What is wholesome conduct?
Can the way we behave affect our health and wellbeing? We know that our diet and lifestyle, the environment and seasonal changes all affect our health. We know also that mental stress and even positive or negative attitudes can affect health and recovery but what about our conduct and behaviour? Modern medicine is relatively silent on this subject. Modern science and morality are discrete and separate domains; science steers clear from moralising, leaving this to the domain of religion to guide us on how we should live and behave but in modern society, religion has become a faint and distant voice on the margins of society, often regarded as irrelevant.
The ancient science of Ayurveda however does not exclude any area of human experience in terms of its impact on human health and happiness, as everything is regarded as interconnected, and everything is associated with qualities that ultimately exert their effect. Ayurveda has looked in detail at what constitutes wholesome and ethical conduct from the point of view of health and wellbeing, and this is known as Sadvritta. This is a code of conduct which pertains to the use of the body, speech and mind. The underlying principles are timeless and universal, not specific to a particular culture.
Why is such a code necessary? It helps in preventing the development of disorder which occurs through the incorrect use of our senses and our intellect and judgment. The senses should not be overused, underused or used in a distorted way. For example, the overuse of the sense of sight might be through sitting in front of screens all day or reading in low lighting, underuse spending too much time in the dark and abnormal use may be using eyes to watch disturbing images. Likewise for the use of the intellect. These are considered important causative factors in disease development. These sets of rules help to give guidance and to steer us. Let us touch on the principles in turn. The rules themselves are too detailed to be given here.
- Ayurveda emphasises cleanliness of body, clothing and environment. Cleanliness and purity are Sattwic properties and they enhance the feeling of peace and wellbeing. We all know too well how unpleasant it feels when we feel unclean or when we are in a dirty and messy environment. The mind feels very unsettled and restless in a chaotic environment. Lack of cleanliness increases Tamas, the property of dullness and inertia in the mind.
- Guidance is given on the protection of the body from the elements which can have a disturbing effect on the doshas (functional energies). One is advised also not to stress the body by overexercise or by using it in an unnatural way. Examples are given. We should not overburden the sense organs that is through our mind we should exert some control on their use.
- Ayurveda stresses the importance of regularity in our daily regimens such as sleep/wake cycle, mealtimes and so on and advises against excess sleep or night vigils. The body/mind thrives on regularity and prepares itself in anticipation for sleep or the meal to come. This enhances digestion and the metabolic processes. Irregularity on the other hand leads to disturbance in the optimal functioning of the digestive processes (Agni) and pushes the Doshas out of balance.
- Ayurveda states that our actions should not harm or injure another as this will inevitably disturb the mind and this then impacts on the body. We know how a wrong action affects our wellbeing and makes the mind restless.
- Actions such as stealing, illicit sexual relations are considered harmful as these create disturbance in the mind. Any wrong action will create guilt and veiling of the mind which disturbs the peace and obstructs the experience of joy.
- Actions which are helpful to others in terms of service to parents, elders and those in need, increase our humility, sense of respect and loving duty. Selfless service of others also gives a feeling of joy and expands the spirit. These actions are encouraged.
- Our speech should be courteous and respectful. We should speak softly and that which is pleasant to hear. We should consider what the other might want to hear rather than simply expressing loudly our opinions which only serve our own ego.
- We should always speak the truth. Speaking truth gives clarity, peace of mind and strength to the spirit. We know from experience that if we do not speak the truth, as it is, we feel disturbed.
- We should not speak harshly or injure others through our speech. We should not lie, gossip, criticise or quarrel with others or disclose secrets. All this will create a sense of dis-ease in the mind. The mind becomes disturbed and polluted as do the minds of others participating. And this can affect the whole being as mind/body are interrelated and can ultimately lead to disease.
- The manner and tone of speaking are also important as this has an impact on the mind. So, one is advised not to speak with too high pitch, low or a deranged voice or to speak too fast or too slowly and so on.
- We should exercise self-control over our passions and exert a certain self-discipline to keep the mind in check. If we allow the mind to become our master and we the slave, we are pulled hither and thither according with its endless desires and whims.
- Patience, forbearance and courage are extolled as virtues. They give us the strength to endure whatever life throws at us without losing our balance, to accept success and failure, gain and loss without excitement or depression. Maintaining equanimity of mind and remaining cheerful in all situations is encouraged.
- Avoidance of jealousy is advised as this clearly robs us of peace of mind. Not only does it disturb the mind, but it pollutes our relationships.
- Humility and a respectful attitude are considered health-promoting.
- We are advised not to act under emotions of anger or excitement as these will inevitably affect our judgement and lead to wrong actions which will further disturb our minds.
When we study in detail what has been written by the great Vaidyas of old, we can understand their wisdom and see how all that we do, say and think has a potential impact on the body/mind. We know from our personal experience that it does. When anything becomes a habitual way of being, speaking and thinking, the effect is cumulative, and it can create disease.
There is no domain of human experience that should be neglected in the holistic understanding of human health and happiness. The way we behave with each other in society, the way we speak and the nature of our thinking all exert an important influence. Hence the stress in Ayurveda to exert a certain self-control and discipline. These may sound like dirty words in the modern world which values above all freedom of expression but actually this self-control allows us greater freedom from the demands of the mind. Thus we are able to experience more of what is our true nature when the mind is not disturbed or clouded. It actually gives us greater freedom to become master of the mind! Such is the wisdom, depth and farsightedness of this ancient science of Ayurveda!