What is it about a sunrise or sunset that attracts us? What is it about a particular piece of music that makes us feel at peace, grounded, and uplifted? What is it that we love about being out in nature?
It’s easy – banal, even – to say there is beauty in all of this, but how is that? What is the essential nature of that beauty, and why does that make us feel so good?
We can find the answer in the timeless wisdom of the ancients – specifically, in the Bhagavad-gita, the essence of the Vedic teachings.
Material nature consists of the three modes – goodness, passion and ignorance. When the living entity comes in contact with nature, he becomes conditioned by these modes. (Bg. 14.5)
Everything, everyone and everywhere in the material world is conditioned and influenced by these three modes, in varying proportions. This cannot be avoided; as soon as we enter the material world, we come under their influence.
The music we listen to, the food we eat, the people we hang out with, and our physical location – all are controlled by these three influences. Even the time of day is subject to predomination by one mode or another, on a regular cycle.
The mode of goodness, being purer than the others, is illuminating, and it frees one from all sinful reactions [bad karma]. (Bg. 14.6)
Times of sunrise and sunset are in the mode of goodness, peaceful and serene, the best times of the day for meditation; very attractive to persons who are more under the influence of goodness. Those in the mode of passion are often too busy to notice such things. Those in the mode of ignorance – being practically unconscious – couldn’t care less.
Goodness gives us a feeling of harmony. This mode is illuminating, bringing light to where it was lacking. This is key to any creative process: goodness gives rise to insight and understanding, about oneself, about the world. This facilitates creative discoveries – Eureka moments. Mozart famously wrote about this:
“When I am, as it were, completely myself, entirely alone, and of good cheer – say, travelling in a carriage, or walking after a good meal, or during the night when I cannot sleep; it is on such occasions that my ideas flow best and most abundantly. Whence and how they come, I know not; nor can I force them… All this fires my soul, and, provided I am not disturbed, my subject enlarges itself…” (from Edward Holmes, Life of Mozart)
Many artists speak of the creative impulse as a gift, a visit. They understand – as Mozart did – that it can’t be forced; creation isn’t something we do. The mode of passion is about doing; the mode of goodness is more about being, gratefully receiving what is given.
This is not to minimize the important role of passion in the creative process – after all, passion is what makes us get up and do the work required to give the creative impulse form, so that it can be shared. We don’t make the inspiration happen, but we shouldn’t sit around lazily waiting for it. Better to open ourselves to that creative visitation through faithful work and practice.
Mozart’s phrase “provided I am not disturbed, my subject enlarges itself” (emphasis added) is also significant in this connection. Disturbance is a characteristic of passion, not of goodness. The musical subject “enlarges itself”; Mozart was simply taking dictation. He wasn’t trying to make the tree grow – he was watering it, and picking the fruit when it ripened.
The mode of goodness conditions one to happiness, passion conditions him to the fruits of action, and ignorance to madness. (Bg. 14.9)
People who are primarily in the mode of goodness are content. Being not very ambitious materially, they find what they need to live simply. They are relaxed and easygoing, understanding that everything we actually need is provided by nature. Someone in the mode of goodness is a Giver, or, as Gordon Lightfoot’s beautiful song describes, a Rainy Day Person.
Those driven by the mode of passion are what we call the “Type A” people – the Takers. They are dashing around, very busy with huge, ambitious, complex plans. Not content to go with the flow, they want to direct it, channel it, control it, and make it pay big dividends. They want the fruit, they want lots of it, and they want it now! In a mad attempt to control and exploit nature, they are destroying the planet.
Those in the mode of ignorance are too asleep, drugged or crazy to notice any of this. Human nature is to strive for higher consciousness, and the refusal to do so – trying to escape from the responsibilities of this human form of life – can only lead to intoxication, unconsciousness, delusion and rage. Combine this madness with lethal technology and you have today’s news – the Killers.
The mode of passion is better than ignorance; we can shake ourselves out of our slumber by some form of agitation – this can be positive or negative. Goodness is better still, for only in that mode can we begin to find peace and satisfaction.
From the mode of goodness, real knowledge develops; from the mode of passion, grief develops; and from the mode of ignorance, foolishness, madness and illusion develop. (Bg. 14.17)
In the mode of goodness, one becomes interested in discovering the truth about their identity, constitutional position and proper existential function. One asks “Who am I? Why am I here?” and “Why am I suffering?” Such a person can easily take up meditation, which leads to spiritual knowledge.
The mode of passion, overwhelming us with the desire for sense gratification, enslaves one to grief and anxiety in three forms – all arising from lust for the fruits of action:
I gotta have it!
OK, I have it – but now I’m afraid of losing it!!
I’ve lost it!!!
Lust, anxiety and grief: is this miserable or what? The person controlled by passion is simply spreading grief, to as many people as possible.
The mode of ignorance keeps our knowledge of our true nature completely covered. Meat eating, various intoxicants, obsession with such mundane pursuits as violent sports, and a complete lack of interest in any transcendental subject matter, all serve to deaden the senses (especially the mind) – leaving us stupid, thick-headed and hard-hearted. The Killer has buried his own nature, and thus can, all too easily, turn to killing others.
To ignore is a choice. Ignorance of our true nature is not some passive, victimized state; it’s an active refusal to face reality. Its tendency is to lash out at anyone or anything that comes too close to reminding us of the truth. Someone in this condition is spiritually dead, though they don’t have to remain that way. A fortunate person somehow comes to realize their unhappy position, and becomes motivated to take steps to change.
So we can be dead (ignorance), miserable (passion) or satisfied (goodness). We’ve all been there, under all these influences. It’s a progression towards goodness (and beyond), which we can take up at any time.
So what’s all of this got to do with music? Stay tuned…