Vimala Thakar is both a spiritual revolutionary and a political revolutionary. For Vimala, social activism is an expression of spiritual inquiry. “The first, and perhaps only challenge, is to become aware of who we really are as human beings. With awareness comes compassion and then right action flows. ” Committed to life in its wholeness—in which every element affects every other—she expresses our essential “relatedness” by inspiring people to inquire and work together.
She grew up in India and was educated in philosophy. Early on she began to live her understanding. In the Land Gift Movement she walked with Vinoba Bhave, Gandhi’s chief disciple, on the long marches around the whole of India, inspiring the rich land owners to share some of their land with the poor. She also joined with the Sarvodaya workers and J. P. Narayan in rural development.
In India today, Vimala continues to move from village to village bringing people together to examine local and national problems, to encourage projects that will lead to self-sufficiency. She’s involved in development work along Gandhian principles in dozens of villages in the states of Gujarat and Rajastan.
Vimala travels widely outside of India. Whether she speaks to Indian villagers or to Western urban dwellers she addresses the heart, encouraging us to live our understanding and work hand-in-hand, shoulder-to-shoulder, to form a nonviolent global human society.
The interview that follows comes out of two discussions with Vimala: a talk given at a vipassana meditation course in Santa Rosa, California, in response to questions from Christopher Titmuss, Jamie Baraz and Kathy Harris in September 1985, and a March 1982 interview with Jack and Lee Kornfield at Mount Abu in Western India.
Question: People in the West are in search of ways of relating spiritual practice and social action. You have been involved in both spiritual work and Indian development work for much of your life. How do you fit them together?
Answer: I don’t see any difference between the spiritual life, as you call it, and social action. It is just like inhaling and exhaling, not two different processes. The inhaling would be meaningless if there was no exhalation. In the same way, whatever the world the saints, the yogis, give you, what will you do with that understanding except live it? We are born in society. Human beings are not born in isolation, but are born as members of some community, some country. The children who are born today are members of the whole global human family. To live is to be related to everything around us; to live is to act as members of society. Social action is action related to the needs of society and relevant to the inner needs of the human being.
Social action comes very easily to a person living in India, a country where millions are starving. You feel guilty having two meals a day and living a moderately comfortable life if you do not contribute whatever little you can toward enabling the starving millions to grow into a decent standard of living. Since my university education it has been my concern to share with others, having seen the need for enabling the starving poor to get a decent livelihood—that is all there is to it. Not that one is doing something special for the people. Indian philosophy teaches that Life is one. As Life is one, what else can you do but share whatever you have with your fellow human beings?
As I feel sad in India to see so many people starving, I feel equally sad when I come across people in the West, well-fed, well-clothed people surrounded by the latest gadgets, looking disturbed and restless. They have no peace of mind, as if there is a starvation within them—a psychic starvation. They are striving for love, for the warmth of friendship. Sharing meditation and awakening people to the possibility of growing into their divinity has been a part of my work worldwide for the past twenty years,
Here in my native India I have done development work. Since my university days in 1953 I have been involved in giving land to the landless. I was part of the Great Bhoodan Land Movement which gave land to poor Indians under the inspiration of Gandhi and Vinoba Bhave. I worked in the Movement for seven long years and went around India three times, where I collected 200,000 acres of land and distributed it, organized camps for the rehabilitation of the landless laborer, etc. So, on the one hand, there was sharing of what I had in skills and resources with the destitute millions of India, and on the other, there was sharing of what I had psychologically with the spiritually starving in Western countries.
You know, this is what one who is involved in Life, who loves Life, and who is in love with the human race cannot help but do.
Q: What is the relationship between meditation and social action?
A: The word meditation implies for me a state of being in which the conditioned mind does not move at all. It is the spontaneous discontinuation of mental activity. It is a state of being in which there is an effortless and choiceless awareness of what life is within and around us.
