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Being a Student of Vedanta
Bede: Dear Ram, everything that happens, including whether we are loved or hated, has meaning. We often say, “I like that,” or “I don’t like that,” or “I am indifferent to that,” but before we make such statements our likes and dislikes have already ascertained what the objects mean to us. If you asked a person who dislikes someone he or she will say it is because of some bad action. This sounds reasonable but it is not the actual reason.
There is another factor. If I tell you of a man who ripped open the belly of another with a knife you will not like him straightaway because you abhor violence. But if I tell you that he was a surgeon trying to save a soldier who had been hit by enemy fire the action takes on a new meaning. THE CONTEXT FROM WHICH WE LOOK AT PEOPLE AND EVENTS DETERMINES THE MEANING FOR US.
The context is the circumstances that make an event, statement or idea fully understandable. When you found out about the battlefield and the men’s professions the context transformed your cognition of the event. This shifting of our way of seeing from one perspective to another is called a “cognitive shift” by Swami Dayananda. How we see things now… our personal, exclusive point of view… is not the proper context for the study of Vedanta. If we don’t study from within Vedanta’s context the words will have personal meaning but not the limitless, inclusive meaning intended by the scriptures. We will be wasting our time. Everything we hear will be taken in the wrong way.
When I first met Swamini Atmaprakasananda, a teacher of Vedanta, I asked her why there was suffering. I didn’t say, “Why am I suffering?” That was too close. I had never talked to a guru before and it was embarrassing to ask. In the past I had rubbished people who needed gurus. It seemed like weakness. Swamini said, “The reason people suffer is that that are dependent on people and things for their happiness.” Because I had lost most of the things I depended on for my happiness and was suffering greatly what she said made complete sense. She also said, “People and things never hurt us; they are instrumental in revealing the pain that is already with us. This understanding is the beginning of emotional maturity.”
I did not like what she said but I got the point: people and events SEEM to be the cause of our misery and unhappiness but they are not. DEPENDENCE ON PEOPLE AND EXTERNAL CONDITIONS FOR HAPPINESS WAS MY PRIMARY PROBLEM. This was the first but by no means the last time that my personal viewpoint and the viewpoint of Vedanta were in conflict. My pain was caused by a lifetime of experiencing the absence of desired objects and the presence of undesired objects. Swamini made it clear that blaming objects… people… was futile and incorrect. Until I met her I all I wanted was that the happenings of the universe line up with what I wanted… so I could be happy. I thought that the universe was to blame for my suffering. I looked at the world and drew a big line down the middle. I put all the things that MADE me happy on the left side and all the things that MADE me unhappy on the right side. Then I built my life around staying on the left. This was the context WITHIN which I lived. It determined entirely how what happened was interpreted by me.
All efforts to improve myself were like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. It seemed like I was doing something but the context was wrong. So the same old suffering kept on appearing in new forms no matter what I did. “This is samsara – the dependence upon another person, another situation, for your own sense of well-being,” said Swami Dayananda, my guru’s guru.
Before my conversation with Swamini, like the Buddhists I thought life was samsara, meaning suffering. I didn’t like the idea that my way of seeing things was the problem but I felt I was on the verge of understanding something important. Even though her words were tough she was very kind. This enabled me to take on board what she was saying. Something within me knew that the problem lay with me in spite of all the “evidence” to the contrary.
My entire life had been built around dependence on objects but until this conversation I did not know it and I did not know that I didn’t know it. What was being suggested by her is that there is a sense of well-being (security, peace and happiness) that stands alone in and as itself. It is a well-being which is unshakable in the face of any circumstance: failure, social rejection, imprisonment, physical pain and the fact that we die. It is a well-being which cannot be acquired by effort but is ever-present as the truth of oneself. Vedanta points out that that the only distance between myself and this absolute freedom is ignorance. Not the world. Not other people. Not even my apparent myself. I was not seeing a very important something and the only solution was to see it.
This was my first encounter with the standpoint of the Vedanta scriptures. They weren’t telling me what to do but rather what to see. In my first conversation with the Swamini I asked the best way to approach the problem of dependence on objects. She said that I must depend on the guru, scripture and God. I could already see that talking to her had opened my eyes to things that I could not see myself but I had difficulty with the context in which this knowledge came… the trappings of Hinduism. I just wanted pure knowledge without the religious stuff. She was some kind of Hindu monk, often surrounded by Hindu deities, which made me uncomfortable. I could not understand how she could have such clarity about life but be so religious and prayerful at the same time. I had rejected prayer long ago. Also, I didn’t have a religious bone in my body.
