Chapter Ten: The Conquest of the Mind
Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.
-The Book of Proverbs, Chapter Four, verse twenty-three
The human mind is both a blessing and a curse. Our dual nature as transient material persons with immortal souls tears us between two distinct wills. An individual can seek to master his or her base impulses and commune with the Divine Spark within, or give in to material lusts and temptations, with the obviously detrimental social and spiritual effects. All six texts examined in this book teach that to overcome one’s own mind is the greatest endeavor for an individual. Mental activity must be firmly controlled. Through constant awareness of the Divine one can overcome transient distractions. This awareness will lead to the universal compassion that is the basis for all spiritual morality. The common teachings on the vital importance of overcoming one’s mental imperfections in order to reach for the Eternal sanctuary is a crucial thread running through the rich tapestry that is all sincere religious thought.
Lao Tzu provides an excellent starting point for examination this shared teaching. Like the five other holy books, the Tao te Ching provides its followers a formula for the conquering of the mind and the cultivation of the Divine Essence within humanity. Section sixteen of the Tao te Ching reads:
I do my utmost to attain emptiness;
I hold firmly to stillness.
The myriad creatures all rise together
And I watch their return.
The teaming creatures
All return to their separate roots.
Returning to one's roots is known as stillness.
This is what is meant by returning to one's destiny.
Returning to one's destiny is known as the constant.
Knowledge of the constant is known as discernment.
Woe to him who wilfully innovates
While ignorant of the constant,
But should one act from knowledge of the constant
One's action will lead to impartiality,
Impartiality to kingliness,
Kingliness to heaven,
Heaven to the way,
The way to perpetuity,
And to the end of one's days one will meet with no danger.
This passage refers to the Divine consciousness innate to all thinking beings. We must actively banish the material desires of the mind in order to commune with the Eternal Way. Otherwise, our lusts will become uncontrollable and will lead to evil actions. Conversely, when one sheds material lusts, one can become empty to all but the Divine within, and embrace a life of ceaseless compassion. In this state of union and true knowledge one can see the rise and fall of all creation. True intelligence means awareness of the constant; recognizing the ever-present Eternal Nature is essential for self- conquest. This awareness fosters the patience necessary for ultimate empathy. When we see the inherent unity of all life, we can live with unassailable virtue and achieve the imperishable state, which alone possesses the Tao. If we become one with the eternal Tao, we will be immune to all corporeal danger. Thus the key to everlasting life is recognition of the Divine Spark within all creatures. Abandoning materialism through the attainment of true knowledge and universal compassion is the path to the undying refuge. Mental control transforms an imperfect human to a state of oneness with the perfect, eternal order. This is the greatest endeavor and ultimate aim of all sentient thought, and is commanded by all of our spiritual traditions.
Confucius taught his followers to tame their minds in order to achieve the Eternal. The first section of chapter twelve of the Analects contains the instructions for self-mastery that mirror the admonitions found in the five other holy books:
Yen Yuan asked about perfect virtue. The Master said, “To subdue one’s self and return to propriety, is perfect virtue. If a man can for one day subdue himself and return to propriety, an under heaven will ascribe perfect virtue to him. Is the practice of perfect virtue from a man himself, or is it from others?”
Yen Yuan said, “I beg to ask the steps of that process.” The Master replied, “Look not at what is contrary to propriety; listen not to what is contrary to propriety; speak not what is contrary to propriety; make no movement which is contrary to propriety.” Yen Yuan then said, “Though I am deficient in intelligence and vigor, I will make it my business to practice this lesson.”
To overcome our lesser thoughts and live a life of complete morality is to reach the Imperishable Way. If an individual followed this self-conquest to its logical and ultimate end for an entire day, all creation could recognize the Divine expressed within such an enlightened soul. Yen Yuan, a follower of Confucius, requested to know the necessary steps of such a transformation. Confucius’ answer is simple - one must control the senses, speech, and action, and conform one’s consciousness to the universal human morality. In other words, one must synchronize one’s thoughts and actions with the Divine Will. This path is an inward journey; the perfect virtue is situated within. The struggle to control one’s self is the path to Heaven as taught by the Analects, and indeed, by all the holy texts of humanity. The greatest duty of all humanity is to master one’s own base nature and nurture the timeless Virtue.
