What People Think
Oh dear! How should I start this? What are the right words to say? What is the proper way to behave in this situation? Is this an appropriate place to be seen? What is the correct custom for this ceremony? What outfit should I wear to this occasion? I hope I haven’t done anything wrong. What will people think of me?
It is funny how these thoughts enter the mind and dissipate so much of our energy. Children, teenagers, adults, even the elderly constantly suffer from this nagging worry: What will people think?
Ordinarily, public opinion is commonly accepted, as it serves a purpose. It maintains a degree of order with regards to social, political and economic issues, and it provides guidance on society’s general code of conduct. Unfortunately, sometimes this opinion is so highly regarded it defines our thoughts, words, decisions and actions. This is when worrying about ‘what people will think’ has a negative effect on us.
There is a funny story about a couple who bought a donkey from the market. This market was a little far from home, and they had to travel through several villages and cross a bridge before they could reach their own village. Proud and very satisfied with their purchase, the couple agreed to walk with their new donkey side by side. However, on the way home, they passed a village where they overheard a young boy comment, “How silly! Why is neither of them on the donkey?” Upon hearing that, the husband let the wife ride on the donkey while he walked beside them. A little while later, an old man saw them and commented, “The husband is the head of family. How can the wife ride on the donkey while the husband is on foot?” Hearing this, the wife felt embarrassed and quickly got down to let the husband ride instead.
Further along the way, they met an old lady. She commented, “How can the man ride on the donkey and let his wife walk? He is no gentleman.” The husband thus asked the wife to join him on the donkey. No sooner than later, they met another young man. He said, “Poor donkey, how can you hold up the weight of two persons? They are cruel to you.” Now the couple, completely disturbed that they may be wrong again, immediately climbed down.
When they both walked along with the donkey, they were taunted; when the wife rode it she was embarrassed; when the husband rode it he was insulted, and when they both rode it, they were labelled cruel.
Left with no other choice, the couple decided to carry the donkey on their shoulders. On the way home, they crossed a very narrow bridge. The donkey, who was being carried for the first time, became frightened and so he struggled. The couple lost their balance and they all fell into the river.
Poor couple – they tried to please everyone and where did it get them? Following society or public opinion can have an adverse effect on our lives, particularly when we allow those opinions to control us – when we do not make the effort to analyze what is practical and comfortable for us based on our own circumstances. When we strive to conform to what society expects of us, we disregard our ‘inner-self worth’. We lose our ability to live according to our own needs; we lose our inner balance and peace of mind, and we end up harming ourselves, just like the couple in the story.
How does this relate to the teachings of Sant Mat?
The practice of meditation is not easy. It requires discipline, patience and true love for the Master, even when we find it dry and boring. The Masters encourage us to build for ourselves an atmosphere conducive to meditation. Reading Sant Mat literature, attending satsang and associating with like-minded people is a tremendous help in building this atmosphere. It helps us to develop the ability to think clearly.
But if we allow society to direct our lifestyle, our thoughts, actions and decisions, how can we be motivated to meditate? Trying to fit into a mould to satisfy public opinion can put undue pressure on the mind about money, status and other things that go against our spiritual goal.
Meditation directs the mind’s focus inwards towards love for the Master. Society keeps us entangled in worldly matters, whereas meditation is practised alone. Thus, society and public opinion draw us in a completely opposite direction from the Sant Mat way of life.
The key to living in this world, while successfully working towards our spiritual goal, is understanding how to be balanced. Society has its function in the world. Maharaj Sawan Singh explains that for worldly progress our duty consists of performing actions that remain within the bounds of the laws of the society. At the same time, he also states that if we have decided that we really want to free our soul, to experience and see the Master’s true form within us, to listen to the uplifting music of God, then we must ensure that our decisions and actions reflect this desire. Therefore, it follows that we must always be in control of our decisions and thoughts, to ensure that we live in accordance with the teachings of the saints. And this is still possible while maintaining a balance with society’s rules and regulations; just as long as we do not entertain our fear of public opinion and place it above our commitment to our spiritual vows and our meditation.
The Masters often tell us, “Be in the world, but not of it.” The Great Master explains this expression:
The truly detached person knows that one day his own body, his house, his palace and all his worldly property – all attachments – have to be left behind, and nobody knows when this will happen. Therefore, he lives in this world in name only and gives more attention to the purification of his soul, for he does not wish to barter his soul for the sake of this world. This person knows that God is the highest goal, and can even forget the world in remembrance of him…. He realizes that God is the highest goal, and he forgets his world in remembrance of Him.
Philosophy of the Masters, Vol. II
Through meditation, we gradually develop more love for the Lord, and naturally detach from worldly concerns and attachments. Thus, the more we meditate, the more the Lord’s love pulls us strongly towards him so that we may enjoy the bliss and peace that come from the practice. Then our cares and worries and love for the world automatically begin to fade out.
Behaviour based on fear of public opinion can be a great obstacle on the path to spiritual realization. It requires great courage to rise above it. We can draw that courage from the practical advice of the Masters:
If it interferes with meditation, discard it unhesitatingly.