Strongman. Expert marksman. Mountain climber. True patriot. Folk hero. William Tell was all this and more.
Legend places him in the early 13th century, in the countryside of Switzerland. Around that time, the emperors of the Habsburg dynasty of Austria were making a bid to dominate Uri, in central Switzerland. Towards this end, the Habsburg emperor appointed Albrecht Gessler as the overlord to rule over Uri from his castle in Altdorf.
A tyrannical ruler, the newly appointed Gessler raised a pole in the village’s central square. He hung his hat on top of this pole and demanded that all the townsfolk who passed through the square had to bow to it.
On 18th November 1307, William Tell, visiting Uri along with his young son Walter, passed through the square and walked past Gessler’s hat, publicly refusing to bow before it. He was immediately arrested by the guards posted there.
Gessler, who had heard about Tell and his legendary marksmanship with the crossbow, thought of a devious way to punish him for his act of disobedience. He ordered Tell to place an apple on his son’s head and split it with an arrow from his crossbow in a single attempt, or else face execution along with his son.
This was a life or death moment for William Tell. The perfect marksman that he was, Tell squared his shoulders, breathed deeply, focused his mind and took aim. He let the arrow fly and neatly sliced the apple without hurting a hair on his son’s head.
However, Gessler had noticed that Tell had removed two arrows from his quiver and not just one, even though he had been allowed only a single attempt at the apple. As he was about to release Tell, he asked him why he had removed two arrows instead of just one. Tell replied that if he had by chance killed his son, he would have then used the second arrow to kill Gessler.
Hearing this, Gessler became infuriated. He ordered that William Tell be bound and brought aboard his boat to be taken to his castle, where he would spend the rest of his life in a dark dungeon. As luck would have it, a storm gathered over Lake Lucerne and the sailors could not handle the ship in the seething waters. Afraid that the vessel would capsize and they would all drown, they decided to untie Tell so that he could help them steer it with his famed strength.
Seizing the moment providence offered him, Tell escaped by leaping from the boat at a rocky site (now known as the Tellsplatte or ‘Tell’s slab’). He then ran cross-country to Gessler’s castle. Gessler did not know what had transpired on the waters. Tell waited in hiding and as Gessler arrived, he shot him with the second arrow from his crossbow.
William Tell’s act of defiance sparked a rebellion and struck the first blow in the Swiss struggle for liberty from the Austrian yoke. In 1315, he fought again in the Battle of Morgarten, which proved to be a decisive victory and paved the way for the formation of the Swiss Confederation.
The working mind and the thinking mind
My spiritual teacher, Ramesh Balsekar, drew a clear distinction between two aspects of the human mind that we are all familiar with:
1. The ‘working mind’ that dwells in the ‘now’ and operates in the moment.
2. The ‘thinking mind’ that delves into the dead past or projects into an imaginary future, both of which do not exist.
He would give the example of a surgeon who, while performing an operation, is focused fully on the task at hand. At that moment, the surgeon is using his working mind. The thinking mind comes into play if and when his mind starts wandering, and wondering about what could happen if something goes wrong with the operation while he is performing it.
For instance, if the patient being operated upon is an influential politician, the surgeon could start worrying about the consequences he would have to face if something went wrong. He would then be using his thinking mind and getting ‘involved’, which could distract him from the operation and thus affect the outcome of the surgery.
However, it should be made clear that the working mind would of course dip into past experience to help the surgeon conduct the operation to the best of his abilities.
In short, the thinking mind operates in the realm of ‘what if’, whereas the working mind operates in the realm of ‘what is’.
The story of William Tell seems an appropriate demonstration of this concept. Tell was placed in a critical situation. With a single arrow, he had to slice the apple placed atop a young boy’s head and moreover, the boy in question happened to be his own son. It is a classic scenario where the thinking mind might very understandably come rampaging to the foreground. Tell’s world would come crashing down if he missed. Yet, in spite of this extreme pressure, he managed to split the apple with his arrow.
Being conditioned as a warrior who had acquired skilled marksmanship with the crossbow, Tell was able to remain completely focused on the task at hand, affixed in the working mind mode. As a result, he was able to shoot the arrow straight through the target. If his mind had been galloping all over the place filled with fear, apprehension and doubt, even a few millimetres off the mark would have proven fatal for his son.
The ‘galloping mind’ is the thinking mind, the ‘me’ with all its acrobatics and worries. The working mind and the thinking mind cannot be in operation simultaneously. When the working mind is engaged, the thinking mind – the ‘me’ – is absent. When, figuratively speaking, there is no ‘me’, the working mind is operating.
The thinking mind is characterised by ‘involvement’ in the thinking, which distracts a person from the task at hand. The working mind is characterised by the ‘absence of involvement’, resulting in ‘mindfulness’ – being totally present with ‘what is’ here and now.
