THE CHALLENGE OF LIFE

by Radha Burnier

as published in "The Theosophist" of September 1979

A fact which we all have to face is that life presents us with a challenge at every level. At the non-human level of animals and birds, insects and fish, the challenge is that of simple survival. The challenge exists individually as well as collectively. For the individual, the problem is that of prolonging his life as long as possible. Collectively, it is to perpetuate the species to which the individual belongs and to compete successfully with other forms of life.

A vast design is being worked out by the forces of nature through the evolutionary process, in which the challenge met by the individual plays its part; there is growth towards perfection on all levels of life. This design — this drama — is accomplished through countless ages, through what in India is called sarga and pralaya —the vast cycles of existence which are like the night and day of Brahmâ. As the individual faces his challenge and lives through his particular period of time, and as the species works out its destiny upon earth, consciousness breaks through matter. It blossoms through experience and reveals itself in many different ways. It manifests itself in greater and greater measure in the evolving forms of life; it displays new and extraordinary powers; there is a growth in sensitivity through the development of the brain and of the nervous system

The whole process is that of consciousness revealing itself through, and obtaining mastery over, matter. At the non-human stages of life, meaning is to be found in the process itself. There may be a struggle to find nourishment and to survive but there is no desperate striving for fulfilment. There may be pain but there is no sorrow or despair and no inward misery because of failure to find a meaning in life. Life itself is is own fulfilment. It has its own meaning and joy, and at this stage, to be is enough. No animal, bird or fish has to seek entertainment or create amusements for itself as man does. Having met the challenge of survival, every creature at the non-human stage is not only content but full of vitality and the joy of life, relaxed and at peace with itself.

In the process of meeting the challenge of physical survival, various physical powers are developed. So there is the marvel of great speed in the cheetah, the strength of the elephant and the agility of the monkey. And in the collective consciousness of the animal are built up non-physical qualities such as ingenuity and intelligence. The individual animal may not be very intelligent, but there is an intelligence in the species itself which teaches it what is necessary for its own existence. Hence, the tailor-bird knows how to stitch its nest and migrant birds find their way through the vas unmapped regions of the sky.

At the human level, the challenge of life is met in quite a different way — by the development of the powers of the mind, not merely in the collective consciousness but in the individual. By using these powers, which include all the processes of rational thought — the capacity to make inferences, to relate facts and to draw conclusions based on those facts — man mastered his own environment and made possible his conquest of all other species. Every other form of life is at his mercy; the environment is also partly shaped by him and made to suit his convenience and minister to his comfort.

When faced with the power of mind, the might of the animal world proves inadequate, leaving man in a position to exterminate every other creature upon the earth. Many animal species have died out because man has destroyed them and their environment. He changes the course of rivers, he levels and raises mountains, he modifies his surroundings to suit himself. Now man, having vanquished all his enemies and conquered nature, faces a new challenge to himself.

THE CRAVING FOR VARIETY

The mind of man has given an extended meaning to physical survival and has enlarged the meaning of basic necessities such as food and shelter. Man is not satisfied with merely feeding his body; he has lost the instinct which enables the animal to know what and how much it should eat. Food has become a great problem and a vast industry. Man no longer finds satisfaction in a few foods that are good for him; he craves endless variety. He builds restaurants and hotels and to prepare and present the various dishes he has invented,he needs different kinds of gadgets and all shapes and sizes of vessels. The manufacturing industries, which have to produce these, give rise to vast organizations dealing with advertising and publicity. There ensues intense competition and the evils that go with it.

Similarly, while a dwelling is needed for the purpose of individual and collective survival, man is not satisfied with simply sheltering his body. He imagines that he needs to occupy a vast area — perhaps a palace with a hundred rooms — and he collects objects with which to fill it. He designs various types of furniture and spends large sums on interior decoration.

Clothing, too, is necessary for the body but man has created a huge sphere of activity in order to have textiles and materials; he has invented fashion and devised ornaments. Great organizations — industries, markets, banks, means of communication — have emerged like cancerous outgrowths from the simple needs of the body. Man lives in his own complications and is isolated, lost and frustrated among the objects and organizations that he himself has created.

Man is no longer concerned with the mere perpetuation of the species; sex and food have developed into 'pleasurable experiences'. Pleasure has become an idea — a thought in the mind. And because it is an idea. Man has created various forms of pleasures and, once again, great industries to provide them, including cinemas, night-clubs and magazines.

In the process of search for pleasure, of devising amusements and entertainments, there is an absence of joy, because it is inner restfulness that joy really exists. So when the mind is anxious to find pleasure, when it grows tense in its search, it misses the joy which can be found in a simple life. The growth of human needs is the primary source of conflict in the world, because these needs (which were primarily those of food, shelter and sex) have now become ideas in the mind and hence the basis for tension and conflict. At the national level, this has led to great world wars, to the movement of populations and to the cruelty and misery that we have witnessed for decades and centuries. In personal life, who has not know of the pain caused by a brother and sister who quarrel, by friends who fall out, by husband and wife who feel isolated from each other?

Therefore the Buddha taught that man must come to understand that birth is pain for man; that death is pain; that living also is pain. Everything becomes a source of pain. And in the present conditions, created by the mind of man, there seems to be no solution to the suffering.

