Every condition that a person experiences as favorable or unfavorable and every person who is agreeable or disagreeable causes a person to react. A person’s happiness and spiritual progress depends upon this reaction. If they have control over this reaction it means they are progressing. If they have no control over it, it shows they are going backwards. When you take two persons, wise and foolish, the wise person reacts more intensely than the foolish one. If you take a dense person and a fine person, a fine person naturally reacts more than the dense one. If you take a just person or an unjust person, naturally the just person reacts more than the unjust one. If you take a spiritual person and a material person, naturally a spiritual person reacts more than the material one.
Yet when a person does not have control over this reaction, they show no mastery. A person who is fine, spiritual, wise and just, and yet without control over their reactions, is incomplete. This shows that even to become fine and just and spiritual is not sufficient. For all these things that make a person fine and sensitive, at the same time make them weak against the disturbing influences of the crowd. This shows that a person who is just, wise, spiritual and fine, and yet weak, is not perfect. The balance in life is to be as fine as a thread and to be as strong as a wire of steel. If a person does not show the durability and strength needed to stand the opposing and disturbing influences that are always in the midst of life, they certainly show a weakness and a lack of development.
In the first place, this reaction gives a certain amount of vanity to people. They feel, “I am better than the other who disturbs me.” However, they certainly cannot say, “I am stronger” than the other who disturbs them. For when you cannot stand conditions around you, you may think that you are a superior person because you cannot stand the conditions. In reality, the conditions are stronger when you cannot stand them.
If we are born on earth, if we are destined to walk on the earth, we cannot dream of paradise when we have to stand in all the conditions that the earth brings before us. When a person progresses towards spirituality, they must bear this in mind, that together with their spiritual progress they must strengthen themself against disturbing influences. If not, they must know that with every desire of making progress, they will be pulled back against their will by conditions, by circumstances.
There are four different ways in which a person reacts: a person reacts in deed, in speech, in thought, and in feeling. A deed produces a definite result, speech produces an effect, thought produces atmosphere, feeling produces conditions. Therefore, there is no way in which a person will react that will be without effect. A reaction will be perceived quickly or slowly, but it must be perceived. Also, very often a reaction is agreeable not only to oneself, but to another. A person who answers by insulting another stands on the same level as them. The person who does not answer stands above this level. In this way, we can rise above things rather than react to them, if only we know how to fly. The goal is flying above things instead of standing, as a material person would stand, against them. How can I call myself spiritual if I cannot fly? That is the first condition for being spiritual.
The whole mechanism of this world is an action and reaction, in the objective world as well as in the world of persons. Only in a person is there a possibility of developing the spirit that is called the spirit of mastery. That spirit is easily developed and best developed by trying to get control over our reactions. Life offers us abundant occasions from morning till evening to practice this lesson. Every move we make, every turn we make, we are faced with something agreeable or disagreeable, harmonious or unharmonious, either a condition or a person. If we react automatically, we are no better than a machine, and we are not different than thousands and millions of people who act automatically. However, if we can trace in ourselves a divine heritage, a heritage that is called mastery, it is in fighting the control of our reaction against influences. In theory it is simple, it is easy. In practice it is the most difficult thing there is to master, to conquer. When we think of the usefulness of this development, we shall find that there is nothing in the world that is more necessary and more important than this. If there is any strength in the world to be found, that strength is within our self, and the proof of having that strength is when we are able to control our reaction. This preserves dignity. This maintains honor. It is this that sustains respect, and it is this that keeps humankind wise. For it is easy to be wise, but it is difficult to continue to be wise. It is easy to think, but it is difficult to continue to be a thoughtful person. Very often people have asked me if there is any practice, if there is any study, if there is anything that they can do in order to develop will power. I have answered, “Yes, there are many practices and many ways but this is the simplest and best practice that you can do without being taught, and that is to always have a hand over the reaction. I always interpret the words, “I cannot endure,” “I cannot stand” “I cannot sustain,” “I cannot have patience” to mean “I am weak.” By saying this, we only admit in other words, in better words, that “I am weak.” Friends, can there be any person in the world who can be our worst enemy than our own weakness? If the whole world were our friend, this one enemy is enough to ruin our life, and this is our weakness. If this enemy were once conquered, we could stand against all those who will come in conflict with us.
Now the question is, how one must set to work in this direction? We must take our physical condition into consideration in this. The nervous system must be in its proper condition. It is by nervousness that people go from bad to worse. Even a good person with good intentions proves to be otherwise when they have good intentions but cannot carry them out, because their nerves are weak. This person needs the habit of silence, of concentration, of meditation. A person who goes on continually talking or doing things and does not meditate for a while, or take a rest, cannot control their nervous system; they cannot keep it in order. If there is anything that can control the nervous system, it is right breathing. When right breathing is done, with concentration of thought, then the nervous system is greatly fortified. All the strength of the mystics, of the Yogis that we have heard about, all that has come from these practices. They are practices that bring the nerves under control. Besides, there are many things that cause unhappiness, and by holding the nervous system under control, they can be avoided.
When we see from a higher point of view, it becomes clear that denying our impulses, those arising suddenly and wanting a reaction, is but a weakness in spirit. This self-denial is really controlling our thoughts, wishes, desires, and passions. However, that does not mean that we must retire from the life of the world. It only means that we must take ourselves in hand.
Question: Can we begin with that control at an advanced age or must it be done when a person is young?
Answer: It is never too soon to begin, and it is never too late to improve.
