Important Life Lessons From The East | Swami Vivekananda Podcast

Podcast Transcript: Welcome to the Inspirational Living podcast, brought to you in part by Book of Zen, makers of inspirational fashion and gift ideas. Today’s podcast was edited and adapted from a lecture by Swami Vivekananda (Shāmi Bibekānondo), published in 1901.

One of the greatest lessons I have learned in my life is to pay as much attention to the means of work as to its end. It was from a great person that I learned this principle, and their own life was a practical demonstration of it. I have been always learning great lessons from that one principle, and it appears to me that all the secret of success is there: to pay as much attention to the means as to the end.

Our great defect in life is that we are so much drawn to the ideal, the goal is so much more enchanting, so much more alluring, so much bigger in our mental horizon, that we lose sight of the details altogether. But whenever failure comes, if we analyze it critically, in ninety-nine per cent of the cases, we shall find that it was because we did not pay attention to the means.

Proper attention to the finishing, strengthening, of the means, is what we need. With the means all right, the end must come. We forget that it is the cause that produces the effect; the effect cannot come by itself; and unless the causes are exact, proper, and powerful, the effect will not be produced. Once the ideal is chosen and the means determined, we may almost let go of the ideal, because we are sure it will be there, when the means are perfected.

When the cause is there, there is no more difficulty about the effect — the effect is bound to come. If we take care of the cause, the effect will take care of itself. The realization of the ideal is the effect. The means are the cause: attention to the means, therefore, is the great secret of life.

We must work, constantly work, with all our power — to put our whole mind in the work, whatever it be, that we are doing. At the same time, we must not be attached. That is to say, we must not be drawn away from the work by anything else. But still we must be able to quit the work whenever we like.

If we examine our own lives, we find that the greatest cause of sorrow is this: we take up something and put our whole energy on it — perhaps it is a failure, and yet we cannot give it up. We know that it is hurting us, that any further clinging to it is simply bringing misery on us. Still, we cannot tear ourselves away from it.

The bee came to sip the honey, but its feet stuck to the honey-pot and it could not get away. Again and again, we are finding ourselves in that state. That is the whole secret of existence. Why are we here? We came here to sip the honey, and we find our hands and feet sticking to it.

We are caught, though we came to catch. We came to rule; we are being ruled. We came to work; we are being worked. All the time, we find that. And this comes into every detail of our life. We are being worked upon by other minds, and we are always struggling to work on other minds.

We want to enjoy the pleasures of life; and they eat into our vitals. We want to get everything from nature, but we find in the long run that nature takes everything from us, depletes us, and casts us aside. That is the one cause of misery: we are attached, we are being caught.

Thus we must work constantly; work, but be not attached; be not caught. Reserve unto yourself the power of detaching yourself from everything, however beloved, however much the soul might yearn for it, however great the pangs of misery you feel if you were going to leave it; still, reserve the power of leaving it whenever you want.

Attachment is the source of all our pleasures now. We are attached to our friends, to our relatives; we are attached to our intellectual and spiritual works; we are attached to external objects, so that we get pleasure from them. What, again, brings misery but this very attachment?

We have to detach ourselves to earn joy. If only we had power to detach ourselves at will, there would not be any misery. That person alone will be able to get the best of nature, who (having the power of attaching themselves to a thing with all their energy) has also the power to detach themselves when they should do so.

The difficulty is that there must be as much power of attachment as that of detachment. There are people who are never attracted by anything. They can never love, they are hard-hearted and apathetic; they escape most of the miseries of life. But the wall never feels misery; the wall never loves, is never hurt.

Surely it is better to be attached and caught, than to be a wall. Therefore the person who never loves, who is hard and stony, escaping most of the miseries of life, escapes also its joys. We do not want that. That is weakness, that is death. The soul that never feels weakness, never feels misery, is not strong. That is a callous state. We do not want that.

The perfect individual can put their whole soul upon one point of love, yet remain unattached. How to accomplish this? Well, first of all, we must recognize that we are all beggars. Whatever we do, we want a return. We are all traders: we are traders in life; we are traders in virtue; we are traders in religion. Alas! we are also traders in love.