DESIRES LEAD TO CONFLICT

This is the situation that mankind has created for itself. It has eliminated nearly all the former sources of danger, but it has created new and terrible ones which it is unable to control because it is impelled by the animal instinct for survival. The desire for survival has itself now become a source of danger. Therefore, since whatever it does is a source of danger, we may assume that the mind of man has reached the end of the road and can proceed no further. Before the challenge which is presented to it in the present-day world, it has become as impotent and obsolete as brute strength when mind developed.

The present situation presents us with a new stage in which the intellect appears to have become helpless in the face of powerful challenges. And in this situation there are few people who ask what other powers life holds within itself. Is there only the power of the mind, or is life, in this vast process, revealing other powers heretofore neglected? Because the mind of man has been so enamoured of itself that it has believed in its own invincibility, it has rarely faced this question seriously. There have, of course, been a few exceptional individuals who have examined life in greater depth in order to discover whether the reasoning mind is all that is has to show as the culmination of aeons of evolution. And if the mind is to discover what life has to reveal further, it has also to examine the question of whether the challenge before it is really one of survival at all.

Man has acquired his 'survival' reflex from his past and has not yet succeeded in freeing himself from its imaginary compulsions. But life is urging him to seek for new powers of consciousness which as yet lie hidden within and which will, in time, assume the leading role just as the mind itself came to triumph over mere physical force.

In the Bhagavad Gitâ, Arjuna is faced with a distressing dilemma — he has to choose whether to fight or to withdraw. It seems to him an impossible situation because he feels that whatever he decides to do will be wrong. On the one hand there are his teachers, his elders, those whom he loves and with whom he is now called upon to battle. On the other hand there is loyalty to his brother and the need to do what is right. And floundering in the necessity of choosing, he falls into despair.

THE TRUTH OF SORROW

This is perhaps the situation of all of us today. We are faced with a crisis which is forcing us to ask what is the true purpose of living — whether that purpose is mere survival or whether it is something radically different. We are all like reluctant students; unwilling to enquire into life too closely, we examine its crucial questions only when faced with a crisis. Even then, the impact of the shock is soon lost and we too often resign ourselves to a thoughtless wandering down the path of least resistance.

The Lord Buddha said that the first truth Man has to recognize is the truth of sorrow.If Man begins to examine life seriously and study how best to conduct himself it may be that he will not have to meet sorrows and crises. But because, individually, has has ignored the lessons of nature and nature's law, mankind as a whole has been driven to the point of crisis before which his mind stands helpless. It required great sensitivity to discover life's meaning. Man must acquire an entirely different perception which he does not have at present and which he cannot have as long as his mind is consciously or unconsciously concerned with mere survival. Surely the point has been reached where a right-about turn must be made! It is time for Man to set himself firmly on the Nivritti Mãrga, renounce the primitive will to survive and, as Madame Blavatsky puts it, learn a new alphabet in the lap of Mother Nature. In order to learn this new alphabet, he must set aside the earlier knowledge with which he began.

ILLUSION AND REALITY

Vedânta literature teaches of the different levels of reality perceived by consciousness. It is only when one has passed totally from one dimension of reality that it is possible to become aware of a greater one. As long as the mind of Man is concerned solely with survival and its extended meaning he is living in an illusion.

In the well-known Vedânta teaching the coiled rope is a rope to the clear-sighted and a snake to others. Their reactions vary according to their level of perception. Those of a timid temperament are frightened and run away. Those of an aggressive nature, looking to destruction rather than escape as the remedy, go boldly forward to kill the snake. The latter experience the emotion of violence and the former of fear, but both these forms of reaction arise from the same basic error in perception. For those who see clearly and who know the object to be no snake but merely a rope, both these forms of actions are impossible. Thus, actions which were previously indulged in become meaningless when there is a new perception.

When a man recognizes that he need be concerned no more with a false conception of survival, he discovers a new mode of action and a new meaning to life. This 'right-about turn' must be radical. There are those who are seeking new values and, at the same time, cling to old modes of action. They search for gurus and try out various meditation techniques hoping by these means to discover the secret of life. But as long as the forms of action in which they indulge are those arising out of the mind which gives meaning to survival, the truth about life can never be discovered.

If a person is dreaming, he can experience only dream events. When he awakens to a different reality and perceives the facts of waking life, the dream has ended. Until the dream ends, he cannot experience the waking state. It is as impossible to experience dream events and waking events at the same time, as it is to be concerned with the illusions connected with the processes of survival and the new understanding that life can offer. In the teachings of Yoga it is asserted that the mind must become totally silent in order to find new meaning. For the mind to renounce its favourite preoccupations and to be come unconcerned with the 'me' and the 'mine' is to end the dream in which we all live. This is the transformation which must take place in the present-day world wherein Man must recognize a universal force working for the good of the many and not for the good of the individual or of the few. The mind of Man has given an exaggerated importance to his personal will which he seeks to impose upon all with whom he comes in contact. But that self-will has to be surrendered to the greater life before its meaning can be understood.

This, then, is the challenge that life offers — that man should consciously learn to understand and to receive its message, as non-human life learns to receive it unconsciously. It has been said that in the vast design which nature is working out, there is a movement from unconscious perfection to conscious imperfection and that from conscious imperfection one has to move forward to conscious perfection. Conscious perfection can come about only when we learn to work in harmony with the design of life itself. Life demands that the mind of man should renounce its own desires, its own impulses, instincts and reflexes, so that a power which is greater can unfold and reveal itself, not in accordance with man's will but in obedience to divine laws and the will of nature.

 


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