How can we increase our mental energy?
Question: What causes us to feel mentally tired even when we are not physically tired? How can we increase our mental energy?
We feel mentally tired because we let stray desires prey parasitically on our mental energy. To increase our mental energy, we need to become more selective about our desires.
(This answer draws extensively from three Gita-daily articles; those readers who have read those articles can skip the corresponding sections and focus on the overall integrated thought-flow here)
Many of us sometimes feel fed up of the way things are going in our life. This mental exhaustion with life makes some of us seek relief in illusion through time-wasting entertainment at best and self-defeating addiction at worst. What causes this mental tiredness? It is caused by the many superfluous desires that we unwittingly welcome in our minds. The Bhagavad-gita (16.21–22) indicates that these distracting desires which prevent us from acting in our best interests fall in three broad categories: lust, anger and greed.
Lust and greed often fuel our desires for the many worldly objects that enter our vision and imagination, be they glamorous forms or trendy products. These desires are innumerable and endless, and most of them are practically unfulfillable. Consequently, a conscious or subconscious irritation builds up within us. When this irritation becomes intolerable, it makes us vulnerable to anger, which perverts us into becoming sulky (mentally angry) or snappy (verbally angry) or even beastly (physically angry). In this way, lust, greed and anger cumulatively divert our mental focus away from the main goals of our life – both material and spiritual. This inattentiveness makes us falter and blunder while pursuing those goals, and we start getting exhausted and exasperated at how nothing seems to be working in our lives.
Thus, our mental exhaustion originates not in the external difficulties that life brings our way, but in the internal diversions that prevent us from treading our way effectively. These diversions of lust, greed and anger are thus like mental parasites that live on and live off our mind’s energies. That’s why Gita wisdom urges us to proactively immunize ourselves from these dangerous parasites by Krishna consciousness, and thereby keep ourselves mentally energized and focused on our worthwhile aspirations.
At this point, some of us may feel, “Not so fast! Even if I can’t fulfill all the desires that come in my mind, I can fulfill at least some of them. After all, fulfilling material desires is the way to happiness. Why should material desires be compared to parasites?”
Making our intelligence FIT
Material desires are compared to parasites because they almost always have a subversive effect on us. When they divert us from our life’s goals, they are the sources of distraction, as explained above. But when they themselves become our life’s goals, they have an even more deleterious effect: they become the sources of frustration. This is the surprising and challenging assertion of the Bhagavad-gita (5.22), which states that material pleasures – the goals of material desires – lead to not happiness, but misery.
Let’s analyze how material pleasures lead to misery using the acronym FIT (Futility, Insubstantiality, Temporality) that encompasses the three possible results when we seek material pleasures:
- Futility: We desire to enjoy, but the opportunity never turns up. E.g. we long for our favorite delicacy in an upcoming feast, but the menu doesn’t include that delicacy.
- Insubstantiality: We get the opportunity to enjoy, but the enjoyment turns out to be an anti-climax. E.g. the menu includes our cherished delicacy, but it is poorly cooked and is a far cry from our expectation.
- Temporality: We enjoy the pleasure, but it ends too soon either due to limited availability externally or limited capacity internally, leaving us tormented by the craving for more. E.g. the delicacy tastes good, but our enjoyment ends too early either because the servings of the delicacy are limited or because the capacity of our stomach is limited.
Thus in all possible eventualities, the quest for material pleasures leads us to frustration – sooner or later. Just as parasites always harm the organisms that host them, material desires inevitably harm us when we host them in our minds. An organism that wishes to stay healthy and fit will keep the parasites out. Similarly, the same Gita verse (5.22) states that those who are intelligent understand the falsity of material pleasures and so choose to never delight in them, thus keeping the parasitic material desires out of their minds.
If we are unable to perceive the falsity of material pleasures, this inability is a symptom that our intelligence has been weakened and sickened by the parasitic material desires. Due to its diseased condition, our intelligence is no longer able to perceive the true nature of material pleasures. Just as appropriate regular bodily exercise helps to restore our bodily health, appropriate regular intellectual exercise helps to restore our intellectual health. The appropriate intellectual exercise is unsentimental contemplation on the falsity of material pleasures using scripture-based analysis like the one above.