Question: Ought not the proper control over ourselves be part of a good education given to children?
Answer: Of course. I think that if from childhood that education is given, wonderful results can be brought about. There was a time in India (we see very little of it now), in the ancient times, when youths were trained in asanas, a certain way of sitting, a certain way of walking, and a certain way of standing. By that they first achieve a control over their muscles and their nerves. It would be of immense value if education today adopts these two things. One thing is to study that question of controlling the reaction, and then to introduce it in sports or gymnastics.
Question: Is it not much more difficult to control your reaction when you suffer unjustly from someone whom you love than from someone to whom you are indifferent?
Answer: Controlling the reaction will always give you a certain amount of pain. But at the same time, by suffering that pain you will get a certain power of rising above it. If it is not understood rightly, of course, a person might endanger themself. But the danger is in both cases. On one side there is a pit, on the other side there is water. For instance, there is one person who, because they are afraid to hurt another or because they are oppressed by someone, is always keeping their thought or feeling suppressed. If they had expressed their thought or feeling they would have become a worse person, but if they had not expressed it, they would be ruined. Therefore, discrimination must be developed. We must develop a thought in order to analyze it, and to understand it before it is expressed. We must know that, “Something is in my hand now. Shall I throw it out or not? By throwing it out, I shall do something wrong. Where shall I throw it? Shall I throw it on my head? What shall become of it?” This person must know what they have in their hand. If in order to avoid breaking another’s head, they have broken their own head, they have done something wrong, too.
Question: Then what to do?
Answer: A person must first weigh and measure the impulses that come to them. Instead of throwing an impulse out automatically, they must first weigh it, analyze it, measure it, and utilize it to the best advantage in life. The stone is not only used to break another person’s head or your own head. A stone is also used to build houses; it can be utilized. Use everything where it will be useful, where it will be of some advantage. All such things as passion and anger and irritation, can be looked upon as something very bad, as an evil. However, if that evil were kept in hand, it could be used for a good purpose, because it is a power, it is an energy. In other words, evil better utilized becomes a virtue, and virtue wrongly utilized becomes an evil.
Question: Can you give an instance of the way in which the impulse of anger can be utilized?
Answer: For instance, when a person is in a rage and really feels like being angry, but has controlled that thought and has not expressed it in words, that gives them a great power. Otherwise the expression of anger would have had a bad effect upon their nerves. By controlling it, it has given them a strength. It remains with them. I prefer a person who has anger and control than the person who has not had it at all. A person came to me and said (he thought that I would be very pleased with it), “I have been a vegetarian for twenty years now.” I said, “What made you become a vegetarian?” He said, “That takes away the anger and passion and all the evils that make people go wrong.” I said, “That is the wrong reason for becoming vegetarian. If by being ill a person becomes virtuous, that virtue is nothing.”
Question: Does self-control not take away spontaneity?
Answer: Self-control gives a greater power of spontaneity. It develops thought-power. It makes a person think about every impulse that otherwise manifests automatically.
Question: Must a person not feel first?
Answer: A person must know about it. At every impulse they must be awake so that they hold that impulse in hand and know what it is. In other words, hold the word between the lips before it drops out.
Question: The impulse in itself, before it is yet controlled, is it wrong in itself?
Answer: When we think about the origin of impulse, we go in quite a different direction of thought. Then we have to think of what direction the impulse is facing, and also about the direction of the mind, whether it is in illumination or in darkness. The mind is sometimes illuminated, sometimes in darkness. We should think about the condition of the mind at the time. There is another thing to be considered in this connection. A person may have good intentions and their mind be focused on good ideas. There is another person who with evil intentions and wrong ideas has said or done something and has automatically turned the mind of the first person to the wrong, against their own will. There is a phrase in the Bible, “Resist not evil.” Sometimes evil comes as a fire thrown by a person into the mind of another, a mind that did not have a fire. That fire started there, and in reaction that mind then expressed that fire. To resist evil is to send fire in answer to fire, in other words to partake of the fire that comes from another. By not partaking of the fire, you have thrown the fire away. The fire has fallen back on the same person who has thrown it.
Question: In what way do you look upon those saints in the East and West who have risen above all such feelings? Will there always be very few or will their number increase?
Answer: With the evolution of humanity their number will naturally increase, and we must all try for the increase of that number.
Question: What kind of breathing practices must we teach to children from twelve to sixteen years old, so that they can learn to control their breath?
Answer: If children from twelve to sixteen can learn to breathe clearly and rhythmically and deep enough, that is something.
Question: Would the sages and saints have the same impulses as ordinary persons have, when they let go of their control?
Answer: Limitation goes as far as perfection. The thing is this, that a human being carries a limitation further than they can imagine. As long as the saints and sages have to wear this limited garb, this material body, they have their limitations just the same. At the same time, they increase and develop the power that makes them control their impulses, that makes them control their reactions.
Question: Is it possible that there exist people who have only good impulses?
Answer: When the word “good” comes, it is very difficult to analyze it. Because good is not something that is stamped as “good”. What is good at one time, the same thing is not good at another time. What is good in one situation, in another situation the same thing is bad. Besides, what a person considers good just now, after three days the same thing may be the worst thing for them. Therefore, those who think, those who know, never defend the good that they consider for the moment good. Because they think that “What is good in my consideration may not be good in the consideration of another. And what I consider good just now, perhaps after a week, I may not consider it good.” It is therefore that they judge no one, they only try to do what they consider good for the moment.
December 10, 1924
CW 1924 II, pp. 741-752.