Keep an eye on the causes

By A. G. Mohan and Dr. Ganesh Mohan

They could be close or distant and differentiated through logic

Ancient Indian logic makes the straightforward postulate that there is no effect without a cause. There may be occurrences whose causes we are unable to learn, but a cause must still exist in reality even if we do not see it. However, there is a difference between proximal and distal causes.

Proximal causes contribute directly or immediately to the outcome. Distal causes contribute indirectly or through a chain of events. For example, the origin of the universe is the distal cause for everything, but that information has no practical use in daily life. The immediate cause of a fire is a spark or kindling, but other distal causes, past conditions, also contribute to the flame — the wood comes from a tree, the tree must have been exposed to dry weather, and so on!

In the context of yoga, for example, practising calmness or forgiveness may be a direct antidote to anger. Going for a run might be a supportive cause. Running can help dissipate the bodily energy of anger, and set the platform to reconsider the anger in the mind. But without actively bringing the mind to calmness or forgiveness, running alone is not likely to remove the anger, as it is only a supportive cause for removing anger.

Considering the difference and nature of proximal and distal causes helps us to be much more effective in the practices we do and the choices we make. The much-loved example in classical texts to analyse cause and effects is an earthen pot. To come into existence, an earthen pot requires mud, a potter’s wheel, and a potter. The most intimate and direct cause of the pot is the mud. Without mud, the pot is impossible under any circumstances. Among the other two causes, the potter is the causal agent, and the wheel is the support. They are one step removed from the mud in the chain of causation — essential, but not intrinsic to the pot.

Secondary cause

What about the donkey that carried the mud for the potter? The donkey is an optional or secondary cause. After all, the mud could be transported in many ways, the donkey being just one.

To ensure health of mind and body effectively, we must emphasise causes that are proximal before the ones that are distal. There are proximal and distal causes in any yoga practice, too. In a yoga class, what made you feel well? Was it the teacher? The specific instructions? The asanas themselves? The specific movements? Or was it the breathing, or just the time-out from normal life?

Usually, it is a combination of the above. You don’t have to sit down and analyse all of these causes before you practise yoga. But keep an eye on these as separate causes rather than as an indivisible entity that is “the practice.” Sometimes one of these causes is taking away from rather than contributing to our wellbeing, and the sooner we recognise that, the more quickly and effectively we can fix it and improve our practice.

Logic is the process by which we determine what is correct and incorrect. The thrust of classical Indian logic is that inference is often a clearer guide to certain and accurate knowledge than hearsay and books, or even direct perception. Hearsay and direct perception can be flawed and difficult to correct; inference can be corrected more easily.

A famous quotation goes, “Accept that which is correct by inference, even if said by a child or by a parrot.” That is, do not judge a subject or statement just by who says it; analyse the content that lies behind it and decide for yourself. Look at the person through the content rather than what lies behind it and decide for yourself. Look at the person through the content rather than the content through the person!

Incorrect inference

Child: “Why doesn’t daddy have hair on his head?” Mother: “Daddy thinks a great deal, dear.” Child: “But mummy, why do you have so much hair on your head?” Mother: “Hush! Eat your breakfast!”

This article appeared in The Hindu newspaper.