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The Ascent to Moksha
by Swami Krishnananda

Discourse 6: Self-Control is the Essential Nature of Consciousness

As we saw last time, the very structure of life calls for self-control on the part of ourselves. The need for self-control arises on account of a tendency of the personality and of things in general. The usual makeup of the human system is such that it has a tendency to express itself, rather than retain itself in any given condition. The growth of the body is also attributable to this tendency within us. It is not merely the body that grows. Everything within us and everything of which we are constituted changes, grows, and tends to realise a condition beyond itself. The personality of the human being is a very complex structure, and its expressional habit is the reason why we should exercise self-control. If this control over the self is not to be exercised, we would be giving a long rope to this habit which compels us to go beyond ourselves, to cross limits of decency and break the boundaries of etiquette.

Now, to put the question concerning self-restraint precisely, what happens to us when we restrain ourselves, and what happens to us when we do not have any restraint over ourselves? What happens when we lose control over ourselves is that there is a gradual tendency to disintegration of what we call our own selves. The tendency to disintegrate is very disadvantageous to the stability of our individuality and our personality. All that tends to disintegrate is also a tendency to break the stability of the personality. We get distracted, and feel as if we are not ourselves. We seem to be different things at different moments of time, not having any continuity of thought, emotion or feeling due to the fact that our personality gets distracted.

Self-control is the opposite of self-distraction. The process of distraction is that peculiar activity of the personality on account of which consciousness gets identified with bits of process. Our personality is a process, and cannot be identified with a stable being. What we call the personality is only a description of our individuality. It is a definition of what we bodily are. It is a contour painted over the substantiality of our individual being. When this personality, this individuality of ours – which is different from a stable existence or being, but a complexity of processes – attracts the attention of consciousness, there is a difficulty created for us.

Now, this 'us', the term used, is a difficult thing to understand. What do we mean by saying 'I', 'we' or 'us'? It is, again, a complexity of consciousness, as far as practical life is concerned. We do not mean pure consciousness or pure bodily substance. The body as such has no life. It is inert, like a corpse, when divested of intelligence. Nor do we identify ourselves with mere consciousness when we refer to ourselves in the social life of the world. So this practical 'we', the utilitarian 'I', is a complex structure, a joint activity, a network or a coming together in a very strange manner of consciousness and matter.

Matter is not a substance in the sense of a solid something. It is a powerful conglomeration of forces, and it never rests in a given condition for more than a single moment. This transitional character of material substance throughout the world is also the character of the material out of which our body is made. As the world is, so the body of the human being is. Everything changes and, therefore, the bodily substance also changes. With this change, consciousness gets identified. So there is a consciousness of change, or a changing consciousness, to put it more correctly. We begin to have a notion that we are changeful beings subject to distinction, difference and growth, etc., really, in the bottom of our personality, and we never for a moment think that what changes is different from consciousness, and what causes the idea or the notion of change is consciousness.

Our conviction that we are subject to change, that we are processes, transitional links in a chain of development, this notion in our mind is due to the character of intelligence or consciousness implanted in us. But for that, there would be no awareness of anything whatsoever. That is one side of the matter. But that there is change, that there is transition or a complexity of structure, is a notion arisen on account of the juxtaposition of material characters with consciousness which is not subject to transition or change of any kind. This peculiar complex is human nature. It is not pure consciousness; it is not pure matter. Or, to put it in the language of the Kathopanishad, ātmendriya-mano-yuktam bhoktety āhur manīṣiṇaḥ (Katha 1.3.4): The wise regard the human being as a complex of Atman, the senses and the mind. Three factors brought together into a focus of activity constitute the human personality, or human nature.

Now, these three factors mentioned in the Kathopanishad – the Atman, the mind and the senses – represent the principle of consciousness, the principle of change or transition, and the principle of objectivity and activity. The character of Atman, the character of Purusha, the character of what is really at the basis of our personality is consciousness. The character of what we call thought or mind is shifting itself from one centre to another, never resting in one condition; it is activity of a subtle nature. But when this activity becomes gross and gets tied to objects outside, it goes by the name of the senses. The senses are, really speaking, the mind working. The senses are not completely different from the structure or substance of the mind.