William Tell’s working mind was functioning in pristine condition, without the strain of any involvement in horizontal thinking, thus enabling him to hit the target with extraordinary precision.
The arrows of destiny
However, being the cautious man that he was, Tell had factored in the possibility of failure and was fully prepared for his next action in case he missed and ended up killing his son. He did not take it for granted that he would strike the target. Plan B was in place, as part of the functioning of his working mind. The second arrow was ready, and would have been used immediately to kill the tyrannical overlord had things gone wrong.
Yet, how and when the second arrow would be used was not determined by Tell, but by destiny. After all, he had no intention to use the second arrow if the first one hit the mark. He had to have possessed the humility of knowing that in spite of his great skill with the crossbow it was God’s will that would actually prevail, but he could hardly have imagined a scenario in which his son would be saved and Gessler would be killed! It was clearly destiny which ordained that Tell would be the instrument through which both actions happened.
The restless mind
A young boy I met recently was quite taken with this concept of the working mind and the thinking mind. He inferred that to prevent the thinking mind from going on a rampage, one should always keep the working mind engaged. This has some truth in it, but only up to a point. The mind can be mischievous – just like he proved with his next statement. He said that he would spend hours every day on video games, therefore keeping his working mind engaged. So he felt happy that he was doing the right thing and his thinking mind was not given free rein, as it had been a source of constant trouble for him.
If one is prone to be taken over by the thinking mind incessantly, then yes, getting involved in an activity that deliberately engages the working mind may be a good alternative. In that sense, an idle mind is truly a devil’s workshop. However, at its core, this state of affairs indicates a restless mind, not a mind at peace. A deliberate attempt to engage the mind is in fact a type of involvement itself, and can therefore offer only a short-term solution at best. The restless mind is the monkey mind that needs to keep latching on to something or the other in order to keep itself occupied. But this will only appear to work until, of course, the monkey mind gets exhausted.
In a conversation I had with a lady who had been a spiritual seeker for many years, this predicament was brought to the fore. She mentioned that she no longer had any need to work since she was now financially secure, so she had developed about 15 passions that kept her busy during the day. These were hobbies like painting, listening to music, studying the Bhagavad Gita, etc. With tears in her eyes she said that while this helped her pass the time, she was still not at peace and felt something was ‘missing’. It is clear from this example that true peace resides elsewhere, and not in keeping one’s working mind occupied through 15 or even 150 passions.
Disengaging the mind
On those rare occasions when the mind is quiet, the peace and calm of stillness shines through. While taking a walk in nature, watching the sunrise or sunset, or for that matter watching the breath, the mind is disengaged and one is just being with ‘what is’. The awareness dawns that there is a state of being apart from that of an engaged mind. And that state of being is ‘witnessing’.
Upon some reflection, one sees that keeping the mind constantly engaged is a subtle ploy to camouflage the greatest fear of all – the fear of death. It is akin to wrapping a cloak around the fear of death, for a purposefully engaged mind is a mind that is afraid to die. It is constantly finding ways and means to dodge the question that must inevitably come up sooner or later: Who am I if I am not my mind? What would happen to ‘me’ if I was not engaged in some mental activity or another?
Intentionally keeping the mind engaged all the time is just a means of avoiding these burning questions. But once this is deeply recognised, the inquiry goes within and sincere seeking begins. It is now no longer an external engagement; this time around, it is an internal one. The arrow from the crossbow has been shot within, straight to the heart of the matter. Literally. For it is then realised that when you’re not in the mind, you’re in the heart. The heart of ‘I am’; not the mind of ‘I am Gautam’. ‘I am’ – as the awareness of simply being, of existing. Not existence as a separate entity, or ego.
One may well ask: Who will I be without my mind? And that is precisely it! One will simply ‘be’. Then, the engaged mind is laid bare. It is stripped naked, for it is clearly seen that the thinking mind is the ego, the separate ‘me’ that constantly identifies with the activities it engages with in order to derive its apparent existence from them. As stated earlier, it is now clearly seen that the compulsively engaged mind is nothing but a covert attempt at camouflaging the fear of death. Death of the ‘me’; death of the ‘me and my story’. For without the thinking mind, the ‘me and my story’ cannot exist.
If you can be by yourself, be with nature or more importantly ‘be’ no matter where you are, it is a good pointer that you are free of the shackles of the engaged mind. You no longer seek constant shelter in the working mind in order to escape the thinking mind. But, if each minute of your time needs to be spent engaged in some activity or the other, no matter how covert, it is a clear pointer to the grip that the mind still has over just ‘being’.
A girl I know once remarked that she had to always be doing something as she just couldn’t sit still for a moment. If there was nothing else she could find to do, she would start checking the status updates of her friends on her mobile phone… even if she had checked them just 15 minutes ago! Repeatedly checking on status updates was an obsessive attempt to keep her mind engaged, else she would feel uneasy and restless. Her restlessness was then reflected onto that activity, so it momentarily made her feel that all was well with her world.
