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Series III - Chapter 48 - “What Am I To Do?”

THE WIND WAS blowing fresh and cool. It was not the dry air of the surrounding semi-desert, but came from the mountains far away. Those mountains were among the highest in the world, a great chain of them running from north-west to south-east. They were massive and sublime, an incredible sight when you saw them in the early morning, before the sun was on the sleeping land. Their towering peaks, glowing a delicate rose, were startlingly clear against the pale blue sky. As the sun climbed higher the plains were covered with long shadows. Soon those mysterious peaks would disappear in the clouds, but before they withdrew, they would leave their blessing on the valleys, the rivers and the towns. Though you could no longer see them, you could feel that they were there, silent, immense and timeless.

A beggar was coming down the road, singing; he was blind, and a child was leading him. people passed him by, and occasionally someone would drop a coin or two into the tin he was holding in one hand; but he went on with his song, heedless of the rattle of the coins. A servant came out of a big house, dropped a coin in the tin, muttered something, and went back again, shutting the gate behind him. The parrots were off for the day in their crazy and noisy flight. They would go to the fields and the woods, but towards evening they would return for the night to the trees along the road; it was safer there, though the street-lights were almost among the leaves. Many other birds seemed to remain all day in the town and on a big lawn some of them were trying to catch the sleepy worms. A boy went by, playing his flute. He was lean and barefoot-ed; there was a swagger in his walk, and his feet didn’t seem to mind where they trod. He was the flute, and the song was in his eyes. Walking behind him, you felt that he was the first boy with a flute in all the world. And, in a way, he was; for he paid no attention to the car that rushed past, nor to the policeman standing at the corner, heavy with sleep, nor to the woman with a bundle on her head. He was lost to the world but his song went on.

And now the day had begun.

The room was not very large, and the few who had come rather crowded it. They were of all ages. There was an old man with his very young daughter, a married couple, and a college student. They evidently didn’t know each other, and each was eager to talk about his own problem, but without wanting to interfere with the others. The little girl sat beside her father, shy and very quiet; she must have been about ten. She had on fresh clothes, and there was a flower in her hair. We all sat for awhile without saying a word. The college student waited for age to speak, but the old man preferred to let others speak first. At last, rather nervously, the young man began.

“I am now in my last year at college, where I have been studying engineering, but somehow I don’t seem to be interested in any particular career. I simply don’t know what I want to do. My father, who is a lawyer, doesn’t care what I do as long as I do something of course, since I am studying engineering, he would like me to be an engineer; but I have no real interest in it. I have told him this, but he says the interest will come when once I get working at it for a livelihood. I have several friends who studied for different careers, and who are now earning their own way; but most of them are already becoming dull and weary, and what they will be like a few years hence, God only knows. I don’t want to be like that – and I’m sure I will be, if I become an engineer. It isn’t that I’m afraid of the exams, I can pass them easily enough, and I’m not boasting. I just don’t want to be an engineer, and nothing else seems to interest me either. I have done a spot of writing, and have dabbled in painting but that kind of thing doesn’t carry very far. My father is only concerned with pushing me into a job, and he could get me a good one; but I know what will happen to me, if I accept it. I feel like throwing up everything and leaving college without waiting to take the final exams.”

That would be rather silly wouldn’t it? After all you are nearly through college; why not finish it? There’s no harm in that, is there? “I suppose not. But what am I to do then?”

Apart from the usual careers, what would you really like to do? You must have some interest, however vague it may be. Somewhere, deep down, you know what it is, don’t you?

“You see, I don’t want to become rich; I have no interest in raising a family, and I don’t want to be a slave to a routine. Most of my friends who have jobs, or who have embarked upon a career, are tied to the office from morning till night; and what do they get out of it? A house, a wife some children – and boredom. To me, this is really a frightening prospect, and I don’t want to be caught in it; but I still don’t know what to do.”

Since you have thought so much about all this, haven’t you tried to find out where your real interest lies? What does your mother say? “She doesn’t care what I do as long as I am safe, which means being securely married and tied down; so she backs father up. On my walks I have thought a great deal about what I would really like to do, and I have talked it over with friends. But most of my friends are bent on some career or other, and it’s no good talking to them. Once they are caught in a career, whatever it may be, they think it’s the right thing to do – duty, responsibility, and all the rest of it. I just don’t want to get caught in a similar treadmill that’s all. But what is it I would really like to do? I wish I knew.”

Do you like people? “In a vague sort of way, Why do you ask?”

Perhaps you might like to do something along the line of social work. “Curious you should say that. I have thought of doing social work, and for a time I went around with some of those who have given their lives to it. Generally speaking, they are a dry, frustrated lot, frightfully concerned about the poor, and ceaselessly active in trying to improve social conditions but unhappy inside. I know one young woman who would give her right eye to get married and lead a family life, but her idealism is destroying her. She’s caught in the routine of doing good works, and has become dreadfully cheerful about her boredom. It’s all idealism without flare, without inward joy.”