To give an idea as to what the senses are in relation to the mind, we can give a small example, a comparison or an analogy. Just imagine there is a pot. It may be a vessel made of earth or some metal, whatever it is. There is a powerful lamp burning inside the pot. The pot has five holes. These holes have five different lenses: one convex, one concave, one coloured, one not coloured, one of this nature, one of that nature. Five different structural patterns of lens are placed at the entrance of the five apertures in the vessel, or we may say, five different patterns of prism placed at the five holes of the pot. The powerful lamp that is placed inside the pot sheds its rays, or its lustre, and passes through the five lenses outside, and impinges on whatever is near the objects that are outside. But the light will be distorted when it passes through the five different patterns of lens. You know very well how light rays get deflected into various patterns when they pass through a prism, a peculiar structure of lens or glass. Various patterns of lens can deflect light rays in various manners, but these deflected forms of the light rays are attributable to the structure of the lenses rather than to the nature of the light itself. Nevertheless, it is the light that is seen, and not the lenses. So you know how the lenses play a very important role in colouring or giving an idea of the external object which they illumine through the light rays passing through them, and you also know what role light itself plays in illumining the object.

Such is the internal relationship that seems to be there among the three principles: the Atman, the mind, and the senses. The Atman is transcendent consciousness, with which we are practically not concerned in our day-to-day life because that peculiar 'we', the personality, is the mental structure, and not the Atman that we metaphysically speak of. The mind, projecting itself through the apertures of the senses, gives a false picture of objects on account of the structure of the senses, which vary from one another.

With all these peculiarities of structure in the mind and the senses, there is one common feature in the total personality, which is the tendency to express and never be stable or rest in itself. This peculiar feature of our nature, which will not allow us to rest in ourselves but makes us restless and compels us to think different thoughts at different moments of time, is what we call the rajasic character of personality. The material structure of the cosmos which philosophy calls as prakriti is constituted of three strands, as they say, sattva, rajas and tamas. It is the rajasic character of prakriti that is responsible for the expressional habit of the personality and the restlessness that we experience in our daily life. We sit, and when we are tired of sitting too much, we want to stand. We cannot stand too long because we get tired of standing and then want to sit. We cannot go, we cannot sit, we cannot stand, we cannot think, we cannot do anything continuously on account of the rajas of prakriti that introduces itself in every little activity of our life.

Do you know that you cannot continuously be doing anything in this world? Neither can you be looking at something forever, nor can you be hearing something forever, nor can any particular sense activity go on continuously, because continuity is a character of sattva, discontinuity is a character of rajas, and whenever there is discontinuity of any kind of effort, we may take it for granted that rajas is working rather than sattva. Sattva is stability, and the opposite of it is rajas; and when rajas takes possession of our personality, we lose control over ourselves. Control is the work of sattva. Absence of control is the work of rajas.

So the one peculiar, invisible power in us which makes us lose control over ourselves and makes us restless is rajas. If we cannot have control over our own self, what control can we exercise over anything else in the world? It is absolutely impossible because the root of any effort is our personality, and the greatest effort that we can exercise is to control, to regulate, to discipline or to restrain ourselves. On the basis of the exercise that we have over our own nature, we can extend that exercise over the external nature. It may be the nature of other persons and things or of the world as a whole in general. But when that exercise is lacking in our own selves, it cannot be exercised over other persons or things in the world.

There is no chance of control of any kind in respect of the external world or persons when self-control is lacking. “Why?” is the question. The reason is that self-control is the essential nature of consciousness. The absence of it is contrary to its nature. Stability is the nature of consciousness. Distraction of any kind is not the nature of consciousness. Consciousness is not distracted. It appears to be distracted on account of its association with distracted prakriti, which is preponderating in rajas for the time being. Consciousness has befriended itself with that which cannot rest in itself at any time. Prakriti is compared to a moving wheel, a rotating something which never rests in itself, like the wheel of a car. The spokes of the wheel may said to be the three gunas – sattva, rajas and tamas – of prakriti. Just imagine that there is a wheel of a car with three spokes, and the car is run with great speed. The spokes also move in such rapidity that we may not be even able to see their motion.

