Improving Our Character
If we start at the beginning and work systematically, we can replace undesirable qualities with their opposites
By Satguru Bodhinatha Veylanswami
Real life offers a key for their journey. Imagine someone who goes to a piano concert and hears the world's greatest artist. The music is mesmerizing, the pianist's skill is flawless, soaring, perfect, and our listener decides, "This is my path. This is what I want to do." He sits at the piano, attempting to equal the master's work, but great music does not resound. No matter how many hours are spent, no matter how sincere the effort, he cannot achieve what he heard at the concert.
Why? He does not realize the work required to reach that level of expertise. To be successful, it is vital to start at the beginning of the path, not in the middle or at the end. If the fundamentals are skipped, our efforts will not yield sustainable spiritual progress. In the case of the pianist, the fundamentals are music theory, neural and muscular training, development of memorization, cultivating an interpretive ear and practice, practice, practice. It is no different in spiritual life. The great ones did not sit in a cave and in a short time attain enlightenment. They worked on themselves for years, decades. They did sadhana, they changed their habits, their desires, their reactions, their very character. If we wish to achieve what they achieved, we must do the same. We must work for it.
The fundamentals, the foundation upon which our spiritual growth rests, is our character. What exactly is character? Character is the sum total of mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual. On the spiritual path, the first phase of effort is to build, improve and transform our character. My guru, Sivaya Subramuniyaswami, observed:
"It is true that bliss comes from meditation, and it is true that higher consciousness is the heritage of all mankind. However, the ten restraints [yamas] and their corresponding practices [niyamas] are necessary to maintain bliss consciousness, as well as all of the good feelings toward oneself and others attainable in any incarnation. These restraints and practices build character. Character is the foundation for spiritual unfoldment. The fact is, the higher we go, the lower we can fall. The top chakras spin fast; the lowest one available to us spins even faster. The platform of character must be built within our lifestyle to maintain the total contentment needed to persevere on the path. These great rishis saw the frailty of human nature and gave these guidelines, or disciplines, to make it strong. They said, 'Strive!' Let's strive to not hurt others, to be truthful and honor all the rest of the virtues they outlined."
Swami Chinmayananda, founder of Chinmaya Mission, directly related spiritual growth to character transformation: "If we organize our life in such a way so as to discover the great potential within us, and if we order our behavior so as to nurture and nourish that potential, our life will be well spent. Our success lies in the amount of transformation we can bring about in our character and behavior."
My guru explained, "To build character, to act in accordance with the yamas, a person has to realize that, having acted instinctively, he experienced consequences that he does not want to experience again; so, now he realizes that he should follow these restraints and not go through those consequences again. This is the foundation; without this foundation there is no spiritual growth, no fruit. Trying to realize the highest realizations before laying this foundation would be like taking a lime tree that was cut off from its roots and putting it into a bucket and expecting it to bear fruit. Of course it will not."
Each of us has many character qualities. A character quality is a habit, a usual pattern or way of thinking, speaking or acting. Most people have a mixture of positive character qualities (such as being enthusiastic, punctual, dependable, kindly or sincere) and negative qualities (such as being sarcastic, lazy, tardy or deceptive).
We have all heard the common excuse for negative character qualities: "That's the way I am. What can I do about it? I'm simply a lazy person." Hinduism teaches that the character we are born with in this life is the result of the sum total of our actions in previous lives. Some individuals are clearly pious from birth, others are of a mixed nature and still others are self-centered and devious. However, Hinduism also teaches that we can change the character qualities we are born with through self-reflection and self-effort, by observing and controlling how we think and act in the present, particularly by the repetition of positive thoughts and actions. The more often we express and reflect on the character quality we desire to cultivate, the stronger it will become.
Accepting the idea that we can change a negative character quality, such as laziness, is a necessary first step. Once that perspective is held, the following four-step approach to developing the opposing positive character quality is helpful:
1. Understand the positive quality
2. Cognize its expressions
3. Realize its benefits
4. Practice its expressionsIn utilizing this process, we can keep in mind the following principle from Patanjali's Yoga Sutras: "For the repelling of unwholesome thoughts, their opposites should be cultivated. Unwholesome thoughts, such as harming someone and so forth--whether done, caused to be done, or approved, whether arising from greed, anger or infatuation, whether mild, moderate or extreme--never cease to ripen into ignorance and suffering. This is why one must cultivate their opposites."
