The oldest and surest method of learning is that of punishment and reward. A child is scolded or punished if he does something wrong, and praised or rewarded for doing something well. Rats can be trained to follow preselected paths through a maze by giving them a mild electric shock if they choose wrongly, and placing a tasty morsel at the end of the right choice. Even worms have been reported to learn by these methods.
The model for this kind of training lies in Nature herself. The pain one experiences if one goes against Nature, and the pleasure if one cooperates with it, is one way all creatures are guided — not always infallibly, but in a general sense correctly. A child learns, if it touches a hot stove, not to repeat the experiment. Sensitivity to extreme heat is given us for our protection, not for our misery. All living creatures learn, quickly or slowly according to their intelligence, what “works” for them and what doesn’t. If a child plunders the cookie jar, it may learn from repeated forays that too many cookies give tummy aches. Meanwhile, he may be helped by a stern reprimand, but experience itself, if not too drastic, is always the best teacher.
As creatures learn to avoid pain and to seek pleasure, so man strives to avoid also mental suffering and to seek happiness. Punishment and reward encourage life in the long process of evolution from the lowly germ to the spiritual enlightenment of masters like Jesus Christ and Buddha. At life’s higher stages of development, man’s twofold desire to avoid suffering and find happiness becomes refined to an intense desire for escape from ego-bondage and a companion desire for expansion in spiritual bliss.
Consciousness and bliss are one and the same, and are the underlying reality of existence. Conscious bliss is the essential reality behind every soaring cloud, firm rock, flowing river, and oxygen-giving tree, and behind moving and breathing creatures everywhere. Science errs in saying that everything is essentially without consciousness. Its error is due to the fact that it began its journey of discovery with an inquiry into mechanisms. “How?” it asked, discounting the further questions, “What?” and “Why?” The “how” of things explains their mechanisms. The further questions, “what” and “why,” pertain to motivation. These questions will be addressed in the following pages.
Consciousness and bliss are innate in everything. The very universe was manifested out of Absolute Spirit: ever-conscious, ever-existing, ever-new Bliss, or Satchidananda as Swami Shankaracharya called it.
Evolution is driven by the impulse in all creatures to avoid threats to their own bliss-potential. What each one perceives of that potential depends on its own level of evolution. To the more primitive creatures it may mean only comfort; to others, food. Nevertheless, according to the degree of awareness expressed in each one, it is bliss they seek. Therefore, the loss of bliss is what they try to avoid.
Charles Darwin declared that survival is the primary impulse of life. This instinct, however, is no mindless urge. If creatures struggle consciously to maintain their existence, it is because, to them, it represents something important. They cling to it not as a mere projection of Newtonian inertia. Rather, they cling because their awareness is a manifestation, however inchoate, of bliss. Survival is a paramount concern for them only when their lives are actively threatened, for they want to preserve their present measure of conscious bliss. Otherwise, all they want is simply to enjoy life.
Bliss is heavily veiled in the lower forms of life. The highest to which they aspire is to avoid physical pain, and to experience physical pleasure. Man is different in that his aspiration is more deliberate, and more personal. With his relatively refined awareness, he realizes also that physical sensations are usually brief in duration, and that the emotional ups and downs that accompany pleasure and pain are temporary, like tossing ocean waves. Thus, he envisions something more permanent than pleasure, and seeks happiness. He tries to avoid mental suffering also — the loss of a job, for instance, or of reputation — and willingly endures even physical pain to achieve long-range goals. With further refinement of his awareness, he seeks to avoid feelings, thoughts, and actions that might prevent him from realizing eternal bliss. For he has discovered that the source of all suffering lies in the fact that his attention has been diverted from his own reality.
Happiness springs from within the self. It doesn’t depend on outer conditions. Nothing outside ourselves, therefore, can define or qualify our happiness except as we allow it to do so. Once this unalterable truth is realized, happiness become our permanent possession.
Unfortunately, life conditions people to seek fulfillment outside, not inside, themselves. As energy forms the body in the womb, it conditions the fetus, and later on the newborn baby, to seek expression outwardly also. The baby needs milk. It must work at developing its body’s movements. Life itself is an adventure in learning how to relate to objective reality. Gradually, the adventure becomes one of learning to discriminate between what is real what merely seems so.
