Can Meditation Really Help the World?
By Eknath Easwaran
By Eknath Easwaran
Frequently asked questions answered by Eknath Easwaran.
I do not have a trace of pessimism in me, yet I have the capacity for almost infinite resistance. My constant question is, am I doing my best in the situation? Am I doing everything possible to correct it? Then there is no question of failure.
Nobody suffers like the lovers of God, because they are one with others in their suffering. But they are granted an equal measure of joy, too, because God gives them the capacity to help.
I keep in close touch with what happens in the world. I read a wide assortment of periodicals each week just to do so. And there are times when I feel deeply grieved by the suffering I read about, and I wonder why life has to be this way. But I never despair. At those times I go deep, deep into meditation until I reach the very source of love and wisdom that exists in each of us. When I do, I am reassured that all is well.
This is not merely some sentimental notion. I return from this awareness charged with the energy and vision I need to continue to try to alleviate this suffering.
So what I would tell all of you is this: meditate every day, throw yourself into some form of selfless work, and use your sense of suffering as a powerful motivation to help relieve the suffering of others. It is a wonderful gift to be able to give.
In the Sanskrit scriptures, this world in which we live – of birth and death, good and evil, right and wrong, unity and disunity – is called karmabhumi, the land of karma, the land of work. When you feel oppressed by the burden of the world and the tragedies enacted on it, please remind yourself that it is only here, where we find the choice between the best and the worst, that the human being can discover the unity of life.
Strangely, it is in this utter darkness that we begin to grope for light; it is in the midst of utter violence that we begin to yearn for love.
My faith is that if a large number of people take to the practice of meditation and the repetition of the mantram, their intense longing may draw the Lord to inspire ordinary people like you and me to become humble instruments for bringing peace where there is war, food where there is famine, and life where there is death.
In order to reconcile individuals, communities, or countries, we have to have peace in our minds. If we pursue peace with anger and animosity, nothing can be stirred up but conflict.
As the UNESCO constitution puts it, “Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed.”
Our age has been called the age of anger, and it is true that we are living in one of the most violent periods in history. But there is no reason for anybody to be left to the mercy of these storms, whether they be physical or verbal, whether they happen on the streets, on the battlefield, or in the home.
Meditation and the allied disciplines enable you to take your convictions deeper and deeper into consciousness, so that they become a constant source of strength and security – even when you are severely challenged or threatened. I knew hundreds of students in India during Gandhi’s long struggle for independence from the British Empire. I met hundreds more in Berkeley during the turbulent sixties, when students all over the country were honestly trying to work for peace. I watched their relationships with one another, especially with those who differed with them, and I saw that these relationships often were not harmonious.
I used to remind my friends that agitating for peace and actually bringing it about are not necessarily the same. Stirring up passions, provoking animosity, and polarizing opposition may sometimes produce short term gains, but it cannot produce long term beneficial results because it only clouds minds on both sides. Progress comes only from opening others’ eyes and hearts, and that can happen only when people’s minds are calm and their fears allayed. It is not enough if one part of your personality says “No more war”; the whole of your personality should be nonviolent.
One of these students told me with chagrin that he once found himself using his fists to promote peace. Things just got out of control. “How did that happen?” he asked incredulously. I told him not to judge himself too harshly: the will to strike back is part of our biological heritage. Unless we have trained ourselves to harness our anger – to put it to work to heal the situation rather than aggravating it – it is monumentally difficult for most of us to resist the impulse to retaliate.
Though deeply drawn to Gandhi, I never participated in the Indian freedom movement because it would have come in the way of my spiritual search. My absorption in Gandhi was not in his politics or economics, which I admired, but to learn the secret of his transformation in character, conduct, and consciousness.
When I established the Blue Mountain Center of Meditation in 1961 with the help of my wife, Christine, there were a number of burning issues in the air. I had definite opinions on these topics from my spiritual perspective, and when asked about them I replied practically and persuasively, for I believe that a soft answer not only turneth away wrath but can be very much to the point also. In my books, too, I have expressed my convictions against war and violence, pollution of the environment, and slaughter of animals to provide food for human beings. But I have never forgotten that my goal is not to emphasize these concerns, but to teach meditation to all those who sincerely desire to realize God in their own consciousness.
