A series of short articles on the Bhagavad Gita for people living and working in our volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous times filled with stress and fear. This scripture born in a battlefield teaches us how to face our challenges, live our life fully, achieve excellence in whatever we do and find happiness, peace and contentment.
[Continued from the previous post.]
One of the fascinating things about the Gita chapter we are about to finish discussing is that Krishna says just a single sentence of five words here: partha pashya etaan samavetaan kuroon – Arjuna, see these assembled kurus. After that he remains totally silent, listening to Arjuna. As Arjuna passes through various stages of confusion, frustration, depression, melancholy and finally reaches the depths of his vishada, Krishna pays full attention to him. He speaks again only after Arjuna has collapsed in his chariot abandoning his bow and arrows at the end of the chapter and the next chapter begins. He gives Arjuna space to say all he wants to say without interrupting once. And after he has stopped speaking, Krishna provokes him to speak again, helping him to expresses anything more that might be lurking in the depths of his mind. This is like emptying a vessel and then pouring some water into it, shaking the vessel well and emptying it again to clean out anything that might have been still be in it. As Krishna does so, Arjuna brings out the rest of his pain and agony and confusion from his inner depths, thus making his mind empty and receptive to Krishna’s teachings. That emptiness at the end of pouring out all that is in your mind is a requirement to receive the teachings of the Gita.
Very little of Gita can go into a crowded mind, which is the reason why we too must practice some sadhana for emptying the mind along with the study of the Gita, like a meditation. A few minutes of meditation every day and living the whole day meditatively will take us a long way. Living the whole day meditatively is not difficult because all you have to do is to focus completely on whatever you are doing. Meditation is focusing your attention on a single thing, whether it is your breath, abdominal movement, a mantra, a sound, an image or anything else. In his classic The Miracle of Mindfulness, Thich Nhat Hanh speaks of transforming everyday actions like washing vessels into meditation by the simple practice of paying full attention to them.
One of the most famous Zen stories is about a university professor who went to meet a Zen master to learn Zen from him. While the professor began introducing himself, the master ordered tea. A disciple brought tea and the master began pouring the tea into a cup while the professor talked about the researches he has done, the researches he is engaged in at the moment, his future research plans and so on. Listening quietly without saying a word, the Zen master kept pouring the tea into the cup which had by then become full and had started spilling over. Suddenly the professor noticed this and said, “Master, the cup is full. No more will go in!”
And the master stopped and said, “You are like this cup, professor. You are so full of yourself that no Zen will go in now. Empty yourself and come back.”
Without emptying ourselves, we cannot receive wisdom. Wisdom is given only to those who have become silent inside and not to those with crowded minds. Krishna is allowing Arjuna to go on talking so that his mind becomes empty and receptive to what he has to say.
There is another reason why Krishna listens to Arjuna attentively without interrupting. The greatest thing anyone can do for a man who is in pain and grief is to listen to him. Being heard is healing. Just the fact that someone is listening to us attentively, the fact that someone feels what we have to say is important, will have a positive effect on us, as anyone who has ever wanted to talk to someone and has found someone to listen to him knows.
I remember my days as the principal of a large junior college. One day a girl student in her teens came to me weeping, her whole body shaking, the power of each sob sending violent tremors through her whole body. I seated her conformably on a sofa in my chamber and gave her plenty of time to relax and catch her breath. It was only after quite some time that she started sharing her problem. It took me a long time to get the whole picture from her as she shared her pain in words interspersed with periods of sobbing.
This young girl was extremely beautiful and very sweet. One of her plain looking teachers could not tolerate her beauty or the fact that all the boys liked her. So she began insulting her in class, finding fault with her for everything, calling her an idiot for the smallest errors she made and also saying things like she has no interest in studies but was interested only in drawing boys to her, she was a trap and a danger to the boys and bad example to other girls. The teacher went to the extent of calling the young girl a slut in the classroom.
It took me more than an hour of more or less silent listening to put her at ease and then to assure her she would be fine, nothing would happen to her. I had instructed my secretary who sat just outside my chamber not to let anyone come in so that I could listen to her uninterrupted, paying full attention. I can’t say she was healed of her pain by the time she left my room, but she had certainly become relaxed, with even a gentle smile appearing on her face as she was thanked me and left.