The mind is conditioned by social, political and economic pressures; by the so-called educational systems; by the traditions and conventions of the society in which one lives. Through meditation one investigates the nature of the mind, understands the nature of the mind, understands the mechanisms of the mind, observes its movement when we are in the midst of relationships. Through such investigation/observation one arrives at the understanding of what the mind is, and the limitations of this conditioned consciousness. That understanding leads to a voluntary silence of the conditioned mind.
Silence is a potent and significant dimension of life, containing innumerable energies. When one is in the dimension of silence, the energy of intelligence gets activated. The state of meditation is full of that energy, the energy of intelligence, which is not part of heredity, which has no past, which has no content.
When we function through the conditioned mind, it is our past, it is our knowledge, our experience as an individual, as a member of collectivity, which determines the quality of our perception and the quality of our responses. The past projects itself upon the present. Therefore, there is no freedom through thought or through the conditioned mind.
When we function through the conditioned mind, our perceptions and responses spring from the “I” consciousness, from the “me,” the ego. This “I” consciousness is obsessed with the urge for security and is always inhibited by fear: fear of life, fear of death, fear of tomorrow and so forth. The inhibition of fear and urge for security create an imbalance which distorts perception. Because our perceptions are distorted, our responses are also imbalanced or distorted.
The state of meditation enables a person to have a purified, undistorted perception, free from subjective reactions. Meditation confers upon a person the bare cognition of what is. In the dimension of silence, when intelligence gets released, the human being arrives for the first time at what is called freedom, limitless freedom, not freedom from something, or freedom against bondage, but freedom as a total dimension. In that fearlessness of freedom, that perceptive sensitivity, there is hardly any possibility of imbalance.
You ask about the relationship between meditation and social action. I beg to submit to you that today there is nothing like social life. We are all antisocial entities because of the inner inhibitions and imbalances: getting angry ten times a day; feeling jealousy, hatred, bitterness; getting violent.
I live in India most of the time, though I travel around. I am not acquainted with all the circumstances in this country but while wandering around the globe, an individual notices that the human race is more or less neurotic. Our relationships with ourselves, our bodies, our food; our relationships with one another in family and society are neurotic, imbalanced. And I hope you are aware of how violent we are. Not only here but in every country: in the East, the West, the democratic, the socialist countries, the so-called spiritual country, India. Violence has become a way of life; it has a sanction of the human mind.
Social action requires a new quality of human life, a new quality of human beings. It seems to me that when a person explores the inner space, soaks in the waters of silence and arrives at the state of meditation, then he or she will be able to live with an inner equipoise and a balance on the outer sensual level. Imbalance is the only impurity. One eliminates the imbalances, physical and psychological, and this enables and equips one to share what one has with others.
Meditation is really the foundation of social action. Some people have gotten involved in spiritual practices which removed them from the world. In isolation there is existence, but Life is in relationships. People love the path of isolation because in isolation one can develop a certain peace or even cultivate psychic powers. But relationships are to be lived in the midst of people, in the mainstream of life. You must bring spirituality to your act of living.
I see meditation as a new dimension of life and consciousness for which the human race is groping all over the world. All of the explorations that are going on in the various countries are creating currents which converge on one point, and that is—on transcending the mental, the psychological structure. Man is eager to grow, to leave behind the worn-out mind and brain so that the vast immensity that lies behind the visible and invisible is exposed to his awareness. And perhaps the fusion of the individual psyche with that immensity and infinity of life, may bring about a transformation of the human race.
Meditation could give entirely different political structures than the ones existing today. The desire to exploit, the ambition to dominate—which now reign supreme—won’t find any place in relationships. It’s only a mind that is obsessed with fear that wants to dominate; it’s a mind suffering from chronic envy and jealousy that wants to exploit. Unless there is a foundation of meditation and the robustness of the intelligence, it will not be possible to have peace in the individual life and collective life—national and global.
Q: In spirituality, one speaks often of the true and the false. What is the true and what is the false?