Self-conquest is the indispensable goal of the Vedic religions. Only by realizing one’s true, undying nature, and cutting the bonds of Maya can one reenter the Eternal Being. The path to this irreversible victory is the path of complete self-control, and conquest of one’s fickle, imperfect mind. As Krishna tells Arjuna in chapter six, verses five through eight of the Bhagavad Gita:
One must deliver himself with the help of his mind, and not degrade himself. The mind is the friend of the conditioned soul, and his enemy as well.
For him who has conquered the mind, the mind is the best of friends; but for one who has failed to do so, his mind will remain the greatest enemy.
For one who has conquered the mind, the Supersoul is already reached, for he has attained tranquility. To such a man happiness and distress, heat and cold, honor and dishonor are all the same.
A person is said to be established in self-realization and is called a yogi [or mystic] when he is fully satisfied by virtue of acquired knowledge and realization. Such a person is situated in transcendence and is self-controlled. He sees everything -- whether it be pebbles, stones or gold -- as the same.
The mind is the soul’s greatest partner, as well as its most dangerous adversary. The boon and burden that is the human mind must be used to seek the Perfect Nature, not passing pleasures. It is a waste of thought to wallow in the bonds of illusory material cravings. When one is ruled by the natural inclinations of the mind, lustful temptations will obscure the undying realities. Conversely, those who fully subdue their minds can use their mental processes to seek the Eternal, and achieve the ultimate wisdom and tranquility that is oneness with Brahman. Such rare and enlightened beings realize that this created, conditioned realm is but a transitory illusion, and are not swayed from the Eternal Way by joy, sorrow, comfort, unease, or the biased opinions of others. They are “fully satisfied” by the ultimate knowledge, which manifests itself as moral perfection. The Bhagavad Gita teaches that to fully harness the power of the Divine Spark, one must tame the mind. In such a state, the transient trials of human life are recognized for what they truly are - a fleeting illusion.
Furthermore, in chapter nine, verses twenty-seven and twenty-eight, humanity is instructed thusly:
Whatever you do, whatever you eat, whatever you offer or give away, and whatever austerities you perform -- do that, O son of Kunti, as an offering to Me.
In this way you will be freed from bondage to work and its auspicious and inauspicious results. With your mind fixed on Me in this principle of renunciation, you will be liberated and come to Me.
One should always live in full consciousness of the Ultimate Divine. True spiritual seekers should attune their minds to the Ultimate Source and Destination, and in this consciousness reach the Imperishable Unity. All acts performed by those possessed of true faith are acts of worship. The Gita offers the same instructions given to humanity by all the spiritual messengers of all our various nations and languages. We have constantly been instructed to overcome our imperfections through self-mastery, and to focus thoughts and actions upon the Divine. It is only through the victory over one’s own mind that perfection can be achieved.
The overcoming of material lusts through regulation of mental activities is the central purpose of the teachings of the Buddha. Once one has truly overcome his or her imperfections, the achievement of Nirvana, the “true state” of the liberated soul, can be reached. Chapter eight, verses ten through sixteen of the Dhammapada instruct humanity on the greatest duty of sentient beings:
Better it is to live one day virtuous and meditative than to live a hundred years immoral and uncontrolled.
Better it is to live one day wise and meditative than to live a hundred years foolish and uncontrolled.
Better it is to live one day strenuous and resolute than to live a hundred years sluggish and dissipated.
Better it is to live one day seeing the rise and fall of things than to live a hundred years without ever seeing the rise and fall of things.
Better it is to live one day seeing the Deathless than to live a hundred years without ever seeing the Deathless.
Better it is to live one day seeing the Supreme Truth than to live a hundred years without ever seeing the Supreme Truth.
To conquer ourselves is the highest aim of human existence. In order to reach the Perfect State, one must realize the transitory nature of material creation, and the immortality of the soul. Once an individual realizes the impermanence of material forms, he or she will seek the Eternal Essence. To overcome base distractions and desires is the means for achieving such illuminating knowledge and transformation. To live one day with self-control and compassion is more valuable than to live a hundred years selfishly and blinded by material lusts. The self-realized person manifests the inner peace through morally correct actions. Self-control, compassionate morality, and the attainment of the everlasting Divine Unity are inseparably bound together. Note the similarities of this passage to the section of the Tao te Ching quoted earlier in this chapter. In a state of complete self-mastery, one can reach union with the Imperishable and see the rise and fall of all creation. Through self-conquest, we can become empty to all but the higher nature.
Additionally, in the first four verses of chapter thirteen of the Dhammapada, the Buddha instructs his students to:
Follow not the vulgar way; live not in heedlessness; hold not false views; linger not long in worldly existence.