Krishna listens with complete attention to whatever Arjuna has to say because listening with complete attention is in itself healing.
By the way, listening with complete attention is also the greatest compliment you can give anyone. We all need attention – that is one of the greatest people truths.
The following passage is from Brenda Shoshanna’s beautiful book Zen Miracles: Finding Peace in an Insane World, a book that I have used as a text in a course called Zen and the Executive Mind that I taught for several years in one of the top business schools of India, XLRI School of Business and Human Resources.
“A Zen student, Leila, went to the beach for the weekend. After a hectic week she looked forward to peace, to the smell of the ocean, to the sand dunes. There was a woman cleaning in the guest house Leila was staying at. This woman, Frieda, sang very loud love songs in Spanish as she swept the floors. In addition, she was noisy and clumsy.
“As usual, Leila woke up early in the morning and wanted to do zazen. She tidied her room, and placed a cushion on the floor to sit on. Just as she sat down on it she heard a bang against the door. Frieda was sweeping outside and had knocked the door with her broom. She was also singing loudly, “My heart’s breaking, breaking today.”
“Leila sat on the cushion, listening to the shrill song. “What will I do without you?” Frieda kept wailing. Finally, Leila got up, opened the door and called, “Frieda, can you be a little more quiet?”
“Frieda didn’t fully understand English and kept right on singing.
“Leila went back to sit down again, but not only did the song get louder, the broom started banging her door consistently. Finally, she got up from the cushion wondering what was wrong with the woman. Negative thoughts started to brew but thanks to years of zazen, she caught herself. “Stop it,” she said to the dark mind that was forming. Leila realized that when we want to be apart from something, it clings to us; when we want to be too close, it runs away.
“She opened the door and went out of the room. The minute Frieda saw her, she flew over, standing no more than two inches away. It seemed she had taken a great liking to Leila. Leila turned to go outside in the street, and Frieda followed along. “Where are you going?” she said. “To the beach,” Leila said. Frieda grinned. “Me too. Going along.”
“As they walked down the dirt road to the ocean, Frieda kept humming and Leila resisted, trying to shut her out. She started concentrating on other things. Then the humming turned into loud singing again. Leila focused on the delicious salt air and took deep gulps of it. The singing got louder still. Whatever Leila did to block it out, it only got louder. Then, suddenly Master Rinzai’s words came to her: “If we master each circumstance, then whatever we do is the truth.” How am I going to master this? she wondered. They arrived at the beach with Frieda singing relentlessly.”
“When they got to the sand, Leila spread out a blanket and sat down; Frieda planted herself right beside her again. As Leila watched the waves of the ocean roll up on the shore, she suddenly stopped pushing Frieda away, and fell into zazen. She stopped wanting things to be different. She stopped wanting quiet time alone at the beach. This was the circumstance she was in now, hearing Frieda sing over and over that her heart was breaking...”
As we shall see, this incident Brenda Shoshanna shares is about listening, but it is about other things too. It is about accepting things as they are, people as they are, life as it is, and many more things. As a practitioner of Zen,
Leila is trying to use every situation that life presents as an opportunity for practicing Zen. Let’s continue with Shoshanna’s narration. Something beautiful happens now.
“Frieda was swaying as she sang, and Leila found herself swaying as well. As the two of them sat there swaying, Frieda’s voice became softer. Leila turned and looked at Frieda. Tears were pouring down her face.
“Frieda said, “You, my mamma. Missing my mamma.” Leila finally understood that Frieda was missing her mother, who was far away. She must have reminded Frieda of her mother. Frieda was sitting there crying and in a moment Leila started crying as well. She was also missing her mother, who had died a year ago. The two of them sat there crying on the blanket together until Leila turned and gave Frieda a hug. Soon the crying subsided, the singing subsided—they were simply sitting together, listening to the sound of the waves.”
What a beautiful experience! Leila could have rejected Frieda, shouted at her, instead she accepts her, listens to her attentively. A woman in great pain and loneliness is consoled. The pain she had been storing inside her suffocating her melts and comes out in the form of her tears and an amazing relationship is formed between the two women who were strangers just a few minutes ago!
