B L Razdan
The beautiful place that seemed to be so breathtaking when we first saw it, no longer attracts us so much after a couple of months. A relationship which started on an amazingly passionate note seemed to fizzle out in the next few months. The song that soothed us immensely and we heard it again and again to start with, gradually yielded place to a different song in a couple of weeks. The dish that tasted so exotic when we first tried it seems to numb our tongue over time and our interest wanes. Why does it happen so? The answer: while at first our senses are acutely tuned in to the input they receive, they fast become acclimatized to the stimuli. The stimuli lose the ability to excite us and give us pleasure. In a way, we become numb to it. With passage of time most of us reach for something new to experience those fresh feelings anew.
This is in all likelihood the cause for our restlessness, our boredom, our anxiety and even our unhappiness. We want more and more stimulation; more sex, more movies, more music, more drinking, more money, more freedom, more food and more of what you have. More of anything seems to be the cure for everything. Yet paradoxically, the more stimulation we receive, the less pleasure and joy we get out of it. The real key to experiencing greater fulfillment and pleasure in life actually lies in moderation.
Gautama, the Buddha strongly advocated the Middle Path that avoids both extreme asceticism and worldly over-indulgence. The celebrated Chinese philosopher, Confucius had pointed out that excess and deficiencies are, in fact, one and the same thing, both straying away from the ideal of moderation. The Greeks promoted the Golden Mean, a philosophy that cautioned against both excess and deficiency. Al Ghazali, the great Iranian theologian and mystic, had declared, “What is wanted is a balance between extravagance and miserliness through moderation, with the goal of distance between both extremes.” Thiruvalluvar, the celebrated Tamil saint-poet, talks of the virtue of impartiality, which implies avoiding excess and preserving equity. Lord Krishna would point out in the Bhagwad Gita that while over-eating is gluttony, the one who refuses to eat is an egoist; the one who chooses moderation, a person of equanimity, finds the right balance.
Moderation offers the best of all worlds. Moderation says everything should be practiced in moderation, even moderation. The practice of moderation, however, does not prohibit an occasional splurge or indulgence; but that there should be few such occasions and far between too. The Gita praises moderation. Lord Krishna tells us that a yogi is a wise, calm, devout and happy individual. He adds: “Oh Arjun, a Yogi cannot eat too much or too little. She cannot sleep too much or too little. She must measure everything: eating, sleeping, working and relaxing. Everything she does should be just right and even. A Yogi is never afraid. The Yogi whose mind is concentrating on God does not shake. He is steady like a candle in a room where there is no wind. The Yogi’s mind does not move away from the truth.”
Moderation as temperance also occupies a key place in the Christian tradition, in which it has long been regarded, along with prudence, as a cardinal virtue. Many Christian theologians, including St Thomas Aquinas, argue that moderation is not incompatible with fortitude, courage and wisdom. In fact, they claim, no one can be wise and courageous without also being moderate at the same time. For Aquinas and others, what is moderate and temperate coincides with what is good. As such, moderation appears as ‘the silken string running through the pearl-chain of all virtues’, to use a beautiful image from the 17th-century English author Joseph Hall.
Islam also considers moderation as a preferred way of life, even when applying religious norms. Moderate Muslims adhere to the concept of contextual relativism as a way to grasp meaning from the Quran. They also understand the Quran as a whole opposed to a discrete understanding. Furthermore, Moderate Muslims also follow various types of Hadith (prophet Mohammed’s sayings) that favor moderation and view Muhammad as an ideal example of a moderate Muslim and Human.
When we feel unhappy and bored there are two ways to revive our feelings of enjoyment and pleasure. One is to seek new things and more stimulation. One can start going out more, drinking more, and buying more new things and experiences. But the pleasure one would get from ratcheting up the intensity of these experiences will eventually end in a plateau. The alternative is to cultivate the virtue of moderation by seeking greater enjoyment and pleasure in things one is presently doing. Let us reconnect with our senses. We live in a society saturated by stimulation. We have become numbed to nuance. We don’t need new stimulation; we need to rediscover the hidden layers of ordinary experiences. Let us stop wolfing down our food and start tasting the unique flavors and textures of each mouthful. Instead of doing a keg stand and chugging cheap beer, let us learn to savor and appreciate the craftsmanship that goes into a quality brew. Let us start allowing ourselves to feel some awe when we look at the night sky. We are usually walking through life like zombies because we are so over stimulated. We should wake up and start delving into the wonder of the world.
Basically an individual has to exercise control and moderation on his own physical and mental activities, for the mind and body are always involved in action of some sort or the other. For instance, one may sit still and refrain from work, but still the act of breathing takes place within him. Again, his mind is restless and shifts from thought waves of a varied nature with unimaginable speed and in an uncontrolled manner. Krishna’s first lesson is to make an individual understand the hectic activity of one’s mind and body that is constantly taking place within him and observe these in a detached manner. As an exercise in self discipline, this helps to recognize one’s shortcomings. One learns to be moderate in his food intake and physical activities and also tries to restrain his thought, word and deed and regulate his sleep and waking.
Before answering these questions, we must address the common view that tends to equate moderation with indecision, weakness, opportunism and cowardice. In the eyes of those who espouse this interpretation, moderation appears as a bland, incoherent and undesirable virtue, the opposite of the firmness and clarity of purpose desired by those who prefer starker contrasts and brighter colours. ‘Moderation sees itself as beautiful,’ Friedrich Nietzsche once quipped, only because ‘it is unaware that in the eye of the immoderate it appears black and sober, and consequently ugly-looking.’ To others more politically inclined, moderation is unsatisfactory because it is seen as a form of appeasement that does not offer a suitable platform for mobilization and reform.
Moderation enables us to live in harmony with ourselves, our environment and community, by bringing about a balance between our inner and outer realities. It was recognised that growth on the material plane must be balanced with growth on the subtle spiritual plane. As individuals and as members of society we need to strive towards achieving the right balance inside out.
The author is formerly of the Indian Revenue Service, retired as Director General of Income Tax (Investigation), Chandigarh.
B L Razdan