The Ticket Inspector
By Eknath Easwaran
By Eknath Easwaran
The orbit in which our minds travel lies well outside the realm of words. It encompasses regions populated by those elusive things we call thoughts, which come and go like the faintest of shadows. Yet though they are often too elusive to hold and identify, thoughts leave indelible traces on our lives. For this reason, getting hold of the mind is a strategic undertaking, fraught with difficulties and startling discoveries but well worth the effort.
Often we can grasp the workings of the mind more easily by drawing a parallel with some more tangible thing. A couple of days ago it struck me that the mind has a great deal in common with a crowded train station. New York has Grand Central Station; in India I am most familiar with Madras Central, well down on the southeastern coast. Madras Central is vast. As soon as you enter the upper deck you see two huge boards, arrivals and departures. From that vantage point you can look on as thousands of travelers descend to the terminal floor to board trains for many parts of India and points beyond.
The Grand Trunk Express runs to Delhi, the nation’s capital, a distance of over a thousand miles. The Calcutta Mail travels the length of India’s eastern coast. The Bombay Mail cuts across the heart of the subcontinent; the Rameshwaram Express goes to the southern tip. The Bangalore Mail travels west to Mysore, and the Malabar Express goes to my native state of Kerala on the western coast. And I must not omit the Blue Mountain Express, which travels to Mettupalayam at the foot of the Nilgiris or Blue Mountain, where I later made my home. With all these expresses and many more local trains, called shuttles or passengers, Madras Central is quite a busy junction.
The scene in the mind is very much like this. When you descend below the surface level of consciousness, it is almost as if you see the same two big boards: arrivals and departures. On the arriving trains come physical cravings, messages from sense stimuli, annoyances from the environment; every train is full to capacity. At the far end, the departing trains are full of responses. This too is a very busy junction; arrivals and departures are scheduled every moment.
Why is the schedule of arrivals so full? Because we have taken great pains to lay down incoming sense-ways in highly regular routes. Stimulation from food, for instance – regular or meter gauge – arrives every couple of hours; thoughts of sex, mostly broad gauge, arrive on a moment’s notice. Quite a number of minor sensations too try to hitch rides on the trains that ply these tracks. And most often they succeed, for the engineers rather enjoy making unscheduled stops.
If this is our situation, there is no reason to blame ourselves. Most of us have become conditioned to heavy sense traffic throughout our present life, and perhaps, according to Hinduism and Buddhism, for thousands and thousands of years. The routes have become fixed. Electronic signals have been installed to speed sensations along, so that as soon as a car is put on the tracks, it goes. Everything is automated; there is no longer any need for an engineer. As soon as our day begins, all the traffic in the direction of what we are pleasantly used to is routed right in, and the rest is conveniently sidetracked. That is why it is so difficult for us to exercise any serious control over our thoughts.
Trains in India offer three classes of service. First class is for the affluent. Second is used primarily by professional people. Third class, for the most part, is occupied by simple village folk. Mahatma Gandhi always traveled third class, even though the government tried to provide him with private carriages, because he wanted to identify himself completely with the masses of Indian people he was serving. When a reporter asked him why he insisted on traveling third class, he replied with his characteristic toothless smile, “Because there is no fourth.”
Similarly, whenever I talk about railway travel in India, I am talking about travel third class. It is in the third-class car that you really get the sense of fellowship that makes trains so enjoyable. You not only get to see beautiful scenery, you get camaraderie too.
When you purchase a ticket at Madras Central, you go past a little gate to have it punched by an inspector. Then you enter your carriage and take your seat. Third-class carriages are crowded; even the luggage racks are sometimes occupied by human beings. From what I have observed, sleeping in a luggage rack requires a fine sense of balance, and the capacity to wake up at a moment’s warning if you catch yourself starting to fall. To add to the merriment, sometimes a wedding party of twenty or thirty will enter the carriage and begin celebrating right there and then. All in all, third class is an animated scene.
Indians are a talkative people. As soon as you sit down, someone is likely to ask, “Where are you from?”
You say, “L.A.”
“How many brothers and sisters do you have?”
This may seem a little personal, but you don’t want to be unfriendly. “Two brothers and one sister.”
“What is your salary?”
Here most foreigners get taken aback. From what they have read in travel columns, they are afraid someone is going to bite their ear or demand half a month’s pay. But the questioner is not really prying into personal affairs; this kind of exchange is part of being friendly. “Nobody in Pinole has asked me this question in the entire twenty years I’ve lived there,” you may say to yourself. Maybe few people have cared enough to ask. Besides, if you do not care to reveal that you earn only six hundred dollars a month, you can answer, “Two hundred dollars a day.” It does not matter; these are just well-meant attempts to make conversation.