Listening can do miracles. Paying attention to others can do miracles.
Unfortunately in today’s world no one has time to listen to others! All of us are in such hurry and we all have so much to say! How can we listen to others then?
I remember a sad story reported by newspapers several years ago.
As the parents were getting the little baby ready for school she was resisting and saying she did not want to go. Well, that was nothing unusual, so they continued. But as they put her foot in one of her shoes she started screaming but they ignored that too. Just the daily drama taken to just another level, they thought. They tied up the shoe laces after putting the other foot in the other shoe and hurried her out as they heard the school bus coming.
The baby kept screaming in the bus and then continued crying aloud in the school too for two more hours. It is only then one of the teachers noticed blood was draining from her face and her body was slowly turning blue while the child kept up with the screaming which had by now become weak. Soon the baby collapsed in a swoon and the teacher loosened her uniform and removed her shoes. It was then she saw it – there was a scorpion inside the child’s shoe, still alilve! It was the scorpion bite that had made her scream in the first place and now her foot was all swollen up and the poison had spread to other parts of her body too. As I remember the news said the poor baby died of the scorpion poisoning.
Just the other day I saw a sad You Tube video about a little child fighting with her mother insisting that she did not want to go to school. The mother asked her why and she said it was no fun, they didn’t allow her to play, it was only study and study all the time, and you had to sit without moving and do all the teacher asked you to do. The mother asked her if they don’t sing songs in school, if they don’t dance and she said it was just abcd and numbers and nothing else. The baby kept saying she did not want to go to school, wept, begged her mother not to send her to school. As you watched the baby’s helpless frustration, tears welled up in your eyes and you felt it difficult to breathe. But I felt that was not how the mother saw it – I could hear her laughing at what the baby was saying, as though she found it all amusing rather than painful.
I know perhaps mothers today have no choice, such is what education has become, particularly in India with such high premium placed on education and with so many first and second generation learners. I remembered all those lectures on Rousseau I gave to future teachers in a College of Education where I taught for many years. Speaking about the right kind of education, Rousseau said “education practices the art of delay,” meaning we must delay sending children to schools as much as possible. The father of modern education also said the best education is negative education, meaning we much give children as little book education as possible, and instead send them back to nature for natural education. Sadly all those ideas have been wiped away by the tides of time and what we see today all around us is little babies going to school bent under the weight of heavy backpacks. They look like mountain climbers with huge trekking bags. Education should be pleasurable, said Rousseau, but that is not exactly what we see when we look at our schools. Even then shouldn’t parents at least give a sympathetic ear to children when they say they do not want to go to school?
In his book Is the American Dream Killing You? Paul Stiles speaks of how we have all become servants of an all-powerful entity called Market and how that entity has made in the short span of just two generations joint families disappear from the face of the earth. True, joint families had their own problems, but they were wonderful places for children to grow up in, with many generations living together, and several children of near ages growing up together and there was always someone to listen to you when you wanted to talk. Today instead of parents and grandparents, it is the paid caregivers at the day care centers who look after you. More than Anything Else in the World is a powerful, award winning Brazilian movie I once saw in a film festival. It talked about the loneliness of a little girl growing up with her single mother who works nine to five in modern Rio de Janeiro and the hell life has become for her and the mother.
Much of the insanity and violence in the world today is because no one has time to listen to children in their most important years of growing up.
One of the greatest leadership skills is listening skill, some would even say it is the greatest leadership skill. A story from third century China tells us of King Ts’ao taking his son Prince Ta’i to Pan Ku, the best guru in the country who lived near the Ming Li forest. The king requested Pan Ku to give the prince the best possible education as the future ruler of the country.
When the king left, Pan Ku turned to the young boy and told him, “Go the forest and build a small hut there for yourself. Live in that hut for a full year listening to the sound of the forest. Come back to me after the year is over.” The boy was completely confused by the order. He had expected to be taught strategic leadership skills, people skills, planning skills, the vision and mission of a king and all else he would need tomorrow as a ruler. Instead he was being asked to go and live in the forest all alone listening to the sound of the forest. But since there was no one he could complain to since his father himself had left him with the guru, he quietly went and lived in the forest as he was told to. He listened to all the sounds of the forest – the rustle of leaves, the chirping of crickets, the buzzing of bees, the roar of lions, the song of birds, the laughter of hyenas, the chattering of the monkeys... He waited impatiently for the year to be over and then went back to the master.