A: We have in the Sanskrit language the word sat for truth. Etiologically sat implies whatever is, the totality, the homogeneous, indivisible, nonfragmentable totality of life. That totality is immeasurable; it is indestructible. That which can be destroyed is called asat, falsehood.
You cannot give a name to the totality in order to discriminate, or distinguish, it from something else; thus, it is unnameable. That which is unnameable, immeasurable, indestructible can be called truth. The beauty in the truth of this totality lies in the interrelationship of everything that lives, of everything that exists. The mystery of truth, or of divinity, lies in this interrelationship: the earth related to the skies, the mineral world related to the vegetable world, the animal kingdom to the human, and so on. We are interrelated.
So truth implies the totality and the interrelationship and the infinite immeasurableness or unnameableness; and what is false implies that which can be broken, fragmented, that which has form, and therefore, a name. The false is that which has come into the grip and focus of time and space, and which is changing.
May we look at this question from a slightly different angle? If we are sensitive to life as it is, we might notice that there are two aspects of life woven together. One is the aspect of constant change in the realm of the physical world. There is tremendous flux. Even through our bodies, if we watch and observe them, we will notice how change takes place, from hour to hour, from day to day. We cannot arrest this process of constant change. Change implies birth, growth, decay and death.
In the midst of this vortex of change there is something within us that doesn’t change, something around us that doesn’t change. This is the second aspect of life. The light does not become darkness; the qualities of water do not change. So, behind the visible, behind the world of forms and names and solidity, in the realm of that invisibility, there seems to be something unchangeable. For example, love, if one comes by it, never changes. It does not change into hatred. If one comes upon peace, it doesn’t change.
There is a dance of change and that which does not change; thus there is a balance. One would not use the word permanent. There is nothing like permanency, but there seems to be an isness which is unchangeable, and allows the dance of change to go on.
So false and true are terms in spirituality to indicate this dance of change and the unchangeable—isness.
Q: Could you say more about how to come upon the silence?
A: First we will have to find out the quality of our life. Where are we? Are there any moments of silence in our daily life, when we are by ourselves, when no activity is warranted? What do we do with ourselves?
One must begin with observation. Observation is perception free of reactions. Generally when we see or look or perceive, in the very process of perception our subjective reactions, the emotional reactions, the motivations, the ambitions, the desires come up. Without our knowing it, they get mingled in the process of perception. The very process of perception is contaminated. We do not know how to look innocently, how to look simply. While cultivating intellect, acquiring knowledge, and sophisticating the mind, somehow we have lost the eloquence of simplicity. So when I say we have to observe the quality of our life, we will first have to find out if we know how to observe.
Do we know how to observe, to look in a very simple way without any reactions? When you look at the sky in the evening, the birds on wing, a sunrise or sunset, you are totally there, no reactions. You are one with the beauty of the sunset, or the sunrise, or the flowers in the garden. So begin with learning how to observe. Purification of perception is the first step.
Then we will turn to the process of verbalization, which is a very important part of our life. We go on talking the whole day, or listening to somebody talk, and if somebody is not there, the TV is there, and the wireless is there. All of the time we are engaged with words, through books, talks, discussion. Yes, verbalization is necessary for communication, for sharing, and sharing is the joy of social life, which cannot be denied. But when we use words and this gift of verbalization to conceal our motives, to pretend what we are not, when we use it as a shield for hypocrisy, we are behaving criminally. We are misusing or abusing a very precious gift.
So the second thing one would learn is to use words with a sense of responsibility. One would mean what one says and one would say what one means. There would be a kind of austerity in speech. So, after purification of perception, one would learn purification of verbalization. Please, I am not using the term purification in any ethical or moral sense. To me a scientific approach is a pure approach. So there will be precision and accuracy in speech. Precision implies purity. It is urgently necessary to purify speech. So much misunderstanding is created, and every word one utters leaves a conditioning behind. A word stimulates an emotion, a sentiment, a feeling. That feeling is left behind and becomes a residue, and constitutes what you call the subconscious. So purity of speech and minimization of verbalization would be the second step toward silence.