Many years ago I remember a man on television demonstrating a chain reaction. He stood in a room filled with mouse traps, each of which would release two Ping Pong balls when sprung. At the blackboard he explained a little about uranium atoms being split by one neutron and releasing two. Then, without warning, he casually tossed a single Ping Pong ball into the traps. There was a snap, then a couple of other snaps, and in an instant, with a rattle like hail, the whole room was pelted with balls.
Our globe is like that today. One person in a chronic state of anger spreads anger everywhere. When many people live in this state, continually on the edge of resentment, frustration, and hostility, the harvest is violence everywhere – in our hearts, our homes, our streets and cities, between estranged races, factions, and nations.
Detachment can break this chain reaction. A cat is conditioned to leap on birds; it has no choice. A dog is conditioned to chase cats. But you and I are human; we have the capacity to choose our response. We can snap the chain of stimulus and response behavior by meeting resentment with patience, hatred with kindness, and fear with trust, in a sustained consistent endeavor to stanch the spread of violence that threatens us all. Through meditation, as our minds become calmer and self will fades, detachment comes and our vision clears. Only then can we see that most of the obstacles to forgiving others do not arise from ideological or philosophical differences. Obstacles arise because we want to impose our way, our self will, on others, and they want to impose their self will on us. Seeing this clearly goes a long way toward releasing forgiveness.
But something more than clear seeing is required, and that is the will. It takes a good deal of inner strength to remain calm and compassionate in the face of fierce opposition. But when you can do this, a kind of miracle takes place which all of us can verify. The other person becomes calmer, his or her eyes clear a little too; soon communication is established once again.
When I read newspaper accounts of individuals, factions, and governments unleashing provocative words and actions against each other at the same time they are trying to settle their differences, I am reminded of the wise statement attributed to Mahatma Gandhi that an eye for an eye only makes the whole world blind. These tragic confrontations are caused by utter forgetfulness of the deep unity that underlies all petty differences of religion, ethnicity, language, or national identity – a forgetfulness that leads to never-ending violence, war, and destruction. Speaking as a spiritual teacher, let me humbly submit that a true and lasting peace can only come about through the awakening of a deep sense of shared humanity.
One of the worst effects of war, Gandhi often reminded us, is the destruction of compassion – and compassion is what makes us human. What is the cost of raising generations who have suffered through the agony of the battlefield? What kind of leaders will we create with our wars, and in what kind of world?
There can be no lasting peace until all the parties involved begin to repair the damage of “divide and conquer” with a compassionate principle of “unify and heal.” All of us have ninety percent in common, with only ten percent that is different. It requires dedication, stamina, and a certain artistry to build our relationships on the ninety percent that unites us all. We are then free to enjoy the ten percent difference. Though Gandhi’s trust was betrayed many times, and despite those who laughed at his guilelessness, he would say quietly that there is no power that works so swiftly, so silently, so directly as love in action.
In the mystical tradition it is said that the human appeal and the divine response go together. If we deepen our desire for God’s help by memorizing and using in meditation sublime testimonies of the highest qualities a human being can attain, we can bring into our daily lives the deep faith and unshakable security of the great mystics of all religions.
By training our attention on magnificent testimonies such as the Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi (“Where there is hatred, let me sow love”), or the Twin Verses of the Compassionate Buddha (“Hatred can never put an end to hatred, love alone can”), or the twelfth chapter of Gandhi’s beloved Bhagavad Gita (“That one I love who is incapable of ill will and returns love for hatred”), we can become what we meditate on. Through this method of meditation we will begin to understand that a human being can become an immense spiritual force barely contained in a physical form.
No evil is necessary. War takes place so long as we support it. When we truly do not want war on earth any more, we can establish everlasting peace; nobody makes war but we ourselves.
There are many people who will say that it is human nature to hate, to fight, and to kill, but the mystics say this is the law of the beasts. Having become human beings, we have risen above this law. Any human being who hates, who uses violence, who kills, according to the mystics, has one back to the level of an animal. Living in harmony with all our family, our society, all forms of life – is the truth of life, and this truth alone can support us.
Ends and means are like fruit and seed: each grows from the other. If peace is the end, it must be pursued through peaceful means. Violence only provokes hatred, which brings more violence in its wake. Mahatma Gandhi declared with his life that wrong means can never bring about right ends – just as, in the long run, right means cannot help but bring about right ends.