The world as the senses present it to us is a mirage. It seems hard or soft to the touch; pleasant or unpleasant to the palate; beautiful or ugly to the eyes; harmonious or cacophonous to the ears; sweet or acrid to the sense of smell. In fact, it is none of these things. Clues are given us to a very different reality. Solid-seeming matter can be penetrated by sound waves, and by x-rays. Food that human beings abominate is eagerly ingested by other creatures. The senses constantly deceive us, for they expose us to a very limited range of sound and light vibrations. What seems to us pleasant or unpleasant is often a very subjective evaluation, widely varied even within the narrow “spectrum” of human tastes. “Beauty,” it is said, “is in the eye of the beholder.” The eye can be trained to see beauty everywhere. People can also be conditioned by disappointment to see ugliness everywhere, as they sow their experiences as seeds of further unhappiness.
We refer things back constantly to our reactions, without which objective reality would hold little meaning for us. People realize in time that their most intimate reality is their own state of consciousness. It is in their reactions that they suffer or rejoice. One’s reactions should therefore be his paramount concern.
What is man, relative to the vast universe? Is he utterly insignificant, as the findings of astronomy might suggest? We see ourselves instinctively as central to everything in existence. Nor is this instinct misguided. For it is our own perception that must expand. In ourselves also, our perceptions can shrink. Life leads us by expanding sympathy to an ever-more refined awareness. It also, if we allow it to, leads us to a contracting sympathy, and a gradually diminishing awareness, by which our potential for bliss is suppressed.
Pain and pleasure are our first teachers. The pain causes us to contract inwardly — not mentally only, but in physical tension. Pleasure brings a feeling of relaxation and mental expansion. We gradually learn to associate suffering more with mental than with physical tension, and happiness more with mental well-being.
From these facts it emerges that moral principles have their roots in Nature. Why is it wrong to steal from others, or to injure them? Not because of societal or scriptural strictures, but because one is punished by his own nature, which causes physical contraction and tension, and a mentally self-defensive attitude. To go against natural law is to offend against ourselves. As a consequence, we experience pain. Thus, even if the pirate who robs others views himself as the gainer, materially speaking, his contraction of sympathy and his accompanying fear of retribution is a constant punishment for disturbing the harmony in himself and in his surroundings. The very universe becomes, for him, a hostile environment. Increasing inner disharmony becomes at last intolerable to him in the alienation it brings him from others, and, despite every affirmation to the contrary, in his diminishing sense of self-worth.
Growth in understanding can be accomplished only by the individual. Of what use to a child the reassurances that others, some day, will become adults? Evolution itself is not focused so much on developing new species as it is on the progress of individual awareness. Society may have to restrain its members if they persist in anti-social behavior, but the laws of human nature exact their own price, ultimately. The wrongdoer eventually punishes himself. Foolish is he who scoffs, “Oh, eventually! Who cares about ‘eventually?’” Eventually, however, will be very much right now, when it arrives!
Spiritual evolution causes man, in addition to animal concerns with physical pain and pleasure, an awareness also of mental punishment and reward. As his refinement increases, he seeks to avoid mental suffering, and to find happiness in an uplifted state of mind.
These are, however, subtle lessons. Time is required, usually, for even one of them to be learned well. The span of one lifetime is too short for very much to be accomplished in the way of self-development. The long evolutionary process cannot be drastically curtailed — producing, let us say, enlightened worms! Enlightenment, moreover, which is an inner awakening, cannot be achieved outwardly by manifesting a perfect species, as opposed to manifesting individual perfection.
Here, ineluctably, arises the question of reincarnation. For without many lifetimes in which to learn and grow, it would be impossible for there to be a meaningful process of evolution. Evolution toward complexity? yes, of course. This exists already. But complexity in itself is not a proof of progress. What evolution manifests also is growing awareness in life’s manifestations. For that reason alone evolution is progressive. Otherwise it could only be considered progressive change. What is expressed in life, and in the universe, however, is consciousness. Progress can be considered such only if it is toward a perfect expression of consciousness. Outer, material perfection in this realm of relativities is a contradiction in terms. Perfection cannot be even visualized, except in terms of individual development.
Reincarnation is, at present, a controversial subject: not one to be resolved dogmatically by scriptural quotations, any more than the concepts of God could be resolved that we discussed earlier. In the past, claims that lacked the support of sensory evidence were justified simply by quoting the scriptures. Materialists, of course, scoffed at them, but they were in the minority, or else remained prudently silent. Science today has brought materialism into the open, but has shown convincingly that countless phenomena exist beyond sensory awareness: the atom and the electron, for example; invisible radio waves; the fact that “solid” matter consists mostly of space. Most of the claims of modern science have become acceptable not because common sense endorses them, but because they have produced results.