I suppose religion, in the accepted sense, means nothing to you? “As a boy I often used to go with my mother to the temple, with its priests, prayers and ceremonies, but I haven’t been there for years.”

That too becomes a routine, a repetitious sensation, a living on words and explanations. Religion is something much more than all that. Are you adventurous? “Not in the usual meaning of that word – mountain climbing, polar exploration, deep-sea diving, and so on. I’m not being superior, but to me there’s something rather immature about all that. I could no more climb mountains than hunt whales.”

What about politics? “The ordinary political game doesn’t interest me. I have some Communist friends, and have read some of their stuff, and at one time I thought of joining the party; but I can’t stomach their double talk, their violence and tyranny. These are the things they actually stand for, whatever may be their official ideology and their talk of peace. I went through that phase quickly.”

We have eliminated a great deal, haven’t we? If you don’t want to do any of these things, then what’s left?

“I don’t know. Am I still too young to know?”

It’s not a matter of age, is it? Discontent is part of existence, but we generally find a way to tame it, whether through a career through marriage, through belief, or through idealism and good works. One way or another, most of us manage to smother this flame of discontent don’t we? After successfully smothering it, we think at last we are happy – and we may be, at least for the time being. Now, instead of smothering this flame of discontent through some form of satisfaction, is it possible to keep it always burning? And is it then discontent?

“Do you mean I should remain as I am, dissatisfied with everything about me and within myself, and not seek some satisfying occupation that will let this fire burn out? Is that what you mean?”

We are discontented because we think we should be contented; the idea that we should be at peace with ourselves makes discontentment painful. You think you ought to be something, don’t you? – a responsible person, a useful citizen, and all the rest of it. With the understanding of discontent, you may be these things and much more. But you want to do something satisfying, something which will occupy your mind and so put an end to this inner disturbance; isn’t that so?

“It is in a way, but I now see what such occupation leads to.”

The occupied mind is a dull, routine mind; in essence, it’s mediocre. Because it’s established in habit, in belief, in a respectable and profitable routine, the mind feels secure, both inwardly and outwardly; therefore it ceases to be disturbed. This is so isn’t it? “In general, yes. But what am I to do?”

You may discover the solution if you go further into this feeling of discontent. Don’t think about it in terms of being contented. Find out why it exists, and whether it shouldn’t be kept burning. After all, you are not particularly concerned about earning a livelihood, are you?

“Quite bluntly, I am not. One can always live somehow or other.”

So that’s not your problem at all. But you don’t want to be caught in a routine, in the wheel of mediocrity; isn’t that what you are concerned about? “It looks like it, sir.”

Not to be thus caught demands hard work, incessant watching, it means coming to no conclusions from which to continue further thinking; for to think from a conclusion is not to think at all. It’s because the mind starts from a conclusion, from a belief, from experience, from knowledge, that it gets caught in routine, in the net of habit, and then the fire of discontent is smothered.

“I see that you are perfectly right, and I now understand what it is that has really been on my mind. I don’t want to be like those whose life is routine and boredom, and I say this without any sense of superiority. Losing oneself in various forms of adventure is equally meaningless; and I don’t want to be merely contented either. I have begun to see, however vaguely, in a direction which I never knew even existed. Is this new direction what you were referring to the other day in your talk when you spoke of a state, or a movement, which is timeless and ever creative?”

Perhaps. Religion is not a matter of churches, temples, rituals and beliefs; it’s the moment-by moment discovery of that movement, which may have any name, or no name. “I’m afraid I have taken more than my share of the available time,” he said, turning to the others. “I hope you don’t mind.” “On the contrary,” replied the old man. “I for one have listened very attentively, and have profited a great deal; I, too, have seen something beyond my problem. In listening quietly to the troubles of another, our own burdens are sometimes lightened.”

He was silent for a minute or two, as if considering how to express what he wanted to say. “Personally, I have reached an age,” he went on, “when I no longer ask what I am going to do; instead, I look back and consider what I have done with my life. I too went to college, but I was not as thoughtful as our young friend here. Upon graduating from college, I went in search of work, and once having found a job, I spent the next forty years and more in earning a livelihood and maintaining a rather large family. During all that time I was caught in the office routine to which you have referred, and in the habits of family life, and I know its pleasures and tribulations, its tears and passing joys. I have grown old with struggle and weariness, and in recent years there has been a fast decline. Looking back on all that, I now ask myself, ‘What have you done with your life? Apart from your family and your job, what have you actually accomplished?”

The old man paused before answering his own question. “Over the years, I joined various associations for the improvement of this and that; I belonged to several different religious groups, and left one for another; and I hopefully read the literature of the extreme left, only to find that their organization is as tyrannically authoritarian as the church. Now that I have retired, I can see that I have been living on the surface of life; I have merely drifted. Though I struggled a little against the strong current of society, in the end I was pulled along by it. But don’t misunderstand me. I’m not shedding tears over the past; I don’t bemoan the things that have been. I am concerned with the few years that I still have left. Between now and the fast-approaching day of my death, how am I to meet this thing called life? That is my problem.”

