A Lesson From Gandhi and a Roman Sage For Activists In Dark Times
Many people would probably find it surprising to learn what two things Gandhi often credited with his political successes. The first was his constant internal repetition of a Hindi name of God, Ram. The second was his interpretation of the ancient teaching of karmayoga, found in a text called the Bhagavad Gita.
Karmayoga is a way of acting where one focuses primarily on the quality of an action rather than results or rewards. One takes sustenance from the rightness of the action itself. As Gandhi put it:
“It’s the action, not the fruit of the action, that’s important. You have to do the right thing. It may not be in your power, may not be in your time, that there’ll be any fruit. But that doesn’t mean you stop doing the right thing. You may never know what results come from your action.”
If you think about it, you can see the serenity that would come from truly internalizing this attitude. By focusing only on the rightness of your actions as your source of happiness, your well-being becomes based on something over which you have significant, if not absolute, control.
This does not, of course, mean that you stop paying attention to the results of your actions. That could be destructive. It doesn’t mean that you pursue a “right action” with no regard to the consequences to yourself or others around you, which could lead to rigidity and blindness. What it does mean is that you base your happiness on only one thing: whether you chose the best action you could at the time.
This attitude can be a lifeline in times like these. The complexity and volatility of the situation we face- with the global ecosystem on the brink of collapse, an ignorant, mentally unstable narcissist leading the most powerful country on earth, the international resurgence of right wing extremism, constantly changing economy and technology, to name just a few nodes in the nightmare web. In a time like this, with so much out of our understanding or control, a focus on results could be suicidal. With a slight shift of attention, turning our minds to focus on taking pleasure in what we can control alone, we may be able to make ourselves resilient and powerful for the long haul.
As it turns out, this approach matches the method for serenity laid out in 2nd century Rome by Epictetus (50-135 CE), perhaps the greatest Stoic philosopher of all time. Epictetus taught his students that the key to happiness lay in desiring only that which is under our control. The virtuous qualities of our actions are, he said, “up to us,” while absolutely nothing else is, especially the behavior of others. As Epictetus’ student, Arrian, recorded him saying in the Enchiridion (Handbook), which he wrote to summarize Epictetus’ teachings:
Some things are up to us, and others are not. Things up to us include our opinions, what we seek, what we desire or are against, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not up to us are our body, our property, our reputation, our command over others, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.
The things up to us are, by nature, free, unrestrained, unhindered; but those not up to us are undependable, slavish, restrained, belonging to others. Remember, then, that if you suppose that things which are slavish by nature are free, and that what belongs to others is your own, then you will be hindered. You will lament, you will be disturbed, and you will wail at both gods and men. But if you suppose that only to be your own which is your own, and what belongs to others such as it really is, then no one will ever compel you or restrain you. Further, you will find fault with and accuse no one.
Epictetus, like Gandhi, taught that we should focus only on what our role demands of us. What does this moment demand of me as a father, a mother, a friend, a citizen? When a student would complain to him of a problem, e.g. “my brother mistreats me,” Epictetus would say, “Who told you it was your job in life to be unmolested? Rather, it’s your job to be a brother.”
If someone risked execution as a political dissident, again Epictetus would counsel that his job was to use his head rightly, not to keep it from getting cut off. That was a matter outside of his responsibilities or control! There is one simple lesson at the heart of Epictetus’ approach: one should only desire what is within our control. Desire directed at that which we cannot control only breeds frustration and angst.
Gandhi seems to have understood this well. He saw his life as an offering to God and humanity, and felt that it was his to make the offering and God’s to make use of it. Gandhi’s ability to work long hours and maintain his energy and tranquility was legendary- some say that he only slept four hours a night. Once, on a visit to Britain, a journalist asked him, “Mr. Gandhi, don’t you ever take a vacation?”
“I am always on vacation,” replied Gandhi.
This was a man who ceaselessly worked to gain India independence, free Indians from the injustices of caste system, end animal sacrifice, promote nonviolence, and teach his people economic independence and simplicity (to present a partial list of his activities and concerns).
It may surprise us that the key to Gandhi’s campaigns to work for justice, defend human rights, and throw off British domination of India was, of all things, his serenity. Yet, that’s how he saw it. What effect would it have on us if we saw the key to our political activities to lay, not in our outrage, grief, fear, or noble suffering, but in our resilience and peace of mind?