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Esteemed Reader: February 2013 

click to enlarge Ramana Maharshi
  • Ramana Maharshi

When I was young, there was an elderly fellow I visited for coffee and conversation. He was a lonely man who had failed in the conventional life-games, so he became a teacher of philosophy. This was good, because he liked to give advice and have the company of admirers.

Once, when I was feeling depressed, I brought him my problem: "I feel aimless," I complained. "What should I do?" He didn't hesitate to answer.

"Give a public talk on aimlessness."

"But," I spluttered, "but..." But there was no real argument I could give, as this antidote to my malaise was perfect.

For a few weeks after this chat, I contemplated the suggestion. It was a paradox. I couldn't give a talk feeling so lost and depressed, but giving the talk was clearly the rope leading out of depression.

Also, I was aimless because I didn't know how to have an aim. I hoped I could learn if I made a study of aiming. Perhaps the effort to bring it all together, to stand in front of people and say something useful on the subject, would yield in both directions.

So I began to ponder.

The slap in the face came as I realized that the answer wasn't only intellectual. I had to find and "ponder" the problem of aimlessness in my body and emotions also. I found the state of aimlessness had its related body posture—slumped back and pouty, bored facial expression—and more importantly, it also had an associated emotional state.

Finally, I realized I needed some leverage to motivate action—a deadline. So I asked the owner of a local coffee house if I could give a talk. When he asked what the topic would be and I told him aimlessness, he looked at me as though I hadn't finished my sentence. He was clearly certain I was one of the unbalanced people that irritate coffee shop owners with inane questions. Finally he assented. "Sure," he said, and turned away. Though I was owed a refill, I bought another coffee and left the money on the counter.

I wrote and rewrote that lecture, to the point that when it was time to give the talk I was able to set aside my notes and speak naturally. A few people came for the talk, others looked up occasionally from their books or games of chess while I discoursed. At the end there were no questions from the audience.

Despite the lukewarm response to that talk, I had my cure. The effort to prepare and give the talk disturbed my torpor and gave me some insight into the nature of the illness. It also gave me a new experience and a new tool—meditation on a subject or question until its answer is revealed. This practice is sometimes called pondering.

Pondering is kind of like meditation, but more active and creative. With pondering, or "weighing" as the etymology suggests, there is an effort to focus on something without being distracted by what arises, while at the same time incorporating what arises into the subject itself.

All manner of discoverers have used this method, a method that could be considered alchemical. By "alchemical" I mean that the state of the subject is changed in the pondering process. A subject that starts out unclear becomes elucidated, clarified. It goes from opaque to transparent, and insight begins to flow—changing state from earth element to water element. And finally the subject gains energy and becomes radiant or enlightened (from water to fire).

Ramana Maharshi, an Indian saint of the last century, suggested that there is really only one question worth pondering, and further, that every other question is an aspect of this one. It is the question of the self: Who am I? It is a pondering of oneself.

Among yogi teachers, Maharshi was unusual in the simplicity of his instructions. Just sit and ask this one question, and whatever answer arises, set it aside. What remains when there are no answers left—a disposition or state of consciousness that is unattached to anything in particular—is itself the answer to the question.

As with Maharshi's self-inquiry, pondering is not only a weighing, but also a giver of weight. I am reminded of the Egyptian Book of The Dead's description of the test of a soul to be able to proceed to the next level after death. The deceased's soul is weighed on a great scale—against a feather. If it is heavier, he is allowed to pass. If not, a netherworld demon consumes the soul in question and the journey of that soul ends then and there.

  • Jason Stern discusses the cure for aimlessness.

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