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The Vedas and ancient sages use wonderful analogies to help common folk develop a deeper appreciation of important spiritual teachings/truths.
One example is the reference to a bird and a cage.
Aum Namo Bhagavate Vasudevaya
So, if anybody looked at the promo slide that we had out for the talk, The Cage And The Bird, it’s kind of like, “What?!” I don’t think it’s going to be—in this age of outrage where everything has to be so big and bold and loud, that such a topic, it would appear to be sort of like: “Okay, nothing much here. Let’s scroll on.”
And that’s a little bit of an unfortunate thing about the situation. People’s attention span, it’s getting shorter and shorter, and people tend to be less and less thoughtful. And so, in order to appeal to that, then you have to do stuff that’s more outrageous, more shocking, to catch attention has to be louder and bolder and briefer. And so what happens then it just contributes more to that problem. And it’s sort of a bit of a vicious cycle, because we’re not going in a good direction. Things are coming unglued. The overall fabric of society is not—it’s not holding up very well.
And unfortunately, a lot of people can’t see it, and they’re not aware of it. And the thing that’s going to make a difference is if people kind of stop a little bit, and slow down, and pay a little bit more attention; and rather than listening to the mind and its interpretation, that they actually listen to what someone is saying, and consider the point of view, not from the framework of their own ideology in the way they want to frame it and sort of see things, but actually consider from the perspective of the speaker, because there might be something going on that I’m just not aware of, that it hasn’t been in my orbit. I haven’t thought about this.
So this particular topic it—since the most ancient of times the great spiritual teachers, and the Vedas themself contain—there’s just so many analogies that are used.
The analogies that are put forward are directly the result of the tremendous compassion that the great sages, the great saints, have for all of mankind, the great suffering and all the unhappiness of the world. And they know what needs to be done. They are also aware that nothing is going to happen by force. As the saying goes, “You can lead a horse to water but you cannot make it drink.” You can forcibly expose people to things, but it doesn’t mean they’re going to take it on board and endeavour to internalize what has been shared. And so, for the great sages, the rishis, the great yogis, they looked upon the tremendous suffering and unhappiness of humanity, and they are driven by this absolute heartbreak. The driving force of the real spiritual teachers, the driving force for the great lovers of God is this compassion that they feel, where they are more pained by the suffering of humanity than humanity itself is. They see things in a far more amazing way, and they know what is the cure, what is the panacea. They know what is needed. But it is always going to require the voluntary participation of the receiver. It is going to require that they embrace what has been offered, so that they may be lifted out of the mire, that they will be lifted out of the bog, the swamp that they’re in, that they may be completely oblivious to, thinking, “This is the way things are. This is all there is. This is all I’ve known, and what I’m used to, and I’m just getting on with it.”
And so, they would frequently use different types of analogies so that, or in the hope, that the penny would drop, that somebody would hear something and go, “Oh, I can relate to that!” and it suddenly sets the wheels turning. It sets people potentially on another course, a course that will result in happiness, a result that will bring what it is that people actually desire, what we’re all looking for.
Within the context of Christianity there were so many—they referred to them as parables, these short stories that were meant for the common man to sort of hitch their wagon to, like, “Yeah, I can see that. I sort of get it. I can take this into my life. I can begin to internalize it; and try to do what it is that has been promoted here.”
So this theme for tonight is The Bird And The Cage. There are so many variations of this theme, but they almost always fall into one of two categories. And so I’ll try and present them, and you can see if—what in these examples are relatable to your own life, to my own life, that may serve as an impetus for change, whether it’s a change of direction, or whether it’s a change of enthusiasm and determination on the spiritual path.
These two qualities, enthusiasm and determination: in the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali says that they will determine the speed by which one will attain the goal of yoga, the nature of one’s enthusiasm to practice and the determination, because the spiritual journey involves a revolution of the heart. It involves actually turning one’s life around, and we’re talking about, fundamentally, a 180 degree turn. We’re talking about probably going, for many of us, what will be in the opposite direction. This may not be so much an external change as an internal change: what it is that’s driving me, what it is that I see as being important, what I see as being meaningful in my life.
