Master yourself, to lead others
Wisdom from the Katha Upanishad and Bhagavad Gita holds the key to self mastery.
Sometimes we know what we should be doing, but we do something else entirely. Sometimes even though we know it won't help us, we react angrily or let emotions sweep us away. These events hurt us no matter the role, but are especially destructive for leaders and managers. It takes time and conscious effort to cultivate trust with your team, but hypocrisy or an angry moment can sweep that away in an instant, leaving you with an arduous climb to win them back.
As a leader, it is critical that you master yourself in the process of leading others. After all, if you can't marshal yourself to a task, are you worth being followed?
A while back I described the story from the Katha Upanishad, about the boy Nachiketa and how Yama, the lord of death, came to be his guru. We explored Yama's first teaching to Nachiketa, about the sreyas and preyas, the good and the pleasant. We looked at the importance of choosing sreyas over preyas, and the impact this makes in our lives.
Later we talked about the differing mindsets shown by Duryodhana and Arjuna in the Mahabharat when they asked similar questions about why, despite knowing what is good, we still sometimes choose the easier path.
Let's return to that question, this time going back to Yama's teachings to Nachiketa, which are very closely mirrored by Krishna's teachings to Arjuna in the Gita. These teachings, and the analogy given by Yama, which appears in Buddhist teachings as well, give us a guide to self-mastery.
Yama helps Nachiketa understand the inner self and the reason for impulses through an analogy. In the following verses from the Katha Upanishad, he explains the relationship of the inner world to the outer by comparing it to a chariot. Your consciousness is the passenger of the chariot, while your mind is the charioteer. Your senses are the horses of the chariot, and objects of perception that the senses perceive are the road.
आत्मानꣳ रथिनं विद्धि शरीरꣳ रथमेव तु। बुद्धिं तु सारथिं विद्धि मनः प्रग्रहमेव च॥ ३॥
ātmānam̐ rathinaṁ viddhi śarīram̐ rathameva tu, buddhiṁ tu sārathiṁ viddhi manaḥ pragrahameva ca. (3)
Know the Ᾱtman as the Lord of the chariot, and the body as the chariot. Know the intellect as the charioteer and the mind as the reins.
इन्द्रियाणि हयानाहुर्विषयाꣳस्तेषु गोचरान्। आत्मेन्द्रियमनोयुक्तं भोक्तेत्याहुर्मनीषिणः॥ ४॥
indriyāṇi hayānāhur-viṣayām̐steṣu gocarān, ātmendriyamanoyuktaṁ bhoktetyāhur-manīṣiṇaḥ. (4)
The senses (and the instincts) are the horses, and their roads are the sense objects. The wise call him the enjoyer (when he is) united with the body, the senses, and the mind.
If your mind does a good job of curbing the senses from getting attached to objects, then all is well, the chariot runs smoothly and you reach your goal. The problem is that when the mind is unrestrained and disorderly - when a charioteer cannot control the horses, chaos ensues and the goal may not be reached.
यस्त्वविज्ञानवान्भवत्ययुक्तेन मनसा सदा। तस्येन्द्रियाण्यवश्यानि दुष्टाश्वा इव सारथेः॥ ५॥ yastvavijñānavān-bhavatyayuktena manasā sadā, tasyendriyāṇyavaśyāni duṣṭāśvā iva sāratheḥ. (5)
One who is always of unrestrained mind and devoid of right understanding, his sense organs become uncontrollable like the vicious horses of a charioteer.
यस्तु विज्ञानवान्भवति युक्तेन मनसा सदा। तस्येन्द्रियाणि वश्यानि सदश्वा इव सारथेः॥ ६॥ yastu vijñānavān-bhavati yuktena manasā sadā, tasyendriyāṇi vaśyāni sadaśvā iva sāratheḥ. (6)
But he who has the right understanding, and has a mind always controlled, his senses are always controllable as the good horses of the charioteer.
Our senses, and the attachment to objects perceived by the senses, can run us in all sorts of directions. If we return to the question of sreyas and preyas, the good and the pleasant, it's easy to see how this might be the case. For example, you might develop an attachment and desire to the sweetness of a soda, and so make a choice that might be unhealthy for you. Even anger, which we discussed earlier as a destructive impulse, arises from these same attachments.
The disordered mind is like the uncontrolled chariot, it runs away from its goal and makes poor choices. So how do we counteract this? Lord Krishna explains in the Bhagavad Gita:
असंशयं महाबाहो मनो दुर्निग्रहं चलम् । अभ्यासेन तु कौन्तेय वैराग्येण च गृह्यते ॥ ३५ ॥
asaṁśayaṁ mahā-bāho mano durnigrahaṁ calam abhyāsena tu kaunteya vairāgyeṇa ca gṛhyate
It is undoubtedly very difficult to curb the restless mind, but it is possible by practice and by detachment.
The way to bring a disordered mind into control is by constant practice. (We'll leave out the part about detachment or vairagya for now, as this is nearly as misunderstood as karma that we discussed last week.) This shouldn't come as a surprise to us! After all, this is how one gains the motor skills necessary to control one's body as well. As a child through constant effort, we learn to walk, talk, and move around. We constantly practice this on a daily basis. Some who need even more fine control, like athletes, go above and beyond on this training.
The mind, like the body, needs training. If we wish to be able to bend our will towards a particular aim, we need to practice doing so. Yoga and the various meditation practices across religions and traditions were created for this end. We need to cultivate a constant mental practice to develop that level of control of our minds. The way we work each day to maintain our bodies, we need to do so with the mind as well.
These days there are nearly as many meditation apps as fitness apps, and many different types of meditation courses available online. It matters less which we choose, what matters is that we choose. As with fitness, there are more and less effective methods, but the most effective is getting started and sticking with it!
In a Harvard Business Review article, Matthias Birk shares:
Practicing meditation has been shown to reduce anxiety, calm the amygdala, increase our ability to think creatively and empathetically take other people’s perspective. Steve Jobs... described his experience like this: “You start to see things more clearly and be in the present more. Your mind just slows down, and you see a tremendous expanse in the moment. You see so much more than you could see before.”
Take the step, begin a regular daily practice. It's necessary if you want to master yourself, and be worthy to lead others.
What do you think? Do you have a daily practice that helps you master yourself?
If you enjoyed this discussion, please consider sharing this article with a friend.
Chinmayananda, Swami. Kathopanishad (p. 147-148). Central Chinmaya Mission Trust.
Chinmayananda, Swami. Kathopanishad (pp. 150-151). Central Chinmaya Mission Trust.
Bhagavad Gita 6.35
We translated some of these exact verses of the Kaṭhopaniṣad in my Sanskrit class. Very glad to see them discussed here so thoroughly! These articles are always a good reminder of the effectiveness of metacognition. Thank you for writing them!