The little faucet-stream of water was running on my shaving brush, while from my bathroom window I could see a menacing thunderstorm approaching. After a few minutes, the sky darkened and it started pouring rain. I stopped shaving for a moment to enjoy the spectacle of thunder, light, and rain. When I turned back to the sink, I noticed that I had left the faucet running. I was then struck by a simple realization: tons of water was descending from the sky, yet I was not using any of it to create lather in the shaving bowl, or to clean the razor, or to wash my face. Even if I were to step outside and try to use the rain water, I would still not be able to have a proper shave. The little faucet-stream of warm, steadily flowing water did the job perfectly – better than all the water in the rain, rivers, ponds, or seas!
This paradox is not actually a paradox. It is one of the central elements that defines human society: we gather the scattered matter and energy of the universe and purposefully focus it, or rather channel it in a particular direction, to modify and mold our environment, improve our living conditions, create something new. This channeling is at the heart of all of our activities here on earth.
As with water, so with electricity: every few seconds, I could see the lightning, hear the thunder, and even imagine the strikes battering the surface of the earth with their might. But again, I was not using any part of this boundless electric energy. The light in my bathroom was brought to me by an elaborate system of cables, switches, and light bulbs, made possible by centuries of scientific discovery and technological innovation. The electrical grid is doing nothing but gathering, managing, and finally channeling the energies that envelop us.
In a previous essay, I wrote about our function as living transformers, as “machines,” whose sole purpose is to modify everything that enters our body and mind in order to turn it into something different, new, novel. I suggested that this is our main job as humans here on earth – to transform everything that enters our being. But now I realize that the modus operandi, the most important aspect of our transformative function, consists in our gathering the randomly dispersed matter and energy of the universe, sorting it out, focusing it, and channeling it into purposeful forms, shapes, streams of human proportion, in order to achieve what we want. Our actions partake of this channeling, which is synonymous with forcing the elements of our environment to be molded into manageable forms that serve us. It is true that Nature already serves us with its immense activities and energies – which are often randomly dispersed and chaotic – by offering us the basic foundations on which we are then able to act. But although Nature provides this vast substratum on which we stand, it is the inventiveness of man with his channeling work that creates our human world: the rainwater is gathered in dams to irrigate contained plots of land, or it is collected in reservoirs to be distributed as running water in our houses; the raw iron under the earth’s crust is collected, channeled, and molded into a shaving razor; the trees are chopped into pieces to make tables, chairs, pencils, paper, and more; and the electricity in the storm, which is the same as in every atom, is gathered and directed in wires to be distributed to every home, business, and factory. Subsequently, all these are used to create, through further channeling, even more refined human objects, activities, achievements: the pencil and paper are used for writing, while the light bulb allows us to defy darkness.
But channeling does not only describe how we operate with respect to our environment, nor does it solely apply to what we do as a society: it is also central to our personal learning and growth. In The Synthesis of Yoga, Sri Aurobindo explains how this same principle applies to the way yoga functions:
“A given system of Yoga, then, can be no more than a selection or a compression, into narrower but more energetic forms of intensity, of the general methods which are already being used loosely, largely, in a leisurely movement, with a profuse apparent waste of material and energy but with a more complete combination by the great Mother [Nature] in her vast upward labor.”
To describe the work of the yogi, Sri Aurobindo uses the words “selection,” “compression,” and “narrowing” – which are very similar to the terms focusing, molding, and channeling I have used here. And when he refers to “the profuse apparent waste of material and energy” of Nature, this is none other than the “wasted” pouring rain and the electric discharges of the clouds vis-à-vis the little faucet-stream in my sink and the miniscule light in my bathroom. But now we are moving away from the visible matter and energy and using this analogy to understand that the same principle also applies to our higher mental faculties and, subsequently, to our own self-development. The Raja-yogi concentrates his psycho-mental faculties to achieve a specific aim in a narrow field, such as cultivating his memory. The Jnana-yogi uses his abstract thinking to meditate on the grandest questions of life. This, of course, does not only hold true for yoga, but for every aspect of our higher thinking: the mathematician, the physicist, the economist, the philosopher, all concentrate on a narrow field of activity in order to unveil truths and laws of the mind or society or Nature. Similarly, the engineer, the architect, the artist, the musician focus their attention and work in a limited field to create new objects, forms, movements. Just as I, writing this essay, select ideas from different fields, modify and mold them by compressing, narrowing, and finally channeling them in a specific direction to create a new understanding of a subject. All of our arts, crafts, and sciences, as well as our personal, emotional, mental, and spiritual growth, are the result of such channeling action.
Whenever we are scattered all over the place, unfocused, drifting aimlessly without direction, we revert to the “wasteful” modes of Nature. By dispersing our energies in a myriad directions, by being busy being busy, we may be behaving “naturally” in a way – as Nature does, with its profuse and wasteful rain. But this type of “natural” behavior, although it paradoxically comes naturally to us (!), is not the core of our human nature. For it is our focusing and channeling that allows us to become creative, productive, and effective. It is when we channel our energies that we act according to our unique and privileged human nature. It is when we channel our efforts that we learn, grow, and truly act. It is when we contain the profusion and apparent uncontainedness of Nature – external and internal – that we evolve.
Dispersion is untamed, random, chaotic Nature. Channeling is focused, purposeful, creative Man.