Setting Your Priority Right

From the time you step out of your house, everyone around is at their ‘customer-service’ best. They seem to assume that you and I are in constant stress; they offer assurances and ask you to wind down.

Go to the doctor, and even before you have stated your symptoms fully, he flashes his ready smile, with those assuring eyes suggesting, ‘Don’t worry, it will be taken care!’ Get into the cab in an unfamiliar city, and the driver shall assure you, ‘Saab, wherever it is in this world, I will find it for you; just relax and listen to some music!’ You’re looking frantically for an item in a mall, jostling around, when the ever-friendly salesman appears, seeks to know what you want, sends one of the boys to go find it, and his confident gaze seems to suggest, ‘Don’t worry, you have come to the right place, you won’t get out of here until I fetch you what you want!’

Even the vegetable vendor and municipal garbage collector think of you and me as readily stressed and unsorted in our minds! Wherever you go—restaurants, flights, Shatabdi trains, or whoever you seek—plumbers, electricians, or the civil contractor; everyone these days seems well trained to handle your stress and be sympathetic to your preoccupation or worry.

‘Wow! Are we living in a nice world?’, one wonders many times. It appears that the only job you and I have is to get stressed, and wait for the world around to calm us down.

But, there is something else here that deserves our attention. At any given point, the brain seems to function only in one of two modes: stressed or relaxed. Most times, I don’t even realise I am stressed, and find myself yelling at someone in a traffic snarl. Only when my wife taps on my back with a ‘Relax yaar!’ signal that I realise I am at the very brink of anxiety, and in that condition, I could be snapping at anyone, in fact, for no reason at all. The only qualifying condition for me to snap at those moments, it appears, is that someone must be there. I haven’t yet developed the skill to snap at an inert stone; I am heading there, for sure!

So, why does the brain operate on these two modes: stressed and relaxed? Have you wondered?

When you relax, at the brain level, you seem to clutch off the situation. For which, someone you trust must be ready to take care. When you are involved, when you take charge, there is only one way that you are headed. If the situation is familiar and repetitive, then, by prior knowledge or experience, it is routine stuff for you. If the situation turns a little tricky, you could either get aroused in curiosity and your best problem-solving faculties could emerge, and you could become occupied with it; or, you could panic, become desperate, and make a mess of the situation—in short, reveal to yourself how clumsy you are! When you relax, you let go, and you allow someone else to take charge. Some of us watch how he takes charge. Some genuinely switch off, lose themselves into something else, or float in no man’s land! That is the agenda—to cool off! To not just step off the accelerator, but to get off the wheel itself.

The control system of your brain makes you do one more thing. How does it set priority, have you wondered?

You first get into office or workspace. That is the beginning. And then, priorities get set post that, don’t they? Based on urgency, based on high-value transaction, based on importance, based on available resource or skill-set, etc. But, you first enter office space, and there comes about priority. You enter the family space, and there again, you have priorities. Getting breakfast ready for your kids is priority. Getting your house organised is another priority. Bookings for that travel vacation is a third. So on and so forth.

Now, I come around and ask you to first step out of both office and family space. And then, in free space, I ask you to set your priority. Your brain is confused, isn’t it? Because, all you know is the binary: engagement, and relaxation (engagement leading to stress almost inevitably). You engage with office space, and relax from office space. You engage with family space, and relax from family space. Sometimes, office space can provide relaxation from family and vice versa. At other times, you seek something else, outside both these spaces. Do you get the broad picture?

Your brain controls your life based on a simple paradigm. Engagement, and relaxation. Stressed, and relaxed. You get stressed at the workplace and relax with your friends. And, what happens to the more profound questions of life? Why aren’t they top priority? After all, this is your life; the Buddha is not asking you to lead his life through you, right? He is merely asking you to wake up to your actual life. From your real life emerges true space and priority. And, from that space and priority arise workspace and family space, and the priorities therein. Isn’t this how it should have been in the first place?

Now, how does one move to real life if my brain controls and directs my life towards engagement-relaxation-engagement-relaxation, on and on? Relax and enjoy; Engage, own up, and be responsible. How does the brain step out of this binary?

