Although we get a sense of physical well-being from healthy habits, this sense is nothing more than the sense of self-control. Self-control is in part a physical awareness wherein we perceive the functions of the body, monitor them, and can identify the mechanisms of maladies.

We need not be in control of the mechanisms (we never are completely), but we can be aware of them. We must be scrupulously honest with ourselves in terms of our physical habits. We betray ourselves and our bodies if our food, rest, exercise, hygiene, or attitude are not promoting health or balance. The balance here, however, is between mind and body, not between excess and abstinence.

Ultimately the body is aware of this relationship. With bad habits, we become lesss able to communicate with the body, to perceive its subtle messages and needs, as we abandon or stray from the path of balance. A descending slope can open before us as not only health deteriorates with bad physical habits, but health deteriorates with bad psychological states. So, then, the entire relationship has to do with self-control.

The physiological or psychological precondition for that marvelous faculty of self-control as developed in Eastern though is that of perceiving disease in one’s self: its etiology, direction, and end. Ayuverdic medicine, for example, perceives the totality of health between mind and body, as does acupuncture, herbalism, qigong, and many related arts. It is no coincidence that these arts are intimately interconnected with specific philosophies and spiritualities.

But these insights into how the physical mechanism works have all pointed to another essential function: meditation.

In the Western world, meditation has been used pragmatically: meditation relaxes, enabling us to continue our bad habits. But the motive of relaxation, while a good introduction to meditation overall, must be complimented by right habits.

Meditation leads to self-control, the integration of physical and psychological, the precondition to the faculty of self-awareness and monitoring of body. This faculty is subtle not obtrusive, detail-oriented but not fixed on epiphenomena. At a certain point, the body receives confirmation of the self’s aim of self-control, and the self’s aim resonates throughout the body as well-being.

When this does not work — when the body does not work well anymore — we get the cognition of the wise as to what should be done to remedy things or whether anything can be done.

First fruits

The Samannaphala sutra tells the story of king Agatasattu’s visit to Gotama, the Buddha. The king is accompanied by his advisor and physician, who informed him that the Buddha was in the vicinity and that the king should see him. The king prepares his grand retinue to go to Mango Grove. We have a telling glimpse of the insecurity of power when Agatasurra panics upon aproaching the grove. The place is completely quiet despite a thousand monks having assembled there, and the king fears a trap by his enemies.

After he is graciously received by the Buddha, the king impetuously demands to know from him what is the virtue of being a recluse: “Can you declare to me the immediate benefit of the life of a recluse?” The king relates what other authorities have told him in answer to this questions: the transmigrationist, the annihilationist, the idealist, etc. He is not satisfied and now asks Gotama.

We know today that the earliest followers of the Buddha were not monks as understood in the hierarchical and institutional sense of centiries later. Like contemporary sadhus, they were truly recluses in that they had renounced family, property, and entitlements, and lived alone — in the company of others who, like them, were dubbed “homeless.” Hence, the life of the recluse meant more than just solitude.

Gotama responds to the king’s question with his own. He presents the king with the parable of a servant whose life is consumed in service and loyalty, emptying his mind and heart in order to attend to his master’s pleasures from morning until night. The servant believes that this is his inevitable lot given that his master enjoys merit despite his life of pleasure and dissolution.

One day the servant reflects on this. “He is a man — and so am I.” To renounce all of this is freedom. The servant would lose nothing. In renouncing the world he merely renounces his master’s contrivances, the contrivances of a whole system of thinking and being. If he becomes a recluse, he reasons, he will have nothing material in this world, but then he never had anything anyway. He would know freedom of mind and body, “delighting in solitude,” as the sutra puts it.

Gotama asks the king if it would make sense to tell the servant that he should return to the master’s household and resume the status of a slave. Of course not, replies the king. Gotama concludes: “This, O king, is the first kind of fruit, visible in this world, from the life of a recluse. But it is only the first fruit.”

The sadhu and arahat represented radical social change for their time. The remnant of this revolutionary change is our modest solitude, a solitude with a long and worthy heritage. But we are obliged nevertheless to identify who is our master, whether anyone is worthy to lord it over us with contrivances and privileges, and to renounce such a one (be it a person, society, or culture) as did the servant in the parable, in order to enjoy the first fruits of solitude in our own brief lives.

Simple advice

Sage advice is usually simple and straight-forward. We may enjoy intellectual work, lengthy discourses, many books. Their glow can continue throughout the hours and days. But we are not exclusively cerebral beings, and what we hear or see or feel must touch our hearts and resonate with our daily habits.

Simple advice can shut off the intellectual spigot of too much speculation and adjust the flow to what we can handle or what we actually need at the moment. Simple advice points us to practice, which is nothing more than what we are doing every day, every minute — and how conscious we are of what we are doing.

Simple advice is an antidote if taken in small homeopathic doses — not too much or one frustrates knowledge and understanding, but just enough and we are strengthened and reinvigorated for the challenges of daily life, cured if the malady is deep-seated (miasm, in homeopathic terms).

The Burmese forest monk Taingpulu Sayadaw, when asked how to practice, replied: “Eat less, sleep less, read less, talk less.”


To follow up the theme of safeguarding solitude and the image of a pearl is this confirming statement of the Sufi master Hafiz:

What do ordinary people know of the value of the precious pearl?
Hafiz, give the unique essence only to the elect.

This election is not from God but from the self. Instead, one elects to pursue a certain path, never stopping to acknowledge that one has done so or broadcast this news to others, any more than the traveler should divert from a path to enter a city and seek out its entertainments. Less so to flaunt the pearl to strangers or recount how one found it.

Election is to take the solitary path that circumvents the city. Or, to push the image still further, to enter the city only in deepest night in order to pass through it in darkness and obscurity, when no one is watching.

Safeguarding II

Beyond safeguarding personal privacy is the larger social context in which we pursue the project of solitude. It is not simply the notion of not wasting time and energy on those who cannot appreciate the project or who will resent and begrudge it. Rather, it is the very fabric of human nature, of which the gospel speaks through the words of Jesus in answer to the question of why he spoke in parables:

To one who has shall be given, and shall have abundance; but from one who does not have even that which he has shall be taken away. … Seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, neither do they understand.

The premise of safeguarding the insights of solitude rather than broadcasting them to others is, therefore, based on an intuitive realization made explicit in the above passage. Those whom Abba Moses considered unworthy and begrudgers neither see, nor hear, nor understand. They will not appreciate or take to heart this path.

Do they have potential? Here is the rub. They must seek it first, sincerely and passionately, as did John Cassian, before they can be instructed in it. Not merely seek it, either, but change their lives radically in order to be a worthy receptacle. It is the paradox observed in Zen practice that one should meditate first and then insight will come, rather than waiting for insight and meanwhile refusing to practice.

Elsewhere in the same gospel, another analogy is made citing pearls. The “pearl of great price” is worth the farmer buying it with all his savings in order to have it. The peasant listeners of Jesus’ parable would have realized that a farmer’s wealth is meager, and that to make this decision to spend it all is momentous, not the equivalent of the mere financial speculations of the wealthy merchant. The pearl is nothing less than the kingdom of heaven — it may be called whatever one’s tradition prefers.

Furthermore, it is a single pearl. How can it be chopped up among many? It is the self, the very self, the core of our being. How absurd to think that one could or should “resell” it for something else? Others may use the farmer’s “map” to the field in which he found the pearl, but they will not find it, for the pearl has to be discovered within. It is the very quest for wisdom, the map beyond the “gates of perfection,” as John Cassian puts it.