Renowned Advaita sage Nisargadatta Maharaj had some pertinent words to say on this matter:
‘It is all a matter of focus. Your mind is focused in the world, mine is focused in reality. It is like the moon in daylight – when the sun shines, the moon is hardly visible. Or, watch how you take your food. As long as it is in your mouth, you are conscious of it; once swallowed, it does not concern you any longer. It would be troublesome to have it constantly in mind until it is eliminated. The mind should be normally in abeyance – incessant activity is a morbid state. The universe works by itself – that I know. What else do I need to know?’1
The mind can even trick one into believing that one is just ‘being’. For example, when one is in nature and the process of labelling begins: That’s a beautiful blue sky – I can’t quite remember seeing such colours before. I wonder what those lovely, green trees are called… and so on; everything gets labelled non-verbally by the mind as you take a walk through the park, missing the true essence of the moment. It reminds me of the time when a friend, whom I met over a coffee, went on talking in a monologue for over 30 minutes on how much she loved… silence!
The dawn of witnessing
Meditation is often advocated to quieten the mind. However, it is seen that many people find it difficult to sit with closed eyes and just ‘be’. To assist them in the process various techniques are prescribed such as: watching the breath, reciting a mantra or even counting the thoughts that come. This often seems to help the individual, depending on his or her predisposition to the particular technique. The idea is to bring them to the witnessing state, where they are no longer identified with their thoughts and can just witness them in the same way as they might witness something as mundane as traffic going by on a busy street.
However, despite their best efforts this is a state that still eludes a lot of people, the reason being that there is nothing you can really ‘do’ to be a witness. Why? Because ‘doing something’ would be engaging the mind, and an active mind simply cannot witness. Witnessing ‘happens’ when the mind is still. Doing something would be engaging the mind to stop the mind – which is impossible.
One day, at the end of a meditation session, a girl mentioned that she had had a brilliant meditation because she was able to ‘concentrate’ so hard that there was not a single thought. Something didn’t ring quite true and I was left wondering. Either it was not a ‘brilliant’ meditation, or she was using the incorrect word. The matter was clarified the next time she came, when she reported that her mind had remained blank for three days after that meditation, in stark contrast to its usually restless ways. I then realised that the word ‘concentration’ was simply an inaccurate way of expressing what had happened. Perhaps out of sheer conditioning we tend to attribute everything to the mind, even stillness. She had clearly had a very deep taste of a truly still mind, and its ramifications were apparent in her experience over the three days that followed the meditation.
I was pleasantly surprised later to come across these words of Ramesh Balsekar, which shed light on the matter:
‘Meditation is often misunderstood as concentration on some word or image, but concentration means excluding everything, rejecting everything. It is a self-centred activity. Meditation really means absolute clarity, which can only come about in the total silence of the mind, not the self-centred concentration. Clarity can only happen when you are not concentrating on something, not when you are excluding everything, but you are merely silently being aware and attentive to every thought, every movement, without trying to correct anything… it is in this awareness, pure awareness, that all thinking and reacting dissolve and leave the mind vacant and open to the moment.’2
When witnessing is happening, there is no ‘you’ involved with your individual thinking mind. So ‘your’ attempt to concentrate in order to stop the thoughts from coming during meditation is futile; even the attempt to be a witness is futile. However, in that very moment when you realise the mind has been involved in thinking you get a true glimpse of witnessing, for ‘something’ has to realise that one was involved in thinking. That ‘something’ is the Witness. And that is not a function of the engaged mind. So, it isn’t really ‘you’ who realises that the mind has been involved in thinking, but rather the realisation happens – it dawns – that there was involvement in thinking.
As one goes deeper into meditation, there is naturally less and less involvement with the thoughts that flow through the mind. ‘Involvement with thoughts’ means becoming engaged in thinking and conceptualising. Thoughts may of course arise in meditation but the rampaging thinking mind does not run away with them into the sunset and over the cliff ! They are simply witnessed. It is then seen that ‘I am not my thoughts’. This actually means that when there is no involvement in thoughts in the form of further thinking, there is no ‘me’, and the ‘thinking mind’ is not operating.
To labour the point: when involvement in thoughts gets spontaneously cut off, witnessing begins. However, you cannot directly cut off the involvement with your thoughts, because ‘you’ are the involvement. The involvement can only get cut off by that which is not ‘you’ i.e. when witnessing happens.
‘I’, as a separate ‘me’, can never witness. I can only observe. For example, a separate ‘me’ can observe an object or, let’s say, another person. And to observe something is to judge it as good or bad, beautiful or ugly and so on, in a subject-object relationship. We, thinking we are the subject, pronounce judgement upon the object. In witnessing, where there is no separate ‘me’, judging simply cannot arise as there is no ‘me’ separate from the ‘other’ to do the judging.
