How to live
“Well may he be content to live a hundred years who acts without attachment who works his work with earnestness, but without desire, not yearning for its fruits–he, and he alone” (Isha Upanishad 2).
It is generally felt that this verse–and other passages from scriptures and books on spiritual life–indicates that one hundred years is the normal lifespan for a human being. On the other hand, the figure of one hundred years may also symbolize the complete lifespan of a person, however brief or long, the idea here being that not one moment of our life need be a burden nor should we ever wish to shorten our life by a single breath–that life should be lived in fulfillment with peace and happiness all the way through. That this is possible has been shown well by the saints and masters of all religions and ages. We need only know how to do it; and these words give the way.
Acting without attachment and desire
In the Bhagavad Gita Krishna draws very clearly for us the picture of a person who lives in anxiety and misery and him who lives in peace and contentment. Both may be living in exactly the same situation, for it is not external conditions that make us happy or miserable, but our reaction to them. Krishna makes it quite plain that the secret of happiness or misery lies in the absence of two things: attachment and desire. Those who live in attachment to externalities, anxious to fulfill desire, must suffer and live in frustration. On the other hand, those who live without egoic desire are perpetually at peace.
Krishna not only holds out the ideal for us, He also tells us how to accomplish it in the following verses from the Bhagavad Gita.
“Perform every action with your heart fixed on the Supreme Lord. Renounce attachment to the fruits. Be even-tempered in success and failure; for it is this evenness of temper which is meant by yoga” (2:48).
“In the calm of self-surrender you can free yourself from the bondage of virtue and vice during this very life. Devote yourself, therefore, to reaching union with Brahman. To unite the heart with Brahman and then to act: that is the secret of non-attached work” (2:50).
“When your intellect has cleared itself of its delusions, you will become indifferent to the results of all action, present or future” (2:52).
“The world is imprisoned in its own activity, except when actions are performed as worship of God. Therefore you must perform every action sacramentally, and be free from all attachments to results” (3:9).
“Whosoever works for me alone, makes me his only goal and is devoted to me, free from attachment, and without hatred toward any creature–that man, O Prince, shall enter into me” (11:55).
‘Therefore, a man should contemplate Brahman until he has sharpened the axe of his non-attachment. With this axe, he must cut through the firmly-rooted Aswattha tree” (15:3).
“No human being can give up action altogether, but he who gives up the fruits of action is said to be non-attached” (18:11).
“When a man has achieved non-attachment, self-mastery and freedom from desire through renunciation, he reaches union with Brahman, who is beyond all action” (18:49).
In other words, keeping the mind on God frees us from egoic attachment to our activities. This is an extremely high ideal and one very hard to attain; yet we must strive for it through the practice of meditation, for only the clarity of vision reached through meditation can enable us to live out such a lofty ideal.
Working with earnestness
Lest we think thatnegative or passive indifference is detachment, or that carelessness and shoddiness in our daily work is spiritual-mindedness–a view that prevails in much of the Orient and among many in the West–the upanishad plainly tells us that the wise man “works his work with earnestness.” This is really a great portion of the Bhagavad Gita’s message: that we must work with skill to the best of our abilities–that is our part–while leaving the results to God–that is His part. In that way we truly are “workers together” with God (II Corinthians 6:1) in our life. Sri Ramakrishna said: “If you can weigh salt you can weigh sugar,” meaning that if a person is proficient in spiritual life he will be proficient in his outer life as well. That does not mean that all yogis need to become great successes in business or some other profession, but it does mean that they need to work with the full capabilities they possess and do absolutely the best they can–and need not worry about the results. In this way they will be at peace both internally and externally.
The real cankerworm in the garden of our life is desire, whether in the form of wanting, wishing, yearning, desiring, hoping, demanding, or craving. Whether to a little or a great degree, desire destroys our hearts and our chances for inner peace. Desire is a wasting fever which drives us onward to spiritual loss. “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (Mark 8:36). As Wordsworth wrote: “We have given our hearts away–a sordid boon!” I have spent my entire life watching people gain a little bit of the world and lose their souls. And ultimately they lost the world, too, either in the changes of earthly fortune or through the finality of death.
“And he said unto them, Take heed, and beware of covetousness: for a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth. And he spake a parable unto them, saying, The ground of a certain rich man brought forth plentifully: And he thought within himself, saying, What shall I do, because I have no room where to bestow my fruits? And he said, This will I do: I will pull down my barns, and build greater; and there will I bestow all my fruits and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry. But God said unto him, Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee: then whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided? So is he that layeth up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God” (Luke 12:15-21).
Desirelessness is not a zombie-like passivity, a kind of pious vegetating. Far from it. Krishna lauds the desireless in these words:
“He knows bliss in the Atman and wants nothing else. Cravings torment the heart: he renounces cravings. I call him illumined. Not shaken by adversity, not hankering after happiness: free from fear, free from anger, free from the things of desire. I call him a seer, and illumined. The bonds of his flesh are broken. He is lucky, and does not rejoice: he is unlucky, and does not weep. I call him illumined. The tortoise can draw in its legs: the seer can draw in his senses. I call him illumined. The abstinent run away from what they desire but carry their desires with them: when a man enters Reality, he leaves his desires behind him” (Bhagavad Gita 2:55-59).
The desireless who have fulfilled themselves in God are the most alive, happy, and satisfied of beings. Surely they–and they alone–are “content to live a hundred years.” For them there is no talk of death being a “blessed release” for they are already freed in spirit.
Read the next article in the Upanishads for Awakening: Spiritual Suicides
Sections in the Upanishads for Awakening:
- The Isha Upanishad
- The Kena Upanishad
- The Katha Upanishad
- The Past is the Future
- Seeing Death, Seeing Life
- The Good and the Pleasant
- The Way of Ignorance
- The Mystery of the Self
- How to Either Know or Not Know the Self
- From the Unreal to the Real
- Finding the Treasure
- The Transcendent Reality of the Self
- The Immortal Self
- The Indwelling Self
- The Omnipresent Self
- The Sorrowless Self
- Who Can Know the Self?
- The All-Consuming Self
- The Divine Indwellers
- The Chariot
- The Chariot’s Journey
- The Glorious Way
- To Know The Self
- The Power of Enlightenment
- The Infinite Self
- The Dweller in the Heart
- The Birthless Self
- The Shining Self
- The Life-Giving Self
- The Eternal Brahman–The Eternal Self
- The Radiant Self
- The Universal Tree
- Hierarchy of Consciousness
- From Mortality to Immortality
- The Prashna Upanishad
- The Mundaka Upanishad
- The Mandukya Upanishad
- The Taittiriya Upanishad
- The Aitareya Upanishad
- The Chandogya Upanishad
- The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad
- The Shvetashvatara Upanishad
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