October 25 is the 87th birth anniversary of Alec
Stilling the active mind
We live in an age of stress and strain, conflict and confusion. Our
moral and spiritual values have reached the lowest ebb. This is an age
of anxiety, unrest and instability. In today’s highly competitive,
commercialized civilization, man is drifting hopelessly in a sea of
doubt and anxiety, without a purpose and goal in life.
What are the reasons for our stress, strain and restlessness? Sigmund
Freud aptly described as the person’s difficulty in accepting the
instinctual, sexual side of life was problematic and the resulting
conflict between sexual impulses and social taboos.
Later, Otto Bank wrote that the underlying roots of people’s
psychological problems were feelings of inferiority, inadequacy and
guilt. In the 1930s, the focus of psychological conflicts shifted again:
the common denominator, as Karen Horney pointed out, was hostility
between individuals and groups.
It may surprise but the key problems of people today stem from
emptiness. People do not know what they want or of their feelings. When
they talk about autonomy, lament inability to make decisions, it is
clear that they have no understanding of their own desires or wants.
They are swayed in different directions and have a feeling of
powerlessness, causing conditions of stress and loneliness.
Another characteristic of the modern people is loneliness –described
as a feeling as one of being ‘on the outside’ isolated or alienated.
They emphasize how crucial it is for them to be invited to this party or
that dinner, not because they want to go for enjoyment, companionship,
sharing of experiences or human warmth but because being invited is
proof of not being alone.
Loneliness is such an omnipotent and painful threat to many persons
that they have little conception of the positive values of solitude.
They are often frightened at the prospect of being alone.
The feelings of emptiness and loneliness go together. When persons
speak of a relationship break up, they will often not mention sorrow or
humiliation but of being “emptied.” The loss of the other, leaves an
inner ‘yawning void’.
The link between loneliness and emptiness are not difficult to
discover. When a person does not know what he wants or feels, in a
period of traumatic upheaval, he becomes aware that conventional desires
and goals he has been taught to follow and their inability to bring a
sense of security or direction. His natural reaction is to look for
other people, long for direction and comfort. Emptiness and loneliness
are thus two phases of the same basic experience of anxiety.
Buddhism analyses this stress purely from a psychological perspective
and has identified five causes. They are known as Hindrances (Nivarana)
or obstacles to mental peace and producing conditions of stress and
• ill-will or hatred, resentment and animosity
• addiction to sense pleasures
• sloth and torpor, boredom
• restlessness and worry
• doubts and skepticism
The Buddha has given five striking similes to illustrate the harmful
effects of these obstacles. The intensity of these hindrances promotes
stress and anxiety.
Sense desires are compared to water mixed with manifold colours. The
mind overwhelmed with sensual pleasures is unable to perceive one’s own
good and the good of others. We are constantly bombarded with sense
stimuli through the mass media, which invariably stimulate sense desire.
We are not satisfied with the bare necessities of life. When our
yearnings are not fulfilled, frustration and disappointment follow as a
III-will and hatred are compared to boiling water. It makes a person
boils with range. Anger is a short-term madness will generates animosity
A person tormented by hatred, rancour and resentment is unable to see
things in their true perspective. It is a warped and jaundiced view of
things and generates stress, tension and anxiety.
Sloth and torpor are compared to water covered with moss and slime.
These are negative emotions that leave a depressing influence on our
lives. They produce stress, anxiety and worry. People experiencing a
sense of loneliness or emptiness and do not have the inclination to do
good have minds overpowered by listlessness and languor.
The Buddha compares restlessness and worry to turbulent water.
According to Krishnamurti, people tend to gossip and do evil due to
restlessness and to escape from anxiety. The worried mind is like a
storm-tossed, turbulent water which does not reflect its image properly.
Such a person fails to assess a situation properly.
Doubts are compared to muddy water. Today, people have less ideals
and aspirations because they are steeped in materialistic values. It is
important to transform oneself through moral principles and a philosophy
of life, an infallible remedy for the stress.
The Buddha explained not only the causes of stress but also methods
of overcoming them, through the practice of mental culture, loosely
known as ‘meditation.’ Such a person experiences contentment and
happiness. In the Samanna Phala Sutta of the Digha Nikaya, the Buddha
provided eloquent similes to show how a person feels relaxed when he is
free from hindrances and obstacles described above.
When a person is able pay back debts and is free from creditors, it
is an exhilarating sense of joy. A person suffering from a prolonged,
chronic disease when cured feels relieved. That sense of freedom and joy
become possible when these obstacles are removed from life. An
individual in prison cannot meet his loved ones and has lost his
freedom. When released, the relief and joy he experiences is similar to
being free from sloth and torpor.
Restlessness and worry are compared to an enslaved person. Even if
the prison s a luxurious palace, still there is bitterness and
frustration. When he is freed, he will experience happiness similar to
someone free from restlessness and worry. When a man is lost in a jungle
and once he comes out of the wilderness, he feels happy. That person is
compared to one free from doubts.
The Buddha gives a graduated method for overcoming the stress and
strains of life. The meticulous observance of the five precepts is
conducive to the eradication of conditions of stress and anxiety. A
person who adheres to the five precepts could move about in society
without fear and trepidation and as a result bestows the priceless gift
of love and fearlessness to the world.
On the contrary, the breaking of the precepts engenders feelings of
guilt, remorse and restlessness. Observance of the eight precepts is a
powerful and effective weapon to ward off stress and strain. The control
of the senses is an essential requisite for peace of mind. We should
understand that the pleasures of life are fleeting and do not bring
lasting happiness. If one is to grasp these pleasures and cling to them,
then one will not be able to experience true peace of mind.
The development and cultivation of the sublime qualities of Metta
(Loving Kindness), Mudita (Rejoicing in the joys of others), Karuna
(Compassion) and Equanimity are powerful means of overcoming stress.
These noble qualities leave no room for the demon of stress to torment
us. Loving Kindness is an antidote to ill-will, irritation and
Following key advice given by the Buddha to Ratthapala can be
successfully used for overcoming stresses and strains of life.
1. All things are subject to change and pass away. In the ultimate
analysis everything is subjected to old age, disease and death.
Therefore, we should not passionately cling to the fleeting, pleasures
of life, but should understand the realities of life and comprehend that
all things of the world are passing shows.
2. In this world there is no refuge or protection but the Dhamma. It
gives protection and security in the storms and tempests of life. Dhamma
is like an umbrella held in the rain. One who lives in conformity with
the Dhamma is protected by the Dhamma.
3. One could not say that one owns or possesses anything in the
world. All things are subject to destruction, decomposition and death.
4. We are under the bondage of craving and we always try to cling on
to material things but they are insatiable. One should understand the
impermanent nature of all conditioned things and let go and in that
letting go, there is freedom from stress.
Deep down in the sea, where the sea is really deep, half a mile, a
mile, two miles below the surface, all is still. Here there are no
tempests no storms.
So it is with people who have attained Ultimate Deliverance. So it
was with the Buddha and the Arahantas. They had reached the Final Peace.
Never again, for them, the fury and turmoil, the longing and anxiety,
the feverish, meaningless activity of the worldling.Why should we
cultivate calm? When one is in motion, it is difficult to judge motion
in one’s environment. One’s impressions of one’s environment are
conditioned by one’s own movement. It is so with the mind.
The Buddha advised stillness. The whole system of Samatha Bhavana
(meditation for calm), as taught by the Buddha, has this one object in
view. The mind, when purified of all sensual thoughts and concentrated
on a Kammattana (subject of concentration) becomes utterly still.
(An edited extract from ‘Buddha the Healer, the
Incomparable’ by Alec Robertson)