Witnessing and the working mind
So, what comes closest to witnessing? It is the working mind, for in the working mind there is no ‘me’, or in other words, the thinking mind; the ego. When you are in the working mind, you are in the ‘I am’, and witnessing means being in the ‘I am’ too.
But it must be clearly understood that the two are different. The working mind is ‘I am’ in action, and the mind cannot witness, while witnessing only happens when the mind stops working. The boy who constantly engages himself in playing video games is quite clearly keeping his working mind engaged. But what he seeks deep down is the peace of a disengaged mind, the peace of witnessing, the peace that is the absence of both the thinking mind and the working mind. In other words, what he seeks deep down is to get as close to the peace of deep sleep as is possible in the waking state. The peace of deep sleep is peaceful simply because there is no ‘me’, though one exists. But that peace can’t be ‘achieved’ because it would mean that someone wants to achieve something, whereas witnessing is the very absence of that someone as a result of which the witnessing arises. It’s akin to the simple fact that one cannot ‘achieve’ deep sleep.
The ‘I am’ is the purest state of meditation. But you can’t do anything to be in the ‘I am’, for in a manner of speaking you already are the ‘I am’. You cannot be ‘I am Gautam’ without being ‘I am’ – existence, pure and impersonal, without the taint of the ego and its sense of separation. You cannot ‘do’ meditation, but meditation can happen when there is no ‘you’ attempting to do meditation.
When the engaged or restless mind dies down, the light of witnessing shines forth in all its glory.
God’s will and ‘my’ will
Seen in another light, the total acceptance of God’s will is the total annihilation of ‘my’ will. The total annihilation of ‘my’ will is the total annihilation of ‘me’. The total annihilation of ‘me’ (‘I am Gautam’) is the total presence of ‘I am’. The total presence of ‘I am’ is the blinding light of witnessing.
And what is God’s will in operation? This can be clearly seen in the legend of William Tell. Was it a progression of events, or a regression, or both? As Ramesh would say, the arrow of cause and effect is double-pointed. The story is backwards. It seems that A leads to B, and B leads to C; but it is clearly seen that for C to happen, B had to happen; for B to happen, A had to happen. Nisargadatta Maharaj referred to this as ‘reversing into the future’.
For Gessler to have died, Tell had to be born. Tell had to have been trained as a huntsman and a warrior. He had to have had a son. Gessler had to have had the thought to put his hat on a pole and demand that people bow before it. Tell had to walk past the hat on the pole and refuse to bow to it. Tell had to possess sufficient humility to keep two arrows ready, in case he failed and ended up killing his son. When questioned by Gessler, he had to have given the answer that he did, which in turn infuriated Gessler. There had to have been a storm on the lake. Tell had to have been able to escape and then wait in hiding to kill Gessler with his second arrow, which he never intended to use if he struck the apple with his first shot and so on and so forth, ad infinitum.
It is truly astounding to contemplate the intricate engineering of this set of events involving William Tell that directly impacted the formation of the Swiss Federation. Clearly, Tell and Gessler were but two instruments within the larger scheme of things – the landscape of God’s Plan.
Likewise, one can only marvel at the complex synchronicity of the set of events that line our own days, and how the universe conspires to bring about ‘what is’ in our lives. It is indeed humbling to truly see how there really is so little of ‘my will’ in the gigantic and sprawling network of events that make up one’s daily life. Yet, we glorify this ‘my will’ as we often fret, fume and stress about things not going our way; the way we want them to.
Well, whose way are they going then? But of course, God’s Way, which many a time our limited ‘thinking mind’ cannot comprehend as it doesn’t make sense to us. We often realise how exercising ‘our will’ has gotten us into so much trouble. Yet exercise it we must, as that is the mechanism of functioning in daily living. All we can do is try our best in a given situation, and leave the rest to God.
The sage Ramana Maharshi had the final word on the matter:
‘The Ordainer controls the fate of souls in accordance with their prarabdha karma. Whatever is destined not to happen will not happen, try as you may. Whatever is destined to happen will happen, do what you may to prevent it. This is certain. The best course, therefore, is to remain silent.’ 3
Ramana Maharshi, of course, was not referring to us just zipping our lips, but to the true silence of the mind, to inner Stillness.
1. I Am That – Talks with Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, Chetana Publishers, Mumbai, India.
2. Ramesh Balsekar quoted in Calm Is Greater Than Joy – Shirish Murthy, Zen Publications, Mumbai, India.
3. The Teachings of Ramana Maharshi – Sri Ramana Maharshi, Edited by Arthur Osborne, Sri Ramanasramam, Tiruvannamalai, India.
This essay is from the book The End of Separation, by Gautam Sachdeva.