“Did you listen to the sound of the forest?” asked the master and the prince said, “Yes, master.” And when Pan Ku asked him what he had heard, he started naming the different sounds he had heard. As the list grew, the guru’s face began growing darker and darker and when he finished, the guru shouted, “Back to the forest. Come back after one more year.”
The furious and frustrated young man went back to the forest and for a while continued listening. But he had already spent an entire year listening just to the sounds of the forest and there was nothing new to hear. Eventually he gave up and spent his time just relaxing under trees, walking by streams and lying in shades. He was no more trying to listen to forest sounds but had surrendered to a forest dweller’s life, became part of the forest, no more separate from it but one with it.
And then one day it happened. He heard something he had never heard before. The sound of the grass growing, the sound of the trees drinking up water with their roots, the sound of green leaves yellowing, green fruits ripening, plants flowering, seasons changing. He had goose bumps all over, great joy spurted from within him as water from an underground spring, and bathed in this bliss he ran to the guru, without even waiting for the completion of the year. The guru took one look at him and then hugged him, telling him he had heard that he wanted him to hear, he had heard the sound of the forest. Pan Ku sent him back to his father with his blessings, telling him his education was complete, he would be a great king like his father.
What the boy had heard was the sound of silence – it is in silence that the grass grows, it is in silence that fruits ripen, it is in silence that seasons change. He was able to listen to the sound of silence because he himself had grown silent inside by surrendering to life, accepting it without resisting it, and by totally relaxing, letting go. And with the birth of that inner silence, he had become capable of listening – for the first time in his life. He could now listen not only to what was spoken, but also to the unspoken. He could not only listen to sounds but also to silence. Intelligence had been awakened in him, because the secret of intelligence is inner silence. Sensitivity had been awakened in him, because the secret of sensitivity is inner silence. Imagination had been awakened in him, because the secret of imagination is inner silence. Love had been awakened in him, because only with a silent mind can you really love others.
His education was now truly complete. Everything that he did will now have the quality of excellence. When he touched things, they would sparkle. When he spoke, people would run to fulfill his wishes. He would be surrounded by an aura of tranquility and stillness. His energy would now be inexhaustible. He would now be what Tibet called wang thang, a center of serene power. He would see beauty in the most ordinary things. He would radiate love. He would no more have to manipulate people because his least wish would be a command for them.
That is what happens when you become silent inside.
Says Zen: To the mind that is still, the whole universe surrenders.
Learning to listen is a great blessing on us. It is also a blessing on others. When you give your attention to others, they are healed, made whole.
Doctors need to listen to their patients, says the latest discoveries in medicine. It is as much the doctor who heals as the medicine.
Parents need to listen. Teachers need to listen. Husbands and wives need to listen.
Leaders need to listen. It is only then that they can understand the private hells within peoples and efficiently motivate them; coach, mentor and guide them and build effective teams. It has been said by experts that leadership is 80% listening and 20% talking – probably the opposite of what is widely practiced.
Amazing is the power of loving attention. It transforms people. If you have seen the movie Munnabhai MBBS, you know the instant transformation that happens when Munna pays loving attention to Maksood Bhai, you know the secret of Anand Bhai’s metamorphosis from a living dead man to the narrator of the movie. Like love that transforms both the lover and the loved, attention paid to others too transforms both them and you.
Krishna listens to Arjuna and encourages him to speak more and that opens the door to wonderful teachings we call the Bhagavad Gita.
The Gita teaches us what exactly we are seeking and why we seek it. The Gita helps us discover the meaning of life, shows us the only path worth travelling for our own good and the good of the world. The Gita teaches us the difference between shreyas and preyas. The Gita helps the river of our life to flow towards the ocean as it should and not towards dreary deserts, to borrow an expression from Gurudev Tagore. The Gita can make life what it is meant to be – an utsava, a celebration, a festival,
Thus ends Chapter One of the Bhagavad Gita.
Shri krishnarpanam astu! Tavaiva vastu govinda tubhyam eva samarpaye!