In physics there is something called Newton's disc. It is a round plate of tin or some metal, painted with seven different colours, and rotated with tremendous rapidity by electric power. The seven colours will not appear at all before the eyes, and only one colour is seen. The vidjor will vanish, and we will have only a white colour visible before our eyes on account of the rapidity of the motion of the disc.

Something like that happens when the three gunas of prakriti move rapidly. When a car moves very fast, the spokes of the wheels cannot be seen. It will look that they are not moving at all. They will appear to be static. But they are not static, as we know very well. So quickly they move, the spoke that is above comes down and that which is down goes up. But all this happens with such velocity that our eyes cannot catch the speed of the movement. So there is an illusion of stability or staticness of the wheels.

When the gunas of prakriti – sattva, rajas and tamas – move rapidly, more rapidly than the eyes can catch, there is an illusion of stability of objects. Things look permanent in the world on account of this rapidity of the motion of prakriti, the gunas, while they are tremendously moving, vehemently changing their position from moment to moment. Extreme motion looks like no motion. Tremendous activity looks like no activity. You can visualise only feeble activity, lesser motion, and not tremendous speed or velocity in action. The movement of the gunas of prakriti is so rapid that the structure of the sense organs is not fitted to catch the speed of their motion. So before the senses, an illusion of stability of objects is created; the mind, which only plays second fiddle to the senses, okays whatever is told by the senses, and the mind also believes that the objects of the world are stable, but they are not. They are in motion. Nothing in the world is permanent, and nothing rests in itself; everything moves, and everything is in a state of motion.

Consciousness is tethered on to this motion, or threefold activity of prakriti, in the form of sattva, rajas and tamas, and a peculiar illusion of consciousness is created. Consciousness itself begins to feel that it is in motion on account of its togetherness with the motion of the gunas of prakriti. Then it is that we become restless. We remark that we are tired, hungry, thirsty, and so on. All these remarks that we make about ourselves are due to this association of the stable consciousness with the unstable processes of prakriti. That which moves is not consciousness, and that which moves is not prakriti. That which moves – action and movement and change – is consciousness, but that which moves and changes and acts is prakriti. There is a juxtaposition, a movement, a blending, and a mutual reflection of these two principles. Consciousness becomes restless. We are totally unhappy in our lives, miserable in our activities in daily life. Sometimes it looks that it is better that we do not live in this world because of this inability of our consciousness to distinguish its primeval nature of stability, permanency, immortality, from the transient character of the moving gunas of prakriti.

Now, coming to the point of self-control, it is the character of consciousness, as I said. Consciousness is stable, and if we would be stable in our nature, we would be true to the consciousness which we really are. If we are unstable in our conduct, we would be untrue to our real nature because any kind of distraction is contrary to and foreign to our essential nature. Our essential nature is purushattva, pure chaitanya, luminosity, self-awareness. More than that cannot be said about this nature. This self-awareness is of that nature which can be explained only by itself, and it cannot be defined by attributes that do not belong to itself. We cannot give a definition of consciousness in the way we define objects of the world. We cannot call it long and short, thin and stout, white and black, this and that, and so on, because all these definitions are due to the attributes that we transfer from the world of objects of sense.

No definition of consciousness is possible. It is what it is. There is only one thing which cannot be defined: that is consciousness. There is one thing which cannot be seen: it is consciousness. And there is only one thing which you really are: it is consciousness. Its principle character is stability, and awareness of itself. Loss of self-awareness is contrary to the nature of consciousness. To be aware of something other than what it is would be in opposition to the centrality of consciousness.

Now, what happens to us? We are always aware of what is not ourselves. Our whole day is spent in consciousness of objects, in the otherness of things. This is the cause of our restlessness. This is also the cause of why we fall asleep when the day ends. How long can we be other than what we are? We cannot be untrue for a long time. For some time we can get on with untruth, but not for our whole life. Truth will triumph, as they say. Satyameva jayate.

Truth is Self-consciousness, non-objectivity, and Self-awareness. But the whole of our day is spent in characters, natures, processes and activities which are opposed to this true nature of ours. The whole of the day is spent in the consciousness of other persons, other things, the world outside, activities concerned with space, time and causation, and this causes fatigue to consciousness. We get exhausted by untrue activity, processes which cannot be regarded as essential to consciousness or to our nature.

