Training the Senses: The Power of Conditioning
By Eknath Easwaran
By Eknath Easwaran
Everybody, I think, values excellence. When the great masters in any field appear,
we catch fire. I have always been interested in sports, and I still enjoy
watching the Olympics or championship tennis on television; I am intrigued by
the way the top athletes have trained their bodies, judgment, and endurance.
Those excellent swimmers in their middle teens, those gymnasts who surpass
circus performers, must have begun at a very early age. How much dedicated
effort all this must take! It is hard not to admire the discipline and
enthusiasm behind any performance that captures a gold medal.
Just as the body can be trained for virtuoso skills in the pool or on the uneven bars, so our senses can be trained, immensely benefiting ourselves and those around us. Then the senses become our trusted servants. But when they are untrained, as we shall see, they become the most oppressive masters.
Saint Francis of Assisi put the matter well. He used to speak of “Sister Moon” or “Brother Wolf” as though they were close relatives, which indeed they are; and with the detachment of a great mystic, he spoke that way about his body and senses too. “This is Brother Donkey,” he would say, “and I’ll take good care him. I’ll wash him, feed him, and give him rest. But I’m going to ride on him; he’s not going to ride on me.” Imagine walking along a country road in Italy when over a rise comes a peasant bent nearly to the ground by the donkey on his back. A ludicrous picture! But isn’t that what we do when we let our senses and body take charge and issue all the orders? Believe me, they don’t make kind masters; they are very demanding, very hard-riding. Through training the senses, we climb out from under them and regain our proper role as their master.
To put it another way, our senses are like puppies. If you have had a pup, you will recall how they seize a slipper and growl and tear at it until it’s shredded. We expect that of puppies, but we don’t want the dog acting that way when he grows up. To make a good companion of him requires training; fortunately, he loves to learn. Similarly, the senses can be the best of friends if they receive some training. But if we let them run loose without any training, they will simply turn against us.
The difficulty in resisting sensory desires comes from the force of conditioning working against us. When a river, for example, has gained momentum, how hard it is to stop it or even divert it! Most of our desires too flow like that, along deep channels cut in the mind through repetition. But just as a river can be rechanneled or dammed, well-established patterns of behavior can be changed. Naturally, the longer the channels have been there, the more work will be needed to remove them. But it can always be done, by drawing on the power released in meditation.
Most of the rigid likes and dislikes of our senses are picked up early in life. A mother gives her toddler a small dish of plain yogurt, and a neighbor, already conditioned, wrinkles up her nose with disgust and groans, “Plain yogurt?” Enough repetitions and the child’s nervous system reacts automatically to the stimulus. He has been conditioned, and every time we are conditioned in this way, we lose a little of our freedom and our capacity to choose. That child has moved closer to the day when any food that is healthful but sour makes him wrinkle up his face and shove the plate away with a loud “No!”
Most of us have been through this. Usually, of course, we don’t remember when, or where, or how we were conditioned. The person doing it probably did not know that he or she was teaching us how to react, putting limits on our consciousness. Actually, we begin to think that the unpleasantness lies in the food itself. We don’t like the yogurt we have been served because it doesn’t taste good, although next to us sits a lady happily savoring a big bowl of the very same thing, unflavored and unsweetened. It is the same yogurt; the conditioning is different.
I recently witnessed the enormous power of this conditioning in one of my young friends, who wants to be a football player. It happens too that he abhors zucchini, which I have found to be a rather harmless vegetable. So one day I said to him, “If the Lord came to you and said, ‘I will make you the greatest football player in America if you eat zucchini every day,’ what would your reply be?”
He was silent; I could see the battle going on in his consciousness. Finally he said, “I would tell him, ‘No, Lord.’ ”
The power of likes can be just as strong. In my native state of Kerala, where cashews thrive, most of us are quite partial to them. I too shared this fondness. But when I left Kerala to teach at a university in central India, cashews more or less dropped out of my life.
Then, when I came to America, someone gave me a big can of cashews as a present. I opened it and was amazed at the response of my mind. All the old attraction came pouring in, and I could hear my mind say, “Ahh . . . at last! Cashews!”
But by this time I understood the ways of the mind, and I was training my senses. So I said, “Oh, you remember how good cashews taste, do you?”
The mind said, “Don’t waste time talking . . . let’s get to them!”
I replied, “I think you’ve forgotten again who’s the boss around here. But I know you have a great fondness for these little nuts, and I’m a fair man, so I’ll make a bargain with you. As soon as you stop clamoring for cashews in that insistent way of yours, I’ll give you some.”
Then I placed the open can of cashews on the table beside me and turned to my academic work. For some time, the battle went on. I would be reading an incisive passage from Ralph Waldo Emerson, and suddenly I would feel something small and smooth touching my fingertips. Part of my mind — utterly unbeknown to me — had sent my hand over to the cashew can. “What’s going on?” I asked gravely.
“Oh, nothing, nothing,” the mind said. “We weren’t going to eat any of them. We just wanted to see how they felt.”
I didn’t have to say anything more. My hand came back, and my mind scurried back to The American Scholar where it belonged.
At last, the mind gave up its tricks and subsided. I looked at the can of cashews and saw them for what they were — nuts, grown on trees in India where I used to live — and my mind did not move. “Good show,” I said. “Now you may enjoy some.” Those were the best cashews I have ever eaten in my life, because I ate them in freedom.
When you first learn to juggle with your likes and dislikes, there may be a lot of inner irritation. Some of the things you have chosen to eat taste so dreadful, and some you have chosen not to eat seem so luscious! But after a while, you will feel more than compensated by the marvelous juggling skill you are acquiring through your efforts. You may even begin, as the pulp magazines put it, to “amaze your friends and associates.”
One young woman I know went into an ice cream parlor when she was beginning her sense training and asked the proprietor, “What’s the worst flavor you have?”
“Licorice,” the man said. “It’s got to be licorice.”
She ordered a bowlful and ate it all — and when she went to pay, the man said with awe, “It’s on the house.”
After a while, you discover that your sense of enjoyment has been greatly multiplied. Freed from conditioning, you can now relish everything in perfect freedom — not only what you have always liked, but what you used to dislike too. You realize that taste lies in the mind, and the mind is yours to change.
These excerpts are from Eknath Easwaran's book Passage Meditation.