So, in this analogy of the bird in the cage, the first example, or the way it’s used, is the idea of having an extraordinarily beautiful, gilded cage, golden cage, may even be set with semi-precious stones, or gems, and within it is the most beautiful bird. The one who owns the cage, and think they own the bird, feels a sense of pride in the cage, and is attracted to other people’s words of praise, “Oh what a beautiful cage!” And they feel like they’re accomplishing something, they are gaining something of enormous value through the praise of others. And being very captivated and intoxicated by these thoughts and ideas, by this praise, they seek to keep the cage in the most wonderful, glistening, a shining, dazzling piece of art. And so they spend a lot of time visiting the cage, and really positioning it in the right place in the room, and really making sure just everything is perfect. They’re polishing it, and sometimes using a backdrop behind it, or a cloth to partially cover it to enhance its beauty.
And while engaging in all of this activity, over a considerable period of time, they don’t seem to notice how the bird within is malnourished and, in fact, starving. The entire focus has become the presentation of the big picture, the cage, and so the bird within is being, in many cases, utterly neglected.
In this analogy the bird within the cage is the actual spirit soul, the atma, the person, the spiritual being within, and the cage is the body, the physical and mental covering of the soul.
And we see that the world is almost entirely in this situation, where the main pursuits in life, the great ambitions that people have, their dreams, the things that they strive for, are invariably connected to the body, to the reputation—people—the way people look at “me”, me being the body, the false me, and so my intention and efforts are totally fixated with this idea that I really need to constantly focus in this way.
It’s kind of like, I mean in the most crass kind of example, where somebody is constantly going to the plastic surgeon, and just a little bit more lip filler, a little bit more botox, maybe a breast augmentation, maybe a butt lift, you’ve got people now having calf implants so their calves look all shapely (not just women—men) and so that they create a sculpted body, artificially. And of course, the amount of money it takes. And then you have those extreme people trying to look like Barbie or Ken. And it’s just like, oh my Gods, can’t you see what you’re doing to your face and your body? There’s nothing natural about it. Maybe all smooth and your lips are plump, but it’s kind of like there’s some distortion going on here, something entirely artificial. And the bird within is not getting any of the needed nutrition.
Most of the things that drive us, the quest for happiness, the quest for a home, which means shelter that is permanent, the quest for love, these different desires that we have, are inherently, and at their core, spiritual desires. And the idea that you can fulfill them by polishing the cage, and decorating the cage, and putting the cage in a better aspect in the room, closer to the window, or by this particular beautiful table or underneath this fantastic painting, just to create the perfect environment, none of this is actually addressing the need that the bird has for nutrition. And what it is leading to, or it’s not leading to, what it is, is a wholesale engagement in an unbalanced life, fanatically and obsessively engaged in a completely unbalanced life.
Sometimes I’ve used the example of somebody going to the gym and deciding to work out, and they want to first focus on the lower appendages. They want a perfect butt, and fantastic thighs, and amazing calves, and so they go to the gym, and they begin to work out on one side of the body, and then they decide, “Okay I’m just going to keep doing this, and maybe tomorrow I’ll do the other side.” But the next day, they come back, and they go, “Well, I think I need to keep at this one,” and very soon they’re in this condition where they’re completely neglecting one side of the body, and the other side they’re just going for it. And as they start seeing the improvement, “Oh look at that! Wow!” They’re getting all absorbed, “Whoa, that’s so cool,” spending all the time looking in a mirror, and every time they walk past a shop window, they’re looking in the glass at the reflection. The shop owner thinks, “Oh they’re looking at the merchandise.” Yeah, they’re looking at their own bodies, which they see as the merchandise to sell; to sell to get the adulation, to hopefully find the happiness. So they’re just totally into it.
And the person decides, “Well, why don’t I just keep at it when I’m out of the gym?” So instead of walking on two legs, I’m hopping around on one leg, to maximize the development of the muscle tone. And it’s just like, you would look at such a person as like, “What’s happening?” The other limb is all withered like somebody with polio. And they’re just so completely focused that they’re not seeing what’s going on with the other leg. They’re so focused on the one that they’re trying to make look incredibly wonderful.
And I know that that’s kind of a ridiculous example, but in reality, this is what people are doing. They are obsessively focused on the cage. And I mean, you ask somebody how much time do you spend in a day on—and I’ll use the term feeding the soul—how much time each day do you spend in the inner cultivation, in providing nutrition for the soul? And somebody thinks, “Oh, I’m into meditation…” and they spend perhaps 15, 20 minutes, 30 minutes a day in some form of meditation—hopefully it’s genuine spiritual meditation, and not just cultivating the mind, which is similar to cultivating the body. And so that leaves another 23 and a half hours each day in the gym working on that leg, that thigh, those quads, that buttock. It’s just like, can’t you see the imbalance there? And don’t you understand, and can’t you see that in this imbalance the hunger pangs of the bird is simply increasing? The more you frantically polish the cage, the more the bird suffers, feeling increasingly neglected, and not getting the nutrition that it needs.
