Even the simplest creatures move toward food. For example, the cuddly little organism in the picture above, Escherichia coli, a bacterium that lives in our intestines, swims toward sugar. I do pretty much the same thing every time I happen to see a container of ice cream. Not all living things can control their movements, but those that do are likely to have a tendency to go toward food and comfort and away from harm and discomfort, otherwise they would die. We are living things ourselves, and this behavior is so deeply engrained in us that it barely needs to be described. When we’re cold, we seek warmth; when we’re hungry, we seek food; when we see a rabid dinosaur, we run away. My point is that nearly all animals behave this way. This kind of behavior must have evolved very early in the history of life.
Even plants, although they can’t move, behave this way. Their stems grow toward light and their roots grow toward water.
In short, living creatures move toward good things and away from bad ones. This is the basis of behavior for all organisms.
As life evolved, it became more complex and eventually nervous systems appeared. The main job of a nervous system is to obtain what’s desirable and avoid what’s bad or feared. Even the human nervous system, with its gigantic swollen brain at one end, is still mainly engaged in this four-billion-year old business of getting what it wants and avoiding what it dislikes, as I demonstrate every time I reach for the ice cream. Despite my brain, despite the fact that I use a spoon, despite the fact that I recycle the empty ice cream container, I’m still doing exactly the same thing as the bacterium. We even both have favorite flavors — for me, mint chip (I say this only to provoke Charlie), and for the bacterium, 6-deoxy-d-glucose.*
This behavior was noticed by the author of the Maitri Upanishad, who wrote:
Verily, all things here fly forth, day by day, desiring to get food. (VI. 12)
This business of seeking what we desire and avoiding what we dislike is the deepest, most fundamental aspect of our minds and behavior. We can’t help taking it for granted. There’s a saying in English, “When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” This impulse to find and get desirable things is the hammer from which we cannot escape. Everything of interest to us is automatically seen as goal to be sought, because fundamentally we are machines that seek goals and avoid the opposite of goals. When I say “fundamentally” I am talking about four billion years of evolution. That’s how long our ancestors have existed on earth. That’s how long we have been swinging this hammer.
The problem with this hammer, this business of moving toward things we want to get, is that it doesn’t work for Self-realization. We can’t find Self-realization by moving toward anything.
We can only “find” it by doing the opposite of moving toward or away from things.
What is the opposite of moving toward or away from things? Sounds like a koan.
The whole basic orientation of life on earth, moving with reference to objects, must be abandoned in order to realize the Self.
You must rest in yourself.
You must become conscious of yourself.
Be aware of yourself.
Image of Escherichia coli from CDC.