This is the reason why we fall back upon ourselves in deep sleep. In deep sleep, what happens is that we go back to ourselves by compulsion – not deliberately, of course. No one knows what happens to us. By a compulsion of the character of our nature, we are brought back to ourselves. And inasmuch as we are obstinately persistent in maintaining a consciousness of objects and refuse to go back to ourselves, we become unconscious when we go back to ourselves. So in sleep we are unconscious. It is a compulsory retirement of consciousness brought about by the necessity of nature, to which we are objecting daily; therefore, we are brought back as police handcuff a person and take him to prison, while he refuses to go there. This is what happens to consciousness when it goes to sleep. If we voluntarily go there, that would be liberation of the spirit, but we are brought there by force. We do not want to go there; therefore, what we do is, “You take me there? I will close my eyes. All right, you take me there. I will not see anything.” So we close our eyes when we go back to ourselves, and we see nothing. We go as fools, and we come back as fools, and once again the same daily activity of otherness of consciousness starts – exhausting, tiring, and chilling. The whole day and our whole life is spent in this manner.

This is to give an idea of the psychological background of the restlessness of human nature and the unhappiness that follows in its wake. It is so because our minimum of reality, the bottommost existence, the ultimate quintessence of reality of what we are, is consciousness, and it is irreconcilable with processes of any kind. It cannot be juxtaposed with transient movements of the gunas of prakriti; therefore, we have a feeling of tiresomeness and dissatisfaction with the surface view of things. Everyone is dissatisfied with life as a whole, irrespective of caste, colour, age or birth, due to this common malady of human nature which is entanglement of consciousness in processes which are irreconcilable with it. There is a war taking place in our own personality, a perpetual Mahabharata, as it were, due to which we are born with restlessness, live in restlessness, and die in restlessness.

But the freedom that we are seeking in life, the power that we want to exercise, the happiness that we are seeking in our activities and in our professions, etc., is an indication that perhaps we can be really independent of these compulsive processes. We need not be slaves of the gunas of prakriti. It is not necessary that we should be driven like donkeys. We have freedom in the essentiality of our nature, which we seem to have lost on account of bad company, company with the gunas of prakriti, which tell us something while the truth is something else.

Self-control is the masterstroke, the panacea, the remedy par excellence for rectifying this illness of our nature, and self-control is the remedy because it is the essential nature of consciousness. It is completely controlled in itself because it cannot be anything other than itself. Lack of self-control is a transference of the properties of consciousness to objects of sense. When we transfer characters of our consciousness to other objects, then we lose self-control. We become weak. Why do we become weak? Why is an incontinent person, or a person without self-control, weak? The reason is that the strength of consciousness has been divided among the objects of sense. It is like the strength of an undivided family. An undivided family has a strength of its own, but if the family is divided, with each brother having his own house, they are all weak. Anybody can exploit them and defeat them, or even attack them. But an undivided family has a strength which cannot easily be beaten. They are one power, one force.

Consciousness is a single, unitary power. Nothing can be equal in power and force. But when it apparently gets divided, by diversification, by division of its content through the objects of sense, then it becomes weak. Incontinence is nothing but the transference of consciousness to objects, and mistaking the objects for consciousness. As I mentioned last time, love and hatred, raga and dvesha, primarily speaking, are indications of lack of self-control. When there is affection for a particular setup of circumstances, naturally we have to exclude from the purview of consciousness features and characters which are external. This activity weakens the personality. Our strength is nothing but the strength of consciousness. It is not bodily strength that we call strength. Dig balam kshatriya balam brahma tejo balam balam (Valmiki Ramayana 1.56.23), said Vishvamitra when he was defeated by Vasishtha's brahma-tejas. The meaning of what Vishvamitra said was the power of consciousness is much more than the power of arms, the power of material resources, the strength of the body or any other power of the world.

Every power that is material can be put down by the power of consciousness. Another example is the Mahabharata. The choosing of a large army by Duryodhana and the choosing of one Krishna by Arjuna is another epic example of the superiority of consciousness over the material content of the world. A large army was nothing before one Krishna because it was consciousness over matter.