So when we obsessively focus on that which is temporary, and we neglect that which is eternal, it increases and magnifies the feeling of emptiness, of incompleteness. And so the need to find a way to live a more balanced life is of critical importance, if you want to experience happiness, if you want to be fearless, if you want to be completely at peace without any anxiety, if you want to experience great transcendental blissfulness, if you want to experience the awakening of actual spiritual love, then there is a need for you to live a far more balanced life.
Don’t be fooled by the offer of instant gratification which is what is being offered in this world. The offer of, “Try this. Do this. You’ll get a rush from it instantly, the endorphin rush,” and so that’s where you keep going. It’s like a drug addict. In spite of knowing, this is not good, I’ve lost control of my life. I can’t even think about that. All I can think about is the next hit. That’s my total focus: What am I going to steal today? Where am I going to go? What am I going to have to do in order to get money to get that hit? I’m just going for the rush. And that rush does not fulfill. That rush does not quell the burning, the burning sensation within. My heart is ablaze with emptiness, with fear, with anxiousness.
So, there is a need to fully embrace—we’re not promoting the idea of turning your back on the world, of artificially renouncing, of trying to escape from the world. No, we’re saying embrace it, but rather than the world directing you, and what you are going to see as being important, and where you’re going in life, you need to be the one in the driver’s seat. You need to be the one driving the bus. You have to be setting the destination. It is your responsibility to determine what the content of your mind is going to be, what it is that you’re going to be contemplating on, thinking about, how you are going to process things, how you are going to respond to the world, how you’re going to respond to others. This is your responsibility. You need to be in the driver’s seat here. You need to be the one charting the course, setting the direction; and that’s only possible if we are living a far more balanced life, where there is at least as much focus on feeding the bird as polishing the cage.
So this is one way in which the example is used.
The second way is actually—it’s pretty shocking. It’s a really startling idea that many people would even be a little frightened by if they actually thought about it and considered it. So I’m going to read a few words from my diksha guru, my initiating spiritual master. His name was Srila Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, and in 1936—it’s a long time ago, before the start of the war—1936: at that time he was 39 years of age, 39, not old at all, still a reasonably young man, and he was visiting Bombay, now Mumbai. He had gone to the Gaudiya Math. This is the spiritual institution that was established by his spiritual master, one of over 50 that he had established in different parts of India, and the celebration was the birthday, or what is referred to as the Appearance Day, of his spiritual master, and so he was going to speak words of glorification. And he addressed quite a reasonably big-sized audience of sophisticated and intelligent people who had come to attend the event. And, as part of his discourse, he presented an idea, or spoke about an idea, that—and using the example of the cage and the bird he presented the truth that the cage is actually for the undoing of the bird. The cage is meant for the enslavement, it is meant for the—to completely hold captive and prevent the bird from what it naturally does, which is to fly, and to sing, and to do what birds do—that this cage is for its undoing.
So he stated:
“Unfortunately, in these days we have all been turned foolish by neglecting our real comfort and identifying the material cage with ourselves. We have concentrated all our energies for the meaningless upkeep of the material cage for its own sake.”
That’s startling, that idea: that all the time and energy that’s put into the upkeep of the body, that there is no spiritual benefit from it, and it’s only for that purpose—the upkeep of the body.
“We have concentrated all our energies for the meaningless upkeep of the material cage for its own sake, completely neglecting the captive soul within. The cage is meant for the undoing of the bird. The bird is not meant for the welfare of the cage. Let us therefore deeply ponder this. All of our activities are now turned outwards towards the upkeep of the cage, and the most we do is to try and give some food to the mind by art and literature, but we do not know that this mind is also material, but in a more subtle form. We have scarcely tried to give any food to the soul, which is distinct from the body and the mind, therefore we are all committing suicide in the proper sense of the term. The message of the acharya deva is to give us a warning to halt such wrong activities. Let us therefore bow down at his lotus feet, for the unalloyed mercy and kindness that he has bestowed upon us.”