Thirdly, one would turn to the texture of one’s relationships with fellow human beings. There’s no life without relationship. And to live is to be related. Do we use this privilege with the universe, with the human beings and animals around us? Do we use this privilege with responsibility or correctly? Or do we use relationships for dependency, to avoid relying on ourselves, or for domination over others? Do we use relationships as networks of escapes out of the fear of loneliness, or a sense of boredom? There will be no beauty or grace in a relationship when it is utilized as an escape from boredom or loneliness. Please do see this. There is so much chaos in relationships because they are not what they are meant to be. They are a field for our ambitions and our desires to run amok, to run wild. Learning not to abuse or misuse relationships is the third step in preparing the outer part of our life, equipping ourselves for the inner silence.
Now let us turn to the inner aspect. The mind and the brain, which are very important tools to be used, are capable of being quiet, peaceful. Silence cannot be an activity of the mind. It’s not a quality to be cultivated. Silence cannot be an activity of thought. Thought cannot say, I shall be silent. Unless we factually come upon the bondage in which the mind lives, unless we see the fact of the limitation of the mind, there will not be an urge for silence. It is the contact, the personal contact with the fact of bondage which stimulates the urge for freedom.
So there will have to be a personal firsthand contact with the mind as it is, not through books, not through talks and discussions, but through observation, what you have been doing together here [on a meditation retreat]. You move away from the daily responsibilities and focus your energies upon this inner observation, this inner space. You educate yourself. This firsthand contact with what the mind is will pave the way for what is called silence.
So, one will sit down and allow time every day to observe the mind as it is, to understand the mind. When you sit down and put your teeth into it and stick it out, you see how the mind moves all of the time, repeating and repeating itself, how it’s a mechanical movement. Then one feels very surprised that for years at a time one has been following this mechanistic movement of the mind, that one has been glorifying one’s reactions, the value structures one has created. One will find out that there is nothing like a personal mind; it is something organized and standardized by society and accepted by us. When one comes upon the mechanistic, repetitive nature of mental activity, then the urge for freedom arises, and that urge for freedom is the seed of silence.
What does one do when one understands the repetitive, mechanistic nature of the mind? I have observed my jealousy, my anger and other mechanistic movements. What do I do? Does the mechanistic, repetitive nature come to an end through observation? If one has really observed, one stops defending the reactions, the behavior of mind. The self-defense and self-justification which are our preoccupation throughout life come to an end. It’s marvelous to get free of the habit of self-defense and self-justification. After such observation and understanding, if a reaction such as anger or jealousy creeps in the middle of a relationship, one becomes aware of the upsurge of the past, and this awareness does not allow the reaction to overwhelm us, to condition our perception, to destroy or twist our responses.
If there is a factual understanding of the mind, then the past may come up, but it loses its grip on our reactions, responses and perceptions. And if there is intensity and depth to the inquiry, then the past comes like ashes when you burn wood. The past may be there, but it is not the source from which you perceive or from which your responses spring. In other words, there is freedom from the past, from the known.
I feel all of us are looking for that inner freedom, freedom from the past, freedom from the known, freedom from the clutches of the movement of thought. In that freedom, in the soil of that intelligence and awareness, man is reborn. We call such a person “enlightened one” or “liberated one.” This is not liberation from the world, liberation from the bondage created by someone else. We are the creators of our own bondage; we are our own liberators. So, liberation, enlightenment, freedom, satori, is freedom from the clutches of the conditioned mind.
The watch says the time is over. And as we are aware of the timelessness, we have to go with the watch that says the time is over; although we are aware of the infinity of life, we have to deal with the finite objects. And although we are aware of the grandeur, and the majesty of the aloneness and solitude which is the substance of our life, we have to move into relationships. There is a beauty in the symbols we have created, as there is a beauty in understanding the life which is free of those symbols.