Sustained intellectual exercise of contemplating on the FIT nature of material pleasures will gradually make our intelligence fit and enable us to realize that material desires are truly parasitic in nature. This realization will inspire us get rid of these parasites, that is, to seek pleasures beyond the material.
Unfortunately, getting rid of these parasitic desires is not so easy. Just as parasites hold on to the host even when the host tries to get rid of them, material desires hold on to our minds even when we try to get rid of them
A game that we can’t win and can’t quit
The Bhagavad-gita points to this iron hold of material desires on us when it states (3.36) that they impel us to self-defeating activities as if by force. This domineering force that material desires often exert on us is due to their two deadly characteristics: insatiability and irresistibility. These two characteristics of material desires foil the two ways by which most people try to deal with them: indulgence or resistance. To understand this modus operandi of material desires, let’s compare engaging with material desires with playing a game.
Insatiability: When we indulge in material desires, we are, analogically speaking, trying to win the game. However, by indulgence, material desires become not pacified, but aggravated; not silenced, but incited; not satisfied, but stimulated – like a fire that is fed with fuel (Gita 3.39). Consequently, the craving becomes stronger, not weaker, and forces us to repeatedly, even perpetually, keep indulging in those desires. Thus, analogically speaking, as these desires are insatiable, we just can’t win the game by indulgence.
Irresistibility: When we get fed up with the futile attempt to indulge in these desires and decide to say no to them, we are, analogically speaking, trying to quit the game. However, no matter how much we try to resist material desires, they keep rising up from within or rushing in from without in our mind regularly and relentlessly, and make resistance practically impossible. Analogically speaking, as these desires are irresistible, we just can’t quit the game by resistance.
Fortunately, there is a way out of this lose-lose situation. Though we can neither win nor quit, we don’t have to keep getting pound. We have a third alternative: switch to playing a different game altogether. Gita wisdom recommends a third way beyond indulgence and resistance: transcendence.
The Gita (2.61) indicates that if we fix our minds on Krishna, then we can gradually experience spiritual happiness in remembering him and fill our heart with devotional desires to love and serve him. Consequently, material desires find themselves crowded out of the playing arena of our mind – and we find ourselves freed from their torturous infection.
Not only do we need to get rid of the parasitic desires that already exist in our mind, but we also need to protect ourselves from the fresh desires that may seek to enter there. Just as intelligent people treat parasites with caution and suspicion, and are alert to keep them out of their bodies, we need to treat the parasitic desires with caution and suspicion, and be alert to prevent them from entering our minds. This alertness requires a radical shift in our perception of the sources of these desires: worldly temptations.
Response to Temptation: Welcome Tune or Alarm Bell?
The Bhagavad-gita (3.41) warns us to recognize temptation – carnal temptation in specific and material temptation in general – as a symbol of sin (papamanam) and fight it off as soon as it makes its seductive and deceptive appearance.
The Gita (3.43) further urges us to use our intelligence to see the true colors of temptation and thereby reject it. When we are intellectually inert, the arrival of temptation sets off a welcome tune in our consciousness; our lethargic intelligence has no strength or spunk to unmask the treacherous façade of temptation. Consequently, we get helplessly, even eagerly, carried away by the doomed hope that indulging in the temptation will make us happy. In other word, we welcome the parasites, mistaking them to be benevolent.
But when we are intellectually alert, the arrival of the same temptation triggers an alarm bell in our consciousness; our robust intelligence swings into action to pound out the temptation, knowing well that it is a forerunner of emotional distraction that can snowball into spiritual destruction. Consequently, we gird ourselves for an inner battle that leads to a gradual but inevitable triumph if we seek shelter and strength in the remembrance of Krishna.
Of course, if the arrival of temptation leads to no response – neither a welcome tune nor an alarm bell, then that absence of response indicates, not that we have transcended temptation, but that our intelligence has fallen asleep due to a cocksure complacency that can be suicidal. Therefore, the non-triggering of an alarm bell should itself trigger an alarm bell and galvanize us to arouse and activate our intelligence, and seek refuge in Krishna consciousness.
