By Dr Ali Ansari
The long and painful journey to transformation is essentially a transition from being an organism to being human.
The heart’ and ‘the head’ – symbols as old as language itself, symbols that stand for quintessentially human capacities and quintessentially human conflicts between reason and emotion, thoughts and feelings, logic and intuition, science and art, calculation and love.
But what is this mysterious thing called ‘the heart’? I remember a conversation I had with an otherwise sophisticated, well-educated friend, who insisted that feelings occur in the heart- in the actual physical organ- that pulsating, blood-filled, fistsize mechanical pump in the human torso which seems to make us go up and down like a yo-yo, ‘causing’ misery or ecstasy, agitation or peace, desire or self-satisfaction. My friend refused to believe that feelings occur within the brain, that they have a neural correlate and a complicated neurobiology and that they are chemically and metaphorically different from emotions. (It is not out of place to say that the difference between love as a feeling and love as an emotion is crucial to the understanding of all spirituality or spiritual paths. But then that’s a whole article in itself.)
In my early association with one teacher (actually a high-powered yogi), the possibility and implied promise of being lifted off one’s mortal feet by some divine grace or shakti received from the guru, was seductive enough to keep me hanging on to a ray of hope, ‘waiting for Godot’. It took years of slow, extremely painful growth, hard knocks and many to-and-fros between illusion and disillusion, to shift to a different, more enduring metaphor. What I learnt is that the only thing that is actually graspable in this context is not a ray of hope but the so-called ‘Rope of Allah’- a ‘solid’ lifeline that one must grasp and hold on to as if one’s life depended upon it, and climb, handhold by handhold, rather than expecting to be pulled up. (For sure, off and on you get a little tug of help from up above.)
Thus my so-called spiritual journey had to eventually revolve upon itself, and I must mention in this context an unusual teacher, G.I. Gurdjieff. Although as a young, ardent seeker, he was influenced by a number of secretive sufis, Gurdjieff became a master in his own right, who set up his own unique system of self-development. He referred to this system as ‘The Work’. I had the opportunity to be intimately exposed to it in the United States.
The Work is typically done in the context of a Work School. Gurdjieff considers nature, and all organisms, to be asleep, and the school becomes a powerhouse of energy and ‘self-reminder’ which helps to keep the ‘worker’ from ‘falling asleep’. The idea of nature’s sleep becomes dramatic when we realize that WE are organisms – no less than other forms of life in nature. Organisms eat, sleep, procreate, survive, precisely because they are ingeniously engineered mechanisms. The mechanism of life and its machinery of biologically programmed reflexes, remains carefully hidden from our consciousness and an important part of the Work is to discover and observe it in operation within our own mind. (The German poet Rilke, has put it beautifully: ‘Nature, is this not what you wish? To become unconscious in us’.)
Self-observation enables us to watch the mind in action and we soon realize that it is a mechanism, ingeniously programmed to serve the organism’s survival and self-interest. Self-observation is the first step towards ‘separation from the organism’. Only when we separate from the organism can its transformation become even a possibility. But it is only a necessary first step. It might take a lifetime of ‘Work’ to transform the mind’s automatic reflexes of pride and prejudice, fear and self-protection, its need to tell friend from foe, its programmed synaptic interrelated pathways of thought, emotion and reactive behaviour. Just watch what goes on in your mind in everyday life as you encounter various people, situations and circumstances. Watch how the mind reacts in micro-seconds, throwing up a chain of reactive thoughts and emotions, as if it had a life and will and ‘mind’ of its own.
Then look at the world around you – at newspaper headlines of bomb explosions and ethnic cleansings, territorial conflicts, religious wars, crime and politics, not to speak of the commonplace cruelty and quiet violence in our lives that we hardly even acknowledge. Do you not see a ‘primate’ brain in action? The https://lifepositive.com/Mind/brain of a frightfully clever organism, informed by the same instincts and survival drives that underlie all life. And what are these drives and strategies of survival based on? They are based on the premise, tried and tested by the experience of billions of years of life’s struggle for survival on this planet: There is not enough to go around, organisms must struggle, distinguish between friend and foe, compete to prevail.
A human mind that would not examine itself in order to become more than just Man remains the mind of an organism. Konrad Lorenz, the famous ethologist, wrote somewhere: ‘Man appears to be the link between anthropoid apes and human beings’. Or to quote a sufi poet, ‘A million years did nature take to make Man / But you and I, we have but a lifetime to become more than Man’.
In the Work School where I spent some time, the process of ‘becoming more than Man’ meant committing to a ‘path of transformation’. The practices involved were a way of life – being consciously present, learning to be still in the midst of our insanely busy modern life, (in answer to a question: What is the relationship between stillness and God?, our teacher said: They are friends. Peace is the first gift of stillness), eating good, wholesome food with full consciousness, keeping ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ centers of one’s mind-body complex balanced, among others. Also, in this particular school, there was a strong emphasis on physical work and running to counter the obsessive concentration of energy in the head which our contemporary urban lifestyle demands. The teacher of this school ran some 15 kilometers each day and some of the younger men and women as much as 20 to 25 kilometers. He also ate a very small quantity of food once a day.
What is revealed through this type of sustained evolutionary self-work is a stunning discovery. Life operates on energy. Stillness conserves energy, so does self-remembering. And when the mind’s energy is not wasted and the soul is full and one’s life brims over with meaning and purpose, very little is needed to enjoy creation. The mind’s inherent premise of scarcity and the need to compete and be on one’s guard, which informs our unconscious relationship to life, is falsified by the heart. Sometimes I watch my five-year-old granddaughter and cannot help observing: ‘She owns nothing, needs little and is the master of the universe. She is one with life’s ability to delight in itself. What a mess our adult human brains have made of existence.’
In more ways than one it seems that my inner life has come full circle. Through the dialectic of desire – illusion and disillusion (which I like to symbolize by the phrases ‘Coke is the real thing’ and ‘the emperor is naked’) – consciousness evolves and returns to a childlike state of self-forgetting. The conflict between ‘the head’ and ‘the heart’ is finally resolved.
In this unwitting journey along the circle of desire, the lure of self-realisation has given way to a commitment to be human (i.e. more than Man). A wisdom different from both science and traditional spiritual teachings, perhaps derived from each, but more so from a natural process of growth, has given me the following gifts of understanding:
1. We cannot see anything outside our heads.
2. We cannot predict the future – not even the next instant.
3. We cannot control anything outside ourselves.
4. Our thoughts and emotions are automatic neural processes. It takes sustained, enlightened Work to transform the mind’s natural reflexes of fear, anxiety and ceaseless want into a state of repose.
5. The more you give up (of yourself) the freer you become.
In the words of Ghalib: Dard ke had se guzarna hai davaa ho jaana (pain beyond its limit is its own remedy).
Ali Ansari is Professor at an engineering college in Hyderabad. He is also the founding President of Engineers Without Borders – India.
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