All religions are based upon some variation of Be good, Do good. And in one way or another they tell us that our behaviour ultimately depends upon our thoughts, upon our mind. What the mind dwells upon is what we will do. Therefore, be aware of what you are thinking. Watch your thoughts.
This sort of teaching, while absolutely correct from one point of view, can be misleading and cause a lot of distress to seekers who think that having a bad thought is, in itself, a sin. What is important is to distinguish between what comes into the mind—which we actually cannot control—and what the mind dwells upon and acts upon, which we can control.
No one can control what comes into their mind. Lust, greed, hatred, anger, jealousy, doubt and discouragement can appear—and will appear—in any of our minds. However, whether we dwell upon them or not is our choice. Pujya Swami Chidanandaji once said, “In this Iron Age what is in the mind is not a sin. Thank God, or we’d all go to hell.” From this point of view, if a thought of lust, greed, hatred, anger, jealousy, doubt or discouragement comes into our mind and we see it as such and do not act on it nor keep morbidly dwelling upon it, then according to Swamiji, nothing has happened, no sin has been committed.
This is important to understand, because sometimes we can spend our whole spiritual life concerned about the thoughts in our mind and miss the real point, which is that the mind is a mechanical process that is not us. We are not the mind, we are That which knows the mind, That which can never be grasped. This is where we are meant to put our attention.
All our spiritual practices, if we examine them and think about them, have as their purpose getting our mind off ourselves and our mental process and on to something higher. It is to raise our consciousness out of the mind into the Self or God. If this is not understood, then we have gained very little from our spiritual practices because we are still under the control of the mind or ego.
What should we do if a sinful thought comes into our mind? If we are able to just watch it, let it rise and let it go—not give it morbid attention—that is the best way. It is also the best way because it is the practice of the truth that we are not the mind. If that doesn’t seem possible to us, if an evil thought just grabs hold of us, then each one of us will have to devise our own way of handling it—perhaps take a cold shower, perhaps go for a long walk or take vigorous exercise, perhaps fast and repeat God’s name, or humbly offer it to the Indweller.
This is an individual matter, but what is vital to realise is that the arising of those thoughts in our mind are not in themselves sin. No one is free from them. No one can prevent their rising. Our task is to handle them in an intelligent way—in the knowledge of what they really are—and put our attention on our true Self. Gradually the mind will come under our control and become our instrument instead of our master.
Early Morning Meditation Talk given in the Sacred Samadhi Hall of Gurudev Sri Swami Sivanandaji Maharaj, Sivananda Ashram, Rishikesh