The results, similarly, of the doctrine of reincarnation give it so much convincing support that reason, confronted by them, rejects any other explanation. Reasonable premises may not always received outward endorsement, but the universe has never shown itself unreasonable.
What coherent meaning, indeed, can be discerned in life without a continuity of individual awareness? If a human being begins life with a blank slate, giving no sign of any previous experience, how much can he be expected realistically to learn in his brief life span? A child in kindergarten cannot be expected to learn advanced physics: He must go through many years of training first. How much more time, then, is required for developing wisdom! Deep insight is not the product of cleverness. Nor is it necessarily a sign of keen intelligence. It is the product of long-pondered, personal experience.
Rationalizations to the contrary notwithstanding, someone who is born into a criminal environment, and killed in a gang war before reaching the age of twenty, has neither the opportunity nor, probably, the incentive to absorb life’s higher lessons.
The people we see around us, perhaps daily, live quite obviously on many different levels of development. Often it takes a mere glance at their expressions to perceive that all of them are not equally wise. The differences suggest powerfully that all human beings are in a process of development — not as a species merely, but as individuals. A single lifetime may not suffice to absorb even one basic lesson of life: the superior rewards, for instance, of kindness over callousness, and of generosity over selfishness. Nor is one lifetime sufficient to free one from even one powerful bad habit, such as alcoholism or drug addiction. Strong habits grow deep roots in the subconscious mind. They wind unseen through subterranean caverns of memory, crisscrossed with tunnels of ancient self-justification, hurt, and unresolved disappointment.
The motivation that drives everyone, including the lower animals, is desire. All seek to avoid pain and experience pleasure. The tiger, in seeking to satisfy its own hunger, evinces no pity for its prey. Human “tigers,” similarly, can be pitiless toward those whom they destroy in their ambition for self-aggrandizement. Cruelty may be as natural to persons like them as it is to tigers. They may require lifetimes of suffering before their nature can be refined to, let us say, one of loving compassion.
Human beings are more developed in intelligence and understanding than other animals. Consequently they soon discover how temporary life’s physical and emotional sensations are. Today’s pleasure, or pain, may be only a memory by tomorrow. Humanity is therefore inclined to seek fulfillment of a more permanent kind. Most people want happiness, which is a state of mental well-being. Because even they, however, are still evolving toward wisdom (the process is by no means automatic, for it is influenced by free will), most people, even if they want happiness, identify it erroneously with outer, tangible gains. They identify permanence with possessions. Thus, their search for happiness is diverted.
Consider a typical detour: A person is strolling down the street without a care in the world. The day is beautiful; birds sing melodiously in the trees; the sun is shining brightly in a lightly clouded sky. A gentle breeze wafts the scent of lilacs, fresh-sprinkled with the dew, from a nearby garden. The man thinks, “How perfectly wonderful life is!”
All at once, perched on a tree limb just above his head, he spies a gay-colored bird framed gracefully by surrounding branches. Soft clouds form the backdrop to this scene, sailing like majestic galleons through the blue sky.
“If only I had a camera!” the man thinks. “I could catch this image on film and have it with me forever!” That passing happiness has suddenly awakened in him a desire for something more permanent: a material possession.
Alas! poor fellow, he can’t afford a camera! What can he do? This desire is too sudden to be deep, but even so its ripples dance on the surface of his heart. “If only I had a camera!” he repeats. “Ah, if only! How many other pictures I could then take and keep with me forever.”
Somehow, the sunlight no longer seems to him quite so brilliant. The birds’ songs no longer thrill him so deeply. His feelings churn with schemes for how he can afford to buy that camera.
From now on he scrimps and saves. Months pass. The strength of this desire grows. At last he finds he can fulfill the desire. Meanwhile, he has carefully researched the market, and one particular model has caught his fancy.
Now then, what about those happy walks down the street that set him on this mental journey of exploration? He hasn’t had time for them. Ah well, never mind: Now he has, as his very own, the camera of his dreams. What joy is his!
