The oldest and surest method of learning is that of punishment and reward. A child is scolded or punished if he does something wrong, and praised or rewarded for doing something well. Rats can be trained to follow pre-selected paths through a maze by giving them a mild electric shock if they choose wrongly, and placing a tasty morsel at the end of the right choice. Even worms have been reported to learn by these methods.
Nature Teaches Using Pain & Pleasure
The model for this kind of training lies in Nature herself. The pain one experiences if one goes against Nature, and the pleasure if one cooperates with it, is one way all creatures are guided -- not always infallibly, but in a general sense correctly. A child learns, if it touches a hot stove, not to repeat the experiment. Sensitivity to extreme heat is given us for our protection, not for our misery. All living creatures learn, quickly or slowly according to their intelligence, what "works" for them and what doesn't.
If a child plunders the cookie jar, it may learn from repeated forays that too many cookies give tummy aches. Meanwhile, he may be helped by a stern reprimand, but experience itself, if not too drastic, is always the best teacher.
Learning to Avoid Pain & Seek Pleasure
As creatures learn to avoid pain and to seek pleasure, so man strives to avoid also mental suffering and to seek happiness. Punishment and reward encourage life in the long process of evolution from the lowly germ to the spiritual enlightenment of masters like Jesus Christ and Buddha. At life's higher stages of development, man's twofold desire to avoid suffering and find happiness becomes refined to an intense desire for escape from ego-bondage and a companion desire for expansion in spiritual bliss.
Consciousness and bliss are innate in everything. The very universe was manifested out of Absolute Spirit: ever-conscious, ever-existing, ever-new Bliss, or Satchidananda as Swami Shankaracharya called it.
Avoiding Threats to Pleasure and Bliss-Potential
Evolution is driven by the impulse in all creatures to avoid threats to their own bliss-potential. What each one perceives of that potential depends on its own level of evolution. To the more primitive creatures it may mean only comfort; to others, food. Nevertheless, according to the degree of awareness expressed in each one, it is bliss they seek. Therefore, the loss of bliss is what they try to avoid.
Charles Darwin declared that survival is the primary impulse of life. This instinct, however, is no mindless urge. If creatures struggle consciously to maintain their existence, it is because, to them, it represents something important. They cling to it not as a mere projection of Newtonian inertia. Rather, they cling because their awareness is a manifestation, however inchoate, of bliss. Survival is a paramount concern for them only when their lives are actively threatened, for they want to preserve their present measure of conscious bliss. Otherwise, all they want is simply to enjoy life.
Aspiring to Avoid Pain & Experience Pleasure
Bliss is heavily veiled in the lower forms of life. The highest to which they aspire is to avoid physical pain, and to experience physical pleasure. Man is different in that his aspiration is more deliberate, and more personal. With his relatively refined awareness, he realizes also that physical sensations are usually brief in duration, and that the emotional ups and downs that accompany pleasure and pain are temporary, like tossing ocean waves. Thus, he envisions something more permanent than pleasure, and seeks happiness. He tries to avoid mental suffering also -- the loss of a job, for instance, or of reputation -- and willingly endures even physical pain to achieve long-range goals. With further refinement of his awareness, he seeks to avoid feelings, thoughts, and actions that might prevent him from realizing eternal bliss. For he has discovered that the source of all suffering lies in the fact that his attention has been diverted from his own reality.
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Nothing Outside of Ourselves Can Define Our Happiness...
Happiness springs from within the self. It doesn't depend on outer conditions. Nothing outside ourselves, therefore, can define or qualify our happiness except as we allow it to do so. Once this unalterable truth is realized, happiness become our permanent possession.
Unfortunately, life conditions people to seek fulfillment outside, not inside, themselves. As energy forms the body in the womb, it conditions the fetus, and later on the newborn baby to seek expression outwardly also. The baby needs milk. It must work at developing its body's movements. Life itself is an adventure in learning how to relate to objective reality. Gradually, the adventure becomes one of learning to discriminate between what is real what merely seems so.
The world as the senses present it to us is a mirage. It seems hard or soft to the touch; pleasant or unpleasant to the palate; beautiful or ugly to the eyes; harmonious or cacophonous to the ears; sweet or acrid to the sense of smell. In fact, it is none of these things. Clues are given us to a very different reality. Solid-seeming matter can be penetrated by sound waves, and by x-rays. Food that human beings abominate is eagerly ingested by other creatures. The senses constantly deceive us, for they expose us to a very limited range of sound and light vibrations. What seems to us pleasant or unpleasant is often a very subjective evaluation, widely varied even within the narrow "spectrum" of human tastes. "Beauty," it is said, "is in the eye of the beholder." The eye can be trained to see beauty everywhere. People can also be conditioned by disappointment to see ugliness everywhere, as they sow their experiences as seeds of further unhappiness.
Our Reactions Create Suffering & Pain or Pleasure
We refer things back constantly to our reactions, without which objective reality would hold little meaning for us. People realize in time that their most intimate reality is their own state of consciousness. It is in their reactions that they suffer or rejoice. One's reactions should therefore be his paramount concern.
What is man, relative to the vast universe? Is he utterly insignificant, as the findings of astronomy might suggest? We see ourselves instinctively as central to everything in existence. Nor is this instinct misguided. For it is our own perception that must expand. In ourselves also, our perceptions can shrink. Life leads us by expanding sympathy to an ever-more refined awareness. It also, if we allow it to, leads us to a contracting sympathy, and a gradually diminishing awareness, by which our potential for bliss is suppressed.
Pain & Pleasure: Our First Teachers
Pain and pleasure are our first teachers. The pain causes us to contract inwardly -- not mentally only, but in physical tension. Pleasure brings a feeling of relaxation and mental expansion. We gradually learn to associate suffering more with mental than with physical tension, and happiness more with mental well-being.
From these facts it emerges that moral principles have their roots in Nature. Why is it wrong to steal from others, or to injure them? Not because of societal or scriptural strictures, but because one is punished by his own nature, which causes physical contraction and tension, and a mentally self-defensive attitude. To go against natural law is to offend against ourselves. As a consequence, we experience pain. Thus, even if the pirate who robs others views himself as the gainer, materially speaking, his contraction of sympathy and his accompanying fear of retribution is a constant punishment for disturbing the harmony in himself and in his surroundings. The very universe becomes, for him, a hostile environment. Increasing inner disharmony becomes at last intolerable to him in the alienation it brings him from others, and, despite every affirmation to the contrary, in his diminishing sense of self-worth.
Evolution: The Progress of Individual Awareness
Growth in understanding can be accomplished only by the individual. Of what use to a child the reassurances that others, some day, will become adults? Evolution itself is not focused so much on developing new species as it is on the progress of individual awareness. Society may have to restrain its members if they persist in anti-social behavior, but the laws of human nature exact their own price, ultimately.
The wrongdoer eventually punishes himself. Foolish is he who scoffs, "Oh, eventually! Who cares about 'eventually'?" Eventually, however, will be very much right now, when it arrives!
This article was excerpted with permission from the book:
About the Author
J. Donald Walters (Swami Kriyananda) has written over eighty books and edited two books of Paramhansa Yogananda's which have become well known: The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam Explained and a compilation of sayings of the Master, The Essence of Self-Realization. In 1968 Walters founded Ananda, an intentional community near Nevada City, California, based on the teachings of Paramhansa Yogananda. Visit the Ananda website at http://www.ananda.org