When I was a young boy, the watchmen on their beat at night in my hometown used to cry out, “Keep awake! Keep Awake!” When Ananda asked the Lord Buddha what he should do or should not do in a certain situation, the Lord, after making certain suggestions, said at last, “Keep awake, Ananda; keep wide awake”.
In the Holy Bible the importance of watchfulness is emphasized time and again. “We are not of the night,” says St. Paul to the Thessalonians, “nor of darkness. Therefore let us not sleep, as do others; but let us watch and be sober.”
The Path has been described as straight and narrow like a razor’s edge. The need for utter watchfulness while treading it cannot, therefore, be overemphasized.
Watchfulness may be considered at three different levels—the physical, the astral, and the mental—although, in reality, there is no such hard and fast division since they act and react on each other.
One usually imagines that, since it is the most material, the physical plane must be the easiest to deal with. Such confidence, however, is often misplaced, for the physical body is clever enough to call on the support of its two friends, the astral and mental bodies, to serve its own ends. The physical body may have a liking for a particular kind—and quantity—of food. If this should be changed, even for the sake of a more balanced diet, it often rebels, quickly enlists the sympathy and backing of the astral body and the result is displeasure in varying degrees—anger, annoyance or just a grumpy face—conveyed, in no uncertain manner, to the poor wife or the cook.
At school we had classes on health and hygiene based on a booklet entitled The Wonderful House We Live In. Our body is without doubt a wonderful house, sturdy, complex, finely balanced, with a tremendous capacity for adaptability and a remarkable potential for self-repair. It is our duty to take good care of the house we live in; to clean it, dust it, paint it and keep it always looking bright and fresh. Trouble, however, arises when the “house”—or its gross elemental wanting to live its own life—tries to make us believe that we are the house! Watchfulness is needed so that we may be aware that the cravings of the body are not our wants. A clear distinction must be kept between its cravings and its legitimate needs for keeping itself pure, responsive and in good health.
Apart from the physical body, watchfulness has several other aspects on the physical plane. For instance, many of our traditions, customs and practices are inherited from the country, race or community in which we were born or in which we live. Each one of these should be closely examined and should be discarded if it is not right from the point of view of our higher self.
What has been said about watchfulness in regard to the physical body and the physical plane applies much more to our feelings and emotions, because they are so much with us and sway us so powerfully, though often imperceptibly. Indeed, we find that we are often literally buried in them. There is a simple but a most vital statement on this subject in At the Feet of the Master:
The astral body has its desires –dozens of them; it wants you to be angry, to say sharp words, to feel jealous, to be greedy for money, to envy other people for their possessions, to yield yourself to depression. All these things it wants, and many more, not because it wishes to harm you, but because it likes violent vibrations, and likes to change them constantly. Butyou want none of these things, and therefore you must discriminate between your wants and your body’s.
Much of this is our common everyday experience. Often, therefore, we are aware of what is happening, we have said sharp words’ then the mind comes to the aid of the astral body and tries to justify the ill-humour by making us believe that it was only “righteous anger.” But anger is anger and means that our feelings or emotions got the better of us at least temporarily.
There is an instructive anecdote in this regard narrated by Bertram Keightley in hisReminiscences of H.P.B.
The work for some time had been heavy and anxious; in addition I had just then many personal worries and difficulties so that my nerves got badly frayed. One day HPB sent upstairs for me before breakfast and when I came to her she just let loose and abused, scolded and scarified me, hitting just every one of my weakest and tenderest spots…till at last I felt a surge of real red-hot anger rise within me…Well, I felt my temper go and my eyes flash. On the moment, HPB, who seemed almost raving with fury, stopped dead silent and absolutely quiet. There was not even a quiver or vibration of anger. She just looked me up and down and remarked coldly: “And you want to be an occultist!” Then I saw and knew, and went off deeply ashamed; having learnt no small lesson.
One is sometimes inclined to envy a person who has marched faster than we have along the path of spiritual progress. Sometimes we feel dejected or disappointed that in spite of so many years of tapas or effort, we do not seem to have made any progress. Instead of trying to analyse what is lacking in us or what has gone wrong with us or what is hampering our progress, we tend to blame others—sometimes even the Powers that Be—for neglecting us. It is said that there is no effort without its result, although it may not be immediately visible. The laws of Nature in this regard are immutable. Faith and self-confidence should therefore take the place of depression and disappointment “for,” says At The Feet of The Master, “your will must be like tempered steel if you would tread the Path.”
Let us now look at the mental body—our mind. The nature of the mind is to create separateness—to divide—because it was by that process that it developed. This process was necessary up to a certain stage but is so no more. That is why in Light On The Path there is the exhortation to “kill out all sense of separateness”. The note that follows adds: “Therefore, remember that the soiled garment you shrink from touching may have been yours yesterday, may be yours tomorrow. And if you turn with horror from it, when it is flung upon your shoulders, it will cling the more closely to you.”
This sense of separateness that the mind tries to create takes many forms. Of these, pride and prejudice are the most prominent. If we question the mind about these shortcomings, it tries, in a very subtle and persuasive way, to convince us that we are not at all proud but rightly conscious of our superior knowledge or learning which, after all, we use for the good of others; that we have no prejudice for or against a person, or a point of view, but only a right perception! Great watchfulness and total detachment are necessary in order to avoid the traps that the mind continuously sets for us.
A Sufi teacher tells the following story:
Once upon a time, Moses prayed so warmly that the stimulating effect was felt by Him until the following day. He wondered whether any one could ever have been so blessed as he. The Angel Gabriel presently came with this message from God: “There is one in this forest who can cure the ills of My devotees.” Moses hastened to the spot, and found a frog croaking in the pool. The frog said: “Moses, I have long been waiting to uproot pride from your heart. The Divine influence you felt last night passed through me. I received it first and then passed it on to you. Be warned against the repetition of the boast!”
And yet, watchfulness and vigilance on the different planes are necessary and relevant only up to a certain stage. When the consciousness transcends the bodies or the lower self and is established in the Self, watchfulness such as that indicated above becomes unnecessary. When the sapling becomes a full-grown and sturdy tree, it does not need to be fenced about for protection from nibbling goats or sheep, nor does it need watering, for its roots now reach the springs deep in the earth.
An electromagnet attracts nails and pins towards it. If one wants the magnet to remain untouched or insulted, the nails and pins have to be kept away from it; and if they happen to get attached to it they must be removed. However, when the electric current is switched off, the nails or pins are no longer attracted and any that adhere to the magnet at once drop off. The iron bar is the Self and the electric current running through the coil round the bar is maya or illusion.
The Bhagavadgita puts it thus:
The objects of sense, but not the relish for them, turn away from abstemious dweller in the body’; but even relish turneth away from him after the Supreme is seen. (II.59)
The moon keeps watch during the darkness of the night, but when the sun rises, the moonlight becomes unnecessary.