Or is it? Here is an interesting point to consider: He was happy before his decision that he wanted that camera. Today, with his new acquisition in hand, is he any happier? Oh, yes, he is more excited, but is he any happier? Wasn’t his happiness that day due partly to the calmness of his enjoyment? Can he sincerely equate this excitement with that moment of unconditioned happiness? The truth is, his present happiness, compared to what he had before, is an uncomfortable compromise.
For his joy now is centered outside himself. No longer does it well up from a sense of inner well-being. All he has accomplished is remove the condition he placed on his happiness by telling himself he needed a camera for happiness to be complete. How much, beyond that, has he achieved? He owns the camera, and its possession seems the happy ending to a great adventure. Still…
Dare we ask? How long will this “happy ending” endure? Only as long, surely, as it takes him to balance out the intensity of that desire, and the difficulty of fulfilling it, with his feeling of having grown used to his possession. After a time, he finds that he needs to re-affirm his happiness. He may gather friends about him and regale them with his “Saga of the Camera,” repeating again and again what a stroke of luck it was to be able to get it. He explains the research it took, and why this model so ideally suits his needs. Finally, with a triumphant air, he displays his best photos.
The time must arrive during this process when he notices in himself a certain let-down. The problem is, his new camera is no longer new! In fact, it is beginning to seem a bit “old hat.” Rarely, now, does he feel that joyful lift of initial possession. Even the compliments people pay him no longer mean much to him.
His desire for a camera has, it may now be said, been well and truly fulfilled. Wouldn’t one think he’d return, now, to strolling down the street and enjoying the birds’ songs and the flowers fresh-sprinkled with the dew? For some reason, he just doesn’t. He asks himself instead, “What new object can I possess?” He has seen telephoto lenses, wide-angle lenses, and countless other useful attachments for his camera. Should he get one of those? The satisfaction of one desire has set in motion a tendency in him to continue to seek happiness by fulfilling other desires: ten of them — a hundred — a thousand! The more he seeks happiness in outer fulfillment, the more he finds himself entangled in the process itself. No longer is he able to live in the present. Desire keeps him living in the future — a future that forever recedes.
Was he not actually happier that first day, strolling cheerfully down the street? This camera was supposed to increase his happiness; instead, it has made him focus outside himself for his fulfillment. Yet happiness on that occasion was already his!
Rich people for this reason are often dissatisfied with life. Others, less wealthy than they though able to satisfy their basic needs, may in fact be much happier. For the rich it is so easy to fulfill every whim — and so difficult to be contented in the fulfillment! Countless desires jostle about in their hearts, each of them insisting on being given priority attention. How can the poor rich person decide which of his clamorous desires to fulfill first? Little wonder statistics show proportionately more suicides among the rich than among the poor.
Happiness simply does not exist in things. As gifts are wrapped prior to being given in order to make them more alluring, so people enclose their desires in colorful “wrapping” of alluring expectations. Imagination can surround even the most common object with an attractive glow. The fulfillment promised, however, is in itself empty — like the tin cans that are offered for purchase by tourists that proclaim: “Air from Capri, Italy!” or, “Air from Yosemite Valley.” The cans are empty, of course. Mere things, like them, are all empty, themselves, of any actual power to satisfy! We may label them mentally, “Happiness,” but all we do is project the thought of happiness onto them. When we direct our expectations outward, away from ourselves, imagination can take us as far from the actual source of happiness as it is capable of soaring.
This is not to say that all desires must be abandoned. As well might one try to live without breathing! It is possible, however, to lessen the grip of one’s attachment to those desires. Non-attachment, not non-possession, is the secret of happiness. Wealthy people, too, who learn this lesson can be perfectly happy!
Everyone needs above all to learn that material desires are merely expressions of soul-longing for our native state: Eternal Bliss. This longing can be fulfilled only in one’s self. That person strolling carefree down the street may have been better off at that moment than he has ever been since then, despite his later delight in acquiring a camera.
It is wise, therefore, when desiring material possessions, never to accept the thought that one cannot live without them. Material ends should be sought in a spirit of inner freedom, by constantly affirming bliss within.
This practice is relatively easy if one keeps an attitude of non-attachment. This does not mean one should be apathetic or indifferent. Without inner freedom it is never really possible to enjoy anything. Non-attachment is, indeed, the path to inner freedom.
Refer every enjoyment, therefore, back to your inner bliss. If you have not experienced bliss, recall a time of happiness in your life and use that as an aid in visualizing the soul-bliss within.
The freedom of non-attachment itself is a signpost to inner bliss.