrating the faculties of head, heart and hands. Yoga provides a method; it is also a tool to discover the excellence within. Once we discover the excellence, efficiency, clarity, awareness and understanding within, they reflect in our outer behaviour, in our performance and actions, and in our way of thinking.
By following these three simple precepts, we begin to involve ourselves in the practice of yoga. Making a list of our strengths, weaknesses, ambitions and needs, and being objective about it, is swadhyaya, self-observation. When you do not know how to control the frustrations and anxieties of life, what is the use of trying to find something which goes beyond the realm of thought and idea? One has to prepare the ground, like a farmer prepares the ground to sow seeds. Unless the ground is prepared, you can throw high quality seeds on it and they will never flower. But if the ground is prepared, there is a possibility that the majority of the seeds will flower. So prepare the ground. It is by following these precepts that I have been able to overcome the question “What next?” and you too will be able to.
24 February 2007, Talk to Young Presidents Organization, Bangalore, India, printed in YOGA, Vol. 7, Issue 1 (January 2008)