Then, before the train pulls out, vendors come up to the windows. Their cries of “Chaya, kappi, chaya, kappi” – “Tea, coffee, tea, coffee” – fill the air. They also bring around a kind of Indian pretzel that is even more pretzely than those I have tried in this country. Tea and these pretzels is a combination few can resist; even if they are not hungry, most people feel tempted to have some. Finally, at long last, the guard gives the signal that the train is about to depart.
In the days when I traveled on Indian trains, it sometimes seemed that more people traveled without tickets than with. This was not only understandable, it made for a very interesting situation. Once the train started to move, all kinds of people began coming in – from the luggage racks, out of the restrooms.
Often they managed to occupy seats intended for ticketholders. More and more of them would squeeze onto the benches, with the result that there was not room for everybody to sit. At such times I would quietly get up and stand in a corner. I had an accommodating nature, and I decided that if these people wanted my place, even though I held a ticket, who was I to say no? I didn’t really mind standing.
But then one or two of these free travelers would start singing. They seldom had trained voices or a classical repertoire, and when they went around afterwards to ask for contributions, I thought people paid partly for services rendered and partly to get them to stop. Even to my accommodating mind, this was pushing things too far.
Fortunately, the trains employed an interesting figure called the ticket inspector. His job was to go around systematically and check each passenger’s ticket. One student does not have a ticket at all; another, also ticketless, tries to elude the inspector’s watchful eye and fails. Then it turns out that a third fellow’s ticket expired several stations back. So the inspector says, “At the next station, you three leave.” It is done politely, gently, with a parting “God bless you,” but at the next stop all three are ejected.
We run into much the same situation with our departing thoughts. Good will has a ticket. Compassion, forgiveness, love, wisdom, are all qualified travelers with lifetime passes. But ill will, jealousy, impatience, greed, and resentment have no tickets. They should never be allowed on our trains. The only problem is that we do not know what to do about them. A train of thought starts out all in order, with our blessing. But as soon as it gets out of sight of the station, all sorts of odd characters appear on the scene. We can hardly believe some of the things they lead us to say and do. They occupy the most prominent seats and raise such a racket that we sometimes suspect we have no legitimate passengers at all.
Meditation functions much like a ticket inspector, polite but very firm. While Mr. Greed is sitting in the front row taking in the view, our inspector comes and asks for his ticket. If Greed hasn’t got a ticket – and it never can – the inspector says pointedly, “We are about to make an unscheduled stop. There is the door, invitingly open.” If Mr. Greed does not take the hint, he will give a friendly push to “speed the parting guest.”
We can all learn to do this. When negative thoughts come, we can take them to the door in meditation without getting the least bit agitated and tell them firmly, “Please go.” This is a tremendous feat, tremendous in its difficulty as well as in its implications. But all great spiritual teachers tell us, “We have learned this; you can learn to do it too.”
When we face a difficult situation, contemporary psychology tells us that we have two choices: fight or flight. Here I beg to differ. We may not exercise it, we may not even know of it, but we have a third alternative: to put ticketless travelers off the train. Then the ticket inspector can give their seats to thoughts we desire: understanding, patience, equanimity, good will. Instead of reacting against others, we can choose how we respond. When someone is hostile, we can listen patiently and answer honestly without going on the attack or the defense.
The Bhagavad Gita calls this precious capacity detachment. The term is widely misunderstood. We do not get detached from others; that is insensitivity. We get detached from ourselves, from our own ego, by gaining control over the thoughts with which we respond to life around us.
If this is essential to spiritual awareness, it is equally essential even for physical health. When you get angry at somebody, for example, your arteries are constricted. This is not a result of getting angry or a characteristic of getting angry; constricted arteries are part of what getting angry means. Therefore your blood pressure rises, and your heart has to work harder; these are part of anger too.
When you are young, of course, after the spasm of anger is over, arteries and heart come back to normal. But when you get angry or hostile many times, as most of us do in today’s high-pressure world, the heart suffers. Heart muscles need a continuous supply of blood. They suffer slow starvation when arteries are constricted or blocked up, and critical problems ensue. A good deal of this damage is caused by our not knowing how to stay detached and therefore patient – in other words, by not knowing how to keep ticketless travelers like anger off the trains.
We can be kind, patient, and selfless on a sustained basis only if we cultivate detachment. And just as anger and resentment can damage the arteries in the long run, I would hazard the guess that sustained kindness, patience, and selflessness can protect against and even reverse arterial disease. Two brilliant San Francisco cardiologists, Drs. Friedman and Rosenman, say in so many words that in serious cardiovascular problems, the outcome depends not so much on what the doctor is able to do for the patient as on what the patient is able to do for himself. All of us can do a great deal to improve our health by keeping our mind on an even keel; that is what detachment means.
I would even go so far as to say, on the basis of what I myself have experienced, that we can reverse any negative tendency in our personality by refusing to let negative thoughts have their way. This is a far-reaching statement, for it means that positive thoughts are already on board the train. All we have to do is make sure their places are not usurped. Love, for example, is our nature. In a sense we do not have to make ourselves loving; we have only to remove the thoughts that keep love from taking its proper place. This is why I say detachment gives you the capacity to love everybody. When you can regulate your thoughts, you do not simply react to people; your relationships are of your own choice.