What we are is made up of what we have been; and what we have been also shapes the future, without definitely giving line and substance to every thought and action. The present is a movement of the past to the future. “What has been my past? practically nothing at all. There have been no great sins, no towering ambition, no overwhelming sorrow no degrading violence. My life has been that of the average man, neither hot nor cold; it has been an even flow, a thoroughly mediocre life. I have built up a past in which there’s nothing to be either proud or ashamed of. My whole existence has been dull and empty, without much meaning. It would have been the same, had I lived in a palace, or in a village hut. How easy it is to slip into the current of mediocrity! Now, my question is, can I stem in myself this current of mediocrity? Is it possible to break away from my pettily enlarging past?”

What is the past? When you use the word ‘past’, what does it signify? “It seems to me that the past is chiefly a matter of association and memory.”

Do you mean the totality of memory, or just the memory of everyday incidents? Incidents that have no psychological significance, while they may be remembered, do not take root in the soil of the mind. They come and go; they do not occupy or burden the mind. Only those remain which have psychological significance. So what do you mean by the past? Is there a past that remains solid, immovable, from which you can cleanly and sharply break away?

“My past is made up of a multitude of little things put together, and its roots are shallow. A good shock like a strong wind, could blow it away.”

And you are waiting for the wind. Is that your problem? “I’m not waiting for anything. But must I go on like this for the rest of my days? Can I not break away from the past?”

Again, what is the past from which you want to break away? Is the past static, or is it a living thing? If it’s a living thing, how does it get its life? Through what means does it revive itself? If it’s a living thing, can you break away from it? And who is the ‘you’ that wants to break away?

“Now I’m getting confused,” he complained. “I have asked a simple question, and you counter it by asking several more complicated ones. Would you kindly explain what you mean?”

You say, sir, that you want to be free from the past. What is this past? “It consists of experiences and the memories one has of them.”

Now, these memories, you say, are on the surface, they are not deep-rooted. But may not some of them have roots deep in the unconscious?

“I don’t think I have any deep-rooted memories. Tradition and belief have deep roots in many people, but I follow them only as a matter of social convenience. They don’t play a very significant part in my life.”

If the past is to be dismissed so easily, there’s no problem; if only the outer husk of the past remains, which can be brushed off at any time, then you have already broken away. But there’s more to the problem than that isn’t there? How are you to break through your mediocre life? How are you to shatter the pettiness of the mind? Isn’t this also your problem, sir? And surely, the ‘how’ in this case is a furtherance of inquiry, not the demand for a method. It’s the practising of a method, based on the desire to succeed, with its fear and authority, that has brought about pettiness in the first place.

“I came with the intention of dispelling my past, which is without much significance, but I am being confronted with another problem.”

Why do you say that your past is without much significance? “I have drifted on the surface of life, and when you drift, you can’t have deep roots, even in your family. I see that to me life hasn’t meant very much; I have done nothing with it. Only a few years are now left to me, and I want to stop drifting, I want to make something of what remains of my life. Is this at all possible?”

What do you want to make of your life? Doesn’t the pattern of what you want to be, evolve from what you have been? Surely, your pattern is a reaction from what has been; it is an outcome of the past. “Then how am I to make anything of life?”

What do you mean by life? Can you act upon it? Or is life incalculable, and not to be held within the boundaries of the mind? Life is everything, isn’t it? Jealousy, vanity, inspiration and despair; social morality, and the virtue which is outside the realm of cultivated righteousness; knowledge gathered through the centuries; character, which is the meeting of the past with the present; organized beliefs, called religions, and the truth that lies beyond them; hate and affection; love and compassion which are not within the field of the mind all this and more is life, is it not? And you want to do something with it, you want to give it shape, direction, significance. Now, who is the ‘you’ that wants to do all this? Are you different from that which you seek to change?

“Are you suggesting that one should just go on drifting?”

When you want to direct, to shape life, your pattern can only be a cording to the past; or, being unable to shape it, your reaction is drift. But the understanding of the totality of life brings about its own action, in which there is neither drifting nor the imposition of a pattern. This totality is to be understood from moment to moment. There must be the death of the past moment. “But am I capable of understanding the totality of life?” he ask anxiously.

If you do not understand it, no one else can understand it for you. You cannot learn it from another. “How shall I proceed?”

Through self-knowledge; for the totality, the whole treasure of life, lies within yourself. “What do you mean by self-knowledge?”

It is to perceive the ways of your own mind; it is to learn about your cravings, your desires, your urges and pursuits, the hidden as well as the open. There is no learning where there is the accumulation of knowledge. With self-knowledge, the mind is free to be still. Only then is there the coming into being of that which is beyond the measure of the mind.

The married couple had been listening the whole time; they had been awaiting their turn, but never interrupted, and only now the husband spoke up. “Our problem was that of jealousy, but after listening to what has already been said here, I think we may be capable of resolving it. perhaps we have understood more deeply by quietly listening than we would have by asking questions.”