Arise! Do not be heedless! Lead a life of good conduct. The righteous live happily both in this world and the next.
Lead a life of good conduct. Lead not a base life. The righteous live happily both in this world and the next.
One who looks upon the world as a bubble and a mirage, that person the King of Death does not see.
Just like all other religious sages, the Buddha taught that it is necessary to conquer the mind in order to achieve the Ultimate Divine. In order to tread the path to Nirvana, one must overcome “heedlessness”, live in awareness of the Divine Realities, and shun material lusts. Such self-control is to be manifested by the good conduct and compassionate actions. Those with unattached, true vision view the entire world as illusion. With such knowledge, Death itself is overcome, because one knows the immortality of his or her inner essence. The Buddha’s revelations taught the essential importance of living in constant awareness of the Eternal within oneself in order to conquer the imperfect human mind. His instructions are a component of the timeless message conveyed by all the divine messengers. Victory over oneself is the greatest purpose of sentient thought.
The Abrahamic religions, like their Chinese and Vedic counterparts, teach the vital importance of mental control in order to live a truly holy life. Constant awareness of the Ultimate Divine is said to be of utmost spiritual importance for humanity. In sura twenty-nine, verse forty-five of the Qur’an, are instructions which are entirely congruent with the other holy texts quoted in this chapter:
Recite what is sent of the Book by inspiration to thee, and establish regular Prayer: for Prayer restrains from shameful and unjust deeds; and remembrance of Allah is the greatest without doubt. And Allah knows the (deeds) that ye do.
In order to cease “shameful and unjust deeds”, one is invited to prayer. In the Semitic religions, prayer can be thought of as a mental exercise that seeks the Divine Will. The parallels found in this verse to the other religious teachings quoted in this chapter are uncanny. To overcome one’s imperfect acts, one must seek to commune with the Supreme Truth. Indeed, this verse states that to remember Allah is undoubtedly “the greatest” duty of a sentient being. We must focus our minds upon the Ultimate Divine, remember the promise (and threat) of Divine Justice, and know that all people carry within them the Breath of God in order to embrace the life of compassion, benevolence, and non-materialism that all holy books command. The unceasing remembrance of Allah and the prayers that overcome evil deeds, are the human means to seek the face of the All-Compassionate. The Prophet Muhammad’s teachings are in full agreement with the other holy texts, and form a common message that all of humanity must hold dear. We must control our base desires. In order to pass the test of human existence, we must conquer the transient through the remembrance of the Eternal.
The most distinctive passage from the Gospels that details the mental state which leads to the Divine is found in the Book of Matthew. A lawyer sought to catch Jesus in a theological misstep, and asked Jesus (chapter twenty-two, verse thirty-six):
Master, which is the great commandment in the law?
To which Jesus replied (verses thirty-seven through forty):
Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.
This is the first and great commandment.
And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.
The original and indispensible commandment of all spiritual teachings is to love God with all of one’s heart, soul and mind. Human beings must attune their entire will and consciousness to the Ultimate Divine. Such a transformation of thought is only possible with mental self-control. One must be more concerned and aware of Divine Realities than passing material conditions. Vitally, Jesus says that in accordance with this greatest commandment is to “love thy neighbor as thyself”. We must see the inherent worth of all members of the human family and live a life of ceaseless compassion. The recognition of the Divine Spark in all people is the basis for every spiritual law, and the fundamental teaching of all the prophets. As seen throughout this chapter, Jesus’ words relate an essential truth, which forms a crucial element of all religious teachings. The greatest commandment is to seek the Eternal and overcome one’s lesser mental nature. An enlightened soul shall manifest this self-transformation through ceaseless and universal compassion.
The conquest of the mind is the most important task for every spiritual seeker. Once individuals have overcome their transient mental imperfections, they shall become empty to all but the Eternal Spark within. This inner transformation will manifest itself through outward peace and universal love to all. In such a state, the Ultimate Awareness is within reach. Self-conquest is the most difficult task in this difficult realm, but it is nevertheless the greatest duty of all human beings. In order to achieve this irreversible victory, we must actively strive to constantly remain in full awareness of the common Source and Destination. Every act must be undertaken with reverence to the Knower who pervades all reality. We must recognize the inherent worthiness of all humanity and act with unwavering and ceaseless virtue. This common teaching helps to unite the essential message of all six traditions compared in this book into a coherent totality.