“There is nothing else that I want, O Death, and I can have no better teacher than you. I am your devoted disciple. Give me instruction.”
Pleased, the King of Death begins, “Nachiketa, as a human being, you have been born with the capacity to make choices. No other creature has this capacity, and no human being can avoid this responsibility. Every moment, whether you see it or not, you have a choice of two alternatives in what you do, say, and think.”
As Eknath Easwaran discusses in his translation, Essence of the Upanishads (particularly this portion quoted from the Katha Upanishad), these alternatives have precise, Sanskrit names that have no English equivalent: preya and shreya. “Preya is what is pleasant. Shreya, what is beneficial. Preya is that which pleases us, that which tickles the ego. Shreya, on the other hand, has no reference to pleasing or displeasing. It simply means what benefits us—that which improves our health or contributes to our peace of mind.”
"Preya is what is pleasant. Shreya, what is beneficial."
And from the translation of the Katha Upanishad by Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, “The good (shreya) and the pleasant (preya) are two different things. They motivate a person to pursue two different goals. The one who embraces the good meets with auspiciousness. But the one who embraces the pleasant is lost.”
This isn't always a concept that gets a lot of applause. In fact, it may even be ridiculed.
“You're having fruit for dessert? Come on, there are cookies. Diet, shmiet, you only live once!”
“Getting to bed by 10:00? Your mommy must be very proud.”
“Get a sitter. This will be a fun, grown-up evening out. Your kids will understand missing the camping trip!”
Many Sanskrit words have interesting pairings and are considered opposites. Preya and shreya are similar to rama, often translated as the source of joy, and kama, the pursuit of pleasure. An Indian saying goes, “When crossing the rope bridge one whispers, “Rama, Rama, Rama,” calling the name of the Lord for protection. When reaching safety, it’s “Kama, Kama, Kama.” So, it's back to business as usual and the pursuit of what appeals to us. Is there something wrong with pursuing pleasure? No, we are entitled to the human experience in its fullest. But what does that mean?
I seriously doubt Mick Jagger had been reading the scriptures when he and Keith Richards wrote, “You can't always get what you want. But if you try sometimes, well you just might find, you get what you need.” It’s true though. What we need is what is beneficial. It’s why we have this little Jiminy Cricket of a conscience on our shoulder whispering that someone else may need that last pancake. The difference between what we want and what we need seems to be the baseline criterion for the spiritual path.
The difference between what we want and what we need seems to be the baseline criterion for the spiritual path.
In his inspirational talks, Eknath Easwaran would often liken preya to a handsome, mustached, hairy-chested salesman who can talk us into purchasing the goods every time. While timid shreya is like the classic librarian with her hair in a prim updo, until you take time to notice her. And then she shakes down her hair and her deep clear eyes come out from behind the thick glasses. Beauty or flash? What do we want? Or more importantly, what do we need?
But we want evidence, right? And we ask “What’s in this for me in the long run?” I’m not a big fan of laboratory animal studies, but my good friend and colleague in teacher trainings, Dr. Scott Zimmerman, does Alzheimer’s research. He cites one study done with mice in two environments. One habitat has food and a wheel to run on. The other is a mouse playground—food, mirrors, other mouse buddies, tubes, and materials for nesting fun. Guess which mice did not succumb to Alzheimer’s as readily? Nope, the wheel-and-cage group. Less distraction, more exercise, more benefit. Mice run ridiculous distances in the wild. It’s what they do naturally, scavenging and seeking. Less distraction and less pleasure added up to more time to do what mice need.
Scott’s own research at Missouri State University found another interesting piece of the Alzheimer’s puzzle. When he and his group of researchers looked at forced exercise (treadmill running) compared to voluntary exercise (wheel running), they found that, while both delayed Alzheimer’s disease, voluntary provided more benefit than forced. So, choosing to do what’s beneficial, like exercise, provides more benefit than being forced to do what is beneficial. This points to the efficacy of doing what is right for the joy of feeling better. If we exercise because of a societal weight standard or because we are made to feel guilty and pressured, we may lose weight or gain some muscle mass, but the benefits may not hold unless our hearts are behind the change. On the other hand, freely making healthy choices because we recognize both their long-term value and the present joy that they bring, rearranges our old habit patterns (samskaras) and draws us toward shreya patterns.
Have you ever been the one who spends time playing with the kids at the barbecue rather than indulging in beer-driven adult conversation? Takes a day off to build homes for low-income families? Gives your energy and vacation time to help communities stricken by disaster? Chooses meditation time over Facebook time? Then you have likely experienced the lowering of stress and ensuing happiness that occurs with selflessness and service. In fact, the same stress hormones that are lowered by dark chocolate are impacted by our own acts of kindness!
"On this path, effort never goes to waste, and there is no failure. Even a little effort toward spiritual awareness will protect you from the greatest fear."
But this brings up a question that arose in a Bhagavad Gita class with Dr. Rolf Sovik that I recently attended: “Isn’t craving higher consciousness a selfish craving?” Following the question, Dr. Sovik asked the group to identify the nature of craving, and a series of unpleasant words came up: greed, ego, selfishness, indulgence. Dr. Sovik agreed that those adjectives were fitting, but noted that there was an important one that we'd left out: impermanence. This is often the actual impetus for our less-than-stellar choices and behaviors. We choose what is appealing for now, while ignoring hints, visions, or nigglings from the conscience about negative long-term impact. Yet, when our desires and cravings (and the power they possess) are funneled instead into the lasting, permanent good of the soul, then we are operating from shreya. Making effort to grow spiritually is never time wasted. As the Bhagavad Gita (2:40) tells us, “On this path, effort never goes to waste, and there is no failure. Even a little effort toward spiritual awareness will protect you from the greatest fear.” And this is true even when we feel like we are just treading water.
So, it may not feel like joy right now, but measuring our efforts on the joy/pleasure scale is something we can do to keep the good flowing.