Let's see how this four-step process can be utilized to replace laziness with industriousness.
First: Understand the Positive Quality. Make sure you have a clear understanding of the character quality you wish to cultivate. A good way to approach this is to define it in your own words. Let us define industriousness as "hard-working, willing to work long hours to finish a project." Its opposite, laziness, is "a disinclination to work hard, preferring to remain idle." Then meditate on the positive quality.
Second: Cognize its Expressions. Make a list of thoughts, words, attitudes and behaviors that are representative of people who possess the positive quality. Then make a parallel list for the opposite trait.
Do the task now
Postpone the task
Work late to finish
Stop as early as possible
Do the minimum
- Greater ability to serve family and community
- Opportunities for career advancement
- Appreciation from associates
- Enhanced self-esteem
- Avoid criticism
Fourth: Practice its Virtues. Begin to regularly practice the actions that will develop the habit pattern of the positive character quality. Observe closely as to begin to experience the benefits that result. Set realistic goals. Be careful not to set the goal too high, lest you fall short, become discouraged and give up the effort. For the quality of industriousness, focus on increasing your productivity for the day by five percent. This can be accomplished by working faster, working longer or a combination of both.
Slowly, character will evolve and the many traits that define you will be transformed, bringing a deeper spirituality and a more secure material existence to your daily life. Remember: Consistency is the key to the conquest of karma.
Swami Vivekananda emphasized the need to re-educate ourselves on how to acquire and keep that most cherished of personal qualities, good character
By Swami Atmashraddhananda
Shaken up by those harsh facts, they become humble and begin to look for an answer. They soon learn, if they are sincere, that one cannot blame others for one's weakness. One must accept oneself and try to do better. Character building, hence, is a deeply personal and intimate issue. One cannot sit in a corner with his hands clasped and say, "How does my character matter?" Nor can one escape the consequences of lack of character building. Character matters in more than one way; and character building is the perpetual challenge confronting everyone, individually and collectively.
Spiritual life sans character building is like constructing a house without any mortar or cementing agent. Though all mystic traditions speak of moksha or spiritual liberation, a state beyond even the issue of character building, no one denies that character building alone is the guiding principle in all spiritual matters.
What, really, is character?Swami Vivekananda gave a most complete definition of character. He said, "Every work that we do, every movement of the body, every thought that we think, leaves such an impression on the mind-stuff, and even when such impressions are not obvious on the surface, they are sufficiently strong to work beneath the surface, subconsciously. What we are every moment is determined by the sum total of these impressions on the mind."
Swami went on, "What I am just at this moment is the effect of the sum total of all the impressions of my past life. This is really what is meant by character; each man's character is determined by the sum total of these impressions. If good impressions prevail, the character becomes good; if bad, it becomes bad. If a man continuously hears bad words, thinks bad thoughts, does bad actions, his mind will be full of bad impressions; and they will influence his thought and work without his being conscious of the fact.
"In fact, these bad impressions are always working, and their resultant must be evil, and that man will be a bad man; he cannot help it. The sum total of these impressions in him will create the strong motive power for doing bad actions. He will be like a machine in the hand of his impressions, and they will force him to do evil. Similarly, if a man thinks good thoughts and does good works, the sum total of these impressions will be good; and they, in a similar manner, will force him to do good even in spite of himself."
Repetition, or repeated thinking of a thought or happening of an action, creates what we call character. It is an outcome of experience, of thoughts and actions, of reactions and responses--of life itself. In Swamiji's insightful words: "Karma in its effect on character is the most tremendous power that man has to deal with. Man, as it were, is a center, and is attracting all the powers of the universe towards himself. Good and bad, misery and happiness, all are running towards him and clinging round him, and out of them he fashions the mighty stream of tendencies called character and throws it outwards." This means that character is the result of whatever we do and do not do (for not doing is also a kind of action).
Can we alter our nature?Is character inherited, or is it subject to change? Can one change one's character? This is an important issue that bothers most human minds. Understanding it is essential to the whole process of character building. According to Swamiji, the birth of a person does have a role to play. He said once, "One child is born of a divine nature, another of a human, others of lower character."
While parentage and the formative period of one's life cast an influence on one's character, every human being has an opportunity to change himself. He can make a choice to change himself. If it were not so, all spiritual counsels would be meaningless, all scriptures would turn ineffective and man will remain condemned forever. If past actions have played a role in making our present character, it naturally follows that our future character will be determined by what we do now.