When we relax or drift emptily, most of us are bound to feel more relaxed than a true Yogi. When we engage, when we own and are flitting between tasks and assignments, of course, the Yogi appears calmer and relaxed. But, the Yogi remains consistent right through, and doesn’t succumb to this binary of engagement and relaxation. When you are relaxed, you may find the Yogi slightly tense, taut, and gripped about something. When you are stressed, the Yogi next to you inspires you to unwind. You get the middle path, don’t you? The Yogi has discovered a deeper land, from where emerges a more profound priority, an experience of a deeper space; he appears to engage deeply, and at the same time, not too held either.

The Buddha suggested a middle path: Never engage in a manner that goes against your inner calm. And, don’t resort to an inner calm that drains the very spirit of engagement.

Further, as the Bhagavadgītā says, (karmaṇyakarma yaḥ paśyed…4.18), seeing action in inaction, and inaction in action; that indeed is Yoga. Interpreted in the context of this article, if the brain learns to relax while engaged fully, and if it learns to stay engaged while relaxed on the outside, then that indeed is Yoga.

How does one do that? First: Don’t be too sure of your priorities because they emanate from the definition of a limited space (work or family). When you don’t know why you are involved with a family, or doing this kind of work and not the other, how can you take these priorities seriously? Yet, if you don’t take these priorities and tasks seriously, you are likely to become loose, lackadaisical, lost, unproductive, and so on. You know this, don’t you?

Sādhanā or Yoga is to consistently go against the tendency of the brain 1) to rock between occupation and relaxation, and, 2) to enter a space and then set the priority from within that space. And, while functioning in this manner, the brain tends to completely forget the fundamental throbs of life, of the need to dwell on things and issues, to discover threads from the land of God—those that connect me and those that connect all of us. Consequently, the brain is unavailable to unearthing a greater meaning to the current engagement itself. If I am finally operating between diligent task completion and mind-numbing relaxation, when will I find the necessity to dwell deeper about life? Life has just gone by, and I didn’t find the wherewithal to seize the moment to dwell deeper right now, while succumbing entirely to this shallow control template of the brain.

Find the actual space of life. From within you. From there emerges right priority—what comes first, what is important, what is non-negotiable, what is secondary, what should be fretted over or insisted upon, and what you can ease off from.

When you work, you evolve a larger picture, don’t you? Of organisational ambitions and goals. From there emerge priorities. When you are in a family, over time, you tend to evolve a larger picture, or at least an essential view (like, ‘ultimately, all should be happy!’). How about life as a whole? How about life in this extraordinary universe? How about life beyond death? What lends meaning to your life? Not just at this moment, but what you live for, moment to moment…isn’t that the larger picture? Isn’t that the space you should be genuinely perched in first, before you even enter family or workspace? Shouldn’t that space dictate what you do currently—read something important, perform this task, help that person in distress, earn money, learn this skill, so on and so forth?

But, how do you find that space of life? How do you unearth the entire syllabus of life, while life still goes on? While trekking a forest, how do you unearth its entire canvas? After dying, if you sat on a wall between heaven and earth, and spoke of what life is all about, then that could be considered some sort of a big picture, isn’t it? But, while leading life here, how does one discover this bigger picture?

Both the Buddha and the Bhagavadgītā are merely saying it is possible. In fact, they are saying unless you unravel the bigger picture while leading life here, you will not be able to do it otherwise. The dead man merely carries an impression of life, which is useless. It is the man who lives here who needs the big picture, to anchor himself rightly, to prioritise life correctly, isn’t it?

This is the middle path that the Buddha advised. This is what the Gītā also talks about. Find a way to go against your brain right now, such that it doesn’t move in the binary of engagement and relaxation. Find a way to go against your brain right now, such that it doesn’t create workspace, family space, hobby space, music space, but seeks to discover that one space of life that truly matters.

That is how you seek to be aligned and coherent in God’s world.

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Sudheendra Chaitanya

Sudheendra Chaitanya is a Hindu monk based in Bangalore, India. After completing Engineering, he studied the scriptures at Chinmaya Mission in 1991, and continued with Mission work until 2005.

He now chooses to spend time with himself, observing life—people and happenings—keenly, and his insights flow out as writings. As a serious investigator into the core issues of life, Sudheendraji connects to people and subjects of life alike…with intimate directness. He has also authored several books. Notable among them are Blooming in the Open, The How, What and Why of I and God and Personal Worship. In a lucid narrative, his writings deliver fundamental insights, ruthlessly searing through conditioned thoughts and beliefs, but nourishing the soul with care.

Sometimes nourishing, sometimes revealing…