Mind your Mind – Help from Stories

In the world’s wisdom traditions, stories are indirect means of imparting profound truths. To preach virtue is one thing; to relate a story like that of the good Samaritan provides a pictorial narrative that stays in the mind, prompts self-examination and reveals deeper meaning the more it is pondered. This is a characteristic of stories that have a spiritual dimension: the more we think about them with receptivity, the more meaningful they become. For their depth mirrors our own depth, and can help us to unveil higher aspects of our own being that are normally hidden by the everyday extrovertive mode of life.

Not all stories are as solemn and dramatic as the one referred to. Some have a lightness and humour that relieves us of any sense that we are being prompted to think or act in a new way. For example, Swami Rama Tirtha suggests the immediacy of the divine consciousness, God, in his story about the atheistic lawyer, whose wall was boldly inscribed with the words: God is nowhere. One day his young son, who was learning words and spelling, tried to copy this slogan, but he was confused by the long word at the end and found it was easier to break it up. And so he wrote: ‘God is now here’.

Whether we agree or not, it is likely that such a tale, with its simple word-play, will stay in our memory, while a metaphysical discourse about the divine immanence may make little impression.

Another story makes the same point in an equally playful way. It relates how, in the early days of creation, when human beings first learned that there was a powerful entity called God who had brought them into existence, and who could be prayed to, they petitioned God to such an extent that he himself was deprived of rest and desperately sought a hiding place where he could escape— at least for a time—the torrent of prayerful requests, which were usually for material things. So a council was held and suggestions were invited.

Predictably, most suggestions pointed to inhospitable regions of the earth where human life was unlikely to penetrate, like the Himalayan heights, the glaciers of Antarctica, the heart of the Amazon forests, or the Gobi desert. But the All-highest could foresee future intrusion, and asked his counsellors to think again. At last an elder exclaimed: ‘I’ve got it—the abode that no one will ever think of entering, where you will be able to rest in lonely solitude as long as you wish.’ ‘Tell me your suggestion’, said God. The old man answered: ‘Let this abode of rest and peace be the human heart. No one will ever think of seeking you there.’

The story, with its naive personification of the supreme being, yet manages to indicate the most profound concept: that ultimate reality is in some sense present in our own being. This doctrine is expressed with the help of a metaphor by Swami Rama Tirtha:

The spiritual heart of man is the heart of the universe. If we will but quarry the mine of our own soul, we will find there the central rock on which to build in safety.

It is the same truth that is declared in the Kena Upanishad:

That which one does not comprehend with the mind, that by which, they say, the mind is encompassed, know that to be the supreme reality (Brahman) and not that which people worship as an object.

This last verse clarifies that the ‘heart’ in which the divine dwells is really our mind, or rather the power that underlies and encompasses the mind. Our normal assumption about the nature of experience is that we tend to take the world as real and God as an add-on, or else a department, within that wider experience. In fact, it is the other way round. The reality is the all-encompassing divine power, Brahman, and the world appearance is a fragmentary expression of that great reality. This perspective is conveyed by Swami Rama Tirtha in answer to the question: ‘Have you got a soul?’ to which he replied: ‘No! I am the soul’. In a certain sense, we, as soul, which is the same as the true Self, ‘have’ the body and the mind, but our true Self is in no way limited or defined by this apparent identity.

Any kind of explanation, whether through doctrine, story or poetry, is bound to fall short of doing justice to the supreme reality and its nature as the true Self of all. What sheds light on this truth is the way of practice. Yet even the way of practice, which leads us into the most subtle, refined and penetrating mental activity and stillness, shares the same problems of description and explanation that apply to the reality itself. The inner development involved is unlike that promoted in the world. It is rather a purification and an uncovering—the creation of a new inner atmosphere in which the potentialities at the core of our being may begin to stir and express themselves. Language falls short of conveying the nature of this developing experience of unfoldment and inner expansion. Nonetheless indications are possible, and once again this is where stories can come to our aid.

One story worthy of our reflection is that of the painting contest. It comes in the Islamic tradition in the writings of both Rumi and Al-Ghazali, where the contest is between two teams, one from China and the other from Greece. Rama Tirtha simplifies and universalises the presentation, by making it a contest between two individuals, each seeking the favour of the ruler. The work of art—a mural or wall painting—must be done on opposite walls of the palace hall, with curtains to conceal the artists and their work until its completion. One of the painters quickly ran out of suitable colours, and asked continually for more. The other painter expressed no such need; indeed, he seemed not to be using brushes or colours at all, and yet was obviously applying himself with vigour to his section of the wall. It turned out he was meticulously cleaning every millimetre of the wall, and then polishing it until it became reflective. The wall became so smooth that even a passing fly would be unable to alight on it for want of a foothold.

