Search & Read
Vasanas, Karma Yoga and a Qualified Mind
Anne: I have discovered ShiningWorld in January after a very, very long spiritual journey and have started reading and viewing videos of James.
Rory: Wonderful! I’m so glad you found ShiningWorld. People don’t always realise it at the time, but to be led to Vedanta (and to recognise its value) is a sign of great punya. This grace is earned, and I would say is the fruit of your decades of sadhana and truth-seeking.
Anne: However, this summer, whilst in the middle of this study, some strong vasanas came back to life and I am really struggling with letting go of them.
Rory: This isn’t uncommon. Intense study and inquiry can sometimes cause what I call a purging. Vedanta is an alchemical process in a way – Shankara likens it to an acid slowly eating away at metal. It can loosen things and stir them up. Vasanas that you thought were long gone or dormant can suddenly try to reassert themselves. There’s nothing like the power of knowledge, but ignorance rarely goes without a fight, and it can play devious and dirty.
Anne: I do feel shame, and all the “should not feel that way” because of all what I know, especially now with the teaching of Vedanta. It is really hard to admit that at my age I am still stuck with grief and not able to let go of rejection/failed relationships, etc. and accept my current circumstances.
Rory: The key here is to, first of all, let go of this shame, this beating yourself up for not being perfect. This is quite prevalent in the spiritual community. When you suffer, there’s part of you (I believe Freud termed it the “superego”) which makes the misery ten times worse by judging you for suffering, by telling you that you should be beyond it, that you should be above such feelings. It’s bad enough to be in pain, but to then be telling yourself on top of that that you “shouldn’t be” makes things so much worse. It’s the mind being cruel to itself.
So, first of all, accept the vasanas. They are as they are – until they aren’t.
The real problem with vasanas is when you think they’re YOUR vasanas, when you take ownership of them and think they somehow say something about who you are. They don’t. Not at all. They’re just thought waves appearing in you – ripples on the surface of a lake – the momentum of past actions, thoughts and conditioning. They don’t belong to you any more than a movie belongs to the screen on which it’s being projected. They occupy different orders of reality.
In actuality, the vasanas, along with the instruments of your body and mind, all belong to Isvara.
I member Ramji once saying, “Isvara means it can’t be any other way.” That means it doesn’t make sense to judge or resist the past (or indeed the present). Everything is Isvara. The good, the bad – and the vasanas. ☺ Arguing with reality is arguing with God – and that’s one argument you never have a hope of winning.
By seeing everything as Isvara, you depersonalise your suffering. That’s a vital first step. No shame, no resistance. You see that things happened exactly as they had to to get you to where you are now.
You then take an objective look at your mind and figure out how to proceed.
Perhaps the most important part of Vedanta, and the part that really requires effort on our part, is getting the mind qualified and fit to assimilate the knowledge. The rest is pretty much easy as pie – you listen to the teaching, work through any doubts and let it work its magic.
The real secret is keeping the mind qualified. This isn’t necessarily easy. In fact it can be the hardest thing you’ll ever do, and it’s an ongoing process. But Vedanta provides a systematic means of doing this and it really works.
Karma yoga is essential. When I first found Vedanta I thought, yeah, that’s cool, but I wanted to skip ahead to the juicy parts, the Self and jnana yoga. Karma yoga may not seem very exciting but it can’t be skipped.
It’s only in the past few decades that Vedanta has been available in the West or indeed taught in English, full stop. It’s intended for yogis, people who have purified their minds to quite a high degree. Most of the texts presuppose this.
In the West, however, such highly qualified minds are rare. The whole system is skewed against us. It’s a consumer-driven, desire-based culture, with little understanding of dharma. We’re bombarded by this from almost birth, and surrounded by a sea of distraction and noise. We’re instilled with false values and ideals from the time we’re old enough to use language: believing that our lives should be a certain way, that we need to be, do and have certain things in order to be a valid and acceptable person.
This all has an effect on the mind. It’s little wonder! Therefore karma yoga is a non-negotiable necessity. It’s essentially a tool to tame the mind and the neutralise the mind’s entrenched likes and dislikes, its deeply-rooted desires and aversions. The Gita calls these “impurities.” Karma yoga is the means of managing them.