So is the philosophical outcome of our analysis of human nature. The more we are true to the nature of consciousness, the stronger we are in our lives; and the farther we are from the centre which is consciousness, the weaker we are in our personality and in our activities. When we are removed further from our centre, which is consciousness, we lack memory power and cannot concentrate on anything. We get irritated very quickly. We frown and pounce on people. All these are effects of weakness of nature consequent upon distraction of consciousness, which again is the outcome of the transference of the properties of consciousness to the objects of sense.

Self-control is again the remedy because self-control is the activity of consciousness, not the activity of the senses or of the limbs of the body. Self-control is not a physical activity; it is a conscious activity, an activity of consciousness, by which it inwardly frees itself step by step from the clutches of objectivity. The more we succeed in extricating consciousness from its contact with the objects of sense, the nearer we come into the truth of our personality, our being, and daily we grow in strength, in power, in radiance, in happiness, and so forth. This is what is called brahmavarchas or brahma-tejas in scriptural parlance. A brahmacharin, one who is continent, one who practises self-control, glows with a lustre in his face. A peculiar radiance emanates from him; an energy is contained in his personality. What is this? It is nothing but the coming back of consciousness to itself.

When consciousness returns to itself by the practice of self-control, it grows more and more powerful day by day, and when it is completed, when the practice is maximum, when the self-control is exhaustive and all-comprehensive, we become invincible throughout nature. An example is such a sage as Vasishtha. The whole power of the world could not shake his hair though he had no arms, guns, bombs, etc., with him. He had only himself, nothing else. His thought was such that the world could not stand against it. The power came from consciousness which was self-controlled, which Vishvamitra was lacking. He had raja-dvesha. He was subject to anger and fits of irritation, which was not a character of self-control, the embodiment of which was Vasishtha.

Sadhana is, primarily speaking, self-control. Where self-control lacks, there is no sadhana. We should not make the mistake of imagining that sadhana is an activity, a kind of ritual that you are performing from morning to night. It is not anything that you do in society that is called sadhana. It is not anything that you do visibly, not anything that you do bodily. It is your attitude, your feeling, and the satisfaction that you seem to be having in an increasing manner day by day that should be the touchstone of self-control.

There have been countless sadhakas. Wherever you go you will find seekers of truth, people who search after God, but you will rarely find people who are satisfied with what they have done. The satisfaction does not come. Whatever be the number of years that you have spent in your sadhana, japa, meditation, concentration, meditation, you are not a satisfied being. You are at unrest with yourself, and you sometimes feel so much restless in yourself that you are likely to transfer it upon others and criticise, condemn, and find fault with others. This is a malady, again. This is an illness, a psychopathic condition, where you criticise others while you have to criticise yourself. This is a danger which you have to steer clear from very, very carefully because in the process of sadhana, many psychological changes take place. We get obsessed many times, get prejudiced in many ways, and we become adamant and obstinate in our outlook, mistaking this attitude for truthfulness, honesty, and sincerity of purpose. This is the reason why we remain dissatisfied beings, notwithstanding our sadhana and the effort that we have been putting forth for years. Self-control is lacking. This is to give a simple answer to the large question of life.

And even where self-control is attempted, it is attempted in a wrong manner. It is made a kind of ostentatious practice. You tie a jetta or wear a single strip of cloth, and mortify yourself rather than restrain yourself. Make a distinction between self-restraint and self-mortification. Mortification is torture. Self-torture is not self-restraint. Self-restraint is health; self-torture is ill-health. You are not supposed to punish yourself, but you are supposed to exercise control over yourself.

Government is nothing but a principle of control, but it is not a principle of punishment. It is not meant to inflict pain on people. The very purpose of its existence is to exercise a principle of health over the attitudes of people. That is control. Control is health. It is not against nature or contrary to law. So we should carefully draw a distinction between suffering and self-control. When we are asked to control ourselves, we are afraid. “Oh, what a trouble, what a pain! What an inflicting of suffering on our personalities by this Guru who tells us to control ourselves.” To control yourself is not to punish yourself but to become more healthy in yourself and to grow in your strength – not only in strength and power, but also in satisfaction and happiness. The nearer you approach to your own self, the happier you become; and the farther you go from yourself, the more unhappy you are. Thus, a lack of self-control is unhappiness, and self-control is happiness.

