Sunday, May 26, 2013

The conquest of the mind. Lessons in practical spirituality from from Sun Tzu’s Art of War. Part 1

Art of War, is a book written by Sun Tzu over 2000 years ago. It consists of thirteen chapters. This is a commentary (based on Sun Tzu’s work), that will hopefully help with the conquest of the mind.

Sun Tzu said:

The art of war is of vital importance to the State.

It is a matter of life and death, a road either to safety or to ruin. Hence it is a subject of inquiry which can on no account be neglected.


The success, happiness and prosperity of a nation depends not only on the direction set by the people governing it but also requires the cooperation of the masses. When nations get along, the world is at peace. In recorded human history, there has not been an age when peace has reigned throughout the word. The ego one of the sources of this constant conflict among human beings. Ego makes us overlook the fairly obvious concept that all humans are similar in physical form and therefore the suffering and happiness that we experience is also experienced by others. Everyone is striving to attain the same goal of happiness. Ego drives us to trample on the trail to happiness that others may have created for themselves and in the process our own path to happiness gets stepped on by others. Fighting wars to physically annihilate one’s enemies can never solve the problem. It only removes the physical body but does not change thought.

Sun Tzu said, “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” Avoiding fighting involves the use of diplomatic dialogue which is a standard practice in international negotiations in the present day. The ego is the real enemy that needs to be subdued without fighting. The clash of egos can be a matter of life or death. An egotistical mind is an uncooperative mind and a mind free of ego is a cooperative mind.

An important distinction needs to be made here. By convention, we infer that ego is harmful and negative. Ego is formless, neither masculine nor feminine, neither positive or negative. The ego gives us our distinct individuality. When ego associates itself with negative thoughts, it becomes harmful. It can be rendered harmless by filling the mind with positive thoughts. When there is negative thought in the mind, the ego seeks to amplify the faults of others, and when there is positive thought in the mind, the ego shines light on the good qualities in others.

Everything in nature has positive and negative attributes. A rose bush is a good example. It has beautiful flowers that carry a pleasant smell, are pleasing to the eye and soft to the touch. These flowers coexist with sharp thorns. Bees are attracted to a rose bush by its flowers and not by the thorns on the stem of the plant. When one waters a rose plant, we do it with the intent of growing beautiful and healthy flowers, not healthy thorns. Nourishment from the roots of the plant reaches both the thorns as well as the flowers. The ego is like the water that nourishes the plant. It associates with both negative and positive qualities. Just as a rose bush has both flowers and thorns, we all have positive and negative qualities. When we look at a rose bush, we first see the flowers and then the thorns. In the mind, thorns of negative thoughts hide the flowers of positive thoughts. Just as the bee sights the flowers that sit higher than the thorns on a rose bush, the ego usually first encounters these negative thoughts such as pride, greed, power and lust. When the ego takes on negative qualities and becomes a harmful thorn, the body and mind become unhealthy. If the ego is presented positive and constructive thoughts like humility, generosity, kindness and love, it can be rendered as harmless as a flower. The body and the mind regain their health and lustre.

The mind is in constant conflict with the intellect. What the intellect suggests, the mind usually rejects. The mind claims to be doing the heavy lifting on our behalf and claims the intellect to be a weakling. The mind offers the ego negative thoughts and seeks its protection by putting the ego on a high pedestal. Instead of the ego serving the mind and the mind serving us, we end up serving  the mind and the ego. In a dictatorship, when one gives up power, it is very hard to get it back unless the person holding that power gives it up willingly. When the ego starts to dictate to the mind the mind becomes weak. Along with the mind becoming weak, our will power to change also diminishes. Somehow, the ego must be persuaded to give up its hold on negative thoughts.

A harmless way to subdue the ego is self enquiry into the mind. Separating the positive thoughts from the negative thoughts, the ego must be presented positive and constructive thoughts. Both flowers and thorns need to be handled delicately and carefully. If we are careless with a flower, it may perish, if we are careless with a thorn, we are harmed. Similarly we need to handle positive and negative thoughts with a lot of care. Positive thoughts are easily destroyed and negative thoughts easily destroy us. The way we think is a matter of life and death and positive thinking leads us to the road to safety and negative thinking leads us to ruin. Therefore as Sun Tzu said, self enquiry can not be neglected.

An ode to the body and mind-

The kingdom is vast, filled with treasures in the south
Its heart lies in the middle and the soul in the far north
The young prince sets on a journey of exploration
Seeking treasures that promise comforts for life’s duration

Treasures of the south are protected by a vast sea
Lands beyond great sea offers not a guarantee
The wise man walks north afraid of the southern land
Mighty men head south on the brave prince’s command

Their conquests leave sorrow and misery in their wake
Once invincible, the prince’s armor weathers a break
The wise man’s words ring loud and clear
Look north within your own kingdom without fear

At journey’s onset, the southern skies appear bright and blue
Jagged peaks rising from the valley below give northern sky a dark hue
Legend of the three tunnels under the mountain is no fool’s gold
The brave prince meets his destiny foretold

Beyond the mountain ridge lies a scorching desert
In the quest for the soul of the kingdom the prince stays ever alert
Many a life has been consumed chasing a mirage
Lost in the temporary showers of nature’s barrage

Following three tunnels to the northern escape
Friends and gold are left behind as the journey takes shape
The lonely prince sets out into the serpentine tunnel
The journey’s end is a lifetime’s struggle

As the path twists and turns east and west
Light at the end promises a rest
Two waterfalls emerge from the night
The ambrosia below glistens in the worldly light

Journey down the waterfall is smooth and swift
The rocks below reveal a rift
The path below promises a powerful potion
The brave prince forsakes this sweet poison

The climb up the waterfall is treacherous and steep
At the top awaits a serpent harmless as sheep
The only guide till horizon’s end
Leads the prince on the path’s ascend

Leaving behind east, west and south
The course is set due north
A lonely star twinkles in the northern sky
Nearing journey’s end forgetting the world go by

The prince spots a swan in flight
He senses the kingdom’s soul burn bright
The serpent guide bids his farewell
As the prince is crowned the king of the land in a blissful swell
-N Seshadri

To be continued...