The karma yogi accepts that Isvara is running the show, and that all results are legitimate and proper, even if they don’t happen to be aligned with what the mind wants. As a karma yogi, you’re not performing actions for specific results. Obviously, you still want certain things, because all action is motivated by desire. But your overriding goal is a pure and peaceful mind, so you accept whatever comes as prasad and then act, not for your own gain, but as an offering to Isvara.
This has an enormously purifying effect on the mind. Vasanas will still come up, but by accepting them as prasad and acting according to dharma and in service of Isvara, they gradually neutralise and become less binding. They lose their teeth. This doesn’t usually happen all at once, but bit by bit, until they wither to nothing like a wilted flower.
When vasanas do come up, it’s nothing to be ashamed about. See them as an opportunity to polish the mirror of your mind. You could say Vedanta is exposing your mind to light (truth), and whatever then comes up is coming up to the light to be healed. This could be lifetimes worth of stuff – it might take some time – but that’s all perfect and part of the process. Go easy on yourself. ☺
Anne: Even if I have now the perfect contemplative life for an ascetic Vedanta student, emotionally and mentally I am not able to fully appreciate the solitude that life has offered me.
Rory: In the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna expresses a desire to take to sannyasa, to be a renunciant. Krishna doesn’t encourage this, because unless you first cultivate mental sannyasa, physical sannyasa won’t bear much fruit. In fact it can be very painful. Even if Arjuna was to head to the Himalayas and sit in a cave, all that would happen is mind would torment itself as it fixates upon his worldly problems.
That’s why Krishna recommended karma yoga. Karma yoga helps the mind by reducing the vasana load and extroverting attachments, and in time creating a contemplative disposition.
It sounds like you’ve been blessed with the time and space to devote to Vedanta. Isvara has led you where you need to be. The essential next step is just getting the mind qualified.
One of the key qualifications is the burning desire to be free. It’s helpful to become very clear in your mind that moksa is your goal. If it is your goal, it has to become your number one goal. And it deserves to be. Worldly things are finite, but the self is infinite. Pursuing anything less is cheating yourself.
I know from my own experience that one of the biggest obstacles is having unclear priorities. It’s possible to want moksa, but also other worldly things along with it. In other words, moksa is just one of the jiva’s many wants. Now, these things aren’t mutually opposed. But moksa has to become the primary, driving goal – so much so that all the other wants just fade away and become irrelevant and unimportant.
Clear priorities lead to clear goals and the appropriate actions. If moksa is your svadharma and deepest desire, then the appropriate steps are already laid out.
The svadharma of the mumukshu (seeker of freedom) is to cultivate a pure, sattvic, contemplative mind. Karma yoga is the primary means, along with meditation to steady the mind, inquiry and an attitude of devotion. Keep up the Vedanta, keep exposing your mind to the teaching, and as you’re doing this, apply Self-inquiry to any and all self-limiting thoughts.
With consistent practice and dogged vigilance, you’ll begin to notice a big difference. The mind gets more tranquil, and although the vasanas will arise, you get to a point when you can more or less “zap” them on the spot rather than being pulled into them. It actually becomes kind of fun!
The ultimate key is tackling the thinking/assumptions beneath the emotional attachments (usually the thought “I need this to be a certain way in order to be happy”).
Ramji, in his wonderfully blunt way, often says that our emotional problems are simply because we’re not getting what we want. I found it almost embarrassing when I realised this was true. Karma yoga neutralises this because, with karma yoga, we’re no longer acting to get what we want – our aim is simply a pure mind. The only real desire for the sincere seeker is moksa. When the mind is fixed on that, all the extraneous falls away – we devote ourselves to our sadhana and to the teaching, and start to depend on our Self alone rather than anything worldly for happiness and security.
It may not seem like it when the vasanas are causing tension, but you’re doing amazing. You got this far, and you’ve been blessed with Vedanta. Take to karma yoga like mad, hand over the emotional stuff and all the wants and hurts to Isvara, commit yourself fully to your svadharma and you can’t go wrong. ☺ I’ve been writing a commentary on the Bhagavad Gita and will attach a couple of excerpts which I think might be helpful.