Now I don’t want you to get the wrong idea, that the world is inherently evil, or bad, or utterly destructive and should be avoided at all cost. That is not what has been said. The material energy is neutral. It is how we see it, and how we utilize it that is of importance. But, to bear in mind that if we surrender to our mind and our senses, and the desires, and the dreams, and the aspirations that they put forward, that they will always be counter to the interests of the soul. I’ll say that one more time: the inspiration that naturally arises from the mind or the senses is counter to the interests of the soul.
In the Bhagavad-gita we hear that there are two natures, a higher nature and a lower nature. The lower nature is the way the body and the mind naturally works when it is not directed, just on its own, the way it will go. The higher nature is the nature of the soul itself. And the question is whether we are going to surrender to that lower nature and follow that, or whether we are going to impose our own will and higher nature, and make that what is the focus of our life. And once again, it’s not like we’re saying the world is bad and evil, and having a job, and—No. We’re not saying that at all.
It’s kind of like the laws of karma: Sometimes people look upon the laws of karma as being kind of like, “Oh, you get punished if you’re bad.” That’s not—yeah, you can understand it that way, but that’s not a very elevated way of understanding it. The laws of nature are absolutely impartial. There’s no emotional—it’s not like sometimes people put the idea out that God gets angry at you if you are sinful, then He punishes you, and He takes pleasure in that punishment because you are evil. No. That’s not a reality. That’s not the way things are. That is—God is nothing like that. The laws of nature are simply nature’s laws.
It’s kind of like you park your car on a road that’s inclined, and you don’t leave it in gear, and you don’t put on the brake, and you get out of the car, what happens? It’s not like somebody came and wanted to wreck your car or, you know—It’s just a natural reaction, that if you don’t take the precaution of doing things that will offset the force of gravity, then the car is going to take off down the hill. In a similar way, when you act there will always be a reaction that offsets that action. Just because you don’t like that reaction, it doesn’t mean that you’re being punished, or it’s evil or anything. It’s quite neutral. It’s just a neutral thing. And so the world, the material energy, is neutral. What is not neutral is our state of consciousness, and how we are being influenced or moved.
So, in relation to this higher self, or higher nature, and lower nature, all of the ills of the world arise from this lower nature, greed, lust, envy, anger, false pride, avarice, the lust for money, all of these things and much more arise spontaneously from this lower nature. And if we are surrendering our independence to this lower nature, then we are truly in the situation where the cage is the undoing of the bird. If, however, we are directing our life by this higher nature, then we will experience that all good actually arises from this deeper spiritual nature of the soul itself, the qualities of compassion, of love, of kindness, of charity in all its forms, and humility, and tolerance, these are manifestations of the soul’s nature.
And so we have to make this choice of whether we are going to surrender our independence and become obsessed with the cage in this vain hope that we will be fulfilled, or whether we are going to take charge of our life, we are going to direct our life. That is our choice. That is what we need to consider.
So you can probably see that, from this conversation we’ve had here that’s gone on for a while now (hope it wasn’t too long for you, but it’s a serious subject), that this simple analogy, the bird and the cage, when considered in relation to my actual life, hopefully it will inspire me to do what I need to do to become the master of my body and my mind, not the slave of my body and my mind: that I am in the driver’s seat, I am determining the outcome, I am determining the direction. I’m consciously choosing, how I will act, what are my—what’s my focus? What are my goals?
So, leaving you with that thought and consideration.
I hope it’s not depressing. Some people might think it is, but I let me just say this: While spiritual cultivation requires effort, and it may demand some focus from us, everything does, no matter what you’re doing. But we are talking about, if even if we have sunken to this very low point, where we’ve really utterly lost control of our life, and we’re addicted to things that are not good for us, and we’re compulsive in our actions and thinking, this is all learned behaviour. And what we’re talking about is speaking—we’re speaking about the nature of the soul itself, and through even taking small incremental little steps on this path of spiritual cultivation, primarily focused on this process of meditation, on spiritual sound, that when we make a tiny, tiny effort, we will be gifted with determination, growing determination and resolve, and we will quickly begin to experience, will taste the fruit of this endeavour, of this undertaking, and your life will become infinitely better. Promise! Okay. Thank you so very much.
So I will chant Haribol Nitai-Gaur, and then we will do Aum Hari Aum.