By Maria Wirth
Is it possible to have an opinion without opposing others’ opinion or defending one’s own?
Now this disease that one has to have an opinion on each and everything has also come to India.” A friend from South India who had lived in Europe for many years made this remark, which set me thinking.
In the West, one is considered educated if one has a well-informed opinion on what is happening politically, economically and culturally. One is considered a mature citizen. One has a stand. One can’t be pushed around. It doesn’t really matter if this opinion is based on somebody else’s opinion, or on what came out in the newspapers, which, at best, do not present the full picture, and, at worst, purposely distort it.
No doubt, if one is considered educated just because one can repeat what someone else has said or written, it is a rather poor state of affairs. But can it be called a disease? An opinion by itself, which consists of thoughts, is not a disease. But if one takes it too seriously, if one identifies with it, is soaked in it, defends it, resists and attacks others’ opinions, then this is certainly not healthy, and may be called a disease. People, then, are driven by thoughts and are not aware of it. They become hostile to whoever does not agree with them, and believe that it is right to make the other wrong. It is a rather violent behavior, which the intellectual elite of any country is especially prone to, and, in most cases, is even proud of! I feel this happens mainly because some essential knowledge is lacking.
We are not our Thoughts
Indian wisdom says that there is no suffering apart from thoughts. It also says that we are not our thoughts and feelings, but the underlying pure, joyful awareness – satchitananda. It is truly a pity that we tend to identify so strongly with insubstantial thoughts on the surface of our being and suffer unnecessarily. The advice is to stay as often as possible in pure awareness – thought-free, but aware, awake, alert. One should strive to free the awareness of useless mental activity. After all, if we are honest, we have to admit that most of our thinking is useless. Purposeful mental activity is a rather small percentage of what is going on in our mind. Even our thinking gets refined if we stay more and more often in pure awareness, in a realm of no-thought: it is the realm from where intuition and true maturity arises which gives a ‘stand’ in life which is not as shaky as borrowed opinions. This stand has room for opinions, which may or may not be expressed forcefully. But there is no room for hostility or defensiveness.
There is only one difficulty now: we are so used to incessant thinking, that we just don’t know how to stop it.
Sages give a helpful hint: be a witness, be aware that you are thinking, be aware that you are defending your opinion and resisting those of others. Be present. Know what is going on. In this way, one naturally stops taking one’s thinking so seriously. Lightness will come about instead.
In this connection, an episode from my early years in India comes to my mind: It was in Dehradun. I had an Englishman as a neighbor who loved to argue as most Westerners do. He was highly knowledgeable, and held strong opinions on every issue, and was convinced that these opinions were the only reasonable ones.
And I, being a Westerner, too, was, of course, sure that my opinions were the only reasonable ones, so we often had heated arguments.
One day, an old friend of his, a former raja of a small state and very much a gentleman, came visiting, and my neighbor called me over. As usual, he started discussing politics in a provocative manner. I watched the two men, and was so amazed that I forgot to take part in the discussion. To whatever my neighbor said, the raja either smiled or nodded calmly a few times, or simply said, “You are right.” Obviously, he was not the ideal partner for political arguments. So my neighbour changed the topic and became more personal. “What do you get out of this pooja you do before breakfast?” he challenged. There was just a smile. “Why do you have to chant prayers from a book? Can’t you make them up yourself?” he continued. There was a smile and some nodding. Soon, this topic also petered out.
I was impressed with the raja, and felt his behavior was ingenious, worth copying. Neither did he put up any resistance to what was said, nor did he feel the need to express his own views. Maybe he thought it was a waste of energy. He remained calm, cool, and peaceful.
Food for Thought
I remembered my student days in Hamburg. Seated over Turkish, Greek or Italian food, we used to have heated discussions on how to solve the problems of this world. Almost every table of the restaurant hosted such discussions. We thought we were very intellectual, and if we didn’t solve those problems, who would? It didn’t occur to us that having opinions did not really solve problems. It more likely added to them. We didn’t like it, for example, if somebody didn’t agree with us. We took it quite personally, and started a mental fight. And when we finally left the restaurant, we were hungry again.
Of course, I forgot my resolve to copy the raja’s behavior, and continued to be my usual argumentative self.
Many months later in Mussoorie, an elderly Canadian woman saw me typing and asked what I was writing. I told her that I wrote about ancient Indian wisdom for a German magazine. She wasn’t pleased. “How can you do this? You have the best of all religions and you betray it?” the lady admonished me. As it turned out, she was a retired missionary, and had lived most of her life in India. I was ready to defend my position, and was sure that the better arguments were on my side. After all, Indian wisdom is universal, and only after I became familiar with it did I understand and appreciate also what Jesus said. So I got ready.
“Have you ever read any Indian scripture like the Bhagavad Gita?” I wanted to know first.
“Of course not!” pat came the reply.
The speed with which she had answered and the ‘of course’ before the not irritated me greatly. I felt indignation at so much arrogance rising, when suddenly the raja and his smiling, calm and gentle face came to my mind. This cooled me down immediately. To my own surprise I might have even smiled (just a smile, not an arrogant smile) when in reply I said – nothing.
The lady probably thought that I had already run out of arguments. It didn’t matter. I was pleased with my newly found, energy conserving and peaceful behavior.
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