However, I set aside my misgivings and just stuck to what did make sense because I was desperate and had nothing to lose. At the end of that conversation I was prepared to depend on her as a teacher. Not only was she wise, she was very kind and had such an accepting manner that I felt I could speak frankly. I opened up like a clam, which was unusual for me. After the first conversation I didn’t feel as helpless and as unhappy. I knew I had finally come across something good. Looking back, I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
Swamini told me that the scriptures are like a mother. They look after us. This was strange because I was brought up Roman Catholic and scripture was like a weapon of coercion used to keep me in line. The threat of hellfire and how to avoid it was what they were about. The idea that the scriptures are a way of seeing was entirely new.
We may agree that dependence on object causes suffering irrespective of our intellectual background but agreement is not seeing. Because agreement is not based on listening, awareness and discrimination it is simply a mental reaction. If I said the Republican Party is the best party to run the country, agreement or disagreement will arise automatically without awareness and discrimination coming into play. I could say you are the self, distinct from the mind-body complex, and give you the reasoning behind this and you can agree with it or not… but it is not understanding. The Vedantic vision arises entirely from a different context than agreeable or disagreeable mental reactions.
After that conversation when I became upset I would deliberately look at the situation from the scriptural standpoint. It is not a practice you can do without a great deal of commitment, and you won’t commit unless you see the value of it. Furthermore, you won’t see the value unless you discover it and you won’t discover it unless you see it. Finally, you won’t see it unless it is unfolded by someone who sees it and helps you see it yourself. You also need someone who knows how to unfold it in the right way or you won’t see it. Merely talking about it doesn’t work. Once you have seen it you have to actively depend on it if you wish to establish it in your life. It is a shift from the personal point of view… which seems so real… to the impersonal, scriptural point of view… which is reality.
At the beginning I would often forget to pause and look at my reactions in light of what Swamini had unfolded to me. But the more I did the more I remembered and the clearer the teaching became. The more I paused and became aware of my dependence the less upset I got. My attention no longer remained fixated on the world but it was lifted up to the dimension of the self. The situation remains but how it is evaluated is completely different… the cognitive shift.
We can only learn who we are by assimilating our experiences in the light of the vision of non-duality established by the scriptures. The next time you are upset pause and deliberately recall the teaching as revealed by the teacher. The knowledge will transform your vision. This is bhakti, devotion to the vision of non-duality. Bhakti is dependence on the vision. It grows by constant practise.
Vedanta is a vision, not a philosophy or a belief system. One of the most interesting things that Swamini made clear is that clarity with reference to who we are… the self… which is ever-present and beyond time… happens over time. It is not a one-off epiphany. As we listen to the teaching layers of vagueness are removed bit by bit. The range and the depth of our SEEING is what is transformed, not ourselves. What we are does not need to change. The morning sun does not produce objects, it just reveals what is already there. The light slowly removes the darkness until it fills the whole room. This transformation of our vision is the essence of Vedanta. Swami Dayananda uses the metaphor of a developing a photo to describe the growing of clarity from small beginnings to the total vision. The shift from struggling to improve myself and my life to correcting how I was seeing myself and my life was the real beginning of my Vedantic studies. Seeing the value of self-knowledge shifts our lives into an entirely different context.
When I asked Swamini about how we know right from wrong she said we don’t have to go to university to learn what is right and wrong. She unequivocally said that we know what is right and wrong but we don’t know the value of doing what is right and avoiding what is wrong. She also said that when we go against our knowledge of right and wrong we become split and disturbed within and in conflict with our environment outwardly. We are not talking about being a nice person so we can get along with others. Sociopaths and politicians have great social skills. She said a life of dharma involves being aware of each situation as it appears and doing the needful with presence of mind. Knowledge of right and wrong is innate. Put there by the Creator, dharma is a dynamic tendency within each of us with its own force and direction. As we relate from this knowledge, by making our way of living conform to dharma, we come into harmony with the whole and with ourselves. The mind becomes peaceful and our relationships become relatively free of conflict.
