A God in Swaddling-Bands
In The Book of Mirdad we read a proof text of the human condition:
Man is a god in swaddling-bands. Time is a swaddling-band. Space is a swaddling-band. Flesh is a swaddling-band, and likewise all the senses and the things perceived therewith. The mother knows too well that the swaddling-bands are not the babe. The babe, however, knows it not.
The babe knows it not. Only a greater being, a mature being, looking from above, sees the true identity of what lies concealed within layer upon layer of matter.
Swaddles are long rectangular strips of cloth aimed to restrict movement. A swaddle can also refer to a husk or a shell that covers and conceals a young soft pea or a bean. We identify with the covering and not the core. As all spiritual Masters explain, we are body, mind and soul. The physical body is a bipedal soul vehicle, nothing more. It struts its needy stuff upon the stage of life and then is no more.
If by an accident all the flesh were to be ripped from your face down to your shoulders, who would you see looking back at you in the mirror? Who are you now? Just a lump of flesh and automatic biological processes: neither black nor white, male nor female, old nor young, handsome nor plain. Everything on the outer layer you ever identified with and mentally prided yourself in, everything you tried to uphold and sustain in the face of time, just stripped away. And when the heart stops pumping blood through the lump of flesh and bone, there is ‘death’. But what was ‘life’? Who are you really? As Arthur Koestler famously put it, who is the ‘ghost in the machine’?
Only one question then remains: with the precious time left are we going to put all our energy into exploring that part of ourselves which dies, or the part of ourselves that never dies? It is a spiritual no-brainer.
It is so obvious, and yet we find ourselves drowning in ignorance and distraction. Why? We must look first to this outermost layer of flesh and form, the frontier of maya, where the mind first meets creation through the five senses. Like a physical touch screen, the senses spark mental impressions of hot and cold, bitter and sweet, light and dark, beautiful and ugly, attraction and aversion, pleasure and pain. These link to emotion, which is the mind’s reaction to the sensations of the body and senses. It is an ever-projecting screen of duality that is automatic and compulsive, and constitutes our false reality. The soul, our true identity, is totally lost behind layers of body and mind.
The Katha Upanishad has a famous image of a soft and delicate princess (soul) inside a carriage (the body), being drawn along by five powerful horses (the senses and passions), and all the while the carriage driver (higher mind or will) seems asleep on the job and barely has a grip on the reins. The princess is borne helplessly along, banging and crashing toward what can only be a collision with death itself. The point is that, while the wild and undisciplined horses are in control, the princess is just a silent passenger, her presence unobserved.
Quite simply, nothing can change until this process is reversed. The higher mind, empowered by the currents of soul (through meditation), must get a firm grasp on the senses, restore control and harmony, and gradually become conscious of who is within the carriage.
It is unbelievable how weak we have become. Few can resist even the grossest of worldly temptations, from food to digital stimulation to sensual overindulgence. We have to face reality and ask ourselves, ‘who is running my life?’ If it is true that all we are is soul, then is it not true that so many of us have allowed our lower mind to drag our attention downward and outward into the world and scatter it in every direction? It is time to take back our innate spiritual power and to realize our royal birthright.
First steps first. We cannot expect to reach for the celestial stars when we stand on a weak and shifting foundation. In his classic The Art of Loving, Erich Fromm ends with a chapter called “The Practice of Love”. It is a bit of a shocker for those expecting a self-help quick fix. Fromm says that in order to master love (a spiritual quality), like any art, be it archery, carpentry or meditation, four things are required: discipline, concentration, patience and supreme concern.
Without self-discipline and the ability to delay gratification, we have almost no chance. A strong and clear mind learns to say “No!” to the endless demands of the senses and has the willpower to stick to the proven principles of spirituality. Discipline creates a strong and stable pipeline through which the potent spiritual currents (let alone emotions) can be channelized to even greater spiritual heights. The bird of soul flies back to the Beloved on the wings of discipline and devotion. Without either one it will crash to the ground. There is no spirituality in being an emotional wreck and tumbling from one drama to the next. As Baba Ji puts it, “Make love your strength not your weakness.”
Concentration, in essence, means to take our scattered attention from the many to the one. Our culture encourages us to multi-task-to do many things at once and to do each of them poorly. Instead we are now to put our full attention into one task at a time, and in meditation to train our attention to stick to a single focus.
Let’s think about patience. We are conditioned to expect quick results. However, nothing of any worth in this world has ever come without long, patient and persistent effort. The pay-off for discipline and patience is long term; the pay-off for laziness is now. We literally have to remake ourselves in the image of the Lord, and yet we grow despondent if we don’t arrive there after a few weeks of trying. Sant Mat is a marathon not a sprint. It is the ego that demands instant results.
The fourth requirement: supreme concern. Faced with all the legitimate and demanding concerns of modern life, we have to factor out the less important and focus on the single most important concern. One cannot be a casual or part-time satsangi. Every single aspect of life has to be made to revolve around the axis of meditation and a vow to attain oneness. When asked his secret, the greatest decathlete of all time Daley Thompson had this to say:
I firmly believe that in order to get the most out, you’ve got to put everything in. Put all your eggs in one basket. The way I see it there are only four things you’ve got to worry about: know where you want to get to, plan how to get there, prepare well, and then persist. That’s all there is to it.
And transposing this on to a spiritual level, Mirdad asks, “How does a saint attain to saintliness except by purging his blood-stream of every wish and thought incongruous to saintliness, and then directing it with an unwavering will to seek no other end but saintliness?”
The operative word is ‘will’. We are to take back control of our lives with clear purpose and courageous discipline so that we can steer and direct the indwelling god, the god in swaddling bands, back to his true home.