To exercise self-control is to exercise that specific feature of consciousness as the guiding principle in your day-to-day life. This is a very difficult practice. Sadhana is a very difficult practice. “You may swallow fire, you may drink the ocean, but you cannot do sadhana,” says the Yoga Vasishtha, says Gaudapada Acharya and others. Do you know how difficult it is? You may drink the ocean and swallow fire itself, but you cannot control the mind. And what is self-control but that? Why can you not control the mind? Why is it that you cannot be self-restrained? The reason is, you have already lost control over yourself and you have sold yourself to somebody else. You no more exist in yourself. You are a bound slave of objects. A slave has no right over himself. He cannot assert his independence, because he has been sold. We have been sold to the objects. We belong to others. We have nothing in ourselves. We are empty, hollow things. This is why we find it so hard to exercise control over ourselves.

For the slave to realise that he is really independent is difficult. Perhaps he has been born as a slave; from childhood he has been owned by somebody. He has already been hypnotised into the belief that he belongs to somebody else. He can never for a moment think that he has an independence of his own. So is consciousness; it has been a slave of the objects of sense all the while, not merely in this life, but through ages, through aeons of life that we have passed through.

So it is that we are born weak. When we are born, we are born with certain hereditary weaknesses. We have no strength. We begin to cry from childhood itself, as if we are poor. Well, we may be poor in the social sense of the term, but are we also poor in our mind, in our spirits, in our thoughts, in our feelings, in our attitudes, in our understanding? We are poor even in our will, which is real poverty. Real poverty is poverty of understanding, poverty of will, poverty of the right attitude to things. And when the attitude is changed, rectified, brought to the proper order and made to work in a proper perspective, strength automatically comes. Things get drawn to the personality. You will even become economically rich, what to speak of spiritually. Things will be drawn to you automatically without your wanting them, without your asking for them, because of the magnetic personality that you have built upon yourself due to self-control. Like a magnet attracting things, you will begin to attract things. You will not be poor. Do not be afraid of that. You will be rich; the world will serve you, provided – a great provision indeed – that you are honest in the pursuit of truth, because truth triumphs.

Towards this end, hard effort is to be put forth, and we have to understand the very basis and purpose of self-control. First of all, it is not mortification. It has very little to do with body and human society. It has to do with consciousness only. It is a tuning of consciousness, and not a twisting of the body or a changing of the attitude of human society. It has nothing to do with externality. It is purely an internal process of consciousness, and therefore, it has always remained a very secret and inscrutable process.

We are likely to miss the point constantly in our life, every day, in this practice of self-control. Every day we will miss the point of concentration. We will not know what we have been doing and where we actually stand. It is, therefore, essential that we dedicate our life for this purpose and do not take it merely as a hobby. Self-control is not to be a mere hobby or a part of the activity of our life – at least, not the life of full-time seekers or sadhakas.

Self-deception is the greatest form of deception. It is worse than deceiving others because nothing can be worse than that. It is impossible to conceive anything worse than the situation where you have been duped by your own self. How can you rectify yourself?

So, many methods have to be employed in self-control. One method will not work. The world is very powerful, too powerful for us. To deal with it we have to handle various weapons inwardly, cautiously. These methods are actually the practical techniques of sadhana.

Today I have taken time merely to explain the background of self-control, the necessity for it, the difficulty in practising it, and the wonderful results that follow out of it. Next time I shall try to give an outline of the practices or techniques by which we can exercise control over ourselves and not be duped by ourselves. We must always be careful to see that our intelligence is not deluded, that our consciousness is not side-tracked, that it is not caught up by forces that are undivine. For this, a series of techniques have to be adopted, stage by stage of course, not suddenly; and of primary importance in all this effort is a self-dedication to this practice whole-heartedly. I am always reminded of the famous saying of Patanjali Maharshi in his sutra: If you want to establish yourself in this supremacy of power of consciousness, which is self-control, you have to wholly dedicate your life for it, and practise self-control for a protracted period without intermission of practice; daily it should be exercised, with great affection and love for it, as if it is the only child that is born to you. Your whole heart has to be in it. You have no other thought except of it. Day in and day out you are brooding over it, how to get at it, how to master it, how to exercise self-control, how to come back to your true nature, how to seek truth as it is.

With this short introductory remark I would like you to contemplate on these thoughts and see where you actually stand.