In spite of much difficultly with the idea of a Creator God I came to see that each situation was given to me by the hand of the God and that it requires an appropriate and timely response. I realise that by offering my mind and body in the service of a given situation as best I could I was a devotee. Swamini said that living in the world happily, peacefully and responsively is real devotion… as opposed to blindly following an external religious code.
It is responsiveness in terms of what is in our best interests spiritually. If I feel like speaking harshly to someone my knowledge of dharma automatically comes up and I feel disturbed. It “feels right” to tell this person off but I cannot live with myself if I do. When you protect dharma, dharma protects you. It is a dependable rule. In this way an understanding of God/dharma becomes the basis of an accepting and graceful way of life.
In English “duty” means “to give what is due.” In the context of Vedanta “duty” is “giving each situation its due, seeing what value I can add to it.” Before I met my teacher I never saw situations as opportunities for growth. I thought they were there to please or annoy me. A giving orientation is a far cry from a consuming orientation. Duty is not a stick to whip us in line. Rather, it is the fullest and finest expression of our lives.
We live in a consumer society. We want to get happiness from objects rather than living happily and peacefully among objects. To live happily requires a contribution, an appreciation of dharma. Following dharma eradicates the binding desires born of the lack of knowledge of our fullness, our completeness. They become redundant.
I asked the Swamini how I could be happy in a world where there was so much misery and pain. She told me that if I was unhappy and miserable I would add to the world’s pain because I would harm others. Looking back at my many and varied harmful acts I really saw that what she was saying was true. She did not threaten me with damnation if I did not take up this new vision, as religion does. She offered me a simple choice that really was not a choice: follow dharma and be happy or contravene it and suffer.
God obtains in us in the form of dharma. One day I was sitting at a bus stop reading an interesting book. An old woman was sitting next to me. She tried to start up a conversation. I politely refused and went back to my book because I was more interested what I wanted than what she wanted. I was clearly aware of her desire for company and I was aware that the best thing for me was to satisfy her need. I was not impolite and I was well within my rights to read read scripture, so no social norms were violated. However, in light of dharma my actions towards her take on a different meaning. I missed an opportunity to serve dharma and therefore to serve her and myself. The light of dharma is a clear and guiding ever-present light. It is necessary to follow it if we want to assimilate the teachings of Vedanta.
I know how I like to be treated by others. This knowledge is natural to me. I also know that I don’t want to be betrayed or talked about behind my back. I know I want to be paid back if I lend money. This is not a vague or uncertain knowledge, it is loud and clear. I know I don’t wish to be hurt. Because I know how I would like others to treat me I know that this is the best way to treat others.
If I am honest I have to admit that it is far more important that others behave with consideration towards me than if I behave with consideration toward them. The hit man fears a hit. The thief locks up his loot. He is very clear about it. We know the right way to treat others. The scriptures don’t bother unfolding this knowledge because there is no need. Instead, they explain the value of living a life of dharma. If we don’t appreciate the value of dharma we become very unhappy and unavailable to the teachings of Vedanta. Once you understand the value of living a life of dharma and commit to it you have to choose between your desires and fears and the voice of dharma. This is a daily practice and applies to every situation. All these little things add up. Going against dharma builds unhappiness into us. Even though I continued to read my Vedanta book I did not feel comfortable. Add up all the little violations and the result is a continually disturbed mind.
Before I started practising dharma yoga I would go to a café with my kids and sit with them reading a book rather than interacting with them. My life was not a contributing life because I was extracting whatever pleasure I could only for me. The Bhagavad Gita calls such people thieves. They rob themselves and others. I knew what was right but I got very skilled at minimising the self-centredness of my behaviour. When I realised this I felt very bad but the Swamini told me that I should not allow violations of dharma to add to my guilt. She said surrendering to the teachings would lighten my load. The life of dharma is hard at first and requires constant recommitment. It is a practice of constant acknowledgement and recommitment. I have not yet reached the required maturity that a life of dharma… doing what needs to be done to serve the situation… brings.
When the Lord appears in the form of dishes to be done, do I serve the Lord or serve myself and let them be? Serving the Lord is not a sacrifice or an act of virtue. It is the very best way to live because it improves the quality of the mind and the way we live with others. This quality of mind is the contemplative disposition required to establish the vision of non-duality. The ground out of which this disposition sprouts is a life of right values.