Monday, April 15, 2013

lessons from a tortoise

Verse 2.58: One who is able to withdraw his senses from sense objects, as the tortoise draws its limbs within the shell, is firmly fixed in perfect consciousness.

It's amazing how many lessons we can learn from nature; in fact, the bhakti texts are rich with beautiful descriptions and analogies. One can learn to be humble like a blade of grace which never protests or demands recognition and learn the art of tolerance from a tree that weather all types of inconveniences.

Everyone and everything can be looked upon as our teacher/s. The only thing that prevents us from experiencing the world in this way is....well I don't want to give it away just yet. After all, that's why we are studying the Gita!

Coming back to today's verse which gives a beautiful description of a tortoise, I ask you: what's arguably the number one reason that prompts a tortoise to withdraw its limbs within its shell? If you said fear, you're right! The tortoise is intelligent enough to perceive a threat to its well being and therefore retreats inside.

In fact, this is the symptom of the yogi who is firmly fixed in perfect consciousness. What do I mean...well let's start off with the basics. The yoga process begins when one practices yama and niyama. That means adopting those practices which help one progress on the path of yoga and simultaneously giving up those things which detract one.

Putting that in the context of everything we have heard so far in the Gita, this incorporates two concepts which go beautifully hand in hand: we progress by adopting those practices that help us understand that we are eternal, blissful souls and we set aside those habits that only serve to reinforce the illusion that we are these material bodies.

So how does one go about doing this? As was previously explained, the way in which most of us seek pleasure is through our senses. By constantly feeding the appetites of the senses (which on their own do not distinguish between what is good for us and what isn't) we can get addicted. For example, I'm a total sweet junkie. When I gave up sugar for a month, it was difficult! Even though I know white sugar is bad for me, it took a lot of determination and self control to give it up. What helped was the fact that I didn't eliminate all sweets. Instead of eating items with white sugar, instead I would eat fruits which have natural sugars. That was the key - it wasn't about eliminating sweets completely but eating those that were good for me as opposed to those that weren't.

This is exactly what the Gita is proposing. Since our senses can get us into trouble (i.e. tend to reinforce our illusion that we are this material body), it is recommended that like the tortoise we withdraw them in. However, one cannot do that artificially. It's impossible to simply ignore our senses. The goal is instead of being a slave to our senses, we instead use them properly. The best way we can engage them properly is to perform our actions in the spirit of gratitude that was described earlier. When we act in that spirit of gratitude and not with the expectation of "enjoying the results for myself", the senses naturally become purified. Instead of acting against us, they can actually help us in our journey of self-discovery.

And how does that purification of our senses happen? Well, you'll just have to tune in tomorrow to find out!


  1. I've always aimed to not be a slave to my senses, though it it certainly a task easier said than done.

    1. LOL! You and me both Jeri. :) But it is possible, and so we just have to keep putting in that effort, as I'm sure you're continuing to do.