The day came when this competition was to be consummated by the ruler. When the wall with the multi-coloured mural was revealed, the ruler was wonderstruck by its beauty and charm. Then came the unveiling of the opposite wall, which now was so wonderfully polished and reflective that the other painting was reflected in it with greater beauty and depth. The prize went to the artist who seemed to be working with nothing, and yet achieved a perfect result.

What is the cleaning? It is the elimination of impurities from our mind. What is the polishing? It is applying the mind to the highest values that are transmitted through the teachings of the illumined sages. No ‘flies’ of selfish calculations can settle on such a mind, which now reflects only the beauty, purity and depth of one’s higher nature, whose source is God within. In Rumi’s version of the story, the conclusion is poetically expressed:

They that burnish (their hearts) have escaped from (mere) scent and colour: they behold Beauty at every moment without tarrying.
They have relinquished the form and husk of knowledge, they have raised the banner of the eye of certainty.
Thought is gone, and they have gained light: they have gained the throat (core and essence) and the sea (ultimate source) of gnosis.

This is a new turn to the mental life, for we are living with a purpose which will not fail, and we are joining our individuality to the infinite divine life that holds together the universe—and this means transcending individuality.

The higher phase of the interior revelation is indicated in the story, related by Swami Rama Tirtha, of the miraculous drinking horn.

A certain king of Norway possessed such a horn and on one occasion announced that he would reward handsomely anyone who, drinking from the horn, could imbibe its entire content. Many came, held the horn to their lips and began to drink. Yet the drink never came to an end and the horn always seemed to be full. It turned out that the horn was in secret connection with the ocean, whose waters instantaneously replenished it whenever anyone sought to drink from it.

The practical and meditative point here is that our mind, at a certain level, is free from the conditioning of individuality, and reveals itself to be in unbroken continuity with the higher life that pervades the universe. As Hari Prasad Shastri remarks in Meditation – Its Theory and Practice:

Our individual minds, conditioned by our bodies, are but small fractions of the divine or cosmic mind, and possess the power of receiving from the cosmic mind all that they require for their harmonious growth.

As seekers, we are engaged in using our mind in a new way. How can we be free from reverses, where the world’s attractions and intrusions recapture our mind and subjugate it to the old values based on pleasure-desire and self-importance? Through ensuring that the force of feeling is aligned with our higher quest, through interest, then love, then identification.

When we speak of love in the context of the higher teachings, we find that the tendency to devotion, worship and inner communion is seen in a new light. Now something deeper is astir within us, which we may try to ignore, but can never negate. It will turn our ‘maybe’ into a ‘must do’. Rumi’s story of the man who missed the congregational prayers indicates the interior change that is involved.

Late for the religious service, the man ran to the mosque, but as he arrived, the people were leaving. They told him he had missed the service and the Prophet’s blessing. On hearing this, the man gave out such a heartfelt sigh that it was as if black smoke, writes Rumi, issued forth from his heart. The people were amazed at the sigh and the depth of devotion it denoted. They observed that such a sigh was worth more than all their prayers, and told the man: ‘Give us that sigh, and we will give you merit of our prayers’, to which, with relief, he acquiesced.

The goal of our desiring is close at hand, and its revelation is the result of determined and progressive uncovering of what we truly are, by casting aside all the limited ideas of self that are built up as our life develops. Another story related by Rumi concerns a thirsty man who was sitting on a high wall that overlooked a stream of pure, clear water. Noticing a loose brick, he pulled it off the wall and threw it into the stream, enjoying the sound of the splash. He then deliberately started to loosen more bricks, each of which was hurled into the stream below. The stream, writes Rumi, protested, and asked the man why he was behaving in such a strange way. The man explained that he was burning with thirst, and that the splash of the bricks made him feel closer to the water, while the removal of each brick actually brought him nearer to the stream, so that eventually he would be able to jump from the wall and drink his fill.

In a similar way, we advance on our path to self-knowledge not by acquiring new qualities, but through feeding our love of wisdom by dismantling the barriers of prejudices, likes, dislikes and all the other factors that appear to block our access to the ‘water of immortality’ that ever springs forth from the centre of our being.

The stories related remind us in diverse ways that Truth is within our own being, awaiting our attention, quest and discovery. Our mind may need to be adjusted so that we do our best to harmonise our life, in its activity and expression, to a new set of values based on our highest good—which means inner growth and progress. But we notice that relevant teachings and helpful stories are available from many sources, and if we turn to them with interest and self-application, each day will bring us nearer to the great goal of enlightenment and to our awakening to what is ‘now’ ‘here’ as the light that reveals and makes possible the whole of our experience.


This article is from the Summer 2020 issue of Self-Knowledge Journal.