When I was a boy, if a friend got angry with me, my spiritual teacher used to ask, “So what? What reason do you have for getting angry with him? What is the connection?” I heard this from her lips so many times that I began to apply it. Nowadays when somebody confides in me, “He’s angry with you!” I say, “So what? Let him be angry; I can forgive.” It helps me and him alike. If I can even take a few steps closer to him, our friendship will become that much surer.
Many people, after trying this, come to me later on and exclaim, “I never imagined it was so hard!” Nothing is harder. Whoever tells you that detachment is “as easy as drinking water,” as we say in my mother tongue, knows very little about the mind. Nothing is more difficult; nothing calls for greater daring. But once people understand what detachment can do for them, they clamor for the glory of the spiritual life. Then previous exploits look like fireflies on a sunny day.
There is another compelling reason for learning to control thoughts: our thoughts actually shape our lives. We just cannot get rid of them. Every thought we think leaves an indelible impression on our consciousness. That is why none of us can afford not to be vigilant when it comes to the mind. Every thought counts. Each angry thought we think contributes to our becoming the type who may fly into a rage at the slightest provocation – just as each kind thought we think contributes to our becoming the type who can be kind in the face of the fiercest provocation.
Here the expression “train of thought” is apt. Even on the neurological level, I think, a thought may be said to run along a track laid down in the mind, from stimulus to response. Someone gets angry with us and the train steams out of the station, picking up angry thoughts all along the line. When it reaches its destination, everyone piles out and delivers a lot of vituperative words. There is no freedom in this; the train mechanically follows the track of our conditioning.
If it went more slowly, we would see that the connections it makes as it speeds along are not fixed or predetermined. We have many unsuspected switches leading to different, kinder responses. But they are frozen from disuse, and we are traveling too fast to see them. If we tried to take these switches while the mind is rushing, we might derail the train.
First the mind must be slowed down, which is one of the aims of meditation. Then, gradually, we start urging our thoughts down tracks never taken before – new ways of thinking, speaking, and behaving, which for a while may go against all our previous conditioning.
Going with conditioning is easy. A conditioned train of thought has all the momentum of a freight train rolling downhill; you just put it on the track at the top and it rushes to its lowest level without effort. Going against the conditioning of a strong samskara feels like trying to push the whole train uphill by yourself. But you are not without help. In India, when a train has to climb to hill stations like those on the Blue Mountain where my mother and I lived, six or seven thousand feet high, an additional engine is attached at the rear to push. Meditation and its related disciplines are like this extra engine.
While the mind is complaining, “I don’t like this! I can’t do that!” and the body is registering a varied list of psychosomatic complaints, a powerful engine is being hooked on the back. Slowly it begins to push us up over what we have conditioned ourselves to dislike in a person, until we can see him or her in a detached light. Interestingly enough, the light of detachment is not cold. When all self-interest is removed from our seeing, we look on everyone with love.
Indian trains have various signs put up for the passengers’ information. One I used to see in every car announced seats forty – though usually a student would long since have removed the first s. Similarly, each car had a chain with a prominent red sign: to stop the train, pull the chain.
Wherever saints and sages have traveled, they have left us such a chain: the mantram. Every day we can tug on it a little to slow down the pace of our rampaging thoughts. For years this will be a mechanical repetition. But as our dedication to the spiritual life deepens, our use of the mantram will begin to have power behind it, the power of deepening devotion to the Lord. In an emergency, those few words will express all the need for support, strength, and comfort we have.
Isn’t there a film called The Great Train Robbery? Mystics tell us about the Great Train Stoppery. For many years, to draw on my own experience, I have been repeating the mantram my grandmother gave me with a tenacity that most people cannot imagine. I made use of every possible moment, because I wanted so deeply to bring my thoughts under my control. Gradually I was able to slow down the furious rush of the mind until it would take whatever switches I chose.
If it started out toward resentment, I could switch it over to compassion. If it began with fear, I could switch to fearlessness. And finally I experienced for the first time the stopping these sages talk about. I could not believe that such a sweet silence was real. The clack-clack-clacking of the mind came to a halt; the tumult of the vendors and ticketless travelers died away. All that remained was an utter, rejuvenating silence. That is what stilling the mind is all about.
In the countryside near where I live there used to be a flourishing railway, largely for the use of the lumber industry. Now industry is elsewhere, and nothing remains of the railway but a few scattered ties. Similarly, the mantram tears up all the conditioned routes in consciousness, where traffic has been going back and forth automatically. When these tracks are removed, our thoughts are free to travel wherever we choose. Then we can step into the most flammable situation and keep our mind kind, peaceful, and compassionate – all that is required to resolve the crises that threaten our world today.