Swamiji explains: "Look back on yourselves from the state of the amoeba to the human being; who made all that? Your own will. Can you deny then that it is almighty? That which has made you come up so high can make you go higher still. What you want is character, strengthening of the will."
Training the will means training or controlling the senses and the mind and not being controlled by them. Kathopanishad speaks of the human personality as a chariot: "Know the atman to be the master of the chariot; the body, the chariot; the buddhi (discriminating faculty), the charioteer; and the mind, the reins. The senses, they say, are the horses; the object, the roads. A man who has discrimination for his charioteer, and holds the reins of the mind firmly, reaches the end of the road; and that is the supreme position of Vishnu (the all-pervading consciousness)."
The whole process of character building lies with our thoughts, or to be more precise, with our willpower. It is the will which needs to be trained. To this end, one should become the master of the chariot, instead of becoming a slave to the horses (the senses) and the reins (the mind or thoughts). This is an inner training wherein the charioteer (buddhi) has to learn to control the mind and senses, and not be controlled by them. Said Swamiji: "He who has succeeded in attaching or detaching his mind to or from the centers at will has succeeded in pratyahara, which means, 'gathering towards,' checking the outgoing powers of the mind, freeing it from the thraldom of the senses. When we can do this, we shall really possess character."
Self-controlLet us next look at character building from the viewpoint of spiritual life, where meditation plays a central role. Meditation depends upon concentration, and concentration depends upon withdrawal of the mind, which, again, depends upon self-control. Self-control, which signifies mastery over the mind and the senses, is therefore the secret of all success in meditation, and also of mastering the character-building process.
Self-control is a way of life. It is based on exercising and strengthening one's will on the right lines. One has to learn to control one's cravings and channel them in healthier means of expression. Chastity, truthfulness and genuine sympathy are the three indispensable components of a true character.
The approach to character building should be always positive. One should emphasize one's nurturing positive virtues rather than getting rid of vices. A widespread trend these days is to emphasize the importance of overcoming addiction to alcohol, drugs or other compulsive habits. This focus emphasizes their harmful effects but fails to emphasize what one should do in place of such habits. The result is that people keep attending camps or seminars and continue with their wrong habits.
Nor should one confuse character with talents. By talent is meant some special trait or capacity to do something, such as singing, writing or public speaking. One should not forget that while we admire talent, it is character that we really respect. Talent may bring us some fame and reputation, but it is character which is the real man.
Swami Vivekananda rightly pointed out: "If you really want to judge the character of a man, look not at his great performances. Every fool may become a hero at one time or another. Watch a man do his most common actions; those are indeed the things which will tell you the real character of a great man. Great occasions rouse even the lowest of human beings to some kind of greatness, but he alone is the really great man whose character is great always, the same wherever he be."
The company one keeps mattersOne of the greatest helps in character building is to associate with men of character. If one is fortunate enough to find such company, one finds subtle changes taking place in one's own character. Company has a profound impact on the type of character one develops. More than what we are asked to do, it is the example of our associates and role models that affects us most.
But sometimes we are not so fortunate. In that case, reading and deep thinking over the lives and teachings of men of character is of much help. One should fill one's mental atmosphere with holy and inspiring thoughts. Since we become what we admire, we should choose our objects of admiration and adoration with care.
To conclude, character building is the way to spiritual growth and is also the fruit of all spiritual realization. It is foundation of true education also. To restrict education to acquisition of knowledge (or mere degrees, as is often the case) is to not get educated at all. One may lack academic knowledge, but if he has trained his will, purified and controlled his mind, he is then truly educated. He alone is able to live a true life and contribute to it meaningfully. Training of will should be the ultimate goal of all education.
Be it in secular matters or spiritual matters, building a noble and pure character is the only lasting solution to life's problems. Character is not built only in the silence of meditation (though meditation is of great help) but in the broad daylight of right action.
Swami Atmashraddhananda is a monk of the Ramakrishna Order and editor of The Vedanta Kesari (chennaimath.org), from which this article was excerpted.
Om Tat Sat
(My humble salutations to H H Swamy Atmashraddhananda ji, Sadguru Sri Sivaya Subramuniyaswami ji, Satguru Bodhianatha Velayanswami ji, Hinduism Today for the collection)
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