If you come to trade, if it is a question of give-and-take, if it is a question of buy-and-sell, you abide by the laws of buying and selling. There is a bad time and there is a good time; there is a rise, and a fall in prices — always you expect the blow to come. It is like looking at the mirror. Your face is reflected: you make a grimace and there is one in the mirror; if you laugh, the mirror laughs. This is buying and selling, giving and taking. We get caught. How? Not by what we give, but by what we expect.

We get misery in return for our love. Not from the fact that we love, but from the fact that we want love in return. The great secret of true success, of true happiness, is this: the person who asks for no return, the perfectly unselfish person, is the most successful.

Ask for nothing; want nothing in return. Give what you have to give; it will come back to you but do not think of that now. It will come back multiplied a thousandfold, but the attention must not be on that. Cultivate the power to give — give, and there it ends. Learn that the whole of life is giving, that nature will force you to give. So, give willingly.

Sooner or later you will have to give up what you accumulate. With clenched hands, you want to take — but nature puts a hand on your throat and makes your hands open. Whether you will it or not, you have to give. The moment you say, “I will not”, the blow comes; you are hurt. No one is here but will be compelled, in the long run, to give up everything. And the more one struggles against this law, the more miserable one feels.

It is because we dare not give, because we are not resigned enough to accede to this grand demand of nature, that we are miserable. The forest is gone, but we get heat in return. The sun is taking up water from the ocean, to return it in showers. You are a machine for taking and giving: you take, in order to give.

Ask, therefore, nothing in return; but the more you give, the more will come to you. The quicker you can empty the air out of this room, the quicker it will be filled up by external air; and if you close all the doors and every aperture, that which is within will remain, but that which is outside will never come in, and that which is within will stagnate, degenerate, and become poisoned.

A river is continually emptying itself into the ocean and is continually filling up again. Bar not the exit into the ocean. The moment you do that, death seizes you. Be, therefore, not a beggar; be unattached.

Do not calculate the dangers on your path. Even by intellectually recognizing the difficulties, we really do not know them until we feel them. From a distance we may get a general view of a park: well, what of that? We feel and really know it when we are in it.

Even if our every attempt is a failure, and we bleed and are torn asunder, yet, through all this, we have to preserve our heart; we must assert our eternal spark in the midst of all these difficulties.

Nature wants us to react, to return blow for blow, cheating for cheating, lie for lie, to hit back with all our might. Then it requires a super-divine power not to hit back, to keep control, to be unattached. I know the difficulties. Tremendous they are, and ninety per cent of us become discouraged and lose heart — and in our turn, often become pessimists and cease, to believe in sincerity, love, and all that is grand and noble.

So, we find people who in the freshness of their lives have been forgiving, kind, simple, and guileless, become in old age, lying masks of their former selves. Although we may be cut to pieces, torn asunder, our hearts must yet grow nobler and nobler all the time. It is very difficult, but we can overcome the difficulty by constant practice. We must know that nothing can happen to us, unless we me make ourselves susceptible. We get only that for which we are fitted.

Let us give up our pride and understand that never is our misery undeserved. There never has been a blow undeserved; there never has been an evil for which we did not pave the way with our own hands. We ought to know that.

From our childhood, we are all the time trying to lay the blame upon something outside ourselves. We are always standing up to set right other people, and not ourselves. If we are miserable, we say, “Oh, the world is a devil’s world.” But why should we be in such a world, if we really are so good? If this is a devil’s world, we must be devils also — why else, should we be here?

Or we might say, “Oh, the people of the world are so selfish!” True enough; but why should we be found in that company, if we be better? Just think of that! We only get what we deserve. It is a lie when we say, the world is bad and we are good. It can never be so. It is a terrible lie we tell ourselves.

This is the first lesson to learn: be determined not to curse anything outside, not to lay the blame upon anyone outside, but be strong, stand up, lay the blame on yourself. You will find that is always true.

Get a hold of yourself — and perfect the means. The end will take care of itself. For the world can be good and pure, only if our own lives are good and pure.

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