I recently had a plate of cookies pushed towards me while drinking coffee with a friend. He did not know that this English addiction was one I had determined to break during Lent. Actually, like many addictions, it was not a very enjoyable (or healthy) habit. Giving up cookies is not a very difficult thing and not the most important part of my Lenten observance.
I found it interesting, however, to notice that I was tempted – but not by the cookies themselves. In fact I was enjoying the very minor asceticism involved. The point of any spiritual exercise is that one should feel better and ‘sense God’ more keenly. Everyone, personally or collectively, feels better when they cut waste and extravagance. Collectively, socio-economically, the asceticism of austerity should, of course, be equally and proportionately shared – which our governments clearly do not believe. Personally, the demands of truth and justice are easier to respect.
So, it was not the sugary cookies that tempted me but the feeling of refusing something offered by a friend. I quit smoking as soon as I put on the monastic habit – this was after several months of repeated humiliating failures. Then I went through the withdrawal symptoms. One day I noticed a last desperate measure of the chemical craving to corrupt my mind in order to keep me addicted. I had a brief but very definite feeling of betrayal – that I was betraying my old friend nicotine. The feeling was as sharp as in a dream which later one sees to be absurd. Having seen it to be absurd, I knew I was free.
There are false friends – as translators and anyone learning a new language well knows. In Latin languages ‘eventuallmente’ means ‘possibly in the end (this might be the outcome..)’. In English, however, it means a definite predicted outcome. The difference in meaning can make for important differences in planning and practice.
Clarity is always better than confusion – unless you want to conceal or deceive. And clarity is a natural outcome of self-control, of faithful observance, of detachment from the complicated games that the mind can play when physical or other forms of desire are strong. Self-knowledge is the great game-changer. It is, however, a disruptive player in our personal growth. We do not remain as we were once an advance in self-knowledge has been achieved.
The process demands that we have a true centre of gravity. We need to be anchored – to have what Shakespeare speaking of love meant by an ever-fixed mark that ‘alters not when it alteration finds’. The meditator comes to understand that this also describes the mantra and so it helps us to understand why the asceticism of the mantra is a work of love.