The sad and bitter truth is that for most of us almost all of our time and energy are devoted to “the manifestations of life,” and not to life itself. As a result we get alienated not only from life but also from our own selves. We sort of drift aimlessly in a dream-world, dragged by the unconscious stream of life, seemingly awake but with no control over where we are heading. We remain madly absorbed in the what, where, when, and how of our needs, responsibilities, work, and pastimes.
Have we ever taken time off to ask, why? Why must I do this? Why do I need that? Why am I what I am? Why do I want to be what I want to be? These questions are essential to get in touch with ourselves and with life. In these days of social distancing, it may not be easy to get in touch with people. Why not try something easier? We can make good use of our stay-at-home compulsion by getting in touch with ourselves, something we may not have done enough of.
Getting in touch is important. We are kept busy with so many things that we lose ourselves in the busy-ness of life. When that happens, we become almost like robots. Our condition is perhaps worse. Robots at least work predictably and perfectly, while our behavior becomes unpredictable and less than perfect, ruled as we are by the sporadic upsurges of our dormant desires and talents, passions and ambitions, anxieties and fears. We are not even in touch with the things we are busy with, let alone being in touch with ourselves. It’s a miserable existence really, but we realize the misery of it only when we are able to taste a little of the joy and freedom emanating from a life that is in touch with itself.
The best way to get in touch is to make why-questioning a habit. A why-question is a wakeup call to arouse awareness and understanding. Swami Vivekananda said: “We, as Vedantists, must always look at things from an introspective viewpoint, from its subjective relations” (CW 3. 166). In an 1896 letter to his disciple Goodwin, Swamiji explained what he meant by looking at things “from its subjective relations”: “We Vedantists in every difficulty ought to ask the subjective question, ‘Why do I see that?’ ‘Why can I not conquer this with love?’” (CW 8. 383).
If someone is not friendly toward me or speaks harshly to me, I need neither retaliate nor become grumpy or morose. All I need to do is to ask myself silently, why? Why is this person boiling over? Why do I see her or him that way? I might discover that I’ve indeed committed some indiscretion which produced that kind of reaction in the other person. In which case, I must at once apologize, rectify my mistake, and try to cool down the offended person. This is how I can “conquer” the situation “with love.”
On the other hand, I might discover that I’ve done nothing to provoke or alienate the other person, but his or her reaction is probably caused by factors beyond my control. We know that physical suffering (even minor things like headaches), or worries and unpleasant incidents, sometimes make people behave in unusual ways—and innocent people often become their unintentional targets. If my why-questioning reveals to me some such reason, I can continue to retain my peace and composure. I might even be able to help the other person feel better. This would be another way of conquering the situation with love.
A why-question must not only figure in interpersonal relations but must also be directed toward our own thoughts, words and actions. Why do I think the way I think? Why did I speak the way I spoke? Why did I do this? Why do I want to do that? This kind of self-questioning doesn’t have to be followed by self-pity, self-justification or self-condemnation if we find we were about to do or speak, or have already done or spoken, something less than worthy or perfect. We must never forget the purpose of why-questioning: namely, to conquer the situation with love. This is important.
The moment we begin to self-question, the lamp of awareness is lit in our hearts. That puts us at once in touch with ourselves. If we keep this lamp burning brightly for a time, it produces understanding of the motives, desires, fears, and anxieties which have found expression through our thoughts, words and actions. Understanding is the key. Once we have this key, it becomes easy to examine the worth of our motives etc., dump the self-destructive, harmful elements, and allow the flowering of the healthy, nourishing seeds present in our hearts.
Our why-questioning need not be restricted only to our personal or interpersonal concerns. Even social phenomena can become the object of a why-inquiry, but it must be (as Swamiji said) “from an introspective viewpoint.” Take the problem of corruption. It’s a global phenomenon today. Why are people corrupt? Why do leaders tolerate it and even participate in it? It is not enough to shake our heads in disbelief and disgust, and condemn those involved in corrupt practices. If we do only that, the problem will never be solved. It is true that a handful of why-questioners cannot change overnight a firmly entrenched system, but they can certainly set in motion powerful currents capable of producing positive social changes over a period of time.
Why-questioning social evils and problems will make us sober and humble. It will put an end to our complaining and condemning, and produce in our heart the seeds of understanding and compassion and these, in turn, will goad us into doing what ought to be done. As a boy, Vivekananda was once condemning alcoholics, when his father cautioned him, “My son, if you realize why people take up drinking, the suffering and sorrow that drive them to it, you will instead feel compassion for them, not anger or disgust.” Put into the same situation, we may perhaps fare no better than the people we despise and feel superior to.
It is easy to condemn and criticize. By itself this produces nothing, only so much sound. We don’t need sound, we need light—the light of awareness and understanding. Bathed in this light, we are able to face everything with poise and love and know exactly what should be done and what should not be done. The habit of why-questioning is a shield that protects us from hasty, mindless responses.
Years ago, as editor of the Vedanta Kesari, the Ramakrishna Order’s monthly published from Chennai in India, I was expected to write an editorial every month. A visitor to the Chennai Math asked me an interesting question: “How do you manage to keep spinning out an essay every month?” This how-question was easily dismissed with a smile, but later it did produce in my mind a series of silent why-questions: Why is he asking me this question? Why does a magazine need an editorial every month? Why should writers write? Why should readers read?
It is as important for writers to know why they are writing as it is for readers to know why they are reading. One helpful tip for writers is that they must write not because they have to write something, but only when they have something worthwhile to write. And we readers must read not because we have to read something, but only when we have something worthwhile to read.
We must know exactly the why of everything we think, the why of everything we say, and the why of everything we do. A why-question is a beeper to awaken us every time we fall asleep and begin drifting. So long as the answer to a why-question points in the direction of peace, harmony, freedom, and perfection, we are safe.