Our basic nature can be changed, but not by sudden force

Changing the Nature

There is quite some difference between the popularly held views in the East and in the West on this question. In the West we often think that it is impossible; the basic nature is there and cannot be changed. All one can do is to try to develop means of adapting to it. In the East there are traditions which say, roughly, that it can be done, but not by sudden force. When we wish to establish a pattern of patience for instance, it will not be effective to try to do it by resolutely thinking: “I must be patient, never impatient.” Let us take an example from the history of chess.

In the 1840s, the Englishman Howard Staunton was generally accepted to be the best player in the world. (No one had heard of the Indian masters then.) He designed the chess pieces which are still used in tournaments, and wrote a massive handbook on the game.

He also wrote on Shakespeare, and was a man of considerable intellectual standing. But he sometimes lost, in tournaments, to very slow players, such as the American Elijah Williams. Staunton’s thought processes were quick, and he often made his reply as soon as the opponent had made a move. But Williams used to stare at the board for sometimes twenty minutes without making his move, even when (as Staunton irritably commented afterwards) there was obviously only one move which could reasonably be made. When this obvious move was finally made by Williams, Staunton, fuming with impatience, would make his reply instantly, to try to finish the game quickly. Inevitably he made occasional mistakes which cost him the game. He tried various means to control his impatience, but often failed.

Williams, the weaker at chess, was his superior in self-control. By attacking Staunton’s weakness there, he could sometimes beat him. Some other players, against Williams, would read a newspaper while waiting for the move. The historian Buckle is said to have written a chapter of a book during a match against Williams. Today this would not be allowed, and the best advice that can be given to impatient players is: When it is your turn to move, sit on your hands. Then at least you will have a little time to consider your first impulse, because it will take a few seconds to get a hand out.”

No one seems to consider the possibility of changing an underlying impatience into its opposite. But in the East there have been examples of this very thing. In Japan, a brilliant young chess master was impatient like Staunton, and this cost him many games against old masters who deliberately played very slowly, like Williams. The young master realised his own weakness, and when he was in a winning position and the thought came, “I’ll finish him off now,” he tried to think, “I’ll go slower.” But he couldn’t keep it up. In time, he came to realise that he would always lose in this way.

Now he did something inconceivable in the West. He set up an empty chessboard, and made himself sit for an hour in front of it without moving a muscle. He pictured himself as a big rock, motionless in a Japanese garden. He did this for a week. The next week, he sat for two hours, outwardly motionless but inwardly boiling with restlessness. In the third week however, he suddenly felt a sort of inner calm: “Yes, I can sit here.”

He was no longer fretting, because he had changed the basis of the mind. The impulses of restlessness could not be controlled by direct confrontation (though the outer behaviour was). They were sanskaras, beyond its reach. But they were finally changed by new sanskaras, not of the form ‘I must control my impatience,’ but of the form ‘I am at rest, like a rock.’ Consciously directed and substantially laid down sanskaras, steadily laid down over a period, can finally disperse even long-held habits and convictions picked up semi-consciously throughout life, just as a small but organized force can disperse a rabble.

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