The main reason we have not been able to establish peace in the world today is that we have been using wrong means. The very theory of the balance of power – or, as it was called during the Cold War, the balance of terror – contradicts the unity of life. You try to frighten me more, I try to frighten you more, and we call it peace if neither side attacks! Economic sanctions, manipulating other countries’ food supply, selling arms, under mining the freedom of other people to lead their own lives – all these are wrong means, whatever end we intend to achieve by them. Therefore their results are tainted, as transient as writing on water.
Yesterday at the beach I saw an elaborate castle made of sand. When we returned after a long, brisk walk, the waves had washed everything away. That is what happens to even the best efforts to bring peace to the world when we do not use right means: understanding, sympathy, education, respect. This applies in all human situations, at all levels from individual to international.
When statesmen and politicians view other nations through the distorting lens of hatred and suspicion, the policies they come up with only keep the fires of hostility smoldering. Jesus gave us a path that matches means to ends: “Do good to them that hate you.” This should be the basis even of foreign policy. There is no surer route to building trust and dispelling fear, the prime mover behind all arms races.
Because we see as we are, not only are our policies backward but our priorities are upside down. We long for peace but work for war, often under the label of defense. That is where the time, talent, and resources of some of our “best and brightest” go. Being a scientist is a tremendous responsibility. If just half a dozen top scientists from the research laboratories of great universities should withdraw their support from work that serves military purposes, it would be a tremendous contribution to peace.
As I write this, more than thirty major wars are raging. Many of the fiercest are not wars of one army against another, but fratricidal attempts by members of one religion, one sect, one race, one ethnic group, to destroy another completely.
To have peace we must learn to see where we stand on common ground, beginning with certain basic truths: that people in all countries are essentially the same, whatever governments happen to be in power, and that neither side threatens the other as much as this kind of conflict threatens them both.
My grandmother was born into the kshatriya caste – the caste that provided ancient India’s fiercest warriors. She often reminded me of the distinguishing mark of a kshatriya: no matter how desperate the battle, there will be no wounds on his back. She taught me that every human being is born to fight like this, with the utmost courage and endurance.
Yet she never neglected to add that when we fight others we always lose. When the smoke clears, she would say, we will have lost a potential friend and gained an enemy. But each time we fight against the forces that hold us down and keep us from loving, we draw a little closer to the rest of life.
The terrorism that has become almost commonplace in many parts of the world should be proof enough that when we battle others – whether for pride or profit or possessions – all we win are enemies. Happiness built on the suffering of others will not last long; when our power fades, as it eventually must, we reap a bitter harvest of ill will, resentment, and revenge.
But when the battle is waged within, against the forces of anger and selfishness we find in our own hearts, even our smallest triumph benefits the whole world. The energy, courage, and clarity released make us a dynamic force for good: the power of such a person is not divided by five billion competitors but multiplied by five billion friends.
To change course like this, we human beings have to learn to talk to each other even when our opinions differ. No problem is insoluble if we are prepared to sit down and listen respectfully to what the other person has to say.
This is true not only in the home but in areas of international friction as well. As Winston Churchill put it, “It is better to jaw, jaw, jaw than war, war, war.” I think many of our troubles, from personal quarrels to global conflicts, can be attributed to our inability to put aside resentments about the past and focus with clarity and common sense on the problem at hand.
In international affairs as in individual relationships, when we slip and offend one another or say thoughtless things, it helps to remember that making mistakes is all part of living and learning. Meditation can give us the capacity to learn from those mistakes and to put them behind us.
I am respectful of governments, but I have no illusion that peace will come through their efforts. It is governments that have got us into this dilemma, with our support; now it is we, the people, who must take the lead in insisting on a wholly different approach. It is not first-strike capacity but first-trust capacity that we should be pursuing with all our might. It would cost a good deal less, and it would release economic and human resources into the bargain. Isn’t this the message that Jesus’ life conveys? Each one of us, by establishing peace in our minds and practicing it in all our relationships, can hasten the day when peace will reign on earth.
If each of us, through the example of our own lives, can inspire two more people every year to meditate and to live at peace with those around them, it will have an incalculably great effect in creating a climate of peace. That is my ambition, and that is why I say I am a terribly ambitious man. You and I make peace. You and I make war. It all depends on us.
This article is an excerpt from the Spring 2015 Blue Mountain Journal.