Just as freeing the body from parasites requires a systematic and appropriate treatment plan, fighting the mind from parasitic material desires requires a systematic and appropriate spiritual treatment plan. In fact, the Bhagavad-gita (6.36) states that without such a plan, the attainment of self-mastery is almost impossible, whereas with such a plan, it is eminently possible. Let’s now look at what all such a plan involves.
The way to say “No” is to say “Yes”
Many of us, even after recognizing the need to curb material desires, often remain mentally preoccupied with the temptations that we have to evade and avoid. This negative or defensive attitude in dealing with the parasitic desires makes the fight more difficult than it needs to be.
In order to stay away from temptations, many of us use our:
1. Moral conscience that tells us it is the right thing to do and
2. Philosophical conviction that tells us it is the beneficial thing to do.
This moral and philosophical discernment is necessary; without it, self-restraint often becomes an exercise in meaningless and purposeless self-torture. However, discernment is necessary, but not sufficient. With discernment, we recognize self-restraint to be right and beneficial, but don’t experience it to be joyful. That’s why the Bhagavad-gita (2.60) states that even a person of discernment endeavoring for self-restraint is overpowered by temptations.
The next verse (2.61) urges us to complement discernment with engagement. When we engage ourselves in service to Krishna – especially when we engage our minds in the service of remembering him, then spiritual happiness doesn’t remain an abstract conception or a hazy dream; it becomes a concrete reality and a living experience. The Bhagavad-gita (2.62-63) describes how giving our attention to an object stimulates our desires and actions for attaining that object. This universal psychological principle of “whatever catches our attention catches us” normally binds us when we contemplate on the material objects depicted in billboard and commercials. But this same principle can also free us if we intelligently re-direct our attention towards Krishna. Krishna makes himself available and attractive to us by appearing in various ways: his enchanting deities, his soothing holy names, his magnetizing kirtans, his marvelous pastimes, his compassionate devotees or his fulfilling service. These are, in a sense, Krishna’s commercials and billboards. If we strive to consciously give our attention to the aspect of Krishna that attracts our heart, we will soon pleasantly discover that Krishna has caught our attention and thereby caught us. And Krishna’s catching us is supremely auspicious, for he frees us from the tiresome parasitic material desires and bestows upon us the supreme happiness of an eternal spiritual loving relationship with him.
Moreover, service to Krishna is not restricted to activities that are externally, directly connected to Krishna. Even our worldly responsibilities can become a service to Krishna if we keep him in our hearts and strive to do those responsibilities as devotional offerings to him. Thus, giving up material desires doesn’t necessitate giving up all material activities or responsibilities. What is parasitic and needs to be given up is the false hope that material things can make us happy because the only thing that can make us truly happy is our loving relationship with Krishna.
But once we have make reviving that relationship with Krishna as the central driving purpose of our life, then we can orient and harmonize our worldly activities and responsibilities with that purpose. When we start using our devotional creativity to discover in every situation, every event, every activity, every interaction the hidden opportunity to serve Krishna and then say “Yes” to that opportunity, the resulting devotional connection with Krishna through internal remembrance and external service gives us profound spiritual fulfillment. Once we start tasting and valuing this fulfillment, then temptations become exposed as sources of distraction – not gratification. At that stage, saying “No” to them is not just right and beneficial, but also joyful.
Thus, the best way to say “No” to parasitic material desires is to say “Yes” to Krishna.
We discussed how material desires are like parasites in four ways:
- They harm us as would parasites by de-energizing us through distraction and by frustrating us through misdirection towards a non-existent pleasure
- They stay entrenched in our minds as would parasites in a host organism
- They need to be seen as potential threats for our minds as parasites would be for our bodies
- They require a systematic authorized treatment for removal as would parasites.
When we thus realize material desires to be parasitic and strive to free ourselves from them, then we will save our mental energy from being dissipated by stray material desires. We will find our stock of available mental energy enormously increased and mental tiredness will become a thing of the past. We will surprise ourselves with our remarkably high mental energy levels and will be able to achieve much more both materially and spiritually. Materially, we will be able to fulfill our worldly responsibilities with greater competence and diligence; it is a delicious irony that curbing our material desires makes us more effective and productive materially. And, more importantly, spiritually, we will be able to cultivate and cherish spiritual happiness in this very life and at the end of our life we will be able return back to Krishna for a life of eternal love and happiness.